The Gruesome and Murderous History of Nutmeg

Ah, nutmeg! I promised you all an insight into nutmeg’s violent past in a recent post. (Read: “‘Tis the Season”.) Well, brace yourselves for the horrible truth.

Whether it’s sprinkled on eggnog, baked into spice cake or blended into a latte, this pungent spice can evoke memories of holidays past. We tend to link it to celebratory times. But a lot of blood has been shed over this little brown seed. In fact, nutmeg has been one of the saddest stories in all of history. It’s a gruesome, grisly tale of how the Dutch tortured and massacred the people of the nutmeg-producing Banda Islands in Indonesia in an attempt to monopolize the nutmeg trade. “Thanks for the nutmeg, buddy. Now here’s a knife in the back for your trouble.”

Banda was the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace, spices used as flavorings, medicines, preserving agents, that were at the time highly valued in Europe. Arab traders sold the nutmeg to the Venetians who then distributed it throughout Europe. The Arabs were crafty, and kept their source a secret. The didn’t want those pesky European navies setting sail for Banda and getting a wholesale price on nutmeg.

So, why was nutmeg so valuable? Traditionally, we turned to nutmeg (along with cloves and cinnamon) this time of year because these spices — as the settlers to the colonies believed — was a panacea for everything from head colds and stomachaches. And there may be something to that, say our homeopathic brethren.

Nutmeg was so precious, that the Dutch traded Manhattan (yes, that Manhattan) for nutmeg. In the 1600’s, the Dutch and the British were flexing their muscles and talking trash at one other all over the globe. And the number one thing they wanted: control of the spice trade. In 1667, after years of battling, they sat down to hash out a treaty. Both had something that the other wanted: The British wanted to hold onto Manhattan, which they’d managed to gain control of a few years earlier, and the Dutch wanted the last nutmeg-producing island that the British controlled, as well as territory in South America that produced sugar. So the the Dutch traded Manhattan, which wasn’t so important in those days, to get nutmeg and sugar. Talk about a sweet deal!

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