Arriving at the far-flung Banda Islands in the South of Maluku, a remote province of Indonesia, usually concludes a journey of no less than fourteen hours. Three times a week there is a scheduled flight between Ambon and Banda Neira – the islands’ administrative heart – but these are notoriously unreliable. Unable to take-off or land due to weather conditions further complicated by the short runway on Neira, the only other options is to take a Pelni boat which departs about two times a week.
This massive ship carrying passengers and cargo putt-putts for fourteen to eighteen hours while one has no other choice but to languorously stare across the horizon in the hope of catching a glimpse of these still incredibly illusive islands. There is something oddly fitting about arriving at the Banda’s like this. So much of the islands’ history is characterised by finding and reaching them.
In The Nutmeg Curse, Amitav Ghosh does not spare much thought to the actual journey to reach these islands but he does capture the sheer wonder of seeing them for the first time. Jutting out from the ocean like a giant Teletubby hill “Gunung Api” greets visitors from afar.
The iconic volcano has left a ferocious mark in local lore and shipping journals alike with its a mercurial presence, unleashing torrential terror of fire and rocks onto the land whenever it pleased the mountain. However, it also suffused the soil with a fertility that created ideal circumstances for the nutmeg tree to thrive. And this is exactly what made these islands once so sought after that entire wars would we waged over them.
For centuries the Banda Islands were the only place where nutmeg and its twin-spice of mace grew. Long before the Portuguese reached these islands in the fifteenth century, nutmeg was already available across mainland Europe, though at astronomical prices. Besides its distinct flavour in a variety of dishes, it was also thought to have medicinal properties, because of which it was frequently included in tonics that were available as early as the middle ages.
Prices were always astronomical though, owing to the long journey and the middlemen involved in getting the spice from the Bandas oversea and overland to Europe. Via Java and other islands that now comprise the Malaysia and Indonesian archipelagos, it would find its way to China, where it was always in demand. Other batches would make their way to India and travel onward to the Gulf, eventually reaching Egypt and then Venice, which functioned as the gateway to Europe till at least the fifteenth century.
Just imagine the hands involved, the money exchanged, the cargos lost at sea, the caravan serais contracted, the hardship on the road, the danger of dacoits, and one can arrive at a rough calculation of what nutmeg must have been worth by the time it reached London. When the Portuguese and later the Dutch set out to find these islands, that came at a cost as well. While the Dutch East India Company (VOC) would royally recover from these losses and make a more than handsome profit over time, the islands never quite recovered.
Indonesia itself is ground zero when it comes to the Ring of Fire, that belt of volcanic activity that girdles the Pacific Ocean uniting the coasts of North and South America, as well as that of Russia’s Kamchatka and various islands in the western part of the Pacific Ocean. If not for the history of the Banda’s, drenched in colonial violence, meeting Gunung Api reminds any visitor of how these islands are interconnected with a zone of environmental might that is strikingly uninterested in human intervention.
All of this presents Amitav Ghosh with the perfect opening to discuss the state of the planet so characterised by humankind having arrived in the epoch of the anthropocene, often employed as a shorthand for the geologic time whereby we are rapidly destroying our planet’s climate, ecosystems and geology. In terms of its capacity for destruction Gunung Api had nothing on the Dutch.
Four hundred years ago
Ghosh’s opening chapters mainly deal with a bloodbath that took place on the Banda Islands four hundred years ago in 1621. Under the leadership of JP Coen (1587-1629), then governor-general of the VOC, a monopoly on the trade of nutmeg and mace was enforced. When he suspected that the Bandanese were in violation of the treaties regulating the trade which the orang kaya (the important men who functioned as leaders of the islands) were supposed to have agreed to, an estimated fourteen thousand out of a total of fifteen thousand Bandanese were murdered, fled and/or were enslaved. Some did return to the islands but were now forced to work on the nutmeg plantations that the Dutch had established.
Recent publications such as the masterful analysis of the bloody aftermath of the Amboyna Massacre two years later in 1623 by Adam Clulow in Amboina, 1623: Fear and Conspiracy on the Edge of Empire (2019) and Alison Games’ Inventing the English Massacre: Amboyna in History and Memory (2020) both pay detailed attention to what transpired on the Bandas as well. There is no denying how interconnected these histories of colonial violence are and how they were influenced and impacted geopolitical developments in mainly Europe.
It is also something that online exhibition Pala by the Westfries Museum in the Dutch town of Hoorn examines in detail. Hoorn’s central square continues to be dominated by a late 19th century statue of JP Coen, something that activists (me included) have long advocated should be removed. It is a painful and embarrassing reminder of a past that continues to susurrate in debates of racism and discrimination in the West.
Ghosh’s The Nutmeg Curse is less interested in how this history continues to speak to questions of ethnic and racial inequality. Instead, the author trains his lens to how colonial practices of deforestation – whether of nutmeg trees on the Bandas or those bountiful of cloves on the Northern Moluccan islands of Ternate and Tidore – present us with early examples of human greed and environmental destruction.
Cutting down trees en masse was a way to control trade and ensure elevated prices. For Ghosh, European (Portuguese, then Dutch, later British) desire for profit during the colonial period serves as an example of nascent neoliberal gluttony.
Yet we should not think of these approaches as mutually exclusive. In his usual lyrical fashion layered with a hint of irony, he draws on a vast array of texts to make his case. It is the sheer wealth of scholarship he draws on often casually – as if browsing through a stack of publications he just happened to be reading this very morning – that leaves the reader in awe and occasionally utterly breathless.
