The Post/Colonial Quality of Spice

In the May issue of Allerhande, the customer magazine distributed by the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn, I found this advertisement by Verstegen. It showcases white pepper from Bangka, mace from Ambon and the Banda Islands, and nutmeg from Ambon, with the headline translating roughly as „quality begins at the source“. The short texts in the ad inform readers about the company’s quality management in 21st century Indonesia. They correspond strangely with sections from Rumphius’ Ambonese Herbal, in which he describes how the Dutch East India company (VOC) controlled spice production during the late 17th century. The ad even includes a Rumphius-like plate of the nutmeg plant and fruit. I have juxtaposed these quotes about plant materials becoming cultured spices in between the Indonesian archipelago and the Netherlands here, showing how little the representation of the produce has shifted.

Advertisement in customer magazine Allerhande, May 2016

Advertisement in customer magazine Allerhande, May 2016

 

Ad on „the warm taste of“ nutmeg:

In the small village of Hila, in Indonesia, Verstegen closely co-operates with a Dutch-Ambonese family that has established a business producing nutmeg here. That way we bring the best nutmeg to your kitchen. And we provide work opportunities and an honest price for the farmers. (my translation)

 

Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 28:

[…] but the most beautiful stands of Nutmeg Trees are found on Pulo-ay that is no more than 2000 paces long, flat and mostly planted with tall Nutmeg Trees, with some other fruit trees mixed in here and there; they are a delight to the eyes and a pleasure to stroll amongst, and they offer such a beautiful sight that the entire island seems to be one single garden, only surrounded by low hills and some underbrush at the shore, and the latter needs to be maintained in order to keep the sharp seawind from the Nutmeg grove. And though this island lacks fresh water, one will find many Burghers and Park [i.e. plantation] owners living on it, who obtain the requisite water from cisterns, so that Pulo-ay supplies easily a third of what is normally consumed in the world.

 

Ad on mace as „flower in the kitchen“:

Mace, also known as ‚fleur de muscade‘, which literally means flower of the nutmeg, is the aril of the nutmeg, the kernel of the nutmeg apple. It tastes warm, aromatic, and refines and combines a citrus-like sweetness with a mild bitterness. You can tell best quality mace by its orange colour. For decades, Verstegen has obtained this by ‚our‘ farmers on Ambon and the Banda islands in Indonesia.“ (my translation)

 

Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 29:

The cleaned Nutmegs are brought home where they presently pry the Mace of with a small knife, trying to leave it as much as possible in one piece; the slaves are well-trained to do this, and do this quite dexterously; this blood red mace is then dried for a few days in the sun, on top of certain squared brick places, that look like wide Altars, where the mace loses its its carmine color, turns a dark red, and finally yellow or orange […].

 

Ad on white pepper:

White pepper is the ripe berry of the pepper plant. It is more aromatic than black pepper, savory with a sweet aftertaste. The most beautiful Muntok white pepper comes from the island of Bangka [off the coast of Sumatra] in Indonesia. Here, Verstegen trains the farmers to select those berries that fulfill all the requirements. That way, only the best white pepper is filled in our jars: the Superior White Diamond. (my translation)

 

Rumphius, Ambonese Herbal vol. IV, p. 317:

The people from Tsjeribon [Cirebon on Java] are unfairly accused of soaking white pepper in salt water out of malice, so that nobody can plant them again, but this usually happens to improve and conserve the spice […].

 

The advertisement presents the company’s involvement in today’s Indonesia as development-driven business co-operation. Rumphius recapped the origins of those relations in one sentence, Ambonese Herbal vol. II, p. 3:

The Nutmeg groves are no longer owned by the old Inhabitants, since they were driven out because of their numerous massacres of the Dutch Nation, especially the massacre in May Anno 1609 of Admiral Pieter Willemsz. Verhoeven, whereafter the entire country was taken by force of arms by General Jan Pietersen Coen, and made into a Province of the United Netherlands, whereafter the Parks were divided among the Dutch and Mestiso citizenry, who have to maintain a large number of Slaves, usually 40 to 50 of them, while the large Parks can have as many as 80 to 100.

 

How much history does a consumer have to taste?

For the current debate on colonial violence and its legacy in the Netherlands, see those recent publications:

  • Vanvugt, Ewald. Roofstaat. Wat iedere Nederlander moet weten. Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar 2016.
  • Wekker, Gloria. White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2016.

Trade, ecology, and plants: Words from the 18th century Dutch „Indian letters“

In the Nationaal Archief in The Hague there is a handwritten dictionary tucked away in the boxes with the private estate of a late 19th century history professor and archivist (1.13.04 – 1240 – Collectie Heeres). The „collection of words“ from 1758 explains foreign terms used in the so-called Indian letters by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) that had been borrowed from languages between Persian and Japanese.

Among the various entries relating to plants, there are terms that describe local ecology, hint at the VOC plantation economy and explain the production of nutmeg on the Moluccas (my translation):
„Nut eaters are birds such as doves that swallow the nuts and release them intact, from which nutmeg trees will grow, but the spice shall have no taste“
„‚Parken‘ are places where the nutmeg trees stand that are planted regularly […]“
„‚Perkeniers‘ are the owners of the parken“
„‚Parreparre‘ is a mat on which the nuts are dried and limed“

The list also contains many entries about work under colonial rule, from harvesting cinnamon to the handling of elephants. It mirrors the linguistic flexibility around the Indian Ocean and South China Sea which Amitav Ghosh has revived in his Ibis trilogy. For example, the anonymous Dutch compilation explained „Lascarijns“ as „domestic soldiers, also runners, messengers“, while „lascar“ in 18th century English referred to „an East Indian sailor“ (oed.com, viewed 17 June 2015).

This „collection of words“ could be regarded as transnational heritage and would merit digitisation and open access to facilitate comparative research.