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What common spice has psychotropic properties?

Nutmeg is a hallucinogen

Today, nutmeg is used in the kitchen to add a little zing to baked goods and hot drinks, though at various times in history it’s been used for fragrance, medicine… and its psychotropic properties. That’s possible thanks to myristicin, a chemical compound found in high concentrations in nutmeg, but also produced in other foods such as parsley and carrots. Myristicin is able to cause hallucinations by disrupting the central nervous system, causing the body to produce too much norepinephrine — a hormone and neurotransmitter that transmits signals among nerve endings. While the idea of conjuring illusions of the mind might sound intriguing, nutmeg intoxication also comes with a litany of unpleasant side effects, including dizziness, confusion, drowsiness, and heart palpitations.

Nutmeg’s inebriating effects have been noted since the Middle Ages, when crusaders would ingest large amounts to inspire prophetic visions (and to help with travel-related aches and pains). Medieval doctors and pharmacists with the Salerno School of Medicine noted that it needed to be used carefully, warning that “one nut is good for you, the second will do you harm, the third will kill you” (which some doctors today say may have been an exaggeration). In fact, nutmeg is a vitamin-rich source of antioxidants and can even act as a mood booster — a healthy addition to your spice rack, so long as it’s used in small quantities.


Manhattan became a British colony thanks to nutmeg

Spice trading was a lucrative business in the 17th century, which is why many countries sought to control areas where they could monopolize spice production. Back then, nutmeg was considered one of the rarest spices in the world, making it a costly substance to acquire. Two European powers — the British and the Dutch — fought to control Indonesia’s Banda Islands, the only place where nutmeg was originally found. As part of the 1667 Treaty of Breda that ended the second Anglo-Dutch war, the two nations agreed to swap colonies, with the Dutch giving up their claim on Manhattan for the island of Run, a British-controlled land in the Banda Islands chain. Both countries were content with their wins, although their successes proved short-term: The Dutch monopoly loosened in the 1700s when trees smuggled from Indonesia increased competition for nutmeg. And just over 100 years after the treaty was signed, of course, Britain’s colonies in America declared independence and split from the crown.

When the Netherlands chose nutmeg over New York

If you’re someone who cannot do without cinnamon in your hot chocolate, pepper on your eggs or garam masala in your mutton curry, you get it: spices are powerful. But did you know that they once held so much sway that they were regarded as more valuable than the city of New York

In 1667, the Dutch made a trade deal that seems ridiculous sans historical context: they ceded control of Manhattan to the British, in exchange for the island of Run–located in the eastern part of the Indonesian archipelago–one of the few corners of the world where nutmeg grew. To be fair to the Dutch, there was no way anyone could have imagined the Manhattan of today. Who could have predicted that a swampy island frequented by fur traders would become one of the world’s major financial, cultural and political centres? On the other hand, spices were an extremely precious commodity back then—innumerable people lost their lives fighting in multiple wars over trade routes and spice-rich lands. For the Dutch, the deal must have seemed quite lucrative. But hindsight has a lot to teach us about history.

In the 17th century, nutmeg was one of the rarest spices in the world. Apart from its flavours, its medicinal properties were highly valued. Many people also believed that it was a cure for the plague. Back then, nutmeg was only cultivated in the Banda Islands (also known as the Spice Islands)–a small group of ten islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Control of the islands was a recurring source of conflict, especially between the English and the Dutch, both sides wanting to protect their monopoly over certain spices. The island of Run was a tiny, yet significant part of Banda and was under British control.

Around the same time, the Dutch had a strong presence on the eastern coast of North America. In 1614, the province of New Netherland was established as the first Dutch colony in America. It stretched across parts of present-day New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Connecticut, and Delaware. In 1626, Peter Minuit, the then director of New Netherland, is believed to have ‘purchased’ the island of Manhattan for $24 from the Native Americans. The southern tip of Manhattan Island was called New Amsterdam (later, New York) and served as the seat of the colonial Dutch government. During the second Anglo-Dutch war, the English led a conquest to seize New Netherland, although it was officially still under Dutch control. On July 31, 1667, a treaty was signed between the Dutch, England, France, and Denmark. Under the conditions of this agreement (known as the Treaty of Breda), the Dutch ceded control of Manhattan to the English, while they took over the island of Run, a deal which left both sides content with their win.

However, the Dutch imperialists’ hard-won monopoly over the miracle spice did not last long. In the 18th century, a French botanist named Pierre Poivre smuggled thousands of nutmeg and other spice plants from Indonesia to Mauritius and Réunion. In the 19th century, the Banda Islands came under temporary control of the English, who went on to transplant nutmeg trees to their other colonies including Sri Lanka and Grenada. Today, the island of Run has a population of a little more than 2000 and remains relatively inaccessible. Manhattan, on the other hand, has flourished and become one of the most important centres of Western civilization.

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