The Nutmeg’s Curse by Amitav Ghosh

Reviewed by Andy Fuller

It all starts from a noise: startled Dutchmen sense their vulnerability in the distant Eastern Indonesian island of Lonthor, one thing leads to another and they soon seek to wipe them out from their homeland. The Dutch were seeking to establish a monopoly on the trade of nutmeg: one of the spices that gives the name ‘the Spice Islands’ to the region of the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia.

The man behind the efforts to wipe the people of Lonthor off the map was Jan Pierterszoon Coen. He was an ambitious and ruthless man who saw both a great opportunity to enrich himself and the Dutch East India Company (VOC). Ghosh regards him and the Company as being pioneers of capitalism which is inextricably bound with colonialism, the logic of genocide and the will to extract natural resources and to render the landscape passive. The VOC demands a trade monopoly with the Bandanese; but they reject this as it would disrupt their relations with their neighbours.

Ghosh, an anthropologist by training, draws heavily on rich and varied textual resources. He retells the stories of others with the perspective of an insider; his writing evokes the feeling of being there. The scope of his reading is enriched by his visit to the Banda Islands albeit some time prior to the book being published.

Ghosh uses the story of nutmeg as both a symbol and literal example of iterations and practices of colonialism. He relates his argument across centuries and disparate geographies. He draws on the narratives of First Nations peoples’ to counter ideas about landscape, place and nature. Somewhat remarkably, Ghosh tells these rather entangled tales without falling into the use of obfuscating academic jargon. Indeed, it is his will to stay concrete and specific in his story-telling that makes the stories he tells, so vivid.

Ghosh uses his chapter on ‘Vulnerabilities’ to highlight discrepancies in the north-south, rich-poor nation divide. He points to wealth as hardly being a determining factor in predicting the ability to climate induced disasters: pointing to the relative wealth of Italy and some US cities. Moreover, some nations of the global south sent medical staff to global north nations to help them during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Climate change shakes up apparently stable relations and established ideas about where capabilities and knowledges lie.

The anecdotes and specifics of the book are compelling. While the Dutch reign in the Eastern Islands (and elsewhere) became more and more violent, nutmeg was represented in paintings as specimen only: nothing was to be depicted of the violence wrought against its people and landscape alike.

For all the urgency of Ghosh’s argument, it is a narrative patiently and convincingly told. He argues for the dire need to find an alternative to capitalism with its inherent colonising and depleting, extractive logic. This is a beautifully written collection of ‘parables’, thickened through deep research. It is unnerving through the problems it analyses while also inspiring through its proffering of alternatives to avoid putting ourselves at greater risks of impending climate disasters.

The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis

2021

by Amitav Ghosh

John Murray

ISBN 978-1-529-36946-5

AUD $24.99; 339pp

Andy Fuller is a post-doctoral research fellow at Utrecht University and is a co-founder of Reading Sideways Press. He can be contacted at readingsidewayspress@gmail.com.

 

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