The Crazy Claims for Nutmeg
Updated: Oct 15, 2021
As Giles Milton writes in his wonderful book, Nathanial's Nutmeg:
Nutmeg...was the most coveted luxury in seventeenth-century Europe, a spice held to have such powerful medicinal properties that men would risk their lives to acquire it.
Reading Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe, about the outrageous exaggerations--no, lies--told by the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma about Oxycontin, aided and abetted by doctors whose Hippocratic oath is supposedly an oath of ethics, it seems that nothing much has changed in the intervening three centuries.
Like Purdue, which marketed OxyContin aggressively as a painkiller for all manner of ailments, those looking to make a fortune from nutmeg in the 16th and 17th centuries were shameless in their promotion of it as a cure-all:
A pain reliever for ailments including headaches and toothache
A breath sweetener
Aid to digestion and to stimulate the appetite
To soothe aching joints
A sleep aid/natural sedative
Treatment for skin inflammation and scarring
To calm the highly strung
As the demand increased so did the exaggerations, and nutmeg was even afforded magical properties to help hype up the price. As such, carrying a seed around in your pocket was said to imbue you with the luck of attracting tremendous wealth, as well as protect you from sickness, and boost your intellect.
The big difference being, of course, that the craze for nutmeg back then created nothing like the suffering and death of today's opioid crisis. You would have to ingest the spice in very large quantities to experience the hallucinations brought on by the psychotropic substance nutmeg contains called myristicin, which is said to be chemically similar to mescaline.
Nevertheless, the trade in nutmeg has a long and bloody history. Once Europeans had been duped by their physicians (equally duped by profit-hungry traders and merchants) into believing that nutmeg could cure everything from the common cold to the bubonic plague, it became more valuable than gold. Previously traded as a monopoly by Arabs and Indians, it took the Portuguese general, Afonso de Albuquerque in the early part of the 16th century to uncover where to find the highly coveted nutmeg: in the Banda islands. Unable to establish a hold on these islands, the Portuguese eventually gave up and resorted to purchasing nutmeg from merchants in Malacca on the Malay peninsula.
The Dutch, as Martinha relates to Jim in Chapter 26 of Lies That Blind, were much more aggressive in their approach. By 1609 they had forced the Bandanese to sign a treaty granting the VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, otherwise known as the Dutch East India Company) a monopoly on the spice. You can learn how that turned out through Martinha's story, not least the viciousness of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the two term Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies & founder of Batavia (now Jakarta).
Not surprisingly, Francis Light was keen to encourage the cultivation of nutmeg on Penang island, in addition to other foods that would help sustain the inhabitants so they did not have to rely on shipments from the Malay mainland and India. It seems he was not successful in that regard, although he did write to Fort William in 1792 that:
Upon a hill ...was discovered a tree whose fruit so nearly resembles the nutmeg...unfortunately this tree was cut down before the discovery was made...I have great hopes that this fruit may be improved by cultivation so as to become an article of commerce.
Penang did enjoy later success in cultivating nutmeg, which continues to this day. However, given that a newly-planted tree takes between seven and nine years to reap its first harvest, and full production tends not to happen until a tree is 20 years old, Light would not have been around long enough to enjoy that success. After "founding" Penang in 1786, he died on the island in 1794.
As for the VOC, demand for nutmeg fell when the public discovered that it was not the panacea for all ills they had been led to believe, and was relegated to being little more than a tasty spice to be grated on top of warm milk or added to certain dishes.
The company then "found itself lurching from one financial crisis to another," according to Giles Milton in the Epilogue to his book:
When auditors examined the accounts in the 1790s they found the Company to be a staggering twelve million guilders in the red. Soon afterwards the monopoly was lost and the Company slipped quietly into the history books.
That was scant compensation to the inhabitants of the Spice Islands, however, who had seen their lands and livelihoods decimated, and the lives of tens of thousands of their people wiped out, all because of the gullibility and greed of Europeans.
FURTHER READING - (DISCLOSURE: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases):
Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe (Knopf Doubleday, 2021)
Szczepanski, Kallie. "Nutmeg: The Unsavory History of a Tasty Spice." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020.