The Dark Side of Nutmeg The Quantum Biologist
Myristica fragrans is native only to the tiny Banda Islands of Indonesia, part of the Molucca Islands, sometimes referred to as the Spice Islands. The Moluccas are also the birthplace of another holiday spice, cloves, and the nutmeg tree itself gives us two separate spices: Nutmeg is its seed, but its red aril, or false-fruit, becomes Mace, which is mainly famous for being the one spice in the cabinet no one has any freaking clue how to use. (As a child, I assumed you threw it into an attacker’s eyes. Sadly, it is not even that useful.) Because the nutmeg was found in the Bandas and nowhere else — in fact, the islands are literally forested with them, and cuscuses and flying opossums jump through their branches at night — the islands were something of an Eldorado for European spice traders and colonists during the Spice Wars of the Renaissance. Arab traders were the first outsiders to find the Banda Islands and their precious cloves and nutmegs, which they could sell for an arm and a leg in Europe, where the primary native spices at the time were mustard and… mustard. (There is a reason Europe even had wars over spices.)
But the location of the Bandas remained a close secret until Portuguese conqueror Afonso de Albuquerque (no relation to my hometown) captured the Moluccas in 1511 and forced the natives to point him there. But trouble with the native Moluccans forced the Portuguese to abandon the Bandas for almost two decades, allowing that other naval superpower, the Dutch, to slide into the Bandanese ports for trade. This was long before the British sent warships to conquer the island, but only shortly before the Dutch tried to boost the price of nutmeg at home by committing genocide against the Bandanese and enslaving the survivors. The nutmeg forests burned like a smoking censer over a mass grave. And somewhere along the line, Peter Piper got involved.
Surely you know that Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers. What you may not know is that “Peter Piper” is the Anglicized version of Pierre Poivre (literally translated “Peter Pepper”), a one-armed French horticulturalist and pirate in the mid-1700′s. Back then, the term “pepper” could be applied to any spice nut, and when shipping precious nutmeg peppers, the Dutch rubbed them with lime so that the seeds could not germinate if they were planted. Since Pierre would raid Dutch stores of spices and plants to furnish his botanical garden in the Seychelles, you could say with some probability that, on at least one occasion, Pierre Poivre stole half a bushel of limed nutmegs.
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