The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh

What possible bearing could the story of something as cheap and insignificant as the nutmeg have on the twenty-first century?

This is not a history book. This is not a history book about nutmeg. That is a trojan horse. This book is really about colonialism and the example of the islands with nutmeg being subjugated, taken over, and colonized by European powers. It relates all this to the current politics, and the climate crisis.

I wish it actually was more about the Banda islands and the nutmeg story, but this is more like a university textbook about colonialism. Was this a bad thing? Yes, and no. I learned a lot about the Banda islands, and the nutmeg trade but there are long, long sections about colonization. There are long political sections. I learned a lot about colonization, too.

Lord Chancellor of England, Sir Francis Bacon: “…there are nations that are outlawed and proscribed by the law of nature and nations, or by the immediate commandment of God.” These wayward countries, Bacon argues, are not nations at all, but rather “routs and shoals of people, as have utterly degenerated from the laws of nature.” Such being the case, it was both lawful and godly for any nation “that is civil and policed…[to] cut them off from the face of the earth”

Emer de Vattel,: “nations are justified,” he ruled, “in uniting together as a body with the object of punishing, and even exterminating, such savage peoples.” This argument effectively conferred on Christian Europeans a God-given right to attack or extinguish peoples who appeared errant or monstrous in their eyes"

He has some interesting views of world history that are not shared by others. He has a great way of putting together a narrative of Western settler-colonialism.

As Ben Ehrenreich observes: “Only once we imagined the world as dead could we dedicate ourselves to making it so.”

This is very true. Modernism makes fun of aboriginal tribes that revere the land and maybe even take care of the nature ‘spirits’.

Girolamo Benzioni, the Italian-born conquistador whose *History of the New World8 was published in 1565, described Indigenous perceptions of Europeans with these words: “They say that we have come to this earth to destroy the world. They say … that we devour everything, we consume the earth, we redirect the rivers, we are never quiet, never at rest, but always run here and there, seeking gold and silver, never satisfied, and then we gamble with it, make war, kill each other, rob, swear, never say the truth, and have deprived them of their means of livelihood.”

Never have I read such a succinct summary of settler-colonialism and what it did to Indigenous peoples. Gosh talks about terraforming of the environment as a form of war. The settlers changed the land, and that pushed out all others that didn’t live like ‘Europeans’.

The seventeenth-century Puritan leader John Winthrop, for instance, argued that Indians had no rights of ownership in the land “for they inclose no ground, neither have they cattle to maintain it, but remove their dwellings as they have occasion.” It was by planting, and creating “plantations,” that the settlers claimed the land. The right to terraform was thus an essential part of settler identity; their claim of ownership was founded on the notion that they were “improving” the land by making it productive in ways that were recognizable as such by Europeans.

The Native Americans saw what the Europeans were doing to the land and could see it was bad even as far back as 1855.

In 1855 the Duwamish chief Seattle, after whom the city is named, wrote a letter to President Franklin Pierce in which he said: “Continue to contaminate your bed, and you will one night suffocate in your own waste. When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of men, and the view of the ripe hills blotted by talking wires, where is the thicket? Gone. Where is the eagle? Gone. And what is to say goodbye to the swift and the hunt, the end of living and the beginning of survival?”

As I sit here reading this in 2022 and it seems all these predictions have come to pass. Then the author turns his focus to oil and the importance of it to modern Superpowers.

… over the course of the twentieth century access to oil became the central focus of global geopolitical strategy: for a Great Power, to be able to ensure or hinder the flow of oil was to have a thumb on the jugulars of its adversaries. He then goes over how Britain was a superpower with their control of the sea, thus controlling the flow of oil. Now, it is the United States that controls this resource with bases all over the world.

Priya Satia: “Violence committed abroad, in service of imperial expansion, was central to the making of capitalist modernity.”

… a country’s ability to project military force is directly connected to the size of its carbon footprint — and this has been true since the early nineteenth century.

It seems he’s lost sight of the nutmeg. Though, nutmeg as an important commodity, worth scouring the earth for, and starting wars over, is exactly as important as oil is today.

The stats he gives for the oil that aircraft carriers burn every hour is incredible…

As you can see, there is arguably very little about nutmeg in here. Mr. Ghosh would be an incredible person to chat about politics and history with over a few beers, though. Reading this book was difficult. There was lots of interesting things in here but it was a lot to process. It had a huge scope. I wasn’t expecting this when I picked it up.

I have been putting off writing this review for weeks because I have so many feelings about this book. This book is not for the faint of heart. It uses high level academic language. This is not a light read. You have been warned.

Rating: ★★★★

Book #73 in my 2022 Reading Challenge

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