The Nutmeg’s Curse
Parables for a Planet in Crisis
The Nutmeg’s Curse
Parables for a Planet in Crisis
A powerful work of history, essay, testimony, and polemic, Amitav Ghosh’s new book traces our contemporary planetary crisis back to the discovery of the New World and the sea route to the Indian Ocean. The Nutmeg’s Curse argues that the dynamics of climate change today are rooted in a centuries-old geopolitical order constructed by Western colonialism. At the center of Ghosh’s narrative is the now-ubiquitous spice nutmeg. The history of the nutmeg is one of conquest and exploitation—of both human life and the natural environment. In Ghosh’s hands, the story of the nutmeg becomes a parable for our environmental crisis, revealing the ways human history has always been entangled with earthly materials such as spices, tea, sugarcane, opium, and fossil fuels. Our crisis, he shows, is ultimately the result of a mechanistic view of the earth, where nature exists only as a resource for humans to use for our own ends, rather than a force of its own, full of agency and meaning.
Writing against the backdrop of the global pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, Ghosh frames these historical stories in a way that connects our shared colonial histories with the deep inequality we see around us today. By interweaving discussions on everything from the global history of the oil trade to the migrant crisis and the animist spirituality of Indigenous communities around the world, The Nutmeg’s Curse offers a sharp critique of Western society and speaks to the profoundly remarkable ways in which human history is shaped by non-human forces.
"The effect of Ghosh’s archival research, far-flung travel reporting, deep thinking, and eloquent writing is at once enlightening and depressing. There are plenty of debates to be had with some of his analyses and conclusions, but I bet you will come away thinking he’s more right than he is wrong, and you will understand the climate catastrophe in a new way."
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
"Illuminating. . . . [Ghosh] wants us to reckon with broader structures of power, involving 'the physical subjugation of people and territory,' and, crucially, the 'idea of conquest, as a process of extraction.' The world-as-resource perspective not only depletes our environment of the raw materials we seek; it ultimately depletes it of meaning."
"Amitav Ghosh’s new masterwork. . . . The Nutmeg’s Curse is a very big book considering it weighs in at a relatively modest 336 pages. In exploring his theme Ghosh dives into Greek mythology, contemporary geopolitics, classic Dutch literature, American popular culture, the history of botanical science, all in addition to his primary focus, the colonization of several continents over several centuries. His gift for both narrative and exposition make The Nutmeg’s Curse compulsively readable."
"In his book The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, Ghosh weaves together travel writing, personal narrative, historical analysis, and synthesis of expansive scholarship to tell a story about Western empire and the extermination of our world. Ghosh does not deny the links between global capitalism, fossil fuel production, and our warming planet — he is intimately aware, in fact, of how fossil fuels dominate our lives. However, he follows theorists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Cedric Robinson, and C. L. R. James who argue that capitalist modernity is inseparable from the institutions and logics built through imperial violence toward racialized, colonized peoples."
Los Angeles Review of Books
"With literary precision, he delves into the history and culture of conquest, drawing a direct line from actions committed hundreds of years ago to the planet’s current predicament. A singular achievement and a title of its time, The Nutmeg’s Curse reminds us why the land is crying."
“A beautiful, harrowing historical essay about mass-mobilizing empathy as the way to undermine the centuries-old drive toward targeted extermination of entire peoples and communities out of greed for ever-more natural resources. Ghosh produced a work that reaches your brain and your heart with unforgettable analytic and moral clarity.”
Bloomberg, Essential Climate Change Book of the Year, 2021
"Topics such as climate change usually encourage looking into the future, but Amitav Ghosh’s captivating new book, The Nutmeg’s Curse, instead looks back in time, tracing the patterns that gave rise to climate change to the beginnings of colonialism and following those patterns all over the globe."
American Scientist, Gift Guide 2021
“Reading Amitav Ghosh’s work these last few years, I’ve felt an eerily exciting sense of gratitude. Someone else out there—someone way smarter and more erudite than me—appeared to be chasing the same demons that I was, searching out the beginnings of the climate crisis and the mass extinctions that now afflict our planet, finding them hiding in plain sight, in the converging axes of colonial conquest and capitalist extraction that continue to define our world. Ghosh’s latest, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, is a work of extraordinary breadth, depth, and brilliance.”
