The Nutmeg’s Curse
Parables for a Planet in Crisis
By Amitav Ghosh
Published by The University of Chicago Press
“I do believe it to be true that the land here is demonstrably alive; that it does not exist solely, or even incidentally, as a stage for the enactment of human history; that it is [itself] a protagonist.”1Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 6.
This note appears at the beginning of Amitav Ghosh’s 2016 book, The Great Derangement. Ghosh wrote it while visiting the Sundarbans in the Bengal Delta, one of the largest mangrove forests in the world. Far from a fleeting observation, this confession has proven vital to Ghosh’s work, and its ramifications reach their pinnacle in his newest book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis.
After witnessing his initial approach in Great Derangement, there’s a thrill to encountering this volume in which Ghosh has woven a great many separate threads into a unified, core theory and worldview in which his many subjects and analyses easily connect. Told initially through the story of the Dutch colonization of the Banda Islands, Ghosh walks us through human relationships with the non-human as they staggered toward omnicide—the genocide of all beings.
The story of the colonization of the Banda Islands, home to the nutmeg tree, is central not only to Ghosh’s exploration into omnicide, but to the global history of that very process. A violent cataclysm in 1621 led by Jan Coen, Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company, massacred, enslaved, or forcibly displaced nearly the entire Bandanese population within weeks. The tremendous violence unleashed on the Bandanese wrought destruction on an entire thriving society, but it also went on to serve as a model which would play out in the Americas, especially in what became New England. Nutmeg—a spice few give much thought to today—was at the center of this history. Nutmeg was a highly valued commodity at the time, and control over it an immensely desirable prospect. The relationship of the Banda Islands to this valued spice thus serves as an important example of the “resource curse”: a transformation in which the blessings of the earth become a burden which invite the violence of colonization and/or war.
Ghosh reminds us that this story is as firmly rooted in the twenty-first as it was in the seventeenth. For today we are actually “more dependent on botanical matter than we were three hundred years (or five hundred, or even five millennia ago), and not just for our food.” As he points out, “most contemporary humans are completely dependent on energy that comes from long-buried carbon—and what are coal, oil, and natural gas except fossilized forms of botanical matter?”2Amitav Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2021), 18. This point is critical to Ghosh’s overall framework, which seeks to return agency to non-human entities rather than relegate them to the backdrop of human history. (A project, it’s worth noting, which also extends to his fiction).
The Walls Built by Colonialism
In the Banda Islands as in many other places, colonialism did more to the land and people than ravage them for and as resources. Colonialism fundamentally shaped worldviews and relationships between humans and the living beings we share a planet with. Though we are aware of the existence of other-than-human life, we continue to live and act as though they are mostly dead. What does it mean to recognize life in other beings? There are many parallels to recognizing the humanity of another person—rather than seeing someone as “good” or “bad,” beautiful or terrible, we must learn instead to see all of these attributes, to refuse a process of caricaturing. Ghosh notes how the Western view of “nature,” too, is caricatured and profoundly shaped by colonialist ideology. The idea of “wild” or “untouched” land is fundamentally a human fantasy, one which continues to live on when we view “nature” as a separate enclave to be visited rather than an ecosystem on which our own lives depend. Ghosh quotes the Ogala Lakota chief Standing Bear:
We did not think of the great open plains, the beautiful rolling hills, and the winding streams with tangled growth as ‘wild.’ Only to the white man was Nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery.3Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 64.
Indeed, as Ghosh shows again and again, in the Americas as elsewhere, the ideology of nature-as-exploitable-resource was critical to the destruction of non-human and human life alike. This connection between omnicide and genocide is critical in the context of climate debates. Separating the two (and the tendency of Western societies to silo environmental issues) has been incredibly damaging both for environmental movements and other movements seeking justice around issues of oppression. Violence against nonhumans has too often been counterposed to violence against humans, concealing a common source: processes of colonization, extraction, and what Ghosh refers to as “terraforming.” Originating in science fiction, this term refers to the “molding” of other planets to support human life, but is eerily adept at describing the colonial project of re-creating Europe throughout the colonies. Colonialism is a project which inflicted and continues to inflict incalculable violence against both humans and non-humans as the drive for extraction and exploitation of natural resources has expanded to encompass every corner of the globe.
