The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis by Amitav Ghosh

Review by Peter Reason

When I was a small child at primary school, we celebrated Empire Day. Children were invited—expected—to take a Union Flag to school and wave it around. We learned the cliché that the sun never set on countries ruled by Britain. And we learned that what had been Empire had evolved into the benign Commonwealth of Nations.

Many events and revelations over my life have given lie to these teachings and their continued impact on the lives of those colonized by Europeans. These include the disproportionate loss of life to Covid infection of people of colour, evidencing continued structural racism; the Black Lives Matter movement; the realization that our city centres still host statues to slave traders such as Colson and rapacious colonists such as Clive ‘of India’. On television I have watched David Olusoga’s programmes on the often-ignored history of Black Britons. I read William Dalrymple’s astonishing account of the first British invasion of Afghanistan in Return of a King, and of the astonishing rise of the East India Company in The Anarchy. And Sathnam Sanghera’s EmpireLand: How Modern Britain is Shaped by its Imperial Past (reviewed here) shows us the consequences of Empire on our own awareness and to the self-destructive conceit of ‘British exceptionalism’. The Nutmeg’s Curse has its place within this company as Ghosh shows in his writing.  

Amitav Ghosh is an Indian writer originally best known for his English fiction books that portray life in the Indian subcontinent and south east Asia, highlighting in particular the impact of Empire. He has also published several non-fiction books, notably The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable addressing why modern literature has failed to address issues of climate change. The Nutmeg’s Curse draws on the history of exploitation of the nutmeg as a parable for the contemporary climate crisis.

Ghosh picks up the story in 1621 in the Banda archipelago, a tiny cluster of islands in the far southeastern end of the Indian Ocean. He tells how the ships and soldiers of the Dutch East India Company, drawn to the riches of the nutmeg trees that grew there, and not content with normal trade relations with the islanders, massacred the inhabitants and took over the whole island for themselves. The people were killed or dispersed; the sacred landscape in which their lives were enmeshed became a nutmeg-producing factory. Ghosh draws on his powers as a novelist to show that such genocide was more the norm than the exception in the history of colonial expansion: the detail he gives in this and other narratives is sickening. 

But what have shocking events—a genocide—that took place in the seventeenth century to do with the state of the world today? Is the story of the Banda just an unfortunate episode in the history of colonial expansion? Ghosh argues to the contrary, developing the argument that modern civilization remains utterly dependent on ‘natural resources’—particularly in the form of fossil fuels—and that their exploitation still depends on violence, warfare genocide and a worldview that views nonwhite humans and the other-than-human world as ‘brutes’.

Genocide does not always mean direct killing. In a chapter titled Terraforming, Ghosh shows the ‘settler colonization’ of North America involved the re-engineering of vast tracts of land to suit European styles of life. Wildlife was stamped out, land was cleared, fences erected, rivers dammed: the material base of the indigenous people was destroyed, along with its sacred qualities. 

To remake immense stretches of terrain to suit the lifestyles of another continent inevitably entailed the undermining and elimination of the ways of life of those who had inhabited those lands for thousands of years. The project of terraforming was therefore fundamentally conflictful; it was itself a mode of warfare, of a distinctive kind. 

Maybe the biggest terraforming project can be seen in the fossil fuel ‘industry’. We might even say that the whole planet has been terraformed in the interests of exploiting and transporting first coal, and then on a hugely greater scale, oil. We know now the consequences of burning fossil fuels in destabilizing the planetary climate. So why, asks Ghosh, when it is evident that we are able to replace oil with renewable energy to the benefit of all, do we fail to do so? Of course, oil is inextricably bound up with the profit maximization of the oil industry. But more than that, oil is essential to the structures of power that hold the present geopolitical order in place. In contrast, renewable energy, ‘derived from sources like sun, air, and water… is imbued with immense liberatory potential: in principle every house, farm, and factory could free itself from the grid by generating its own power.’

It is not only the petrostates that resist a move away from oil: ‘over the course of the 20th century access to oil became the central focus of global geopolitical strategy’. It is said that ‘US energy policy has become increasingly militarised and secured by the Navy, the largest oceanic force on the planet’; further, the American economy is undergirded by the petrodollar system. The supply of oil flows through choke points that are the precise locations that the European colonial powers fought over. The politics that has secured the regular supply of oil in the west is the product of centuries of conflict. In many senses, the continued geopolitical dominance of western powers—along with the assumptions and privileged lifestyle of those of us in the political north—is tied up with continued dependence on oil.

