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More Than Pumpkin Spice: The True Cost of the Craze for Nutmeg

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Although Americans know it mostly as the flavor of Fall, nutmeg once spurred a brutal genocide in Indonesia's Banda Islands. Here's the story of why the spice has such a troubled history. 

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Written by

Pat Tanumihardja

Born in Indonesia and raised in Singapore, Pat Tanumihardja has been a food and lifestyle writer for over a decade and her bylines appear in many online and print publications. Pat credits her eclectic culinary aptitude and global outlook to her multicultural background. She is the author of 4 books on pan-Asian cooking and her latest, Asian Pickles at Home and Instant Pot Asian Pressure Cooker Meals: Fast, Fresh & Affordable, are out now. Pat lives in Springfield, VA with her husband and son. Find Pat on Twitter: @PicklesandTea, Instagram: @Pickles.and.Tea and online: SmithsonianAPA.org/PicklesandTea

One whiff of nutmeg’s heady, sweet scent and I’m transported to my childhood kitchen. Known as pala in my mother tongue, Bahasa Indonesia, nutmeg was a staple in my mother’s cooking. She grated fresh nutmeg into many savory dishes, enhancing Dutch-influenced recipes such as macaroni schotel (a baked mac and cheese casserole often made of corned beef and Dutch cheeses), semur daging (beef stew), and oxtail soup with an almost-spicy flavor reminiscent of black pepper and clove. Her cakes and baked goods were also often imbued with its warm, nutty aroma. 

This unassuming spice has always been a constant in my life, yet I knew nothing of its bloody and tumultuous history. 

I knew the basics: that the Dutch colonized parts of what is now the Indonesian archipelago because of their abundant spices — especially nutmeg — and strategic location along major sea routes connecting East Asia, South Asia and Oceania. The Dutch impact on my heritage is not lost on me: My Opa was targeted and imprisoned during World War II because he was a Dutch civil servant, my father was educated with Dutch as his first language, and many of my comfort foods fuse Dutch-Indonesian ingredients and techniques. 

However, I never knew the extent of Dutch greed and cruelty.   

Nutmeg is indigenous to the Banda Islands, a group of volcanic islands that are part of the larger Moluccas (or Spice Islands) in eastern Indonesia. These islands were the only source of nutmeg and mace production until the mid-19th century, and the Dutch committed genocide to protect their stronghold. 

Demand for Nutmeg

As early as the sixth century, Arab merchants got rich trading in nutmeg while keeping the spice’s origins a secret. By the Middle Ages, wealthy Europeans coveted nutmeg for its medicinal properties. And when Elizabethan physicians claimed it could cure the bubonic plague, nutmeg’s already high price skyrocketed overnight. This sudden, urgent demand sparked the spice race: Europe’s profit-hungry merchants gambled everything to be the first to find the source of the spice. 

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot in the Banda Islands in the 16th century. They were followed decades later by the English, but it was the Dutch who sought complete control over the Banda Islands and nutmeg distribution. Nutmeg essentially became their first major commodity and brought the Dutch Republic immense wealth.

The Spice Race

In 1512, Portuguese explorers ‘discovered’ the Banda islands and stocked up on nutmeg, mace and cloves. While the Portuguese didn’t have the manpower to control the islands, they did break the Arab monopoly on the spice trade. According to Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and Its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands, a book authored by Willard A. Hanna, the profit-hungry Dutch quickly realized that successful trade in nutmeg required maintaining a high price in Europe and cheap, regulated supply in the Banda Islands. Growing English competition also deemed a monopoly essential.  They were determined to achieve their goal by way of treaty or force, especially the latter. 

In 1602, the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC), a coalition of 12 trading companies, was established. It was granted a trade monopoly in Asia and the East Indies. This included the right to create and enforce treaties, declare and wage war, and establish fortresses and trading posts.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to set foot in the Banda Islands in the 16th century. They were followed decades later by the English, but it was the Dutch who sought complete control over the Banda Islands and nutmeg distribution. Nutmeg essentially became their first major commodity and brought the Dutch Republic immense wealth.

Later that year, the first VOC admiral Steven Van der Hagan, landed on the island of Banda Neira. In Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader, author Giles Morton writes that after gathering the island’s orang kaya (literally ‘rich men’), each a head of district, Van der Hagan duped them into signing a document granting him monopoly over their nutmeg supply. 

But this and further contracts signed did not have their intended effect. While the Dutch treated them as legally binding documents, the Bandanese violated the treaties and continued to barter with the English. They preferred free trade with all Europeans so they could sell their products to the highest bidder. Repeated attempts to address the matter only resulted in deteriorating Dutch-Bandanese relations. Milton writes that in late May 1609, the orang kaya ambushed leading officer Pieter Verhoef and his staff, killing a total of 42 Dutchmen. In retaliation, the Dutch destroyed villages and vessels, and butchered the Bandanese.  