The Vitality of the Nonhuman World
The masterful chapter “Brutes”, a widely-shared excerpt of which was published in Orion magazine, exemplifies Ghosh’s strengths. Here he probes everything from the ideologies of extermination present in Western society and the lineage of the “brute” to the nature of our relationship to storytelling, asking us to consider whether storytelling is something we actually share with nonhumans. In a particularly moving passage, he pushes us to question the assumption that human domination is an obvious lens through which to see the world:
Trees have inhabited Earth much longer than human beings, and their individual life spans are, in many cases, far greater than those of people: some live for thousands of years. If trees possessed modes of reasoning, their thoughts would be calibrated to a completely different timescale, perhaps one in which they anticipate that most humans will perish because of a planetary catastrophe. The world after such an event would be one in which trees would flourish as never before, on soil enriched by billions of decomposing human bodies. It may appear self-evident to humans that they are the gardeners who decide what happens to trees. Yet, on a different timescale, it might appear equally evident that trees are gardening humans.4Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 198.
Here as elsewhere, Ghosh returns three-dimensionality to the other-than-human, refusing a lens of human domination. Ghosh suggests that it is not about valuing these other beings in the abstract but about building and sustaining relationships with them which are life-giving for all involved. Ghosh calls on us to embrace a “vitalist politics” as has been long-practiced by Indigenous peoples the world over, one in which we as humans “acknowledge [our] mutual dependence not just on each other, but on ‘all our relatives’”5Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 242.. Though this may sound acutely challenging in our current global context, Ghosh reminds us that the Western view of humans as alive and all other beings as dead or one-dimensional has, for most of human history, been a fringe belief. Even today it is not the dominant belief worldwide, and is being challenged in many other places still. In this way, what Ghosh proposes is more of a return, or perhaps even an acknowledgment of what we know to be true but actively suppress.
Coming back to what he accurately terms the “annihilatory rage” of the Dutch colonizers in the Banda islands, Ghosh writes: “Yet paradoxically, that annihilatory impulse hides within itself an implicit recognition of something that cannot be explicitly acknowledged by the colonist: that Indigenous people were right all along, that landscapes are neither inert nor mute, but imbued with vitality”.6Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 256. It is thus not only human agency that is needed now but attention to the agency of a great many others.
One important lens in need of expanding in Nutmeg’s Curse is gender. Though not examined deeply in the text, there is much to be said about the role of gendered oppression in colonialism which could easily follow from Ghosh’s overall framework. The settler idea of wilderness which Ghosh rightly critiques, for instance, is deeply invested both in colonialism and in a particular understanding of masculinity. During processes of colonization, land itself has often been gendered feminine, with sexual violence invoked as a metaphor for the process of conquering the land. We know also that women, trans, and gender nonconforming people the world over have too often borne (and still do bear) the brunt of the violences of colonization, extraction, and omnicidal policies. Additionally, while Ghosh is extremely thorough in his analysis of the suppression of what he calls vitalist beliefs in favor of extractivist, world-as-resource ideologies, the gendered ways in which this process has taken place (and the association of those vitalist beliefs with women or femininity) must also be recognized and investigated further. For instance, Ghosh makes an interesting connection between the obsession with witch-hunting and the growth of the European elite ideology of Earth as a machine rather than a living being. Though Ghosh notes that witches were “generally poor European women,”7Ghosh, The Nutmeg’s Curse, 37. there is certainly room for further exploration here in regards to the interwoven nature of misogyny and colonialist ideology in the demonization of witches.
Despite these unexplored areas, Ghosh provides many important insights on a wide range of questions: from Western ecofascism, to the notion of “climate refugees”, to extractivism in the Indian context and how caste undermines Ghosh’s notion of vitalist beliefs. Ghosh argues neither for naive hope nor permanent despair, though the picture is grim. Instead, he asks us to recognize the vitality of the nonhuman world in its full beauty and terror.