Excerpts from The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh, by permission of Penguin Random House
These excerpts from The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh introduce the reader to a sweeping saga of capitalism and climate crisis narrated with great historical and cultural perspective
Taking a nutmeg out of its fruit is like unearthing a tiny planet. Like a planet, the nutmeg is encased within a series of expanding spheres. There is, first of all, the fruit’s matte-brown skin, a kind of exosphere. Then there is the pale, perfumed flesh, growing denser toward the core, like a planet’s outer atmosphere. And when all the flesh has been stripped away, you have in your hand a ball wrapped in what could be a stratosphere of fiery, crimson clouds: it is this fragrant outer sleeve that is known as mace. Stripping off the mace reveals yet another casing, a glossy, ridged, chocolate- colored carapace, which holds the nut inside like a protective tropo sphere. Only when this shell is cracked open do you have the nut in your palm, its surface clouded by matte-brown continents floating on patches of ivory.
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And should you then break the nut open, you will see inside something akin to a geological structure—except that it is composed of the unique mixture of substances that produces the aroma, and the psychotropic effects, that are the nut’s very own superpowers.
Like a planet, a nutmeg too can never be seen in its entirety at one time. As with the moon, or any spherical (or quasi- spherical) object, a nutmeg has two hemispheres; when one is in the light, the other must be in darkness—for one to be seen by the human eye, the other must be hidden.
THE ISLAND OF LONTHOR is shaped like a boomerang, and it adjoins two other islands: Gunung Api and Banda Naira, a tiny islet that was already, in 1621, the seat of two massive Dutch forts. The three islands are themselves the remnants of an exploded volcano, grouped around its now-submerged crater. Between them lies a stretch of sheltered water that is deep enough to accommodate oceangoing ships. Anchored there on the night of April 21 is the fleet that has brought Martijn Sonck to the Banda Islands. On still nights sounds carry easily across this stretch of water. The rattle of agitated musket fire on Lonthor is clearly heard on the Nieuw-Hollandia, the flagship of the commander who has brought this fleet to the Bandas: Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen. An accountant by training, Coen, at the age of thirty- three, has served as the governor- general of the East Indies for three years already. A man of immense energy, competence, and determination, he has risen through the ranks of the Dutch East India Company like a jet of volcanic ash. Known, behind his back, as De Schraale (“Old Skin and Bones”), he is a blunt, ruthless man, not given to mincing his words. In a letter to the Seventeen Gentlemen who preside over the Company, Governor-General Coen once observed: “There is nothing in the world that gives one a better right than power.”
Now the most powerful proconsul of the world’s mightiest commercial company, Coen is no stranger to the Banda Islands. He was here twelve years earlier, as a member of a Dutch force that came to negotiate a treaty with the Bandanese. During the negotiations a part of that force was ambushed on the shores of Banda Naira and forty-six Dutchmen, including the leading officer, were slaughtered by the Bandanese. Coen was among those who got away with his life, but his memories of this episode have shaped his view of the Dutch mission in the Banda Islands.
Ever since the first Dutch ships came to the archipelago it has been the aim of the venerable East India Company—the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC—to impose a trade monopoly on the Bandanese. But this goal has proved elusive because the concept of a trading monopoly, although common in Europe, is completely foreign to the commercial traditions of the Indian Ocean. In these waters entrepôts and maritime states have always competed with each other to attract as many foreign merchants as possible. It was in this spirit that the Bandanese welcomed the first party of Europeans to visit their islands: a small Portuguese contingent that included Ferdinand Magellan. That was back in 1512; in the years since, the Bandanese have discovered (to their cost) that the Europeans who come to their shores, no matter of what nationality, all have the same thing in mind: a treaty granting them an exclusive right to the islands’ nutmegs and mace.
But such a right is impossible for the Bandanese to grant. How can they refuse to trade with their accustomed business partners, from shores near and far? The islanders depend on their neighbors for food and much else. Besides, the Bandanese are themselves skilled traders, and many of them have close links with other merchant communities in the Indian Ocean; they can hardly turn their friends away empty-handed. Nor would that make commercial sense, since the Europeans often don’t pay as well as Asian buyers. And the Bandanese, like most Asians, don’t find European goods particularly desirable: what are they, with their warm climate, to do with woolen cloth, for instance?
It would have been easier for the Dutch if the Bandanese had had a powerful ruler, a sultan who could be coerced into compliance, as had happened on other islands in Maluku. But the Banda Islands have no single ruler who can be threatened and bullied into forcing his subjects to obey the foreigners’ demands. “They have neither king nor lord” was the conclusion of the first Portuguese navigators to visit the islands, “and all their government depends on the advice of their elders; and as these are often at variance, they quarrel among themselves.”
This is not the whole truth, of course. The Bandanese have aristocratic lineages, as well as merchant families that possess great wealth and many servitors. It is a combative society, divided into walled settlements that sometimes fight pitched battles against each other. But no single settlement or family has ever subdued the entire archipelago; the islanders seem to have a deep- seated distaste for centralized, unitary rule.
Excerpted from The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh, by permission of Penguin Random House
The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis
Penguin Random House
Pp 350, Rs 599