Ben Ehrenreich | Lit Hub
“In this brilliant book, aflame with insight and moral power, Ghosh shows that in the history of the nutmeg lies the path to our planetary crisis, twisting through the horrors of empire and racial capitalism. The Nutmeg’s Curse brings to life alternative visions of human flourishing in consonance with the rest of nature—and reminds us how great are the vested interests that obstruct them.”
Sunil Amrith, author of Unruly Waters
“What do you do when the subject matter of life on this planet seems to lack . . . life? You read The Nutmeg’s Curse, which eschews the leaden language of climate expertise in favor of the reanimating powers of mythology, etymology, and cosmology. Ghosh challenges readers to reckon with war, empire, and genocide in order to fully grasp the world-devouring logics that underpin ecological collapse. We owe a great debt to his brilliant mind, avenging pen, and huge soul. Do not miss this book—and above all, do not tell yourself that you already know its contents, because you don’t.”
Naomi Klein, author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
“The Nutmeg's Curse elegantly and audaciously reconceives modernity as a centuries-long campaign of omnicide, against the spirits of the earth, the rivers, the trees, and even the humble nutmeg, then makes an impassioned argument for the keen necessity of vitalist thought and non-human narrative. With sweeping historical perspective and startling insight, Ghosh has written a groundbreaking, visionary call to new forms of human life in the Anthropocene. An urgent and powerful book.”
Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
“It’s widely recognized that the climate crisis is multi-dimensional, yet American cultural conversations about it are mostly stuck in its scientific, technological, and economic dimensions. In this tour de force, Ghosh defiantly moves the conversation into the realms of history, politics, and culture, insisting that we will never resolve our planetary crisis until we acknowledge that the ‘great acceleration’ of the past fifty years is part of a larger historical pattern of omnicide.cFor centuries, the dominant global powers have seen Earth--its plants, its animals, and its non-white peoples—as brute objects: mute, without agency, and available for the taking and killing. The solution to the climate crisis, Ghosh insists, is not injecting particles into the stratosphere to block the sun, or even to build a bevy of solar farms (as important as the latter is). Rather, the solution lies in re-engaging with the vital aspects of life, in all its capaciousness, and in doing so move past our long history of destruction and into true sustainability.”
Naomi Oreskes, author of Science on a Mission
"Diagnosing our intricately inter-linked political, economic, and environmental crises, The Nutmeg’s Curse is a book like no other in its combination of moral passion, intellectual rigor, and literary elegance. And from its effortless synthesis of contemporary scholarship and indigenous knowledge systems emerges an irrefutable argument—that we must rethink our fundamental assumptions about human history."
Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger
Table of Contents
1. A Lamp Falls
2. “Burn Everywhere Their Dwellings”
3. “The Fruits of the Nutmeg Have Died”
5. “We Shall All Be Gone Shortly”
6. Bonds of Earth
7. Monstrous Gaia
8. Fossilized Forests
9. Choke Points
10. Father of All Things
12. A Fog of Numbers
13. War by Another Name
14. “The Divine Angel of Discontent”
16. “The Falling Sky”
18. A Vitalist Politics
19. Hidden Forces
In the case of the Banda Islands the gift of Gunung Api is a botanical species that has flourished on this tiny archipelago like nowhere else: the tree that produces both nutmeg and mace.
The trees and their offspring were of very different temperaments. The trees were home-loving and did not venture out of their native Maluku until the eighteenth century. Nutmegs and mace, on the other hand, were tireless travelers: how much so is easy to chart, simply because, before the eighteenth century, every single nutmeg and every shred of mace originated in, or around, the Bandas. So it follows that any mention of nutmeg or mace, in any text, anywhere, before the 1700s automatically establishes a link with the Bandas. In Chinese texts those mentions date back to the first century before the Common Era; in Latin texts the nutmeg appears a century later. But nutmegs had probably reached Europe and China long before writers thought to mention them in texts. This was certainly the case in India, where a carbonized nutmeg has been found in an archaeological site that dates back to 400–300 BCE. The first reliably dated textual mention (which is actually of mace) followed two or three centuries later...
As they made their way across the known world, nutmegs, mace, and other spices brought into being trading networks that stretched all the way across the Indian Ocean, reaching deep into Africa and Eurasia. The nodes and routes of these networks, and the people who were active in them, varied greatly over time, as kingdoms rose and fell, but for more than a millennium the voyages of the nutmeg remained remarkably consistent, growing steadily in both volume and value.
