Did Nutmeg Decide the Future of New York?

Good day fellow history buffs! e-Storia is now back with a new URL (e-storia.blog) and a fresh post to get the new year off to a good start.

Many of you may be thinking of ways to vanquish any memory of eating too much over the festive season, but there is a quintessential holiday spice that has punched above its weight historically speaking: nutmeg. Spices have been an integral part of history, mythology, and trade since ancient Egypt (if not earlier), but how did a delightful little spice that we sprinkle on top of our eggnog (or pumpkin spice latte) come to decide the fate of New York City? The answer will certainly ‘spice up’ your understanding of the Big Apple’s history.

During the Age of Exploration and discovery in the 15th century (think Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and others), explorers circled the globe in search of riches and spices often worth more than gold itself. Nutmeg was considered the king of spices. With the closing of traditional European controlled trade routes through the Bosphorus after Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered Constantinople in 1453, European explorers were in search of new routes to Asia and access to its rich spices. Portugal, Britain, Spain, and the Dutch would come to be the world’s formidable trading powers fighting for supremacy on the seas and for control of routes, resources, and wealth. So, how is nutmeg connected to New York and what’s so special about nutmeg? A little more context is necessary in order to understand the connection.

Nutmeg could only be found in one location at the time: the Banda Islands in Indonesia. The Portuguese, having annexed the islands in 1512, still exercised considerable control over a vast expanse of the Spice Islands (and the lucrative trade in cinnamon, mace, nutmeg, and other spices), but hegemony would not last long. In the early 17th century the Dutch and British (through the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company) began to challenge control over the Banda Islands. The Dutch rapidly expelled the Portuguese from the Banda Islands, taking control of much of the nutmeg trade. By 1636 the Dutch had captured Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka) and by default now controlled the cinnamon trade as well. Only by 1652-54 did Britain take control of a heavily damaged Spice Islands (the Dutch destroyed the nutmeg trees before their departure), and by 1796 the British pried control of Ceylon from the Dutch as well. In its wake, war and devastation wrought havoc to the native inhabitants of these islands simply for control of spices. Locals were massacred and replaced by slave labour to ensure control over crops. This certainly makes you think differently about the spices in your spice rack in the kitchen.

It is important to understand why nutmeg was viewed to be so valuable. Although Europeans valued the spice for its taste, nutmeg was seen as an aphrodisiac, a hallucinogen, and protection against the plague (nutmeg was believed to repel disease and death). In fact, nutmeg was so highly valued and desired that traders would often sell the spice at upwards of 6,000 percent markup. Some traders even created cheap wood-based knockoffs to trick customers and buyers. Interestingly, the state of Connecticut would be the epicentre of this bootlegged substandard version of nutmeg.

OK, back to New York. While conflict continued in the East Indies over spice routes and source islands, the Dutch and British became increasingly interested in securing a different trade commodity altogether: the fur trade in North America. The fur trade had become lucrative and would finance the search for better routes to Asia and the East Indies. The Dutch had laid claim to much of the what would be the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut and Delaware for the colony of New Netherland based on the expedition of Henry Hudson (who had been hired by the Dutch East India Company) in 1609. The Dutch would set out to build modest colonies and forts in and around Manhattan Island (often abandoning them) naming the tip of Manhattan, New Amsterdam. New Amsterdam would become the Dutch colonial capital in 1625. By 1663 however, the Dutch still could only sustain a small contingent and even smaller population base leaving New Amsterdam vulnerable to attack.

hith-6-things-new-netherland-e    Source: Map of New Amsterdam, 1660. Retrieved from History.com 

In August of 1664, four British frigates sailed into New Amsterdam’s harbour and demanded the city’s surrender following King Charles’ II having awarded the colony to his brother, the Duke of York, without Dutch permission. Residents of New Amsterdam decided that a full-scale war was not needed, and by September 8, 1664, the Dutch ceded the colony over to the British without any blood being shed. While the transaction may have been peaceful, the capture of New Amsterdam kicked off the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-67) which was anything but bloodless.

Here comes the nutmeg part! The cessation of hostilities led to the Treaty of Breda in 1667. The treaty awarded Manhattan Island to Britain in return for the Spice Islands (and particularly Run Island) and plantations in Suriname. The British promptly renamed New Amsterdam to New York City in 1665 and took control of the future Big Apple for essentially some nutmeg. The Dutch would indeed consolidate their control over the nutmeg trade, believing it to be the better deal. History has revealed just how wrong they were. Perhaps the Big Apple should be more appropriately renamed the Big Nutmeg! (it just doesn’t have the same ring to it)

An interesting note: During the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century, the British invaded the Banda Islands again. Taking nutmeg with them, they were able to replant it in places like Grenada in the Caribbean. Grenada remains one of the leading exporters of nutmeg to this day.

It would not be an exaggeration to state that spices decided the fate of the modern world. New York for nutmeg may appear to be a foolish trade by contemporary standards. But just such a trade put in motion the foundation that made New York the wonder it is today. Colonial powers weakened and vanished, but the enduring allure and power of spices can remind us of how fragile a string our history and our story tenuously hinges.

Until next time.

Joseph Imre
e-Storia Blog

Note: Featured image is courtesy of The Bowery Boys: New York City History

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