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A - 11 : Nutmeg

We are approaching Departure Day (Abfahrtstag) minus 11 (A - 11). A good reason to start making you familiar with some of the spices we are going to trade. Bernhard and Anna Obenhuber will bring some original nutmeg from Indonesia to our trip!

Most of you know nutmeg as a spice we use for flavouring vegetables or potatoes. In the Indian cuisine, nutmeg is even more prominent and used in many sweet and savoury dishes, primarily in the Mughal cooking tradition. But nutmeg is also used as medicine for children.

Nutmeg Plant and Fruit

That gets me to the point of why this matters for our sailing - the Europeans in the Middle Ages considered nutmeg to be a potent medicine agains plague - commonly called the Black Death.

When the Venetian Merchants bought nutmeg in the ports of today’s Lebanon, Syria or Egypt, they did not know where it came from. But its reputation as “THE MEDICINE THAT SAVES YOU FROM CERTAIN DEATH” created such a high demand, that its origin hardly mattered. Everybody bought as much as was available. The price for nutmeg in Venice was sky high during the time of Elizabeth I (1558 - 1603). The Arab traders in Basra and the Ottoman officials in Alexandria did not know its origin either but had heard that Malacca on the west coast of today’s Malaysia was a big staple place. Malacca was just opposite the sultanate of Aceh with whom the Ottomans maintained diplomatic relations and to whom they provided military assistance (primarily guns and gunpowder).

The Banda Islands in today's Indonesia - where Nut Meg came from

Needless to say that the ever money-minded Portuguese who reached India under Vasco da Game in 1498 heard of this magic place as well. Already in 1511, they sent a large fleet to Malacca and conquered port and town against fierce resistance. But nutmeg did not grow in Malacca. It actually came from the Banda Islands south of Maluku in Eastern Indonesia. By 1512, the Portuguese had reached these islands and establish a direct link to Europe. Albeit they tried, they were never able to monopolise the trade. This happened only with the arrival of the Dutch in 1621 who imposed a trade monopoly with brutal force, reducing the native population from 15’000 people to fewer than 1’000. Several of the Dutch forts can still be seen today (try google earth!)

The nutmeg trade was so profitable for the Dutch that they exchanged their colony in North America (including Manhattan and New Amsterdam) for total control of the Banda islands. In the treaty of Brenda in 1667 (the year when a 70’000 strong Ottoman Army landed in Crete to finally conquer Candia (today’s Heraklion), they ceded New Netherland to the English King James I and thus New Amsterdam became New York. Manhattan for a nutmeg!

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