The Violent, Vicious, Totally World-Altering History of…Pumpkin Spice?

Your pie has a secret! A dark one.
medea_materialCC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg.   This spice blend, known today as Pumpkin Spice, conjures up thoughts of wholesome fall fun – corn mazes, trick or treating, walking on crisp fall days and of course, that American Thanksgiving favorite, pumpkin pie.  American people’s love for the pleasing, nostalgia-inducing taste of this spice blend means you can drink it as a beverage, eat it in baked goods from granola bars to Oreos, and even use it in soap, shampoo, and.. FISHING LURES? Pumpkin pie spice conjures memories that are wholesome and sweet, and people’s obsession with it often generates some good-humored mockery.  But what’s REALLY in that latte you’re enjoying?  The origin of pumpkin spice isn’t so sweet, but it’s definitely spicy!  About 500 years ago, the drive to obtain the spices in your pumpkin spice Cheerios was one of the most consequential moments in human history.  Your Thanksgiving pie comes with an incredible legacy –under that dollop of whipped cream is the beginning of the modern age, shocking levels of violence, and even the origin of The United States of America itself.

An innocent nutmeg just doing its thing. The brown nut inside the fruit is ground for Nutmeg. The red membrane is another spice known as Mace.

Nutmeg in particular has a large slice of history’s pie.  In the European Middle Ages, exotic nutmeg was the ultimate status good, worth much more than its weight in gold.  People used it as an aphrodisiac, and it was thought especially good for warding off the plague, but no one had any idea where it came from.  One of the main reasons for all of the bold sailing voyages of the “European Age of Discovery” was to find the sources of the nutmeg that Europeans craved.   In the process, Europeans reached and began to colonize places as far-flung as The Americas and Australia, initiating the early modern age and laying the foundations for our current globalized world.  Nutmeg is native to a place called the Banda Archipelago, in Eastern Indonesia.  In the 1500’s, first the Portuguese, then the Dutch showed up there, seeking this spice that was more precious than gold. They were willing to do anything to secure it.

The tiny Banda Archipelago is part of modern Indonesia’s Malluku Province, seen here in red.

The native people of Banda had been building their trading empire with Asia for centuries, and were wealthy and well organized, but they did not count on the lengths the Dutch would go to for profit.  To ensure a monopoly over the Nutmeg trade, the Dutch massacred almost the entire population of The Bandas, keeping only a few as slaves to work the nutmeg orchards.  This marked the start of centuries of deadly, often genocidal war between the Dutch and Indonesian people. The Dutch, however, were much more disturbed by the presence of some ragtag Englishmen who were claiming a tiny island in the archipelago, Run, for England.  Both the English and the Dutch in Indonesia were some of the toughest, wiliest, most skilled fighters either kingdom had to offer.  The fighting between them was brutal, often with many innocent native Indonesian lives as collateral.  Giles Morton’s amazing book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, describes the swashbuckling, and tremendously consequential, battles for The Bandas in detail.

The Island of Run today.
Georg Holderied from Basel, SwitzerlandCC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To maintain their monopoly, and shake those pesky English, the Dutch eventually offered an island-swap for peace.  In exchange for Run and the nutmeg monopoly, in 1667 the English were given a much less important and less profitable island held by the Dutch:  New Amsterdam, otherwise known as Manhattan Island.  New Amsterdam became New York, the English presence in North America was firmly established, and the rest, as they say, is history.  Eventually the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg was lost, and their hard-won empire in Indonesia began to crumble.  Nutmeg and its Indonesian cousin, cloves, became cheap enough to drink and eat every day.  New York, and indeed the entire country of the United States would have been vastly different – or never even existed at all — without pumpkin spice.  If someone makes fun of you for eating your 4th pumpkin spice pop tart of the day, now you can let them know that it’s not trendy junk food, it’s one of the most important substances in modern history.

The Island of Manhattan today.

Sources and Further Reading:

Pumpkin Spice in food: https://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/packages/food-goals/food-goals-photos/pumpkin-spice-product-guide

Pumpkin Spice in OTHER things: https://www.foodnetwork.com/fn-dish/news/2018/10/non-food-pumpkin-spice-products

Nutmeg History and Use Overview: https://www.myspicer.com/history-of-nutmeg/

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOfB88NHO0Y

Video Journey to the Spice Islands:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bovUA3haHgk

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.