With Europe tearing itself to pieces over nutmeg plague cures, 17th century merchants made unbelievable profits off the spice. Their stock flew off their shelves, or more accurately, flew off their ships. But there was one problem—European merchants had no idea where nutmeg came from. English merchants bought it from Venice. Venetian merchants bought it from Constantinople. Beyond that, they only knew it came from somewhere to the east.
As it turns out, nutmeg is very picky about where it grows. The “Moluccas”—specifically the Banda Islands—of Indonesia were pretty much the only place nutmeg would grow well enough to be cultivated as a cash crop. (See medieval China’s problems growing nutmeg.) Located in the Banda Sea, these 6 islands hold perfect conditions for nutmeg growth. This unique climate allowed the islands to held a monopoly over the production of nutmeg all the way up until 1770, when botanist Pierre Poivre managed to smuggle out enough seedlings to establish plantations on the islands of Mauritius and Réunion.
But 1770 was a long way off for merchants looking to get rich in 1600. Europe needed to find a way to bypass the middlemen and get to the islands themselves. What they didn’t realize was that they already had. A century before doctors started prescribing nutmeg to treat the plague, a Portuguese ship had managed to land and lay claim to several of the Banda islands. One of the discovered islands, named Rhun, was so perfect for cultivation that nutmeg grew in forests rather than small groves. Such a crops would have been a fortune, even to merchants selling to a pre-nutmeg craze market. But there were a few hiccups. Rhun’s shores were beset by furious monsoons and sharp reefs, making it an undesirable port. Even the “milder” nutmeg islands still were marred by hostile natives and soured relations between the Portuguese and local leaders. All these shortcomings made the colonization of the Banda islands too costly for the Portuguese. But as nutmeg grew more and more desirable, colonization was looking like a better investment.
The Portuguese, though the first Europeans to reach the nutmeg islands, ultimately squandered their chance. Battles with the Dutch led to a broader international conflict as Portugal attempted to defend both its American and Asian interests. Wins and losses were on both sides, but ultimately the Portuguese lost the nutmeg islands. By the end of the 16th century, the Netherlands had settled and made (uneasy) treaties with local Banda leaders. And it looked like the Dutch would control nutmeg production for the next century. But in 1603, an English merchant ship managed to wreck itself on the shores of one of the islands. Unlike the Portuguese and the Dutch, these English sailors actually got along pretty well with the native Bandanese. Using these fortuitous circumstances, England soon gained an unexpected foothold in the nutmeg game, starting off the “Spice War” between itself and the Netherlands.
Taking control of the Ai and Rhun islands (the two islands that also produced the most nutmeg) English merchants started paying competitive prices for the spice, undercutting the Dutch monopoly. Conflict erupted and skirmishes flared off and on between the two countries for the next 100 years. Despite trades and treaties, fighting didn’t really end until one Captain Cole of England took control over the main island of Neira in 1810. Seven years later, he would return leadership back to the Dutch as a kind of act of international goodwill. This turned out to be rather hollow gift. Before Cole left, he had taken thousands of nutmeg seedlings and along with native Banda soil. These were used to establish groves in British-controlled territories, a nail in the coffin for the Dutch nutmeg monopoly and finally uprooting the source of “The Spice War.”