Catrien Ross

Artist & Mystic in Japan

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Nutmeg, Trade Wars and How the World Turns

Written by: on March 9th, 20188 COMMENTS

Catrien Ross Nutmeg, Trade Wars and How the World Turns

Nothing evokes the past quite like nutmeg.

One strike of the seed against its grater and the aroma rises like a swell in the oceans I crossed as a young child leaving my birthplace behind.

In an instant the fragrance transports me back into the arms of my grandmother, of my great-grandmother, back to an emerald archipelago lush under the tropical sun.

Indonesia, native home of the nutmeg.

But my story, like an ocean wind, races ahead of itself.

First, let me ask you how much you know about nutmeg.

Is it the speckled powder you sprinkle on winter eggnog?

Might it be the elusive nuance in a fragrant cake, the secret zing in your favorite fizzy drink?

Have you ever rolled a nutmeg kernel in your fingers?

It seems absurd the little nutmeg was at one time the most expensive commodity in the world, after gold and silver.

Yet nutmeg once played so great a role on the world’s stage entire nations were spellbound by its redolent power.

Mighty countries waged war just for the right to lay claim to nutmeg’s potency.

Nutmeg was so much in demand it created fabulous fortunes for the traders who controlled its supply.

Like Arab caravans along the Silk Road.

Like the merchants of Venice.

The European craze for nutmeg launched the Age of Discovery which saw ships circumnavigate the globe and unknown continents revealed.

Nutmeg was so desirable that all for its sake England and the Netherlands agreed to a mutual exchange of real estate.

In return for giving the English a swamp of an island on the Hudson River, the Dutch received a speck in the Banda Sea almost nobody today has ever heard of.

As the Dutch saw it then, when the prize was a fistful of nutmeg, what did Manhattan matter?

For a time, nutmeg quite literally made the world go round.

 

Other cultures had known about nutmeg long before the Europeans became besotted.

Pliny the Elder wrote about nutmeg in the first century – the later Romans used nutmeg as incense.

In traditional Chinese medicine nutmeg was an essence that binds and warms.

Malay and Javanese traders bartered nutmeg across an archipelago so vast its islands could not be counted.

The Arabs came upon nutmeg in the seventh century and cornered the market for the next eight hundred years.

It was they, their thousand camels laden, who first brought nutmeg to Europe via the bustling network of spice routes.

Along the way nutmeg was hailed in India as an Ayurvedic herb and a choice ingredient in curries.

 

Europeans were quick to accord nutmeg various and wondrous properties.

It was an aphrodisiac, a calmative, a curative, it flavored Chaucer’s beer.

Hildegard of Bingen, the extraordinary 12th century visionary and composer, extolled the virtues of nutmeg in her herbalist’s cookbook:

“Nutmeg gives a person a positive disposition and calms bitterness of the heart and mind,” she advised.

What more perfect reason to help yourself to one more nutmeg cookie with your cup of tea.

Germans in the 14th century were quite willing to trade seven fat oxen for a pound of nutmeg.

In the 16th century the Elizabethans swore by their nutmeg pomanders as certain cure for the plague.

Nutmeg was the most coveted luxury in 17th century Europe and a trader in Amsterdam savvy enough to acquire a bagful was assured financial independence for life.

During his days as a novelist in 19th century Britain, Charles Dickens is said to have carried a monogrammed nutmeg grater tucked into his waistcoat.

If so he surely knew the scent of freshly grated nutmeg gives hint of heaven on Earth.

 

Now that nutmeg is a run-of-the mill spice found in every local supermarket, it is hard to fathom how such a small wrinkled stone could trigger so much fervor, intrigue, greed, brutality, and venal rapture.

How it could have fostered global wars and launched nautical marathons that mapped a New World.

But that’s nutmeg all over.

You don’t know what stuff it’s made of till you scratch its inner core.

 

Once upon a time, nutmeg, mace and cloves, the “holy trinity of spices,” grew nowhere in the world save in the fabled Spice Islands, the Maluku chain in modern-day Indonesia.

Ancient maps had sketched the vague coordinates of some far-flung place where “dragons and leviathans be.”

The actual location had been kept secret for centuries by wily Arab traders who told the wildest of scary stories to guard their monopoly.

Spin of the spice trade, you could call it.

But so essential was nutmeg to Europe her mightiest nations fell into a frenzy of maritime hide-and-seek.

As trade wars raged over the oceans, the Portuguese emerged as the first Europeans to discover the Moluccas, which lo and behold, turned out to be the long-hidden source of nutmeg.

Thus was nutmeg a holy grail attained.

“For Christ and spices,” proclaimed the Portuguese, disembarking from their armed galleons with their characteristic attitude of arrival: a sense of rapacious entitlement and an outrageous violence.

 

As for me, that’s the point where the global identity of nutmeg coalesces into a personal story.

Among those early Portuguese traders was one so inflamed by nutmeg – or rather, by a nutmeg maiden – he jumped ship for long enough to leave his last name of de Fretes in the islands.

Thanks to the allure of nutmeg I now call that seafaring Portuguese an ancestor and the genealogy of my mother’s family begins.

As I grate the unique piquancy of nutmeg into my food today, I am overcome once again by a sense of wonder about how the world turns.

The wide panorama of the past shows nutmeg as an indispensable link between continents and the be-all and end-all in a Europe still shaping its future.

The present pulls nutmeg’s wayfaring history into the precise confines of my own woman’s life.

As the distinctive burst of aroma sweetens the air around me, it is to the little native nutmeg of Indonesia I must give thanks for being born.

 

Catrien Ross has written a new work of literary non-fiction, Still I Dream of Java, which retells a beloved aunt’s memories of the final, turbulent years of the Dutch East Indies, as the nation of Indonesia emerged.

 

COMMENTS

8 Responses to “Nutmeg, Trade Wars and How the World Turns”

  1. Scott Bills says:

    A lovely story which makes one want to buy her book.

  2. Iain Ross says:

    Beautifully written thank you. How can I get hold of your book Still I dream of Java?

    Love Iain

    • Catrien Ross says:

      Iain, thank you for taking the time to drop by. My new book, Still I Dream of Java is in final production here in Japan, so I’ll let you know details. So good to hear from you.

  3. Orna Ross says:

    Make sure you let me know too, Ms Ross… lovely atmospheric article to tease our tastebuds!

    • Catrien Ross says:

      Yes, I will do that, Ms. Orna Ross. How generous of you to take a moment to visit from your ever-evolving creativist world. I am delighted to hear from you again. Love, Catrien.

  4. Clare says:

    For a moment there I was traversing the globe, spellbound by your tale. I will never look at nutmeg the same again: it is nice to be reminded of the power of small things! Can’t wait to read the book.

    • Catrien Ross says:

      Clare, how lovely to see you here. Yes, the little nutmeg was a true powerhouse, its mighty allure defining the actual structure of our world. I’ll let you know about the release of my new book, Still I Dream of Java, a journey back to the native home of the nutmeg during the transition to its new identity.

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