It was the early 1600s and Martijn Sonck, an official of the Dutch East India Company, was in Selamon, a village in the Banda archipelago, some 2,000km from Java.
Martijn was not alone. With a sizeable number of troops he was waiting for an opportune moment to take over the village. That moment would present itself as a spark, a spark that would explode into a conflagration scorching the very history of the islanders and the region.
Showing little mercy, the avaricious invaders using force and threats to terrify the islanders forcing them to flee into the jungles or neighbouring islands; those who resist are butchered. The Dutch plan: to take control of the invaluable trees on the island – trees that produced the most valuable spice in the world at the time: nutmeg and mace. (In the Middle Ages, nutmeg was so valuable, a handful could buy a house or a ship.)
Some records say that the entire population of the Banda islands before the conquest was around 15,000; barely 1,000 islanders survived the conquest.
Amitav Ghosh, the first English language writer to be conferred with the Jnanpith Award in 2018, opens his latest book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, painting a shocking picture of the horrendous bloodshed that took place on the island – all for gaining access to a highly-prized botanical product produced by what the Bandanese regard as "the tree of life".
The author uses the colonialists’ obsession for nutmeg – a spice with a distinctive flavour and aroma – to pepper his arguments linking colonialism to climate change and more.
Powerfully and seamlessly weaving history with geography, botany, testimony and polemic against the colonial mindset that thought nothing of using means fair or foul to exploit people and natural resources, Amitav’s book makes it clear that ecological devastation (and it’s result, climate crisis) is an issue that continues to dominate today’s global geopolitics.
But if the battles between European powers to gain a foothold in the spice trade laid bare the unadulterated greed they had for the natural resources in the Orient, the colonialists also paved a bloody way into the hinterlands of several countries destroying cultures, erasing heritages and rewriting history in favour of the victors.
"Subdue," writes the author in The Nutmeg’s Curse, "was a key word in these conquests, recurring again and again in reference to not just human beings, but also terrain."
Intrigued by the title of his book, I ask the author whether it was just nutmeg or was it spices in general that carried a curse.
"I wouldn’t say all spices," says Amitav, in an exclusive interview to Friday on the eve of his visit to the Sharjah International Book Fair. "Pepper, for instance, was grown in great abundance in places like Kerala, the Western Coast and in Bengal where the people were capable of defending themselves. In none of these places did the Dutch or the Portuguese try to do anything like they did in the Banda islands."
The Kolkatta-born author who grew up in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, says that what happened on the Banda islands was exceptional in that it was not the normal way in which European colonialism proceeded in Asia. "[The Banda massacre] was something [colonialists] did much more in the Americas… this kind of extermination on a large sale. They were practising those massacres in North America and they employed the tactic in the Banda islands."
The islands in question are very small not just population-wise but geographically too – you can literally walk across the largest island in half a day. The fact that they were isolated presented an opportunity for the Dutch East India Company to carry out the carnage, he believes.
How come the Banda incident is not written about or discussed as seriously as it should be? I ask.
The Padmashri and Sahitya Akademi award winner takes a deep breath. "History is written by victors," he says, a hint of a sigh noticeable. "And the reality is that until recently, the West was completely dominant in not just the political and geopolitical [spheres] but also in terms of the production of knowledge… intellectual works of all kinds." The fact that Indonesia was under Dutch domination for long could also be a reason this story is so little known, he believes. "However, there has been a major shift since the 1980s. Today more and more stories like this are coming out."
If once upon a time spices were the magnets that attracted conquerors, over the years they have gone on to sink their talons deep, plundering the depths of the earth to extract fossil fuels, among other things, to fuel their unquenchable desire for economic and commercial supremacy, his works make it clear. "The real continuity between natural resources of those days and the so-called natural resources of today is that there are all ultimately botanical products," says the US-based author.
According to Amitav, the Industrial Revolution was not just a story of switching to fossil fuels or using coal-powered machines. "In fact, many factories at the time were working on wind or water power," he says, evident from the fact that mills in Holland, England or in New England were almost always located close to a river. Water or wind energy was just as efficient as coal to power machines, but the latter was better suited to the interests of industrialists because coal could be mined "and kept in your warehouse whereas… wind and water power cannot be appropriated".
So, the reason coal became dominant in the 19th century is not because it was technologically superior but simply because it suited the interests of the dominant class, he says.
The same was true of oil, he goes on. "In the early 20th century the US and the UK spearheaded a global shift from coal power to oil because oil offers many geopolitical advantages."
Industrialism, the 66-year-old author says, was pioneered by the West. "They have the greatest responsibility for it. Today they point fingers at India and China [for being major producers of greenhouse gases]. But... you cannot look at greenhouse gases without looking at extended periods of time because once these gases end up in the atmosphere they remain there for a very long time. So you cannot take this problem out of history; you cannot say this is happening just today."
To drive home the point, he says: "The per capita carbon foot print of the average Indian or Chinese person is much smaller, compared to that of an American or Australian."
A 2019 report by the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research seconds his finding: The US’s share in global emissions is three times greater than its share in global population making it one of the largest per capita emitters of CO2, greater than even India’s share in emissions.
He points to the visible impacts of climate change – the devastating cyclones that are wreaking havoc in several parts of Asia. "We are in a moment when things are changing fast," he says.
Although the climate crisis is clearly evident, why are we refusing to see the writing on the wall? I ask him.
"Talks on climate crisis often get mixed up with several other issues," says Amitav. "All that ends up happening is a lot of brain washing. Even the Glasgow summit is going to be about brain washing."
The author of 17 books including The Circle of Reason and The Calcutta Chromosome, is not hopeful of anything positive emerging from such summits. "I’m not an optimist of these international meetings," he says. "I think we have had them for 30 years and they have failed to deliver at every level. When [the dignitaries] sign treaties they also unsign them... they walk away from them. So, it’s very hard to be optimistic about these things."
However, what the 65-year-old is optimistic about is the youth of today. "Young people understand in a way that really my generation has failed to understand – the urgency and the immediacy of what is happening around us. Many young people around the world are giving up the consumerist lifestyle; that is one thing to be optimistic about."
I gently nudge the author back to The Nutmeg’s Curse and ask him what the challenges were in writing this book.
"I decided to write this book in early 2020 just as the pandemic was starting and immediately after finishing Jungle Nama," says the author. A verse adaptation of an episode from a popular tale in the villages of the Sunderbans (which was at the heart of his earlier novel The Hungry Tide), Jungle Nama celebrates the values of living in an inclusive world and respecting nature. The legend underscores the importance of preserving a balance between the needs of humans and those of other beings.
Clearly, Jungle Nama and The Hungry Tide nicely dovetail into The Nutmeg’s Curse. "Even at the time I was writing The Hungry Tide I could see the impact of climate change on the Sunderbans. You could notice the change in sea levels, the salinity in the water…"
As we come to the end of the interview, I am reminded of Amitav’s words at a lecture at the Rice University that perhaps perfectly sums up the situation the world is in today:
"[W]hen we look back on the trajectory that has brought us to the brink of a planetary catastrophe, we cannot but recognise that our plight is a consequence of the ways in which certain classes of humans, a very small minority in fact, have actively neutered others by representing them as brutes – creatures whose presence on Earth is solely the theory.
"It was because of these assumptions that it was taken for granted that the greater part of humanity was intellectually and culturally incapable of industrializing, and that delusion is itself an essential component of the catastrophe that is now unfolding across the planet."
Amitav Ghosh will be speaking at Sharjah International Book fair today (Friday, November 12) at the Intellectual Hall at 8.30pm.