Manhattan: Worth its Weight in Nutmeg? By Daniel E Carpenter

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sure this is not a new story, but it sounds more like a myth than a fact, but it is actually one of the most fascinating trades in international history. This tale contains the most compelling historical accounts of three dominant nations’ pasts, which would make any history class start paying attention and beg for homework.

Which is why I (Daniel E Carpenter by the way) decided to spend a whole 48 hours writing about this interesting part of US history.

The Dutch in Colonial North America

While the English are the most known about colonials in American history, since they hung on to the most substantial portions of control through the fight for independence, there were many other European countries fighting over the land in the US pioneering years.

Early settlers included a number of countries, the most dominant being Dutch, English, French, and Spain. However, the Dutch had put a thorn in the side of the English dominated West coast territories. Manhattan, then New-Amsterdam the capital of the Dutch colonies, was smack in the middle of English territory.

This combined with their history of antagonism over trading routes had the English hopping mad.

A Long History of Battles

The English and the Dutch had a long history of disputes. Battles were usually motivated by economic interests, both the parties had a strong desire for dominance in the expanding international trade routes into Europe.

The development of shipping capacities had viable countries sparring to win control of foreign ports and cargos, and the old rivals were no exception.

The Anglo-Dutch wars spread over the period from the 1650s to 1810, with four specific battles between the Dutch and the English, and extended through the Dutch-English revolution, the French revolution, and the Napoleonic wars.

These conflicts were a little like aggressively fought international trade disputes. Each side had a seemingly huge somewhat disposable Naval force and wasn’t afraid to use it.

Deaths on trade missions were only slightly lower than deaths in battle, so it wasn’t a big deal, although looking back, it came at significant cost to both sides.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War

Tightening nationalistic policy on trade routes in England, unsurprisingly, was the catalyst leading up to the second Anglo-Dutch war. The seizure of Manhattan by the British was one of the first casualties of the Dutch, an early victory for the English in the adventure.

The Dutch who controlled Manhattan, had no troops to fight back at that time since most were deployed in battles closer to home, they surrendered without bloodshed. When the homeland heard about it, they were determined to fight back, and it was all out war, literally.

The war lasted only two years, from 1665 to 1667, with an estimated joint loss of 52 ships and 12,000 men. With trade routes, over the years, losses of life hadn’t been much better. Of the first 12 boats send out by British East India Company in the sixteenth century, only 8 made it.

From piracy, natural disasters at sea, to scurvy and malnutrition, expected losses on successful trips could be up to a third of the crew, on average at least one fifth. On the open ocean losses, whether in war or trade, were pretty standard.

The Treaty of Breda

The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Breda, exchanging New York for the tiny South Pacific island of Run. The infamous trade, whereupon Manhattan is now correctly quoted as being given away for a bit of nutmeg.

The treaty did, in fact, surrender Manhattan, which was occupied by the British at the beginning of the war, for Dutch coveted island Run in the Banda islands, which are now part of Indonesia.

So Why Did the Dutch Give Up Manhattan for Nutmeg?

Were the Dutch really totally swindled? Or is there more to the deal than meets the eye?

While Run is not much today, a bit of nutmeg was far more exciting in the 17th century. For those of you thinking the Dutch got the short end of the stick, the truth is more intricate and possibly much further from this assumption.

The Dutch empire was renowned for being economically astute so we might have to concede that they weren’t entirely duped, like some of the natives at the time, into swapping their prime land for some spices.

The Last Standpoint in Banda

The British had for some time been fending off the Dutch in Run, and an ongoing battle for possession was fought over the tiny island. This was infuriating the Dutch in their clamor to become king of the spice trade routes.

The notorious Dutch commander Jan Coen, had rather ruthlessly enslaved the Banda Islands, forming Dutch East India, now a part of Indonesia. All that is except for the island of Run.

A British Captain, Nathaniel Corthope, makes a heroic last stand, defending Run against all odds, so the tiny island remained a thorn in the side of the Dutch for unimpeded trade routes in the South Pacific spice regions.

Spice Trades

The next history lesson is about the role of technology, economics, and science in international treaties.

Thinking about the value of spices today, it intrigues most of us why they were so valuable back in the middle ages. Between the 12th and 17th centuries, spices drove the European economies, demanding increasingly exorbitant rates.

In essence, there was short supply and large demand (economics), since spices were tasty condiments, preservatives, and pharmaceuticals all in one (technology and science).

Spices only grew well in warm climates and needed manual labor to produce, again related to the technology of the time. Their availability of spices in Europe was extremely scarce.

The difficulty of getting spices back from areas where they grew prolifically meant the supply was extremely short.

What About Demand?

