Today, nutmeg is a commonly used spice around the world. However, few people are aware of the international conflicts and blood shed that surrounded the early years of its trade and rise to popularity.
The spice is obtained from the nutmeg tree that is native to the Banda Islands in the Moluccas of Indonesia. Until the mid-19th century, these islands were the only source of nutmeg in the world. Today, the nutmeg tree is grown in many parts of the world.
For example, about 40 percent of the world's annual crop of nutmeg comes from the island of Grenada. Its importance to this island is so great that the nutmeg seed has an honored place on the national flag.
The use of nutmeg by humans goes back at least 3,500 years ago. Archeologists have detected residues of nutmeg on pottery shards collected from sites at Pulau Ay in the Banda Islands. Researchers were unable to determine if it had been used as a spice to flavor food, as a preservative agent or for medicinal purposes.
In the Middle Ages, nutmeg was traded by the Arabs and sold to the Venetians for huge profits. Wealthy people in Europe, who coveted nutmeg for its warm and comforting flavor, as well as its other perceived medicinal properties, provided a huge market and the spice became worth more than its weight in gold. These early traders did not disclose the location of their source.
However, in 1511 the Portuguese discovered that the Banda Islands were the source and broke the Arab monopoly on the spice trade. The Portuguese couldn't physically control the islands, but they could purchase nutmeg at a reasonable price from the local growers.
Around 1615, the Dutch and British fought numerous battles over control of several of the Banda Islands. Later, the Dutch East India Company waged a bloody battle with the Bandanese in 1621 in order to gain a monopoly in the production and trade of nutmeg. The British were still in the picture. During a time period when they had control of one of the Banda Islands, they transplanted a number of nutmeg trees on other islands that they had colonized (e.g. Grenada, Ceylon and Singapore). Thus, nutmeg trees were now growing in many parts of the world, and the monopoly was forever broken.