The Rise & Fall of the Spice Islands / by Debra Wallace

A dark history with an unexpected twist


Today nutmeg conjures up thoughts of pumpkin pie and eggnog, but four centuries ago it was at the heart of early sea exploration and a dark and bloody history with an unexpected twist.  (For the record, nutmeg is from the fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree with mace the red coating around the seed.)

Two years ago I traveled through the Banda Islands, the “Spice Islands”, in eastern Indonesia.  I visited fishing villages, small ports, the remains of forts and nutmeg plantations and gained a glimpse of colonization, the beginnings of globalization and a surprising real estate deal.

As early as the Middle Ages Arab sailors traded nutmeg.  Nutmeg could only be found in this small group of islands. Eventually nutmeg made its way to Europe where it was valued for its medicinal effect as it was believed to be the cure for several ailments and preventative for the black plague, which had recently ravaged the continent.  It was exotic and potent enough to cause hallucinations. 

Nutmeg was a status symbol, a sign of wealth, and the spice of the upper class. The price skyrocketed and the Arab traders were careful not to divulge the location of the “Spice Islands.”  It wasn’t until the early 16th century that these islands were discovered by Europe with the Portuguese first to arrive followed by the Spanish, English and Dutch. There was fierce competition to control the trade and horrific atrocities were committed among themselves and especially against the local people.   

Three hundred and fifty years ago today, July 31, 1667, the Dutch and British signed the Treaty of Breda ending these “Spice Wars”.  The treaty included an interesting twist. The British gave up control of the island of Run, giving the Dutch a monopoly over nutmeg and, in exchange, for Run, the Dutch traded the island of New Amsterdam, today New York City. 

The Banda Islands continued to be the sole source of nutmeg under the Dutch VOC (Dutch West India Company) until the early 19th century when nutmeg trees were smuggled out.  With this Run’s importance slipped away. 

The Banda Islands are now under consideration as a UNESCO historical site and we all know what happened to New York City.


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