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Dutch Spice monopoly

Clove and nutmeg trees grew like weeds everywhere on this immense Pacific archipelago. Every inch of soil
represented a dream of ducats, florins and piastres.

In this land blessed by the gods, only the Malukus offered these two spices, which grew nowhere else by some
whim of nature who had deposited her riches in the midst of the seas. There existed many subspecies in
Indonesia, but nothing to rival the variety found here.

This fertile land also became a scene of battles and destruction, where nutmeg and cloves grew on blood-
soaked ground. These were the unknown horizons that, like Pandora's box, presented to exhausted crews
squalls, reefs bloodthirsty for wrecks, hostile natives, fevers that could kill a man overnight, dense vegetation
crawling with insects and plants that took vengeance on the stranger by stinging him with dangerous infections.
And yet the expeditions, both official and unofficial, continued to increase.

Stealing a nutmeg would bring death before it could be planted. The Dutch, whose economic and commercial
empire was growing continuously, had no qualms about seizing the nutmeg monopoly by pushing back
Portuguese domination in 1605. Too many important merchants of the Dutch East Indian Company were set on
building themselves houses on the canal in Amsterdam!

But how were they to hold on to this monopoly when these thousands of islands held so many opportunities?
The Dutch decided to focus their cultivation on the two little islands of Ternate and Tidore, near the largest
Maluku island. Trees were uprooted, growth pulled out and every other plant from the archipelago cleared,
leaving only an easily defended surface area to be controlled by musket and cannon.

This turned out to be an effective and persuasive system since the Vereenigde Ostindische remained for over a
century and a half the undisputed master of the two most expensive spices in the world: nutmeg and cloves.

The Dutch were so protective of their monopoly that they did not hesitate to kill anyone who stole a nutmeg: a
nut meant a nutmeg tree, which meant production, which meant competition.

The tiny island of Amboine, only 10 km in size, southwest of the big island, had its fate mapped out for it. It was
there that the spice harvest was stored before being loaded onto ships headed for Europe via Batavia. It was,
as the historian Vaxelaire called it, the bank vault of the East Indian ocean. Here the most expensive flavours in
the world stood awaiting the merchant ships, stacked in bundles in stone hangars protected by a circle of

The spice traders were, above all, business men and so did not hesitate to burn surplus production in order to
keep the price of nutmeg high on the European market. A breathtaking fire took place once a year when
necessary, amidst a banquet and ball presided over by the Shandabaer.

The spices were brought out between two lines of soldiers stationed from the door of the stores to the entrance
of an enclosure, in the form of a long rectangle.

The amount burned in 1772 formed a mass approximately 100 feet long, 25 feet wide and 15 feet high,
meaning 37,500 cubic feet of spices, equivalent to 912 tons.

Blancard, Eyewitness - Travel Journal 1772

And what of the islands' inhabitants through all of this? The answer was simple and straightforward: they
collaborated by staying quiet or else were killed.
From 1510 on, the Dutch were the masters of this archipelago of spice islands, concentrating their efforts on the
three producing islands that were militarily defended, but in certain places nature began to reassert her rights
and a few young shoots started peeking up through the ashes.

We cannot tell the story of nutmeg without mentioning the Frenchman Pierre Poivre. Thanks to his tenacity and
botanical skills, he succeeded in breaking the Dutch monopoly. His is a long story, for he is a figure of legend
who imparted an extra adventurous flavour to these two spices.

The first nutmegs were picked in the Paris region in 1778, seven years after having been planted by Poivre. The
harvest at first was slim, but progressively increased so that by 1883 Céré was shipping nutmeg to Bourbon and
as far away as Cayenne.

A few years later, the merchant ship Alexandre, chartered by the French navigator D'Entre-Casteaux, carried
spice plants to be grown in the colonies of the Americas.

About 1800, the French took Holland, and at the same time, her colonies. Meanwhile, England was in open war
with France and occupying the East Indian islands. Nutmeg was sent to the British colonies of Malacca and
Ceylon and as far as the West Indian Islands of St. Vincent in 1802, Trinidad in 1806 and Grenada in 1843.
Nonetheless, the Dutch would hold onto their monopoly until the Second World War.

The Dutch monopoly began to crumble in the West Indies due to the complicity of thieving birds!

How did the Dutch prevent just anyone from planting a nutmeg in their own garden? Simple: they whitewashed
each nut with lime, which still today gives them their white lead look.

Anyone who succeeded in stealing an untreated nut or fraudulently selling a nut was immediately liable to the
death penalty: the sword of Damocles that hung over heads both in the Malukus and the West Indies.

However, the Dutch had not thought about pigeons which, unconcerned with export regulations, took flight with
a aril in their beak, nibbled at it and then let the nut fall where it may during their travels to other islands in
foreign possession. Nor did the Dutch make allowances for the tenacity of men like Pierre Poivre and the
growing desire of the French and English who were desperately seeking a way of getting these perfumed riches
for themselves.

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