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 ...

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