The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, is celebrated writer Amitav Ghosh’s latest offering on the perils of the current climatic context we find ourselves in, its roots with the past, and our undeniable reliance on nature for survival. Out in October, it follows after ‘The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable’ written by Ghosh in 2016. Which was acclaimed for its prowess in calling out the world of art and literature, for failing to bring climate change & our ecological crisis to common parlance and public consciousness.
Ghosh, who won the Jnanpith Award in 2018, employs the nutmeg as the unconventional protagonist in his new work. One that gets transformed into a commodity through Europe’s colonial expansion in its pursuit of trade monopolies, like in the case of the spice trade leading to conquests in the Indian Ocean from the 15th century. And the fossil fuel economy in the present day.
Ghosh excavates the tale of the Nutmeg, a ground spice, native to the Spice Islands of Indonesia, and draws an analogy between it and the transformation of the earth into a set of resources that can and should be exploited. It’s in the pursuit of the nutmeg by the Dutch and their consequent conquest of the Banda Islands and its people in the 17th century that Ghosh creates parallels with the modern liberal interventionism observed in present-day international politics. He does so by highlighting a still-pervasive philosophy traceable to the 16th century, which states that any “well-governed country…has an absolute right to invade countries that are ‘degenerate’ or in violation of the ‘laws of nature & nations’”. The Bandanese people, like many other cultures of that era and before, regarded the earth as a living entity, as living and breathing as they were. Their deep-seated, ancient bond with the Earth had passed down generations through stories, songs, and tales, and they knew that without nature, they would not survive.
Ghosh’s investigation into the past uncovers many rich details for the reader such as the falling of a lantern at the Banda Islands, an incident that led to extreme panic among the Dutch soldiers, and violence against the Bandanese people. Discovered by Ghosh after translating Dutch records. With this, Ghosh demonstrates how brutality against indigenous people is inextricably linked with Europe’s conquest of nature.“But since the nutmeg trade is synonymous with the Bandas, it can’t be helped”.
Similarly, Ghosh brings to light many other instances that mark shifts in thought as well as the tools used to transform the earth into an inert entity that has been conquered ideologically & physically. The modern civilisation, Ghosh remarks, prizes itself for finally conquering nature and becoming the “crowning race”, achieves so by exterminating every other species. Ghosh attempts to unpack the centuries of subjugation of the earth and its people through the tales of the Banda and Maluka people of Indonesia, and the Navajo Tribe of North America.
“The earth has lost its meaning, as it is conquered, inert, supine. The earth can no longer enable, nor delight, nor produce new aspiration.” In a world where the earth’s billionaires (who not-so-coincidentally are also major polluters) are in a space race, Ghosh’s choice of the nutmeg, a spice, an entity of and from the earth as the focus, is a deliberate attempt to break free from the capitalist notion: “[views] the earth as though it were an inert entity that exists primarily to be exploited and profited from, with the aid of science and technology”. The reader can’t help being moved as the account traces the loss of the sacred relationship of humans with the earth under the guise of the privilege of modernity. The modern world, where chasing profit is considered the sole virtue, isn’t meant to sustain the bonds of the earth.
Ghosh creates a parallel between the geopolitical conflict driven by the spice trade & the modern geopolitical conflict for “botanical matter” (fossil fuels). “Five centuries of history – going back to geopolitical rivalries over the control of cloves, nutmegs & pepper – have given the world’s most ‘advanced’ countries a strategic interest in perpetuating the global fossil fuel regime.” He explains that the primary reason for inaction towards addressing the climate crisis is that the hegemony of the West rests on the control of the fossil fuel regime & their vested interests prevent a shift away from it. He, however, may be giving too much leeway to China & India, two of the biggest oil importers, on their renewable energy efforts as the same fossil fuel lobbies drive domestic coal production which maintains this hegemony.
While the world awaits climate action, and the elite sections of society hope for technology to buy them out of the climate crisis, Ghosh’s latest attempt hopes to restore the bonds with earth. He brings together the many crises we face today, placing them in the historical and present context and offering insight into how we landed at this moment of planetary crisis. By interlinking events through space and time, he creates a rich understanding of what must be done to survive the crisis, and perhaps come out of thriving.
Mehak Bhargava is a student of Environmental Studies at Ashoka University. When she’s not worrying about the planet, she dances & experiments with specialty coffee drinks.
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