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Nutmeg: smells of holidays from a history of battles and massacres
November 30, 2012 11:30 AM   Subscribe

This unassuming, feel-good spice "has been one of the saddest stories of history," from the gruesome, grisly tale of how the Dutch tortured and massacred the people of the Banda Islands in Indonesia in an attempt to monopolize the nutmeg trade.

In the first century A.D., Roman author Pliny speaks of a tree bearing nuts with two flavors. Emperor Henry VI had the streets of Rome fumigated with nutmegs before his coronation. In the the sixth century, nutmegs were brought by Arab merchants to Constantinople. There was competition between Muslims and Chinese over control of the Indonesian spice trade, but life was good for the islanders, as nutmeg takes very little effort to grow. The islanders had do little but watch the nutmeg grow, collect it from trees and take out the nuts and trade them for food, cloth and all the things they needed with Chinese, Malay, Arab and Bugi spice traders.
It's no exaggeration to say that the hunt for nutmeg helped build the modern commercial world. In 1453, the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople (modern Istanbul), embargoing trade across the sole sliver of land through which a few merchants had evaded the Arab-Venetian spice monopoly and forcing Europeans to find new eastern trade routes. Columbus sailed the blue Atlantic looking for a passage to India; and Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497, his men charging on to the shores of Kerala crying, "For Christ and spices!" The Portuguese military genius Afonso de Albuquerque annexed the Indonesian Molucca islands, of which the Bandas form part, in 1511. The fortresses he built there established and then consolidated a Portuguese monopoly over the world's nutmeg that lasted almost a whole cushy century.

Then on December 25, 1616, Captain Nathaniel Courthope reached Run, an island in the Banda Islands, to defend it against the claims of the Dutch East India Company. Though Asian traders had long known of the "spice islands" and the Portuguese were the first to Europeans to claim the islands, a contract with the inhabitants was signed accepting the James I of England as sovereign of Run island. As a result, Run is considered to be the first English overseas colony.

This was just the start of the spice wars in the Banda Islands, pitting the native people and some British forces against the Dutch, who subjected Run to four years of siege. The battles and disputes over Run and the other nutmeg-producing islands came to a close in 1667, when the Treaty of Breda saw the Dutch with control over Run, and the British getting New Amsterdam, which became New York. The British had diminished the importance of the Banda Islands by planting nutmeg trees in Grenada and Zanzibar, which also decreased the price of the costly spice. The former is still a major producer of nutmeg, where they grow in abundance. Thanks to modern cultivation, you can make many, many foods with nutmeg.
posted by filthy light thief (40 comments total) 48 users marked this as a favorite

 
Fun fact: Connecticut is "The Nutmeg State" due to their counterfeiting of nutmeg back during this craze. No nutmeg actually grows there.
posted by Navelgazer at 11:36 AM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


I heard this story on NPR the other day, my go-to source for gruesome, grisly tales of torture and massacre.
posted by item at 11:38 AM on November 30, 2012


the Panda bear is "Banda" in Arabic, because Arabic doesn't have the letter "Peh"...
posted by thewalrus at 11:39 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


The other spice is mace, and it is worth finding on its own.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:40 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think my Uncle Shaddam told me about these "spice wars".

I also heard it on NPR, interesting story.... I'm not sure which to believe.
posted by HuronBob at 11:40 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I heard it on NPR, too, and was tempted to mention it as "the iPhone of spices," but decided that would be to distracting from the actual stories of the spice trades and wars.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:42 AM on November 30, 2012


And a dandy source of myristicin.
posted by seanmpuckett at 11:42 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


nutmeg in coffee is great
posted by jcruelty at 11:42 AM on November 30, 2012


Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton is a great read on this (as are all his other books about obscure aspects of history - all very readable).
posted by rory at 11:44 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I had a little nut tree
And nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden...mace, apparently. I seem to have been mislead about the pears.
posted by Biblio at 11:44 AM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


For Christ and spices!

Well, I now have another great phrase to yell around the house.
posted by dubold at 11:51 AM on November 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Scary spice, Sporty spice, Posh spice, and KILL-EVERYONE-ON-THE-ISLAND-ARGHHH spice
posted by hellomina at 11:52 AM on November 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I recommend John Keay's book The Spice Route for more on this sort of thing.
posted by dhruva at 11:55 AM on November 30, 2012


NPR is REALLY concerned about people mistaking them for America's Most Wanted. The disclaimers pile up like the lopped off heads of Spice Islanders:

horribly violent
a horrendous, horrendous tale
this is not headed in a pretty direction
this tale does not have a happy ending
quite horrifying, actually
It was really unspeakable
God, that is a terrible story
it's really gruesome, isn't it

(wrap up:)
the surprising and somewhat grisly tale of nutmeg.

(LAUGHTER)
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:57 AM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I probably don't want to know the gory details, but favorited for later reading anyway.

Nothing like grated nutmeg in spaghetti sauce. Yum.
posted by Currer Belfry at 12:08 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not really on point but wonderful anyway, from Shakespeare's Henry V:

ORLEANS:

He's of the colour of the nutmeg.

DAUPHIN:
And of the heat of the ginger. It is a beast for
Perseus: he is pure air and fire; and the dull
elements of earth and water never appear in him, but
only in Patient stillness while his rider mounts
him: he is indeed a horse; and all other jades you
may call beasts.

posted by bearwife at 12:10 PM on November 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Guess I picked the wrong month to quit nutmeg
posted by hal9k at 12:11 PM on November 30, 2012


Nutmeg, while traditionally associated with sweets and desserts in the US (most specifically eggnog and pumpkin pie), is KILLER on meat. A little goes a VERY long way.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 12:20 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


It has off-label uses too.
posted by mullingitover at 12:23 PM on November 30, 2012


WHO'S UP FOR SOME EGG...nog...

well, fuck.
posted by El Sabor Asiatico at 12:30 PM on November 30, 2012


is KILLER on meat

I often add nutmeg to the spices that I mix into the cooking-fat, when I make beef confit!

