When Penang became a Spice Island


The nutmeg fruit.

The lucrative spice trade that led to huge investments of men and money by merchants based in cities along the Atlantic coast of Europe in the 16th and 17th century laid the foundation for the political partitioning in our times of territories in South, South-East and East Asia. Once Portuguese sailors, followed closely by the Spanish, had broken free of the Ottoman and Muslim containment of Europe in the late 15th century, a new world of opportunities and resources opened up to them. Fortunes beckoned to be made for those who dared venture across the endless oceans on rickety ships sailing at the mercy of seasonal winds.

Spices were much sought after, not only to tempt Europe’s tongues but also to cure its sick who were suffering from the plague and other nasty diseases. Among these spices, the most expensive were nutmegs and cloves, which back then were worth more than their weight in gold.

The Banda Islands in the East Indies were where the most valued nutmegs naturally grew, and the Dutch, newly freed from their Spanish overlords (de facto in 1581 and de jure in 1648) and hell-bent on participating in the spice trade, soon managed to capture this island group. The English gave their continental neighbours a run for their money though, and incessant conflicts took place in the region between ships and men sponsored by the English East India Company on one side and the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (VOC, United East India Company) on the other. These establishments were indeed the world’s first globally functioning government-linked companies (GLCs).

While the Dutch began colonising the Banda Islands, the English managed to gain a foothold on the group’s westernmost member – little Pulau Rhun. English presence in that part of the archipelago punctured the monopoly of the nutmeg and clove trade that the Dutch wished to attain, and the constant conflict between the two emerging maritime nations became a serious and incessant one, which was greatly disruptive of profits. It was a contest on a global scale, and in 1663, the English managed to capture New Netherland on the American Atlantic coast through the seizure of the island of Manhattan. This proved highly significant, for soon after that, in 1667, the highest authorities in Amsterdam and in London gradually realised a chance to reach a settlement between the two nations. The Treaty of Breda signed that year saw the English give up its ambitions to regain the small but strategic island of Rhun in exchange for the right to keep the large but less significant island of Manhattan.

As it did with so much else in the world, the Napoleonic Wars that broke out in Europe in the last years of the 18th century greatly altered the fragile power equation in the East Indies. The Dutch, on being overrun by the French back home, handed over control of their colonies in the region to England. In fact, in 1806, Napoleon declared himself Emperor of Holland.

Nutmeg sorting in the Banda Islands, circa 1899.

The English took their chance then to transplant nutmegs and cloves out of Banda to Penang, to “Kew, Calcutta and Madras” and also to Singapore, Ceylon and Bencoolen (Bengkulu). Further surprising details about nutmeg in Penang during the early days can be found in the fascinating abstract below.

Since then, Penang has assumed the nutmeg and the cloves to be as typical of its flora as the Pinang palm that gave the island its name.

Another important exchange of island possessions between the two European maritime powers took place soon after the Napoleonic Wars. This event held great significance for the South-East Asian region, even if not as much for the world as the exchange of Manhattan for Rhun in 1667 did. In 1824, the Treaty of London was signed to confirm the exchange of the English base of Bencoolen in South-West Sumatra for the Dutch port of Malacca on the west coast of the Malayan Peninsula. The English had established their base in Bencoolen by 1685, while the Dutch had captured Malacca from the Portuguese in 1641.

Mace – the dried "lacy" reddish covering of the nutmeg seed.

The Anglo-Dutch deal in 1824 allowed for a clear boundary of influence to be etched between the two, right down the Straits of Malacca, thus making possible the formation of the British Straits Settlements consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore in 1826. More significantly, it made possible the creation in modern times of the states of Malaya and Indonesia.

For more details about the Anglo-Dutch conflict, and for an exciting read, see Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, London: Penguin Books, 1999.

The following is an abstract originally found in Singapore Chronicle from August 28, 1834. It was quoted three years later (pp. 132-134) in the section on Penang included in the 1837 volume, History of the British Possessions in the Indian & Atlantic Oceans: comprising Ceylon, Penang, Malacca, Singapore, the Falkland Islands, St. Helena, Ascension, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Cape Coast Castle, &c. &c., which was written by R. Montgomery Martin, F.S.S. and published by Whittaker & Co. of Ave Maria Lane, London.

