Nutmeg: A Very Brief History


Nutmeg has a long and turbulent history throughout both Asia and Europe. One of the longest histories with nutmeg starts in China. According to most historians, the first Chinese writer to mention nutmeg was world-famous traveller and translator of the early 7th century, Ch’en Tsang-ch, (also known as Xuanzang, or Hsüan-tsang—depending on which of the many, many romanizations is used to convert his name into English). However, some historical linguists theorize that nutmeg had been introduced and grown in parts of Vietnam and South China as early as the 4th century.

Regardless, what is certain is that China was one of the first countries to cultivate nutmeg outside of its native islands in the Banda Sea. But growing nutmeg was not easy. Worms and other blights plagued Chinese orchards. These difficulties had China importing nutmeg again by 1300, which they continue to do today.

Outside of China, medieval traders from India and the Middle East were all making enormous profits off nutmeg sales. Through a complicated series of trade routes and ports, the price of nutmeg increased exponentially–a price that only grew with 16th century demands for medicinal nutmeg. Even before this craze, early medieval writers were enthralled with the spice. Around 950, Arabic writer Mas’udi lavishly described an area south-east of Indochina whose nutmeg trade fueled a rich and vast empire and apparently infinite army. This area would later be “visited” by Sinbad the Sailor. The kings, or Maharajas, of Southeast Asia would control the exportation of nutmeg, and therefore the its increasing wealth, as the spice traveled west.

Before the Elizabethan era, nutmeg was rare, but also rarely in demand by Europeans. Compared with Indian and Middle-Eastern neighbors, the price of nutmeg was not worth its value. Nutmeg had to go through many hands, increasing its price by the thousands, before it reached any European port. Mollocuns, traders native to the islands surrounding the Banda Sea, would buy the spice from local growers. They would then travel to Maharaja-controlled ports where Indian and Chinese merchants would buy and trade nutmeg in exchange for goods like Chinese porcelain. These merchants would then sail three-thousand miles to India, where other Chinese, Indian, and Arabic merchants gathered to buy and sell nutmeg. Arabic merchants would sail into to the Red or Arabic Seas, load the spice on camels or carts, and then make their way to a Byzantine port, where it could be sold to the rest of Europe.

As the Byzantine Empire fell, Venice stepped to take over the nutmeg trade, conquering key trade posts by the 13th century. Like their Roman predecessors, they sold the spice for exorbitant prices. But at the dawn of the 17th century, nutmeg skyrocketed in worth. Marketed as a “cure” for the plague, the increase in demand gave explorers incentive to circumvent the expensive Venetian ports. Their attempts to go straight to the source, ended in a series of wars that rocked the Eastern oceans.

The Banda islands, the only source of commercial nutmeg until 1770, were hotly contested by Portugal, England, and the Netherlands throughout the 1600’s. In fact the island of Rhun, one of the more fought over islands, became the first English overseas colony. Eventually, peace between nations was obtained in 1667, when the English traded control of Rhun for a little Dutch island in north America called Manhattan. Not sure whether the English got the better deal. Within a century, the islands would lose their monopoly over nutmeg, but before then they would establish a spice plantation system throughout the islands that would form the basis for modern nutmeg market. Fueled by the slave trade, then by colonial interests, these plantations would last until 1945, when Indonesia fought and gained its independence from the Dutch.

During the initial break of the Dutch monopoly in the 1700’s, growers moved nutmeg to islands off the coast of Madagascar. However today’s largest producers of nutmeg are still Indonesia and the Caribbean island of Grenada. India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia also grow substantial nutmeg crops. However, their exports cannot compete with those of Grenada and Indonesia, even with the collapse of Indonesia’s economy in 1997. Most of Indonesia’s crops are consumed domestically while most of Grenada’s nutmeg are exported. Their nutmeg is no longer the gold and silver trade it once was, but high exports to America and Japan keep this spice business in the black.