To this day nobody knows exactly what transpired in Selamon on that April night, in the year 1621, except that a lamp fell to the floor in the building where Martijn Sonck, a Dutch official, was billeted.

Selamon is a village in the Banda archipelago, a tiny cluster of islands at the far southeastern end of the Indian Ocean. The settlement is located at the northern end of Lonthor, which is also sometimes referred to as Great Banda (Banda Besar) because it is the largest island in the cluster. “Great” is a somewhat extravagant epithet for an island that is only two and a half miles in length and half a mile in width – but then, that isn’t an insignificant size in an archipelago so minute that on most maps it is marked only by a sprinkling of dots.

Yet here is Martijn Sonck, on April 21, 1621, halfway around the world from his homeland, in Selamon’s bale-bale, or meeting hall, which he has requisitioned as a billet for himself and his counsellors. Sonck has also occupied the settlement’s most venerable mosque – “a beautiful institution,” made of white stone, airy and clean inside, with two large urns of water positioned at the entrance for congregants to wash their feet before stepping in. The elders of the village haven’t taken kindly to the seizure of their mosque, but Sonck has brusquely brushed aside their protests, telling them they have plenty of other places to practice their religion.

This is of a piece with everything else that Sonck has done in the short while that he has been on Lonthor Island. He has seized the best houses for his troops, and he has also sent soldiers swarming over the village, terrifying the inhabitants. But these measures are mere preliminaries, intended only to lay the groundwork for what Sonck actually has in mind: he has come to Selamon under orders to destroy the village and expel its inhabitants from this idyllic island, with its lush forests and sparkling blue seas.

The brutality of this plan is such that the villagers have not, perhaps, been able to fully comprehend it yet. But the Dutchman, for his part, has made no secret of his intentions; to the contrary, he has made it perfectly clear to the elders that he expects their full cooperation in the destruction of their own settlement and the expulsion of their fellow villagers.

Nor is Sonck the first Dutch official to deliver this message to Selamon. The villagers, and their fellow Bandanese, have already endured several weeks of threats and shows of force, always accompanied by the same demands: that they tear down the village’s walls, surrender their arms and tools – even the rudders of their boats – and make preparations for their imminent removal from the island.

The demands are so extreme, so outlandish, that the villagers have, no doubt, wondered whether the Dutchmen are in their right minds. But Sonck has been at pains to let them know that he is in earnest: his commanding officer, none other than the governor- general himself, has run out of patience. The people of Selamon will have to obey his orders down to the last detail.

Nicolas Bellin, The Banda Islands (ca 1749-1755). Copper plate engraving.

How must it feel to find yourself face-to-face with someone who has made it clear that he has the power to bring your world to an end, and has every intention of doing so?

Over the preceding couple of decades the people of Selamon, and their fellow Bandanese, have resisted the Dutch to the best of their abilities; on occasion they have even been able to drive the Europeans away. But they have never had to face a force as large and as well-armed as the one that Sonck has brought with him.

Outmatched, they have tried hard to appease Sonck to the best of their ability: while some villagers have fled into the neighbouring forests, a good many have stayed on, perhaps hoping that a mistake has been made and that the Dutch will leave if they manage to hold out.

Those who have remained, many of whom are women and children, have taken care not to give the Dutchmen any excuse for violence. But Sonck has a mission to carry out, one to which he is not particularly well suited – he is a revenue official, not a soldier – and he is probably beset by a feeling of inadequacy. In the villagers’ quiescence he senses a seething anger, and he wishes, perhaps, that they would give him an excuse, some pretext for what he needs to do next.

On the night of April 21, when Sonck retires to Selamon’s commandeered meeting house with his counselors, his state of mind is very precarious. There is so much tension in the air that the silence seems to augur a seismic eruption.

The atmosphere is such that for someone in Sonck’s state it is impossible, perhaps, to see the falling of an object as an ordinary mishap – it has to be a sign of something else, betokening some sinister intent. So when the lamp falls, Sonck jumps instantly to the conclusion that it is a signal, intended to trigger a surprise attack on himself and his soldiers. He and his panicked counsellors snatch up their firearms and begin shooting at random.

It is a dark night, “as dark as only an Indies night without moonlight can be.” In such conditions, when nothing is visible, it is easy to imagine the seething presence of a ghostly army. Sonck and his counsellors keep unloosing barrage after barrage at their invisible enemy, startling even their own guards, who have seen no sign of an attack.