PENANG has been a spice island from the period nearly of its first settlement. Pepper engrossed the consideration of capitalists for many years until the price fell so low that the returns no more than repaid the outlay. But previous to this check another resource of gain was opened by the introduction to the island of the nutmeg and clove tree.

In 1798 a few spice plants were imported from the Dutch Spice Islands, but in the year 1800 5,000 nutmeg and 15,000 clove plants were brought from Amboyna. In 1802 a further and larger number arrived, the collection of the government agent, Mr Hunter. This consisted of 25,026 seedling nutmeg trees and 175 plants of ages varying from four to seven years.

Shortly before this last period a government spice garden was established, embracing 130 acres of land lying on the slopes which skirt the base of the hill near Amie’s Mills, a romantic spot well watered by the running stream now called Ayer Putih. This plantation, in some respects a mere nursery, contained, in the above year, the number of 19,628 nutmeg plants varying from one up to four years old, with 3,459 being four years of age. There were also 6,259 clove trees, of which 669 were between six and seven years old.

In the same year, 1802, Mr Smith, the Honourable Company’s botanist, reported that he had imported in all to the island at that date 71,266 and 55,264 clove plants, out of which a few were reserved for the botanical gardens at Kew, Calcutta, and Madras. Most of the plantations now in a productive state had been created by plants raised from nuts and yielded by trees of the original importations, and a number of nutmeg trees which had been planted on the face of a hill and abandoned, were, after a lapse of about four years, rescued from thick jungle and found to be in a lively condition and in bearing. The wild nutmeg tree is indigenous to Penang, being an inhabitant of the hills. It is a tall forest tree. Both the nut and the mace are less pungent and more astringent than the true spice, yet the Chuliahs have been in the habit of gathering them and selling them in the native bazaars.

There are several varieties of the cultivated nutmeg in Penang, distinguished from each other by the tinge of the leaf and the shape of the nut. In some the former is small and light in colour, in others dark and large. In one the nut is oval or egg-shaped, each nut hanging on a tendril of four or five inches in length; in another it resembles a small peach; and in a third it is small and nearly circular.

In 1805 there were only 23 clove-bearing trees in the Company’s gardens; and in October 1834, these gardens were sold for the trifling sum of 9,658 dollars. They contained then 5,103 nutmeg trees, 1,625 clove trees, and 1,050 seedlings, and were sold in lots. Many of the trees were dug up and transplanted to other quarters of the island and thus dispersed, the numbers lost from mismanagement..

The sale of the government plantations gave a temporary stimulus to the private planter, yet the continued ignorance of the proper method of cultivating spices, necessarily followed by tardy crops, seems to have at length induced such an apathy regarding them that they ran the risk of a speedy extinction.

The late David Brown, Esq. stood alone, in 1810, as a spice planter on an extensive scale, and instead of finding encouragement in the sympathy of those around him, he was inconsiderately supposed by many to be in search of an El Dorado and no one ventured to follow his steps. Bold and provident as was this attempt, its success was long retarded by the obstacles which always oppose themselves to agricultural innovators, and it might, even after a very great outlay of capital, have been doubtful on the decease of that gentleman had not his son, the late and lamented George Brown, Esq. managed the estate with a spirit and judgment that finally overcame every difficulty and displayed, for the first time after 30 years of perilous trial, the full value of the pursuit.

In 1818, the nutmeg-bearing trees on the island were estimated to be at 6,900. Since that period spices have been more extensively cultivated. There are now upwards of 30 spice plantations at this settlement, including Province Wellesley, and these may be classed as follows:

  • Five plantations containing from 4,000 up to 20,000 trees.
  • Eight from 500 up to 10,000 trees.
  • Seventeen from 50 up to 2,000, containing in the aggregate about 80,000 trees, of which number 45,000 are estimated to be in bearing. When Bencoolen was ceded to the Dutch, the plantations there were estimated to contain 25,000 bearing trees only.

The gross annual produce from the plantations may be roughly estimated at 130,000 lbs., but young trees are yearly coming into bearing to swell this quantity. Should the cultivation meet with no serious interruption, it may perhaps in time supply the whole of the English market with spices.

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