Nutmeg: The Unsavory History of a Tasty Spice

A whole nutmeg nut with the lacy mace covering
A whole nutmeg nut with the lacy mace covering. Jean-Paul Nacivet / Getty Images

Today, we sprinkle ground nutmeg on our espresso drinks, add it to eggnog, or mix it into pumpkin pie filling. Most people probably don't particularly wonder about its origins, no doubt - it comes from the spice aisle in the supermarket, right? And fewer still stop to consider the tragic and bloody history behind this spice. Over the centuries, however, tens of thousands of people have died in the pursuit of nutmeg.

What Is Nutmeg?

Nutmeg comes from the seed of the Myristica frangans tree, a tall evergreen species native to the Banda Islands, which are part of Indonesia's Moluccas or Spice Islands. The inner kernel of the nutmeg seed can be ground into nutmeg, while the aril (the outer lacy covering) yields another spice, mace.

Nutmeg has long been valued not only as a flavoring for food but also for its medicinal properties. In fact, when taken in large enough doses nutmeg is a hallucinogen, thanks to a psychoactive chemical called myristicin, which is related to mescaline and amphetamine. People have known about the interesting effects of nutmeg for centuries; the 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen wrote about it, for one.

Nutmeg on the Indian Ocean Trade

Nutmeg was well-known in the countries bordering the Indian Ocean, where it featured in Indian cooking and traditional Asian medicines. Like other spices, nutmeg had the advantage of being light-weight compared with pottery, jewels, or even silk cloth, so trading ships and camel caravans could easily carry a fortune in nutmeg.

For the inhabitants of the Banda Islands, where the nutmeg trees grew, the Indian Ocean trade routes ensured a steady business and allowed them a comfortable living. It was the Arab and Indian traders, however, who got very wealthy from selling the spice all around the rim of the Indian Ocean.

Nutmeg in Europe's Middle Ages

As mentioned above, by the Middle Ages, wealthy people in Europe knew about nutmeg and coveted it for its medicinal properties. Nutmeg was considered a "hot food" according to the theory of humors, taken from ancient Greek medicine, which still guided European physicians at the time. It could balance cold foods like fish and vegetables.

Europeans believed that nutmeg had the power to ward off viruses like the common cold; they even thought that it could prevent the bubonic plague. As a result, the spice was worth more than its weight in gold.

As much as they treasured nutmeg, however, people in Europe had no clear idea of where it came from. It entered Europe through the port of Venice, carried there by Arab traders who portaged it from the Indian Ocean across the Arabian Peninsula and into the Mediterranean world... but the ultimate source remained a mystery.

Portugal Seizes the Spice Islands

In 1511, a Portuguese force under Afonso de Albuquerque seized the Molucca Islands. By early the next year, the Portuguese had extracted the knowledge from the locals that the Banda Islands were the source of nutmeg and mace, and three Portuguese ships sought out these fabled Spice Islands.

The Portuguese did not have the manpower to physically control the islands, but they were able to break the Arab monopoly on the spice trade. The Portuguese ships filled their holds with nutmeg, mace, and cloves, all purchased for a reasonable price from the local growers.

Over the next century, Portugal tried to build a fort on the main Bandanaira Island but was driven off by the Bandanese. Finally, the Portuguese simply bought their spices from middlemen in Malacca.

Dutch Control of Nutmeg Trade

The Dutch soon followed the Portuguese to Indonesia, but they proved unwilling to simply join the queue of spice shippers. Traders from the Netherlands provoked the Bandanese by demanding spices in return for useless and unwanted goods, like thick woolen clothing and damask cloth, which was completely unsuitable for tropical climes. Traditionally, Arab, Indian, and Portuguese traders had offered much more practical items: silver, medicines, Chinese porcelain, copper, and steel. Relations between the Dutch and Bandanese started out sour and quickly went down-hill.

In 1609, the Dutch coerced some Bandanese rulers into signing the Eternal Treaty, granting the Dutch East Indies Company a monopoly on spice trade in the Bandas. The Dutch then strengthened their Bandanaira fortress, Fort Nassau. This was the last straw for the Bandanese, who ambushed and killed the Dutch admiral for the East Indies and about forty of his officers.

The Dutch also faced a threat from another European power - the British. In 1615, the Dutch invaded England's only foothold in the Spice Islands, the tiny, nutmeg-producing islands of Run and Ai, about 10 kilometers from the Bandas. The British forces had to retreat from Ai to the even smaller island of Run. Britain counter-attacked the same day, though, killing 200 Dutch soldiers.

A year later, the Dutch attacked again and besieged the British on Ai. When the British defenders ran out of ammunition, the Dutch overran their position and slaughtered them all.

The Bandas Massacre

In 1621, the Dutch East India Company decided to solidify its hold on the Banda Islands proper. A Dutch force of unknown size landed on Bandaneira, fanned out, and reported numerous violations of the coercive Eternal Treaty signed in 1609. Using these alleged violations as a pretext, the Dutch had forty of the local leaders beheaded.

They then went on to perpetrate genocide against the Bandanese. Most historians believe that the population of the Bandas was around 15,000 before 1621. The Dutch brutally massacred all but about 1,000 of them; the survivors were forced to work as enslaved laborers in the nutmeg groves. Dutch plantation-owners took control of the spice orchards and grew wealthy selling their products in Europe at 300 times the production cost. Needing more labor, the Dutch also enslaved and brought in people from Java and other Indonesian islands.

Britain and Manhattan

At the time of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67), however, the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg production was not quite complete. The British still had control of little Run Island, on the fringe of the Bandas.

In 1667, the Dutch and British came to an agreement, called the Treaty of Breda. Under its terms, the Netherlands relinquished the far-off and generally useless island of Manhattan, also known as New Amsterdam, in return for the British handing over Run.

Nutmeg, Nutmeg Everywhere

The Dutch settled down to enjoying their nutmeg monopoly for about a century and a half. However, during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-15), Holland became a part of Napoleon's empire and was thus an enemy of England. This gave the British an excellent excuse to invade the Dutch East Indies once again and try to pry open the Dutch stranglehold on the spice trade.

On August 9, 1810, a British armada attacked the Dutch fort on Bandaneira. After just a few hours of fierce fighting, the Dutch surrendered Fort Nassau, and then the rest of the Bandas. The First Treaty of Paris, which ended this phase of the Napoleonic Wars, restored the Spice Islands to Dutch control in 1814. It could not restore the nutmeg monopoly, however - that particular cat was out of the bag.

During their occupation of the East Indies, the British took nutmeg seedlings from the Bandas and planted them in various other tropical places under British colonial control. Nutmeg plantations sprang up in Singapore, Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), Bencoolen (southwest Sumatra), and Penang (now in Malaysia). From there, they spread to Zanzibar, East Africa and the Caribbean islands of Grenada.

With the nutmeg monopoly broken, the price of this once-precious commodity began to plummet. Soon middle-class Asians and Europeans could afford to sprinkle the spice on their holiday baked goods and add it to their curries. The bloody era of the Spice Wars came to an end, and nutmeg took its place as an ordinary occupant of the spice-rack in typical homes... an occupant, though, with an unusually dark and bloody history.

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Your Citation
Szczepanski, Kallie. "Nutmeg: The Unsavory History of a Tasty Spice." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Szczepanski, Kallie. (2020, August 25). Nutmeg: The Unsavory History of a Tasty Spice. Retrieved from Szczepanski, Kallie. "Nutmeg: The Unsavory History of a Tasty Spice." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 16, 2021).