Also, just last night I had this nutmeg-cheddar popcorn, recipe courtesy of askme!
posted by Greg Nog at 12:39 PM on November 30, 2012


I refuse to believe that a substance called "mace" that gives users a harsh, gritty, mean, desperate high would be associated with such a history.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 12:47 PM on November 30, 2012


It has off-label uses too.

Nutmeg is toxic in large quantities, and is one of many natural abortifacients.
posted by filthy light thief at 12:52 PM on November 30, 2012


This will certainly add a solemn depth to the fresh eggnog I'm making and aging for Christmas Eve, tonight.

Also, mace is delicious in savory stews. It's been my secret ingredient since it got cold enough, this year, and has been a smash hit. "Mace: Tastes like nutmeg 'cause it's made from nutmeg!"
posted by gilrain at 12:53 PM on November 30, 2012


It's the umami deep notes. Cloves and star aniseed also very good with meat. Add them to the soffritto (with celery, tomato and carrots) for yummy pasta sauces.
posted by glasseyes at 1:00 PM on November 30, 2012


must flow, etc.
posted by sparklemotion at 1:08 PM on November 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


Why Europe colonized the planet: guns, germs, steel, and really really bland food.
posted by miyabo at 1:15 PM on November 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


Add it to cream sauces, too.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 1:39 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


a contract with the inhabitants was signed accepting the James I of England as sovereign of Run island. As a result, Run is considered to be the first English overseas colony. (1616 C.E.)

The starving colonists of the Virginia Colony at Jamestown beg to differ (from 1607).


And we shan't go into those lost souls at Roanoke!


Also heard the story on NPR. Ah, spices....cross vast distances, royal houses fighting over the source of production....some things never change!
posted by Atreides at 2:22 PM on November 30, 2012


I read a pretty interesting book about the history of spices that touched on this stuff a few years ago. Conclusion: early modern spice traders were nasty people. (Looking forward to listening to the NPR link.)
posted by immlass at 2:58 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fits right in with the exploitation and torture of natives in Africa and North and South America and Asia by all the colonial powers, doesn't it? Imagine how bad it might have been if there'd been no Renaissance.

Regrets, I've had a few / But then again, too few to mention / I did what I had to do / and saw it through without exemption...
posted by Twang at 3:00 PM on November 30, 2012


Nutmeg, while traditionally associated with sweets and desserts in the US (most specifically eggnog and pumpkin pie), is KILLER on meat.

Also in egg dishes (not just sweet custards; try it in quiche or frittata), with greens like spinach or kale, in tomato soup, in creamy sauces and casseroles, or potato dishes. (To sum up: I like nutmeg.) I buy it whole and grate it as needed, so it's always fresh and fragrant.
posted by Elsa at 3:05 PM on November 30, 2012


I once taught for a crazy American-run English language school in Fukui called JALI, and the boss decided one day that I should teach an "American cooking class" in English. I decided to make nutmeg banana pancakes for my first lesson. I then learned during the lesson that Japanese folks hate nutmeg.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:36 PM on November 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a stupid teen, a group of friends and I may have experimented with recreational quantities of nutmeg. Not recommended. If you can get down the horrible, sandy grittiness (I could not), the results were spewriffic.
posted by smoke at 3:50 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


My new drinking toast: "For Christ and spices!"
posted by NorthernAutumn at 6:09 PM on November 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Fun fact: you can, liek, totally trip balls on nutmeg.
posted by WhitenoisE at 8:37 PM on November 30, 2012


I'm loving the dichotomy in this thread. There is no conversation. One smattering of commentators share their love of nutmeg. The others rightly point out the horrific history, to little effect. It's a mirror of the linked NPR discussion where the speakers tell an abbreviated story and then go directly to: (LAUGHTER) ... You've got Christmas.
posted by converge at 1:59 AM on December 2, 2012 [2 favorites]


Well, there' not much you can really discuss about the horrific history of nutmeg. Most of us have no idea about it, so what are we supposed to talk about? The need to somehow repent or self-flagellate (like you are suggesting we do) reminds me of the young, dour, priggish leftists that dominated student politics when I was in school.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:27 AM on December 2, 2012


Yeah man, what the hell? I dont know whats up with the Grinches posting about Nutmeg, eggnog, and ChristnSpicemass uh Murder. Someone last month had to go and post up about those silly Native Americans gettin all offended and feathers all ruffled asunder just cos Gwenny stephanie got all Native on america, i mean really, I think she made our dated ol feather and leather costumes more appropiate.Lol! And Filthythief, I think this is an awesome post and I love history, But if i can please borrow your words? Overkill can ruin an interesting topic. So, May I suggest, if even only on Happy Holidays that you leave all that gory detailed murder of Natives out of it. People dont wanna be reminded of that same ol pitiful story about Natives all over the friggin planet doin all great and bein all happy before ol titey hitey whitey (little known Indin name for white people). Most dont have any idea bout all that murderin and shit. And what is to discuss anyway? Let us be learned to the wonders of Nutmeg a Christ of a spice! Tanks, carry on!
posted by SteelDancin at 12:19 PM on December 2, 2012


Filthy Light Thief
, sorry i forgot ur light
posted by SteelDancin at 12:26 PM on December 2, 2012


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