The Spice Island of Penang, 1834

Ooi Kee Beng found the following account in The Singapore Chronicle from August 28, 1834. Reading it today provides us with a quick understanding of Penang’s fluctuating fortunes as a spice colony where cloves and nutmegs indigenous to the island were grown. By the 1840s, it was noted that Penang’s production of high quality nutmegs almost satisfied Great Britain’s total demand for the spice. However, a drastic turn in the fortunes of the spice farmers was at hand. As noted in a recent book, “in the late 1840s and early 1850s insect depredation and blight destroyed the nutmeg and clove plantations. The work of 30–40 years was destroyed and the dream of circumventing the Dutch monopoly on spice had failed – at least in Penang” (Andrew Barber: Penang under the East India Company 1786–1858. ab&b 2009: 93)

PENANG HAS been a spice island from the period nearly of its first settlement. Pepper engrossed the consideration of capitalists for many years, and until the price fell so low that the returns no more than repaid the outlay. But previous to this check another resource of gain 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 there were brought from Amboyna 5000 nutmeg and 15.000 clove plants. In 1802 a further and larger number arrived, the collection of the government agent, Mr. Hunter. is 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 had been established, embracing 130 acres of land, lying on the slopes which skirt the base of the hill near Amie’s Mills, a romantic spot, and well watered by a 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, 3459 being four years of age. ere were also 6259 clove trees, of which 669 were above six and under 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 dale 71,266 nutmeg 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 have been created by plants raised from nuts 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, and bears more oval shaped fruit than the true nutmeg tree. Both the nut and 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 on Penang, distinguished from other by the tinge of the leaf and 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 bearing clove trees in the Company’s gardens; and in October, 1834, these gardens were sold for the trifling sum of 9658 dollars. They contained then 5103 nutmeg trees, 1625 clove trees, and 1050 seedlings. The whole being sold in lots, many of the trees were dug up and transplanted to other quarters of the island, and thus dispersed; numbers were lost from mismanagement.

In 1810 the total number of nutmeg trees on the island was about 13,000, several hundreds of which only were in bearing, and from such clove trees as were then bearing a supply of 30,000 plants was obtained.

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 stone, 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 lo agricultural innovaters [sic], 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 which nally overcame every diculty, and displayed for the first time after thirty years of perilous trial the full value of the pursuit.

In 1818, the bearing nutmeg trees on the island were estimated to be 6900. Since that period spices have been more extensively cultivated. ere are now upwards of thirty spice plantations at this se lement, including Province Wellesley, and these may be classed as follow:—

  • Five plantations containing from 4000 up to 20,000 trees.

  • Eight from 600 up to 10,000 trees.

  • Seventeenfrom50upto2000, 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 26,000 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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