The Spice Island of Penang, 1834

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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.


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