What Nutmeg Can Tell Us About Nafta

by Amitav Ghosh, ‘The New York Times,’ December 30, 2016
'The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies,” painted by Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom, 1599. Credit Phas/UIG, via Getty Images'
GOA, India — For many years the word “globalization” was used as shorthand for a promised utopia of free trade powered by the world’s great centers of technological and financial innovation. But the celebratory note has worn thin. The word is now increasingly invoked to explain a widespread recoiling from a cosmopolitan earth. People in many countries are looking nostalgically backward, toward less connected, supposedly more secure times.

But did such an era ever exist? Was there ever an unglobalized world?

The question struck me during the final hours of the American election, when I happened to be traveling by ferry in the Maluku archipelago of Indonesia. Once known as the Moluccas, this corner of the world is considered remote even within Indonesia. Two time zones removed from Jakarta, it straddles one of the most seismically volatile zones on earth; many of its islands are active volcanoes rising steeply out of the sea. In size they range from small to minuscule. Surely if ever there were a global periphery, it would be here.

Yet for millenniums these islands have been at the forefront of global history. This is because their volcanic soils have nurtured two miraculous trees, which grew nowhere else on earth: One is Syzygium aromaticum, which produces the clove, and the other is Myristica fragrans, of which nutmeg is the seed and mace the seed’s lacy outer covering.

For thousands of years these spices were among the world’s most sought-after commodities, making the sultans of the “Spice Islands” famously wealthy. Cloves from around 1700 B.C. have been found at the site of a settlement in Tell Ashara, Syria. To get there, they would have had to travel more than 6,000 miles, through the ports of the Indian Ocean and overland through Mesopotamia. At every stop, their price would have multiplied hugely. In Renaissance Europe, the value of some spices was thousands of times more than at their point of origin.

The Republic of Venice possessed a virtual monopoly on the spice market in the Mediterranean for centuries. Although pepper and ginger, mainly from India, accounted for the bulk of the cargo, cloves, nutmeg and mace from the Moluccas commanded much higher prices by weight.

It was in hopes of bypassing Venice and the Middle East that the monarchs of Spain and Portugal funded the great voyages of the age of discovery. The Portuguese mariners who pioneered the sea route to the Indian Ocean brought with them not just their religion but also the prevalent European faith in monopolies. This notion was alien to the trading cultures of the Indian Ocean, where the rulers of the major ports had always vied with one another to attract as great a variety of merchants as possible. The Portuguese, and the Spanish, Dutch and English who followed them, were unheeding of these traditions: They never veered from their quest for monopolies, especially amid the vulnerable islands of the Moluccas.

A murderous, decades-long struggle ensued in which the competing European powers were pitted against one another, as well as the people of the Moluccas. In the process the English gained their first Asian possession, a pair of tiny islands, Ai and Run, part of a Moluccan chain called the Bandas.

In the end it was the Dutch who won, but at the cost of atrocities that included an attempted genocide. In 1621, on the orders of the Dutch East India Company’s governor general, some 14,000 of the Banda Islands’ estimated 15,000 inhabitants were slaughtered or taken into slavery. Two years later, officials of the Dutch East India Company beheaded 10 Englishmen and a number of others in a mass execution that is known known as the Massacre of Amboyna.

Although the bloodshed sealed the Dutch hold on the East Indies, the British did not relinquish their claim to the island of Run until several decades later. So eager were the Dutch to get them out of the Moluccas that in 1667 they agreed to an exchange in which the English gave up their claim on Run in return for the recognition of their right to territories that included another island on the far side of the planet — Manhattan.

This connection may be forgotten in New York, but it is remembered by many in Run, which is today a sleepy, sunbaked island with a population of a few hundred. “Donald Trump made his money in Manhattan, didn’t he?” an Indonesian friend joked when we visited the island, the day before the election. “If he wins maybe he will build a tower in Run, to say thank you for Manhattan.”

For many decades, Run, and the other spice-growing islands of the Moluccas, provided the Dutch East India Company with huge and easy profits. But then, as European tastes changed, the price of spices began to fall. Drastic measures, like the uprooting of millions of trees and the destruction of warehoused supplies, failed to prevent the company’s collapse in the late 18th century.

By the mid-19th century, clove and nutmeg trees were being grown far beyond their original habitat, and the long history of the Spice Islands, as creators of great wealth, had come to an end.

The obvious lesson of this history is that it is impossible to imagine a world without global connections: They have always existed, and no place has escaped their formative influence. But this does not mean that there is any inherent merit in interconnectedness, which has always been accompanied by violence, deepening inequalities and the large-scale destruction of communities. Nor should proponents of unfettered globalization forget that in the 19th century “free trade” was invoked by Britain and other Western powers to prevent China from stopping the inflow of opium into the country, where it was causing widespread addiction.

These aspects of globalization are often overlooked because the advocacy of interconnectedness has come to be equated with tolerance, while the resistance to it is identified with prejudice. But neither cosmopolitanism nor parochialism is a virtue in itself. We need to ask: cosmopolitanism in the service of what? Protectionism to what end?

The story of the Spice Islands holds another alarming portent. In a clove garden on the island of Ternate, I found that most of the trees were leafless, their trunks the color of ash. I was told that clove trees are dying all over the island, and the farmers cited the same cause: The trees had been affected by changes in rainfall patterns over the last several years. There was less rain, and it fell more erratically. This, in turn, had led to the spread of blights and disease. The island has also experienced forest fires of unprecedented intensity.

If these changes continue, the clove, one of the earliest of commodities, could be endangered in its ancestral home by greenhouse gas emissions caused precisely by humanity’s ever-expanding appetite for commodities.

Only in this one respect are we truly in a new era of interconnectedness.

Amitav Ghosh is the author, most recently, of “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.”

Comments are disabled on this page.