Apart from their culinary uses, nutmegs, cloves, pepper, and other spices were valued also for their medicinal properties. In the sixteenth century, the value of the nutmeg soared when doctors in Elizabethan England decided that the spice could be used to cure the plague, epidemics of which were then sweeping through Eurasia. In the late Middle Ages, nutmegs became so valuable in Europe that a handful could buy a house or a ship. So astronomical was the cost of spices in this era that it is impossible to account for their value in terms of utility alone. They were, in effect, fetishes, primordial forms of the commodity; they were valued because they had become envy-inducing symbols of luxury and wealth, conforming perfectly to Adam Smith’s insight that wealth is something that is “desired, not for the material satisfactions that it brings but because it is desired by others.”
Before the sixteenth century nutmegs reached Europe by changing hands many times, at many points of transit. The latter stages of their journey took them through Egypt, or the Levant, to Venice, which ran a tightly controlled monopoly on the European spice trade in the centuries leading up to the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama. Columbus himself hailed from Venice’s archrival, Genoa, where the Serene Republic’s monopoly on the Eastern trade had long been bitterly resented; it was in order to break the Venetian hold on the trade that the early European navigators set off on the journeys that led to the Americas and the Indian Ocean. Among their goals, one of the most important was to find the islands that were home to the nutmeg. The stakes were immense, for the navigators and for the monarchs who financed them: the spice race, it has been said, was the space race of its time…
Taking a nutmeg out of its fruit is like unearthing a tiny planet. Like a planet, the nutmeg is encased within a series of expanding spheres. There is, first of all, the fruit’s matte-brown skin, a kind of exosphere. Then there is the pale, perfumed flesh, growing denser toward the core, like a planet’s outer atmosphere. And when all the flesh has been stripped away you have in your hand a ball wrapped in what could be a stratosphere of fiery, crimson clouds: it is this fragrant outer sleeve that is known as mace. Stripping off the mace reveals yet another casing, a glossy, ridged, chocolate-colored carapace, which holds the nut inside like a protective troposphere. Only when this shell is cracked open do you have the nut in your palm, its surface clouded by matte-brown continents floating on patches of ivory...
Like a planet, a nutmeg too can never be seen in its entirety at one time. As with the moon, or any spherical (or quasi-spherical) object, a nutmeg has two hemispheres; when one is in the light, the other must be in darkness—for one to be seen by the human eye, the other must be hidden…
What possible bearing could the story of something as cheap and insignificant as the nutmeg have on the twenty-first century?
...The modern era, it is often asserted, has freed humanity from the Earth, and propelled it into a new age of progress in which human-made goods take precedence over natural products.
The trouble is that none of the above is true.
We are today even more dependent on botanical matter than we were three hundred years (or five hundred, or even five millennia) ago, and not just for our food. Most contemporary humans are completely dependent on energy that comes from long-buried carbon—and what are coal, oil, and natural gas except fossilized forms of botanical matter?
As for the circulation of goods, in that too fossil fuels vastly outweigh any category of human-made goods. In the words of two energy economists: “Energy is the most important commodity in the world today. And by almost any metric, the energy industry is impossibly large. Yearly energy sales at over 10 trillion dollars dwarf expenditures on any other single commodity; trade and transport of energy is immense with over 3 trillion dollars in international transactions driving product deliveries through 2 million kilometers of pipelines and 500 million deadweight tons of merchant shipping; 8 of the 10 largest global corporations are energy companies; and a third of the global shipping fleet is occupied shipping oil. Given these figures it may not be surprising that world energy consumption takes the energy equivalent of over 2800 barrels of oil per second to quench.” If we were to add up the sum total of all goods that were moving along the sea and land routes of the Middle Ages, we would probably find that manufactured articles, like porcelain and textiles, accounted for a greater proportion of trade then than they do now.
If we put aside the myth-making of modernity, in which humans are triumphantly free of material dependence on the planet, and acknowledge the reality of our ever-increasing servitude to the products of the Earth, then the story of the Bandanese no longer seems so distant from our present predicament. To the contrary, the continuities between the two are so pressing and powerful that it could even be said that the fate of the Banda Islands might be read as a template for the present, if only we knew how to tell that story.