Items that seem unremarkable today might once have altered the course of history. For centuries, the nutmeg tree grew only in the Banda Islands, a small chain in the southwest Pacific. Locals harvested the aromatic nuts of the tree and sold them to traders. Eventually, a spice made from these nuts became a luxury item in the European market, via Venetian merchants. Seeking a monopoly over this valuable spice, the Dutch attacked the Banda Islands, subjugating the native people in a mostly successful attempt to control the trade.

However, one island in the Banda chain remained in the hands of the British and was the object of much conflict between the Netherlands and England. After many battles, the British offered to cede control of the island in exchange for New Amsterdam, a Dutch outpost on the east coast of North America. Inveterate traders, the Dutch were more interested in the spice trade than in the small outpost of New Amsterdam. In 1667, the Treaty of Breda gave the Dutch complete control of the Banda Islands, and thus of the nutmeg trade, and gave the British New Amsterdam, which they promptly renamed New York. Today, nutmeg trees can be found in many countries and no one company or country has a monopoly on the trade.

Why was Nutmeg so important? (And a brief HISTORY associating it)

Spices have been used by human beings for millennia for food preparation and preservation, medicine, and even embalming. But until modern times they were largely an Asian commodity, and controlling their flow to the spice-obsessed West meant power and fortune for the middleman. Over the centuries, these hugely successful merchants were the Phoenicians, Persians, Arabs, and later, Venetians.

Many of the great European explorations of the 15th century were driven by the need to bypass the Arab and Venetian monopoly. Crying, “For Christ and spices,” the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama shocked the Arab world when he sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and showed up in the spice markets of India. It marked the beginning of the decline of Arab dominance and the rise of European power. For the next 100 years, as Spain and Portugal fought for control of the spice trade.

Always in danger of being overwhelmed by their much larger neighbor, Spain, the Portuguese began subcontracting their spice distribution to Dutch traders. Profits began to flow into Amsterdam, and the Dutch commercial fleet swiftly grew into one of the largest in the world. The Dutch quietly gained control of most of the shipping and trading of spices in Northern Europe. Then in 1580, Portugal fell under Spanish rule and the sweet deal for Dutch traders was over. As prices for pepper, nutmeg, and other spices soared across Europe, the Dutch found themselves locked out of the market. They decided to fight back.

In 1602 Dutch merchants founded the VOC -the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, better known as the Dutch East India Company.By 1617 the VOC was the richest commercial operation in the world. With sheer ruthlessness… and nutmeg.

By the time the VOC was formed, nutmeg was already the favored spice in Europe. Aside from adding flavor to food and drinks, its aromatic qualities worked wonders to disguise the stench of decay in poorly preserved meats, always a problem in the days before refrigeration.

Then the plague years of the 17th century came. Thousands were dying across Europe, and doctors were desperate for a way to stop the spread of the disease. They decided nutmeg held the cure. Ladies carried nutmeg sachets around their necks to breathe through and avoid the pestilence of the air. Men added nutmeg to their snuff and inhaled it. Everybody wanted it, and many will willing to spare no expense to have it. Ten pounds of nutmeg cost one English penny at its Asian source, but had a London street value of 2 pounds, 10 shillings -68,000 times its original cost. The only problem was the short supply. And that’s where the Dutch found their opportunity.

Why made nutmeg so rare? The tree grew in only one place in the world: the Banda Islands of Indonesia. A tiny archipelago rising only a few meters above sea level, the islands were ruled by sultans who insisted on maintaining a neutral trading policy with foreign powers. This allowed them to avoid the presence of Portuguese or Spanish garrisons on their soil, but it also left them unprotected from other invaders.

In 1621 the Dutch swept in and took over. The Dutch had their monopoly …almost. One of the Banda Islands, called Run, was under control of the British. The little sliver of land (a fishing boat could only make landfall at high tide) was one of England’s first colonial outposts, dating to 1603. The Dutch attacked it in force in 1616, but it would take four years for them to finally defeat the combined British-Bandanese resistance.

But the English still didn’t give up; they continued to press their claim to the island through two Anglo-Dutch wars. The battles exhausted both sides, leading to a compromise settlement, the Treaty of Breda, in 1667 -and one of history’s greatest ironies. Intent on securing their hold over every nutmeg island in Southeast Asia, the Dutch offered a trade: if the British would give them Run, they would in turn give Britain a far-away, much less valuable island that the British had already occupied illegally since 1664. The British agreed. That other island: Manhattan, which is how New Amsterdam became New York.

The Dutch now had complete control over the nutmeg trade. A happy ending for Holland? Hardly. By the end of the 17th century, the Dutch East India Company was bankrupt. Constant wars with rival powers, rebellion from the islanders, and just plain bad luck -some might say bad karma- eventually broke the back of the Dutch spice cartel.

  •  In 1770 a Frenchman named Pierre Poivre (“Peter Pepper”) successfully smuggled nutmeg plants to safety in Mauritius, an island off the coast of Africa, where they were subsequently exported to the Caribbean. The plants thrived on the islands, especially Grenada.
  •  In 1778 a volcanic eruption in the Banda region caused a tsunami that wiped out half the nutmeg groves.
  • In 1809 the English returned to Indonesia and seized the Banda Islands by force. They returned the islands to the Dutch in 1817, but not before transplanting hundreds of nutmeg seedlings to plantations in India, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and Singapore. The Dutch were out; the nutmeg monopoly was over. While they would go on to have success trading steeland coal (not to mention tulips), the Netherlands declined as a colonial power, and they never again dominated European commerce.

Source: Copied from here and there 😛