Even though a peace treaty was signed later that year, peace did not last long.

The Bandanese Massacre

The Bandanese resented being controlled by the Dutch and put up a fierce resistance. By 1614, the VOC’s directors concluded it was necessary to conquer the entire Bandanese archipelago, even if it meant exterminating the native people and a huge financial outlay. And so began a campaign to conquer all of the Banda Islands, which culminated in a sweep of the main island, Lontor, in 1621. Newly appointed governor-general Jan Pieterszoon Coen ordered troops to raze all the villages and force the surrender of the population. 

Over several months, the Dutch and the natives waged a bloody battle. The Bandanese were killed, exiled, or sold as slaves. Many chose to starve to death or jump off cliffs rather than surrender. Historian Willard A. Hanna estimated that from the original Bandanese population of approximately 15,000 across all the islands, only about 1,000 survived. After the campaign, the Dutch controlled virtually all of the Banda Islands and implemented a comprehensive nutmeg plantation system. In addition, anyone suspected of selling nutmeg outside the VOC’s jurisdiction was punished by death.  

To repopulate the islands, they imported slaves, convicts and indentured laborers from other colonies, as well as immigrants from elsewhere in Indonesia to the island. Native Bandanese were later returned to the islands because their expertise in nutmeg cultivation was much needed.

The Dutch Monopoly and its Decline 

The VOC went on to monopolize nutmeg production and export for almost two hundred years. At its peak, the company was the wealthiest corporation in the world, largely based on the spice trade, with an impressive military force to back it up.

Beginning in the 1750s, however, the French incited a series of events that led to the VOC’s eventual downfall. Despite strict controls and precautions, French horticulturist Pierre Poivre managed to smuggle nutmeg seedlings to the island colony of Mauritius. From there, they would eventually be transported to Zanzibar, Madagascar, and Martinique. 

Truth be told, the Dutch settlers on Banda had already set the archipelago’s decline in motion decades earlier. The estates were poorly managed and the Dutch were unethical and corrupt. Nature also contributed to the destruction — volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tidal waves proceeded to wreck the nutmeg groves. Nutmeg production plummeted and was also matched by decreased demand in Europe.

In the early 1800s, the British temporarily took control of the Banda Islands from the Dutch. Before they pulled out, the English uprooted hundreds of nutmeg seedlings and soil and transplanted them to Pinang (Penang, Malaysia), Bencoolen (a former British possession on the Southwestern coast of Sumatra island) and Singapore. Seedlings were also destined for Ceylon (Sri Lanka today) and the Malabar coast (Kerala), where there was already a brisk trade in cinnamon and pepper. Within a few decades, these plantations were outstripping nutmeg production in the Banda.

From the East Indies, nutmeg was transplanted to other colonies in the West Indies and Caribbean, most notably Grenada in 1843. Nutmeg was so successful in Grenada it is the country’s top agricultural export commodity today, and the world’s second largest nutmeg producer after Indonesia, where it is still cultivated. Thus, nutmeg is a national symbol that’s proudly emblazoned on Grenada’s flag. This flag was adopted when Grenada gained independence in 1974. 

Recognizing the Past

Nutmeg may have brought the Netherlands historic wealth and fortune, but it was won on the backs of thousands of Bandanese people. While the Dutch government has not officially recognized or made reparations for this genocide, there has been debate over how to deal with their colonial past, with Jan Pieterszoon Coen at the center of the controversy.  

Nutmeg may have brought the Netherlands historic wealth and fortune, but it was won on the backs of thousands of Bandanese people.

Understandably, nutmeg has a very bitter historical connection to Indonesia but the spice’s high standing in Indonesian cuisine and culture remains. Not only does it flavor wide-ranging Dutch-Indonesian dishes, but it is also integral to recipes ingrained in daily Indonesian life. These include several soto types (a spiced soup with regional variations across the archipelago), bakso (meatballs) and sup kambing (mutton soup). Nutmeg is also a foundational spice in spekkoek or kueh lapis legit, a rich, layered cake popular during key holidays such as natal (Christmas), imlek (Chinese New Year) and lebaran (Eid). In addition, nutmeg is a major commodity in Indonesia, which is the world’s largest producer. 

While nutmeg was a dominant flavor in American food in the 1800s, in modern times, its popularity tends to ramp up only during the Fall and winter. A glass of eggnog wouldn’t be complete without a generous sprinkle of ground nutmeg and seasonal baked goods would be naked without this pungent spice. Today, nutmeg has been overtaken by saffron and vanilla in monetary value, but it remains a symbol of the misdeeds that have stained Europe’s colonial past. It’s worthwhile remembering this as you bite into a slice of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie.



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