The European powers were involved in bitter power struggles during the 17th century as they all vied for control of the international spice trade. Central to the constant conflict was the desire to gain access to the supply of nutmeg.
Nutmeg was valued for much more than its mere taste at that time and the aromatic spice was also considered an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen. Some people even wore small bags of nutmeg around their necks during the plague to ward off the disease, and whilst this seems merely superstitious by modern standards, it’s conceivable that nutmeg may have repelled the fleas that carried bacteria that caused the disease. A further example of the high value nutmeg had at the time was the 6000% mark up that some European traders were able to achieve by selling the coveted spice.
Nutmeg grows indigenously in the volcanic soils of the Indonesian Banda Islands and the islands were colonised first by the Portuguese in 1512 and subsequently by the Dutch in the 17th century so that they had principal access to the world’s supply of Nutmeg.
In order that they maintained their monopoly, the Dutch had to try and make sure they were the only nation growing nutmeg, but the British also had an influence in the area with their control of the tiny island of Pulau Run. The island, though small, had a plentiful supply of the spice and the Dutch were determined to see the British off in any way possible.
Meanwhile out in the west, things hadn’t been going quite as well for the Dutch as they had in the east. Dutch explorers enlisted the services of one Henry Hudson to help them find new locations with a plentiful supply of spices. During his voyage through North America, Hudson stumbled upon another tiny island at the mouth of the Hudson river that came to be called Manhattan.
Treaty of Breda
As Britain and The Netherlands engaged in numerous conflicts throughout the mid-17th century over control of the lucrative spice trade, things finally came to a head when the Dutch sailed an Armada of warships up the river Thames and destroyed a large part of the English fleet that was moored in The Medway. This defeat of the British resulted in the Treaty of Breda of 1667 and it made significant concessions to the Dutch such as granting them much greater freedom of trade across the seas.
The Dutch weren’t particularly interested in New Amsterdam’s Manhattan Island, so the country’s chief negotiator Johan de Witt exchanged the tiny island for the much more eagerly sought after Pulau Run in Indonesia which the British still controlled. The addition of Pulau Run to the Dutch portfolio of territory would finally give them the monopoly of nutmeg supply that they had sought for many years.
Unbeknownst to the Dutch however, Britain was no longer interested in keeping Pulau Run because they had found a way to cultivate nutmeg beyond the shores of the Banda Islands. As a direct result of not knowing how easy it was to grow nutmeg, Britain ended up with the bounty that was Manhattan and the Dutch monopoly was now worth little more than Old Kent Road on the board game of the same name.
The developmental trajectory of the two islands couldn’t be more different as modern day Manhattan now contains Times Square, whilst Pulau Run only has electricity for five hours a day.
In our opinion, Johan de Witt shouldn’t be too upset about handing over Manhattan simply because he wasn’t aware that nutmeg could be grown outside the Banda Islands. Our publisher Darcus White once bought a lottery ticket for an ex-girlfriend as a wind-up having spent a small fortune on the real present. Upon checking the numbers, his then-girlfriend realised she had inadvertently won the jackpot and proceeded to terminate the relationship whilst they were enjoying dinner together at her favourite restaurant. Despite now being a millionaire as a result of his tragic attempt at humour, she still left half way through the main course without offering to pay the bill!