By recalling gory details of extermination of nature and genocides of indigenous peoples, Ghosh reminds us that the planetary emergency we face today is just an extension of the holocaust that local peoples suffered in past centuries at the hands of the conquistadors. In fact, it presages the current crisis.
The reader is shown how the ‘conjoined processes of violence, physical and intellectual, were all necessary for the emergence of a new economy based on extracting resources from a desacralized, inanimate Earth’.
Ghosh is referring to the spiritual relationship that indigenous communities have always maintained with planet Earth. But modern industrialised societies look at the Mother Earth only through the lens of what she can offer us, paying no heed that we destroy nature at our own peril – as the Climate-Covid co-crises remind us.
The unsung heroes of conservation, Nepali Times
The Nutmeg Curse first takes us to 1621, when the Dutch colonial military wipes out the entire population of the Banda Islands in present day Indonesia to control the trade in the invaluable native nutmeg tree. Nutmegs were one of the most desired items of luxury and wealth in Europe at the time, driving the spice trade.
The value of this fruit drove the Dutch East India Company to compete with the British to control the islands, and to do so they had to exterminate the local inhabitants. As with the entire European colonial project in South and Southeast Asia, Africa and the Americas, anything that stood in the way of resource extraction (nature, non-white humans and non-human animals) were expendable.
The curse of the nutmeg for Ghosh is an allegory for the more modern resource curse of fossil fuels behind the current climate crisis. Replace nutmeg with petroleum, and you can see how colonialism laid the foundations for the present planetary emergency.
Ghosh shows how the colonial process treated indigenous peoples as subhuman, and their knowledge of and sustainable co-existence with nature as ‘primitive’. The book gives us a long litany of horrors of European colonisation perpetrated on peoples around the world, systematically muting them, replacing forests with plantations, native cultures with slavery, and obliterating the natural world.
In a way, this is an alternative history of the world that is diametrically different from the history text books in school that are dominated by politics, conquests and the resources that were mined to fuel industrial ‘civilisation’. Ghosh has a different take on history, and persuasively explains how our colonial past is inherently intertwined with the global climate emergency.
The Nutmeg Curse also underlines the connectivity between our colonial history right down to the Black Lives Matter movement and the global pandemic. Ghosh tells us how he sat down to write the book during the pandemic lockdown in Brooklyn in 2020, as sirens blared outside and bodies had to be kept in refrigerated trucks because hospital morgues had filled up.
Alpine style in the Himalaya, Kunda Dixit
The reader is able to understand that in order to even begin to fight against social and environmental injustices, we must make changes in the way we live and govern ourselves. Ghosh writes, ‘much, if not most, of humanity today lives as colonialists once did — viewing the Earth as though it were an inert entity that exists primarily to be exploited and profited from’.
If we can somehow backtrack and learn to co-live with Gaia in the compassionate way that the native folks once did, then there will be hope. We must speak up and unlearn accepted practices, and the deeply-rooted greed and over-consumption that dominates our lives.
The Nutmeg Curse is an eye-opener. Ghosh is not preaching to the converted here, he provides even skeptics and deniers with a holistic history of global capitalism and its model of perpetual growth that underpins the current climate crisis.
Full of rich and meaningful history, these accounts of genocide and plunder illuminate the implications of Western colonialism in so many of our current sources of distress. Readers of the novel, Gun Island, and the non-fiction, The Nutmeg Curse, will have to decide for themselves which form of literature is more effective in communicating the urgency of the climate crisis.
These two books should be read together, they reinforce one another, and the impact is greater than the sum of their parts.
Read also: 20 Reviews in 20 Years, Nepali Times
Marilyn Lubetkin is a first-year student at Pitzer College in California. As a Houston, Texas, native, Marilyn experienced first hand the impact of climate change when she lost her childhood home to the disastrous flooding induced by Hurricane Harvey in 2017.