Friday, March 04, 2011

Nutmeg & The Spicy Birth of New York!, (+about The 1st-Ever English Colony!)

Many might have heard about the story of New Amsterdam becoming New York- I read it while exploring Amsterdam in 2009. But these amazing 'spicy' details from the new BBC documentary series, The Spice Trail just transfixed me!.. , as I had been trying to dig a bit deeper into history, trailing Marco Polo, Columbus and Vasco da Gama..

The european craze for spice and the history of the Portuguese fort in my home town Kannur had intrigued me- built in 1505 by the first Portugues Viceroy of India, it is 75km from where Vasco da Gama landed in 1498, in search of black pepper. Later the Dutch captured it in 1663, sold it to the local Raja in 1772, from whom the English wrested it in 1790, keeping it as their main military garrison in Malabar till India's independence.
It was an eerie feeling, during my Amsterdam trip, when I saw a painting of this fort at the main museum there (Rijksmuseum), with a view that I could recognise from my school trip to the fort.. In later years, standing on its ramparts and turrets, the battles of europeans and local Rajas had played out in my mind..

 And This documentary series has been a huge treasure trove of information, about the spices the colonial powers were after, also throwing more light on their battles, politics, their bloody cruel and some spicy stories- especially the one about Nutmeg from The Spice Islands!

{ The 3-part series, presented by Kate Humble, ended yesterday, told the (his)story of 6 spices, starting with the filming in Kerala for the first episode on Black Pepper and Cinnamon, and moving on to Sri Lanka for Cinnamon for the 2nd half.  It mentioned about the price difference, from the farmer in Sri Lanka, to the UK Supermarket- where it is sold around 2000 times the price that the farmer fetches!!.
Hail Market Economy!!. Farmers, Perish!. 

PART-1 : Black Pepper and Cinnamon , From Kerala/India (Black Pepper), and SriLanka (Cinnamon)

PART-2 : Nutmeg and Cloves.. This explores the Spice islands of Maluku province in eastern Indonesia, only places where these 2 spices were available, among the 17,000 islands of Indonesia, and indeed in the whole world.

PART-3 : Vanilla and Saffron, takes you from Atlas mountains of Morocco to Spain, to trace the costliest spice in the world, and to Mexico, where Vanilla was born.

Nutmeg at Chef Das' organic farm in Kerala.
 Taken when I visited during the filming of New York Chef Anthony Bourdain's
 "No Reservations" Food-n-Travel TV series in Kerala,
for some photo-ops of the part hosted by Das.

Nutmeg and New York:
{Mostly adapted from the documentary narration, But I've rearranged to tell this story. Some parts are direct transcripts from it }

From the new BBC series The Spice Trail, it is revealed that The Dutch and The English were fiercely fighting for the control of this tiny island of RHUN, in Banda Islands(one of the 2 groups of islands which comprise the famed 'Spice Islands') of eastern Indonesia.. Banda islands, group of 10 tiny volcanic islands, were the origin and the only source of Nutmeg (and Mace, which is the thin reddish skin on the nutmeg seed, inside the cream coloured rind). .. which the Dutch 'discovered' first, in terms of the European race to find spices' source, ie!. 

One of the islands, Rhun, just 3km x 0.75km wide, 15km west from the main Banda Island, which the Dutch hadn't seized, was the target of the English East India Company, "the Engine that launched the British Empire", when their ship left London in 1616. It was a time when a small 5-kg sack of nutmeg could buy a grand house in London. Rhun became the first ever English colony- a "Nutmeg Real Estate". Apparently, after the English negotiated and persuaded the locals to let the island be ruled by the English Crown, (in return for the protection against the much-hated Dutch who were butchering and terrorising the locals of other islands), the ecstatic King James after hearing the news changed his title to "King of England, Scotland, Ireland and Rhun"!!

The Dutch had started off the operation of one of the first "Corporate Empires", The Dutch East India Company(VoC), with the mass murder- around 14,000 people of the Banda islands were massacred to get total authority over nutmeg!; Starting with the tribal chiefs- murdered and impaled on bamboo as warning to others, in attempts to dominate- "domination by extermination".

For the last leg of the Nutmeg scenes, the presenter goes back to Rhun after covering couple of other islands, narrating..: "The final chapter of the Nutmeg story is taking me back to England's first colony. Unlikely though it seems, it is from here, that the huge shift in global power was about to begin: In 1620, after the death of the first English captain who landed in Rhun, England lost the island to Holland. Almost 50years later, England's King Charles II, took the revenge- He sent a fleet across the Atlantic and captured the Dutch-held island called New Amsterdam. 2 years later the 2 sides tried to negotiate for peace, with the English demanding Rhun back, and Dutch categorically refusing, getting into a deadlock, which was later broken by the Dutch proposing that the English keep New Amsterdam, and they will hold on to Rhun! The English, with no other option, turned their back on the Spice Island and renamed New Amsterdam to New York... and a whole new period of colonization began".!!!!!!!!!

9-min clip from Episode -2 : How Nieuw Amsterdam became New York "The amazing story of how competition for the lucrative nutmeg trade in the early 17th century, between the Dutch and the English, and their dispute over a tiny Indonesian island (2 miles long by ½ a mile wide), launched the English East India Company and put the island of Manhattan in the hands of the English. Told by Kate Humble"

Note :]
The Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC in Dutch, literally "United East Indian Company") was a chartered company established in 1602, when the States-General of the Netherlands granted it a 21-year monopoly to carry out colonial activities in Asia. It was the first multinational corporation in the world and the first company to issue stock.

From Episode Black Pepper and Cinnamon From Kerala/India (Black Pepper), and SriLanka (Cinnamon)

The 2nd episode on Nutmeg and Cloves.. explores the Spice islands of Maluku province in eastern Indonesia, only places where these 2 spices were available, among the 17,000 islands of Indonesia, and indeed in the whole world.
 Program Homepage, Episode 2 -

Part of the 3rd episode, Vanilla and Saffron, takes you from Atlas mountains of Morocco to Spain, to trace the costliest spice in the world, and to Mexico, where Vanilla was born. 
Program Homepage, Episode3 -

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Blogger മുരളീമുകുന്ദൻ ബിലാത്തിപട്ടണം BILATTHIPATTANAM. said...

Well Done Sujith..!
I watched these all three episodes and thrilled then written somewhat in Malayalam also..

8:56 PM  
Blogger Guy said...

I loved the documentary as well, it was very interesting but what's actually frustrating about it is how wrong she is about Rhun being the first English Colony. And apparently there are other people who think that as well... But Jamestown was England's first successful colony in the Americas in 1607 and that was after several previous colonization attempts in other places. The first colony in Newfoundland was founded in 1610 but by then there had been seasonal settlements for about a hundred years and there were already many structures standing. So 1616 is a little late to be the first colony.

Other than that it's mostly accurate as far as I can tell... though I'd say it was the fishermen and merchants of the Newfoundland fishery, who made England the greatest naval power at that critical time, even with almost nonexistent support from the government, was the true engine of the British Empire. :D

8:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the series but I hope Kate will balance the equation by going into the British atrocities of colonisation and exploitation as well as the Dutch!
Who was it who created the first concentration camp?

6:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

They should have also gone to Grenada in the Caribbean as well. It is after all known as 'the island of spice' supplying over 20% of the world's nutmeg (amongst other spice exports) only second to Indonesia. I found the documentary very interesting and informative though.

1:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Am reading Nathaniel's Nutmeg after I saw the series of Spice Trail.. I recommend it to you guys!

5:00 PM  

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