The Nutmeg Curse by Amitav Ghosh – a plea for the planet

Climate change has clearly been on Amitav Ghosh’s mind for a long time. In his 2016 non-fiction controversy The great inconvenience, he asked why so few novelists (including himself) had focused on a subject that is arguably the most important of our time.

In response to his own review, Ghosh’s latest novel, Gun island, does exactly that – located partly in the endangered environment of the mangrove-forested Sundarbans south of its hometown of Kolkata, it also features a massive migration of whales and dolphins and Bangladeshi climate refugees in Italy. With The curse of nutmeg, Ghosh returned to non-fiction to tackle the subject.

It begins its story with the brutal massacre of the natives of the Banda Islands, an Indonesian archipelago in the Pacific Ocean. In 1621, the Dutch East India Company systematically killed and enslaved most of the population. Their reason was a precious spice – the Bandas were the only place in the world where nutmeg grew and in the 17th century a few could buy you a house or a ship.

They were not only used for food, but also valued for their medicinal properties. In Elizabethan England, for example, it was believed that nutmeg could cure plague. So, writes Ghosh, the Dutch East India Company decided to exterminate the indigenous peoples in order to control trade. He argues that our current climate crisis is linked to this horrific event because it sets in motion patterns that still animate our world today.

Unlike the Bandanese – who, like so many other indigenous peoples, viewed landscapes as living things filled with the spirits of plants, animals, mountains and rivers – Europeans viewed the Earth as an inert resource that could be exploited. for profit. To them, the Banda Islands were just a “nutmeg factory” and not a storyteller. Nature was to be conquered and exploited.

As European settlers subjugated, oppressed, enslaved, killed, and destroyed vast areas of the Americas and Asia, they carried this mechanistic view of an elongated nature across the globe. And with that, argues Ghosh, the groundwork was laid for everything that followed, from capitalism to climate change.

In the hands of a novelist, this argument is elegant and convincing. With the conquest, the Earth became even more desecrated, silenced, and inanimate. What is happening in the Amazon today under the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is a “backward version of settler and settler history” from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Ghosh defends what he calls the “vitalist” vision of Earth: Gaia, the living planet. Since ancient times, indigenous peoples have followed this belief and listened to the stories told by trees, mountains and rivers – this has made them much better stewards of our planet. And while he greatly admires the work of climatologists, he also maintains that they are not the only ones proposing solutions. Those who work the land, who have lived in forests or by the sea, and have done so for many generations, also have something to add. Perhaps the prospect of a shaman suffering the devastating effects of deforestation in the Amazon basin is more “advanced,” Ghosh says, than that of “an academic in a quiet university town in the west.”

Despite 400 years of destruction and oppression, there is, he thinks, hope – at a time when we live in forest fires, floods and hurricanes, when “the mechanically ordered world of modernity is disintegrating before our eyes ”. In recent years, several indigenous peoples from Ecuador to New Zealand have won lawsuits protecting their lands on the basis of the sanctity of their mountains, forests and rivers. And while there are still far too few of these successes, it is a development that would have been unthinkable only twenty years ago. Perhaps it is this idea of ​​protecting “all our loved ones” – our non-human parents – suggests Ghosh, which will bridge our differences.

The curse of nutmeg is a strange book, but not in a bad way. It’s winding and looping. Sometimes it feels like you’re being thrown into a swift swirling river, and there’s no point in trying to hold on tight, you just have to go with the flow. The general direction of the current (to stay with the river metaphor) is Ghosh’s argument that colonialism paved the way for climate change, but his swirling narrative conjures up stories of Dutch still lifes (inert objects reflecting ideas European Nature), Linnaean nomenclature, modern cities, the Covid pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, Tennyson and the Standing Rock Sioux reserve, among others.

None of this is new and sometimes Ghosh makes the obvious (climate change is tied to the global distribution of power), but it’s the simplicity of its main argument and the power of its storytelling that makes the book work. .

“The planet will never come to life for you,” Ghosh urges, “unless your songs and stories bring to life all the beings, visible and invisible, that inhabit a living Earth”. I doubt politicians take notice, but it’s a novelist’s rallying cry to listen to the non-human voices and stories of our planet – and I’ve heard worse suggestions.

The curse of nutmeg: Parables for a planet in crisis by Amitav Ghosh, John Murray £ 20, 352 pages

Andrea Wulf is the author of ‘The invention of nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science ‘

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