For a brief moment I was disappointed that Ghosh’s intention was not to follow through on the book’s opening chapters to describe how colonial ambitions developed next. I could very well picture how this would progress next and at some point catch up and align with his magnificent oeuvre of fiction. Yet there is something that stayed with me in terms of his claim of how colonisers viewed the world, as empty, to be discovered and conquered, as uncivilised and wild. And how this planted the (toxic) seeds for climate change. Suddenly it takes remarkably small steps to connect the dots with the genocide meted on Native Americans, the brutality of the Dakota Pipeline, the murder of George Floyd, the emergence of the Black Lives Matters, and so on.
A dodo in the garden
I read Ghosh’s book while traveling around the island of Mauritius in order to investigate the continuing legacy of the dodo. The dodo was last seen in the mid-17th century, and has since then become symbolic for similar reasons. It is often mistakenly assumed that the dodos were all eaten by Dutch sailors who had reached the island after an arduous and scurvy-ridden journey.
While they were indeed eaten – easily caught with no natural predators as they were – their meat was difficult to cook and there were far tastier options around. Instead, it is likely that rats keen to get off board once land had been sighted and purposely left-behind pigs were the real culprits, finding in the dodo-eggs and easy treat.
On a sultry afternoon I found myself in the botanical gardens of Pamplemousses of which its early days Ghosh provides a delirious description in River of Smoke (2011), the second instalment in his Ibis Trilogy. By chance I stumbled upon a nutmeg tree or myristica fragrans, which had only made its way to Mauritius by the mid-18th century.
Those who have read Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History (1999) will remember how dearly the Dutch sought to hold onto their islands bestowing them with unfathomable wealth. In Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, the focus is on one British officer who tries to defend British interest (which should not be mistaken for being more benign than those of the Dutch: nutmeg equated money) on the most far-flung of the Banda’s, the tiny island of Rhun.
In the Treaty of Breda of 1667, which sought to regulate the complex aftermath of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) in which the Dutch Republic was victorious, the island was exchanged for (Dutch) New Amsterdam because of which then became (British-held) New York. Oh how the world is round.
Encountering a nutmeg tree at Pamplemousses was a reminder of the manifold ways in which The Nutmeg Curse can be read. While it is clearly a sequel to Ghosh’s earlier The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016) it also speaks to texts such as David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction (1996) with its incredibly rich investigation of the way ideas of evolution developed and how we came to understand the spread, branching off, and extinction of different species.
A casual reader might not immediately reach for these books to compare notes with Ghosh’s latest, but it is important to stress that what the author builds on concerns a rapidly expanding library of texts that all investigate such planetary interconnections and entanglements. When Ghosh moves on to question practices of terraforming and turns to Lovecraftian notions of Gaia, we cannot ignore how deeply felt and influenced this is by recent books such as Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (2015) and its focus on Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.
This book also speaks to Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees (2016), which posits that trees or nature itself feels and communicates. And even Sumana Roy’s poignant How I Became a Tree (2021) springs to mind. There is a deeply-felt concern which speaks from Ghosh’s engagement that rises above mere historical/environmental investigation and that appeals to humankind to critically self-examine the consequences of its footprint on planet Earth.
A curse or a trap?
Ghosh advocates a global politics of vitalism that puts central the belief that all living beings have a vital force. This is deeply anchored in an understanding of landscape and what it is layered with in terms of historical violence and deprivation. It leads Ghosh to embark on an interwoven investigation that moves liberally but fluidly from the Little Ice Age and the catastrophic decimation of the population of the Americas to the way the spread of imported diseases that had such a genocidal effect came to be “rationalised” as a material force and natural process.
There’s a back and forth here in terms of the natural/material and its (intended) effect and utterly grotesque consequences that cannot be denied but often only gets flagged in the margins when we want to understand what shaped and continues to shape the world we lived in.
Reading Ghosh is never not a joy. There is a command of language, a lucidity of tone and diction, that few are able to emulate. Yet this book is also one that hits one in the guts. It drives a punch to the stomach, a florid kick in the butt. And it is intended that way. As bright as the prose may be, as evocative as the scene set with these stunning beautiful Banda Islands welcoming one after a long voyage on a noisy diesel-fuelled ship might be, there is a message here that Ghosh does not sugar-coat.
When I visited the swamp of Mare aux Songes, one of the premier finding places of Dodo bones, I was reminded of the proximity of these histories of colonial violence and environmental destructions and the concerns they continue to relate to. In order to reach the swamp from the historical town of Mahebourg the driver had to make a detour around the island’s well-equipped airport, which was slowly picking up steam again after a year-long almost complete shutdown due to the pandemic. It had left businesses gasping for financial relief, but also significantly reduced the carbon footprint of its most important industry: tourism.
With the roaring sound of airplanes in the distance I overlooked the swamp that had been such a treasure-trove for archaeologists. Mauritius has nothing left of its original vegetation. If one wants to get a sense of what the island once looked like there is only the nearby island of Île aux Aigrettes to give one an indication of what it may have once looked like.
Beyond the ribbon of resorts occupying its coastal fringes it is nothing but sugarcane that meets the eye. The dodo may have once rummaged here, but by the time sugar was introduced by the Dutch and taken up as a lucrative plantation crop by the French, it had long disappeared. Ghosh’s The Nutmeg Curse isn’t about the spice it refers to, it is about all of us, and everything we hold dear. We need to find a way out of the trap we have set for ourselves.
Michiel Baas is a senior research fellow with the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Germany).
The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables from a Planet in Crisis, Amitav Ghosh, Allen Lane.