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There’s an old song by They Might Be Giants (originally by Canada’s The Four Lads, in 1953) that goes:

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it, I can’t say
People just liked it better that way

It’s a catchy tune, but rock bands aren’t known for their historical accuracy. It’s not like the citizens of New Amsterdam held a town meeting and said, “Hey, let’s rename the settlement.”

The real story of Manhattan’s switch from New Amsterdam to New York is somewhat more complicated. A little bloodier, too. And much, much spicier.

Going Dutch, colonial style

Chances are you already know that the United States started out as a small group of colonies called New England. What’s less well-known, though, is that the English weren’t the only ones with dreams of colonial grandeur. The Dutch Republic wanted some of that action, too.

Around the time English settlers were putting down roots in places like Virginia and Massachusetts, there was another colony taking shape in what is now New York. Or, as they called it back then, New Netherland.

New Amsterdam, the capital of this Dutch colony, was on the southern tip of an island called Manhattan. Perhaps you’ve heard of it, arguably the most famous of New York City’s five boroughs. Home to Central Park, Broadway, Wall Street, and all that.

Now, the English didn’t appreciate the Dutch muscling in on their turf. So, in 1664, four English ships landed in New Amsterdam and demanded that New Netherland surrender.

Long story short, the Dutch surrendered without firing a shot, and, in a New York minute, England re-christened the settlement in honor of the Duke of York.

What’s in a name change?

Back in Old Netherland, the fall of New Netherland didn’t go over well, and it kicked off what we now call the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

The Anglo-Dutch Wars were a series of on-again, off-again conflicts ranging from the 1650s to the 1780s, with later flare-ups coinciding with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. England and the Dutch Republic both wanted to establish dominance over shipping routes between Europe and the rest of the world. The Anglo-Dutch Wars were how they settled this disagreement.

Think of these conflicts as international trade disputes — in which each side had a big navy and wasn’t afraid to use it.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War lasted two years, from 1665 to 1667, with an estimated joint loss of 52 ships. Over 12,000 men lost their lives.

The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Breda, leaving Manhattan under English rule. In exchange, England conceded to the Dutch the South Pacific Island of Run.

So, where the hell is Run?

If you’re like me before I wrote this, you’ve never heard of Run. No worries, let me clear it up for you.

Run is the westernmost of the Banda Islands, a small chain in the Maluku Islands, now part of Indonesia. If you look up a map of Maluku, the Banda Islands are this tiny cluster right in the middle. Run itself is almost invisible.

Credit: Lencer via Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Today, the Island of Run has a population of about 1,000 people. And much like TV’s “Gilligan’s Island,” there are no phones, no motorcars. And lights? They’re only on for a few hours every evening. After that, the power grid is shut down island-wide.

The island is the geographical and cultural polar opposite of Manhattan. You want to wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep? Look elsewhere.

Run Island. Photo Credit: polapix via flickr/CC BY-SA.20

If you go looking for information about Run online, you’ll likely learn three things:

  1. It’s really small,
  2. It was the Dutch Republic’s consolation prize for giving up Manhattan, and
  3. They grow a lot of nutmeg there.

So, what were the Dutch smoking?

Humans are amazing at making snap decisions, at extrapolating the broad view from the briefest glimpse. Humans see a pattern emerge that reminds them of something else, and — bam — they know exactly what’s going on. And all without a single conscious thought.

It’s a talent that’s served us well in the past. With a single glance, we can draw innumerable conclusions about our environment. What a lovely day. Such a warm smile. Oh crap, a tiger!

It’s this same talent that allows us to look at the terms of the Treaty of Breda and say, Something’s fishy here. The Netherlands got a raw deal. The Dutch delegation must have been outside taking a whiz when the English snuck in that clause.

But coming to that conclusion would be a blunder. Because some snap decisions about events in the past don’t stand up when you commit the sin of presentism.

Present-what-ism?

I had this high school history teacher, Mr. Egan, who often warned us not to judge the past through the lens of the present.

Poetic, right?

I’m sure he stole it from somewhere. But the point he was making is this: if we judge the past by today’s standards, we’ll likely get something wrong.

And when people look at the Second Anglo-Dutch War and at the Treaty of Breda, they usually get it way wrong.

The spice must flow

There are five facts you should know to get a clearer understanding of what happened in New Amsterdam over 350 years ago.

The first fact is that the spice trade was the primary driver of the global economy.

Yup. Spices.

Today, we take spices for granted. Every kitchen has a spice rack, or a well-stocked pantry. Should we run out of anything, every grocery store has a wide variety of spices to choose from at very reasonable prices.

But spice prices weren’t so reasonable in the 17th century. In fact, there’s an old French saying that goes something like this: You can buy a serf’s freedom for a pound of pepper.