Now technology comes in. We can’t understand how different food needs were before refrigeration. Spices, including nutmeg, both preserved and added flavor to make precious commodities such as fresh meat and vegetable last much longer and taste better.

In the days before medicine became an established science, spices also seemed to provide a cure for many ailments, which drove up the prices. The herbs we now know contain many essential minerals and vitamins that may have been lacking in diets where fresh produce asides from starch and grains were costly with short shelf lives.

Because of short supply and huge demand, and their status with the culinary desires of the more well-off Europeans, back to economics, prices for spices kept rising.

Nutmeg Gold

Nutmeg, alongside other spices, was a powerful preservative for meats and pickles, and adding flavor to stews making not so fresh food last so much longer, and taste so much better. As far as medicinal properties in spices known about at the time, nutmeg was an anti-inflammatory spice with high nutritional qualities and was a reliable cure for many common diseases.

The expected markup on nutmeg from getting it back to Europe could be as much as 600 times, that’s 60000%. Ten pounds of nutmeg could be bought or harvested for around a penny in the Banda islands and would sell for around 2 pounds 10 shillings at the peak of the mid 17th century, with a pound in those days having 240 shillings. While the price of nutmeg was still far lower than an ounce of gold at the time around 4 pounds, the comparable profit, if one could control the source, made it a far more worthwhile commodity.

This didn’t take into consideration the cost of shipping of course. Once adjusted for transport, the booty was still pretty large and could set up a sailor for life, making it worth risking one for most.

The spice trade added to the early Dutch economic prowess, with the Dutch East India Trading Company one of the first successful state-backed commercial entities, and why they felt it was worth fighting over.

A Fair Trade?

Did the Dutch get a fair trade? We have to look at this from a couple of different angles.

Like any prospecting, one can only determine if a wager is successful once you see what was won.

Gaining control over the Banda islands meant the Dutch gained control of the Nutmeg trade.

Run Island Photo Courtesy Of Wikipedia

This situation was maintained until the Napoleonic wars when the British managed to secure and replant nutmeg trees in Sri Lanka and India. The ultimate revenge. Making Nutmeg almost worthless.

A period of some 140 odd years of monopoly, or nutmeg-opoly, where they dominated spice trade routes and hence dominated the spice trade.

In the opinion of the Dutch at that time, while Run was a valuable spice source, Manhattan was viewed as merely a fur trading post, and not even worth worrying about.

The English won Manhattan, which they had already renamed New York after their first occupation. Over history, it was relatively short-lived. The British evacuated, defeated in 1783, following the close of American Revolutionary War.

Worth more than Nutmeg?

However, let’s get back to the battle between the English and the Dutch.

Who Actually Won the War?

Finally, and we’re leaving the best part of the story to last, who was it that dictated the terms in the Treaty of Breda? Believe it or not, it was the Dutch.

The British empire was still reeling from their losses in the first Anglo-Dutch war. Their failure to gain control over spice routes and the need to use their ships in the fight against the Dutch meant income was scarce. At the same time, the great fire of London and the ensuing spread of bubonic plague had their empire practically in tatters. So despite previous naval superiority, the English conceded to the Dutch in 1667, to preserve what little economy they had left.

The Dutch felt their victory of gaining back Run, as well as the lesser spoken about reward that full control of the sugar plantations of Suriname, which they added to sweeten the deal (pun intended), were an all-out victory. The British had little to say but accept.

The Brits won New York, but then not too much later lost it to another bunch of mainly Brits that didn’t want to pay taxes to The King. American Independence was born.

So, of course, The USA had won the war. Yay.

The Tale of Two Towns

While comparing it today, one might think that the Dutch swapped prime real estate, one of the most influential cities in the world, for an island with a population no bigger than a village which has electricity for only 5 hours a day. Without all the facts, you’d think they’d been fooled. As you can see, the spice wars tell a different story. One of superior prospecting.

The Dutch, known for their commerce and sound business sense, had a long Run (sorry just had to, forgive my weak humor!) on dominating the nutmeg trade, lasting around 35 years longer than when the English rule over New York. Run was later returned to Indonesia, but only after the Dutch had concluded with the trade, moving on to tulips, as new sources for the spice emerged.

Sadly the success of nutmeg elsewhere has left Run an impoverished village, while the strategic position of New York in the new world left it a booming force to be recognized. Nothing to do with the individual success of their respective owners.

So next time you’re adding nutmeg to your pumpkin pie, or curry, don’t tell me you’re not going to start musing a little about all the trade and war in the name of the little spice, and how it bought New York.

Daniel E Carpenter is a Seindfeld buff, a father of two, a husband of one and shares a house with two German Shepherds.