Having traced the history of exploitation from the nutmeg to fossil fuels, Ghosh adds another twist to the tale, although one that has been implicit in his narrative so far. Colonial expansion, genocide, the exploitation of the other-than-human world as ‘resource’; and so capitalist exploitation and the present geopolitical order are all bound up together and supported by a peculiar act of Western imagination. They all depend on a way of thinking that allowed Europeans to see both non-white peoples and ‘nature’—the other-than-human world—as brutish, as lacking in sensibility and meaning-making, and hence open to exploitation. As the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put it, ‘As we think, we live’: this assumption lies at the heart of the sense-making and valuing of the western world. 

When we look back on the trajectory that has brought humanity to the brink of planetary catastrophe, we cannot but recognise that our plight is a consequence of the ways in which certain classes of humans —a small minority, in fact—have actively muted others by representing them as brutes, as creatures his presence on earth is solely material. 

Ghosh claims it is now beyond dispute that this perspective is wrong—not least because these so-called brutish people are proving themselves capable to adopting the kind of extractive, carbon-intensive economies that were pioneered in the West; and the rising middle classes in countries such as India are treating indigenous peoples, like the forest dwellers, in the same manner as European colonialists. But the parallel assumption about the other-than-human world, broadly speaking, remains. Since Western colonialists were wrong about persons of colour:

What, then, if they were wrong also about the inertness and brute materiality of what they called “Nature”? What if it was the people who were regarded by elite westerners as brutes and savages—the people who could see signs of vitality, life, and meaning in beings of many other kinds—who were right all along. What if the idea that the Earth teems with other beings who act, communicate, tell stories, and make meaning is taken seriously? 

Here Ghosh is seeking to re-establish what he calls a ‘vitalist’ worldview. Others might call it animist or panpsychic. The argument is not, or course, original. Many indigenous scholars, writers of colour, feminists, have challenged this practice of objectification. There is also a long undercurrent of thought in Western philosophy, which is fundamentally opposed to this dominant mechanistic (dualist or materialist) perspective. But the manner in which Ghosh traces the narrative of exploitation and genocide in earlier chapters, and his graphic use of ‘brute’ and ‘brutish’, allows him to present the argument in a novel and compelling way (this argument is recapitulated in an article in Orion Magazine). 

An essential step in silencing of nonhuman voices was to imagine that only humans are capable of telling stories. It is essential that this is countered:

This is the great burden that now rests upon writers, artists, filmmaker’s, and everyone else who was involved in the telling of stories: to us falls the task of imaginatively restoring agency and voice to nonhumans. As with all the most important artistic endeavours in human history, this is a task that is once aesthetic and political—and because of the magnitude of the crisis that besets the planet, it is now freighted with the most pressing moral urgency.

The final chapters of the book explore what it might mean to live on Earth as a living, vital entity, and the possibility of a vitalist politics. Ghosh closes with a further reflection on hidden, vitalist forces. When much, if not most, of humanity today views Earth as an inert entity that primarily exists to be exploited, we must insist

in the face of unrelenting, apocalyptic violence, that nonhumans can, do, and must speak. It is essential now, as the prospect of planetary catastrophe comes ever closer, that those nonhuman voices be restored to our stories. 

The fate of humans, and all our relatives, depends on it. 

I have read a lot of books through 2021, some of them quite remarkable—like Graeber and Wengrove’s The Dawn of Everything and Kerri ní Dochartaigh’s Thin Places. However, Amitav Ghosh, with his novelist’s imagination and literary skill, his historical research, his ability to link old stories to contemporary events, can radically change the way we see our world. The Nutmeg’s Curse has to be my book of 2021.

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Peter Reason seeks to link the tradition of nature writing with the ecological crisis of our times. He is currently engaged in a series of experiential and co-operative inquiries exploring living cosmos panpsychism: What would it be like to live in a world of sentient beings rather than inert objects? How would we relate to such a world?  His most recent publications include Voicing Rivers Through Ontopoetics (with Jacqueline Kurio; and (with artist Sarah Gillespie) On Presence and On Sentience. His online presence is at peterreason.net and Twitter @peterreason.

Ghosh, Amitav. The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (John Murray, 2021). 978-1529369434, 352pp., hardback.

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