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