Let that sink in for a minute. You could buy a person’s way out of a lifetime of indentured servitude with an item we can grab at the supermarket for $12.98.

Spices typically grow best in warm, non-European locales, which means that a lot of time and effort was spent just getting spices to Europe — thereby driving up the price.

Case in point: Marco Polo’s first overland journey to Asia took 24 years.

Sure, sailing cut that time down considerably. But then you had to factor in problems like scurvy. If it took 50 men to crew ship properly, you’d hire 75. Chances were you’d lose a third of your crew to sickness and death along the way.

Why the Dutch were in Manhattan to begin with

The second fact to know is that Europe’s primary interest in the Americas was not settlement and not the fur trade. Europe was trying to figure out how to get around America. All that rock was impeding the fabled western passage to Asia — and all its spices.

Sensing a theme?

That’s why most early European settlements in North America sprang up along rivers. Colonizers still hoped that if they went up the rivers far enough they’d pop out the other side of the continent and hop on over to Asia.

That’s why the French were exploring the St. Lawrence and why the Dutch had their hopes set on the Hudson. If not for the fervent exploration of the Hudson, Europeans wouldn’t have had much reason to settle Manhattan at all.

The economics of nutmeg

The third fact to know is that of all the high-demand, low-supply, overpriced spices, nutmeg was king. It was the most precious spice on earth from kingdom to kitchen.

I’m not knocking it. It’s the secret ingredient in my homemade pancakes. It does a stand-up job dusted over eggnog. I wouldn’t want to imagine pumpkin pie without it. In the 1660s, though, nutmeg ruled the world.

It was literally worth its weight in gold. Incidentally, I looked up the price of gold, and, at the time of this writing, it’s trading over $1,250 an ounce. That would make the average quarter-ounce nutmeg seed worth over $300 — if its value from 350 years ago held up today.

I don’t know about you, but if they figure out time travel in my lifetime, I’m stuffing two duffle bags with nutmeg seeds, going back to the 17th century, and buying up real estate.

Nutmeg was so highly valued that there was even counterfeiting. Less-than-virtuous traders would whittle down ordinary wood and polish it until it resembled a nutmeg seed.

Because most of the counterfeiting occurred in Connecticut, today we call it the Nutmeg State. To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only intentionally ironic — if only unofficially — state motto in America.

So why was nutmeg so valuable? Well, the fourth fact you need to know is that in those days nutmeg didn’t grow just anywhere. In fact, as luck would have it, nutmeg trees only flourished in one area: the Banda Islands, where you’ll find Run.

Scarcity does wonders for the laws of supply and demand.

Not quite what you were expecting?

The fifth and final fact you need to know is that England lost the war and was in no position to dictate the terms of the Treaty of Breda.

But wait, you say. Once your navy has defeated the Spanish Armada, you’re downright invincible and the high seas are yours for the taking, right?

Well, usually you’d be right. But not this time, I’m afraid.

The Dutch won a decisive victory at the Battle of Medway — in 1667 — giving them near-total control of England’s coastal waterways. All this on the heels of a devastating bubonic plague outbreak and the Great Fire of London? The English had no choice but to sue for peace.

So, Holland dictated the terms of the treaty, and they got exactly what they wanted. They gave up all claims to New Amsterdam. No big deal. The Hudson River wouldn’t take anyone to Asia and the fur trade — the only real industry New York had going for it at the time — although lucrative, would never be worth its weight in gold.

After the Treaty of Breda

Holland went into the war already controlling most of the Banda Islands. All but Run, to be precise. By the end of the hostilities, the Dutch had an exclusive monopoly over the most expensive spice on the planet. A nutmeg-opoly, if you will. And they held onto it until 1810. (At which time, the British used the Napoleonic Wars as an opportunity to capture Run’s neighbor, Banda Neira. They then shipped nutmeg trees to tropical parts of the British Empire, such as modern day Sri Lanka, effectively killing the Dutch nutmeg-opoly.)

That’s 143 years of nutmeg domination.

Or, 34 years longer than England held onto New England. Not a great bargain for the English after all.

And that’s why snap decisions can only take us so far. They work wonders helping us assess our immediate surroundings — the here and now. But the further back we look, the more our snap decisions fall apart.

The Second Anglo-Dutch War was only 350 years ago — a mere hiccup in the course of human evolution. But once you consider the economy of the day — when you stop viewing the past through the lens of the present — you see a whole new world emerge. A world in which little old Run is way more lucrative than big-city Manhattan.

Just for fun:

  • YouTube: Istanbul (Not Constantinople) by They Might be Giants
  • YouTube: New Amsterdam by Elvis Costello

Note: The original version of this story stated that James, Duke of York and the future James II personally led the English attack on New Amsterdam. I have no idea how this bit of misinformation made it into my notes, but I was wrong. Thanks to all who caught my error.