'Banda Island Nutmeg' (1619). Engraving | Wikimedia Commons

The Banda Islands sit upon one of the fault lines where the Earth shows itself to be most palpably alive: the islands, and their volcano, are among the offspring of the Ring of Fire that runs from Chile, in the east, to the rim of the Indian Ocean, in the west. A still active volcano, Gunung Api (“Fire Mountain”), towers above the Bandas, its peak perpetually wreathed in plumes of swirling cloud and upwelling steam.

Gunung Api is one of a great number of volcanoes in this stretch of ocean; the surrounding waters are dotted with beautifully formed, conical mountains that surge majestically out of the waves, some of them rising to heights of a thousand meters or more. The very name of the region, Maluku (which gave birth to the English toponym “Moluccas”), is said to derive from Molòko, a word that means “mountain” or “mountain island.”

The mountain islands of Maluku often erupt with devastating force, bringing ruin and destruction upon the people who live in their vicinity. Yet there is also something magical about these eruptions, something akin to the pain of childbirth. For the eruptions of Maluku’s volcanoes bring to the surface alchemical mixtures of materials which interact with the winds and weather of the region in such a way as to create forests that teem with wonders and rarities.

In the case of the Banda Islands the gift of Gunung Api is a botanical species that has flourished on this tiny archipelago like nowhere else: the tree that produces both nutmeg and mace.

The trees and their offspring were of very different temperaments. The trees were home-loving and did not venture out of their native Maluku until the eighteenth century. Nutmegs and mace, on the other hand, were tireless travellers: how much so is easy to chart, simply because, before the eighteenth century, every single nutmeg and every shred of mace originated in, or around, the Bandas.

So it follows that any mention of nutmeg or mace in any text, anywhere, before the 1700s automatically establishes a link with the Bandas. In Chinese texts those mentions date back to the first century before the Common Era; in Latin texts the nutmeg appears a century later. But nutmegs had probably reached Europe and China long before writers thought to mention them in texts. This was certainly the case in India, where a carbonised nutmeg has been found in an archaeological site that dates back to 400-300 BCE. The first reliably dated textual mention (which is actually of mace) followed two or three centuries later.

Of this there can be no doubt, at any rate: nutmegs had travelled thousands of miles across the oceans long before the first Europeans reached Maluku. It was these journeys that ultimately brought European navigators to Maluku; they came because plant products like nutmegs had already traveled in the other direction, long before them.

As they made their way across the known world, nutmegs, mace, and other spices brought into being trading networks that stretched all the way across the Indian Ocean, reaching deep into Africa and Eurasia. The nodes and routes of these networks, and the people who were active in them, varied greatly over time, as kingdoms rose and fell, but for more than a millennium the voyages of the nutmeg remained remarkably consistent, growing steadily in both volume and value.

Apart from their culinary uses, nutmegs, cloves, pepper, and other spices were valued also for their medicinal properties. In the sixteenth century, the value of the nutmeg soared when doctors in Elizabethan England decided that the spice could be used to cure the plague, epidemics of which were then sweeping through Eurasia.

In the late Middle Ages, nutmegs became so valuable in Europe that a handful could buy a house or a ship. So astronomical was the cost of spices in this era that it is impossible to account for their value in terms of utility alone. They were, in effect, fetishes, primordial forms of the commodity; they were valued because they had become envy-inducing symbols of luxury and wealth, conforming perfectly to Adam Smith’s insight that wealth is something that is “desired, not for the material satisfactions that it brings but because it is desired by others.”

Before the sixteenth century nutmegs reached Europe by changing hands many times, at many points of transit. The latter stages of their journey took them through Egypt, or the Levant, to Venice, which, in the centuries leading up to the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama, ran a tightly controlled monopoly on the European spice trade.

Columbus himself hailed from Venice’s archrival, Genoa, where the Serene Republic’s monopoly on the Eastern trade had long been bitterly resented; it was in order to break the Venetian hold on the trade that the early European navigators set off on the journeys that led to the Americas and the Indian Ocean. Among their goals, one of the most important was to find the islands that were home to the nutmeg. The stakes were immense, for the navigators and for the monarchs who financed them: the spice race, it has been said, was the space race of its time.

Excerpted with permission from The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables from a Planet in Crisis, Amitav Ghosh, Allen Lane.