June 2024, 2nd: Trade Wins

The Dutch are rumoured to be pretty cool cats on the whole. But I bet you they are still stewing over the detail of a deal done back in the day, whereby they thought they were getting a good trade. In the 1660’s the Treaty of Breda was devised. It punctuated a tiresome war between the English and the Dutch, and set up new trade routes; strengthened the sensible right regal rule of Charles II and paved the way for Britain to become a future economic world power. To sweeten the deal, they added a small clause, that technically brought about the British, swapping the tiny Island of Run, in the Banda group of islands of Indonesia, for the Dutch owned, swampy mess of an island on the east coast of the new world, called Manahatta. History shows that this island was ‘bought’ from the local Lenape natives. We’ll leave that to the imagination. Not seeing the potential of the location and having no foresight whatsoever, the Dutch gladly traded it to the British for an island, smaller than the terminal footprint at Heathrow airport, that grew nutmeg of all things. This was thought to be a great deal for a nation that had taken seventeenth century trade to new heights. The Dutch East India Company was a titan of its day. It was so wealthy and powerful that it had its own naval fleet. A corporation with its own armed forces.
We all know what happened to Manahatta. New Amsterdam became New York and Manhattan Island became one of the most famous and profitable bits of real estate on the planet. But why was nutmeg such a catch? The spice trade is a fascinating linchpin in human history. It can be argued that it birthed our modern economic systems, brought about the slave trade and spurred on explorer’s who found new lands and better ways to navigate the ocean’s. We take spice for granted these days, and we probably all have an out-of-date spice jar in our larder. Back in the seventeenth century, it was as valuable as gold. The dastardly Dutch East India Company, paid only pennies for this little nut, then inflate the price to the moon and back for the eager, drooling aristocrats back home. Spice was a status symbol; being rare and exotic from far off lands, they reflected their adventurous spirit, though more importantly, their wealth and social standing.
Nutmeg, Myristica fragrans, is an attractive evergreen with magnolia like leaves that grows to 18 metres. The fruit contains the nutmeg seed surrounded by the lacy aril of its sister spice, mace. Mace can be used to treat diarrhoea and other gastric upsets. It treats kidney stones and infections. Nutmeg is a marvellous little nut. It has antibacterial and antioxidant properties; helps balance out blood sugars, staves off liver and heart disease; cancers and aging. It strengthens immunity. It is rich in vitamin A and C and that magnificent mineral, magnesium. Take too much nutmeg and you may be treated to hallucinations from its highly toxic effects. Apart from adding depth of flavour to routine foods and giving a ping to the Christmas eggnog, its main benefit is to promote relaxation and sleep. May we presume the Dutch were partaking in too much nutmeg and were quite relaxed or existentially effected when making the final details of the Treaty of Breda. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote nutmeg was “the most coveted luxury in seventeenth-century Europe, a spice held to have such medicinal properties that men would risk their lives to acquire it.” In a plague ravished Europe, one can imagine the urgency to obtain such a promising treasure.
In the seventeen century the black death decimated the populations of Europe. Here, the Dutch pepper English history once more. The great plague of 1665 brought London to its knees. The Dutch being the only ships willing to sail up the Thames to bring in supplies; hence the phrase, Dutch courage. The supplies they brought, in turn, being a consequence of the Treaty of Breda; a change to trade allowing the Dutch to use the trade route along the Rhine River. Along the plague theme; ring-a-ring of roses a pocket full of posies. This cheerful children’s rhyme nods to a darker meaning. People believed pleasant smells combated this cursed disease. Mace being used as an olfactory middle note in perfumes, I like to think the aromatic aril played a role in the plague doctors’ arsenal. It may have been packed in to the eerie snouts of the plague doctor’s masks that they wore. Spices were the drug trade of their day. Maybe trading a blip of an island, that you are hard pressed to find on google maps, for Manhattan, wasn’t such a crummy deal after all.

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