Right to Left: Book - The Nutmeg's Curse; Author - Amitav Ghosh

Way back in 2000, when author Amitav Ghosh was researching in the Sundarbans for his novel, The Hungry Tide, it became clear to him that something strange was going on.

“Islands were disappearing, saltwater was coming deeper and deeper into the lands, and people were losing their livelihoods,” he recalls.

After that came a devastating series of cyclones, which completely decimated the Sundarbans region, the delicately balanced ecosystem of wetlands and mangroves in the Bay of Bengal. The ensuing climate catastrophe in the region gripped Ghosh’s imagination.

Two decades after The Hungry Tide, Ghosh makes a scathing indictment of Western colonialism from the 17th century onwards, industrialization in Britain in the 19th century, and the hyper-aggressive militarization by the US in the 20th century, among others, in his latest book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables For a Planet in Crisis

The book advances the powerful argument he makes in the preceding book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, that the genesis of the current climate crisis lies in the brutally violent history of Western colonialism, and its subjugation of nature and the environment to suit the needs of modernization.

He traces the roots of the current climate crisis to the geopolitical world order established in the 17th century, with the Dutch spice trade in the islands of the Indian Ocean on the one hand, and the European conquests of the Indigenous Americans on the other.

In the years that preceded The Nutmeg’s Curse, the subjects of climate change and climate migration became an enduring passion that he researched zealously. Ghosh’s academic training as a social anthropologist—he has a doctorate from Oxford University—aided by a “detailed note-taking habit,” entrenched in him from his early days as a journalist, influenced his writing.

“Both anthropology and journalism led me to travel extensively, and all my books originated from my travels.” The Nutmeg’s Curse came from a visit to the Banda Islands in Indonesia in 2016.

The fragrant little nutmeg, pivotal to the history of ruthless and planned annihilation of the Bandanese (the people of the Banda archipelago) by the Dutch, is also representative of all such exploitation of people, land, and environment by Western conquering nations who sought to establish geopolitical supremacy through trade monopolies.

Nutmeg

Ghosh also contrasts the spirituality of the Indigenous people of America, deemed “savage” by Westerners, and yet deeply connected to their lands, flora and fauna, to the clinically empirical standards of economic progress that the Western world pursues, wherein the earth and its resources exist to be plumbed for material consumerism alone, and the destruction they leave behind in the wake of such pursuits is incidental.

Over a writing career spanning more than three decades, Ghosh has been the recipient of a string of prestigious literary awards, in addition to four honorary doctorates from universities around the world.

These include the Prix Medicis Étrangère (France) for The Circle of Reason in 1990, the Arthur C. Clark award (Britain) for The Calcutta Chromosome in 1997, the Padma Shri, and the Sahitya Academy Award (India), the inaugural Utah Award for the Environmental Humanities for The Great Derangement in 2018, and the crowning glory, the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award, also in 2018, making Ghosh the first Indian writer in English to be awarded the Jnanpith.

Ghosh’s books, both fiction and non-fiction, dissect the collective consciousness of nations and cultures with the sharpness of a scalpel; his narrative style is panoramic, cruising between centuries, sweeping through countries and continents, connecting, for instance, in The Nutmeg’s Curse, the vicious conquest of the Bandanese with the merciless genocide of the Native Indians in the vast swathes of America.

How then did the nutmeg, a spice grown exclusively in the Banda Islands for centuries, and peacefully traded as a resource by the islanders themselves, become a curse?

The answer lies in the Dutch East India Company’s quest for total control over the nutmeg trade, for the stakes were incredibly high. As Ghosh says in the book, “In the 16th century, a handful of nutmeg could buy a mansion or a ship in Europe.” So, of course, the Dutch came to the Banda Islands with the express intent to evict or annihilate the inhabitants, and take over the island.

In a statement in the very first chapter of the book, “The Lamp Falls,” Ghosh chillingly transports the readers right to the heart of the Bandanese camp: “How must it feel to find yourself face-to-face with someone who has made it clear that he has the power to bring your world to an end, and has every intention of doing so?”

In the 18th and 19th centuries, with the rapid rise of industrialization in the UK, the race for trade monopolies and the wars associated with them, both in the East and the Americas, gave rise to a race for supremacy in the constantly shifting geopolitical order; this, in turn, required a constant supply of fossil fuels. Therein lay the genesis of the current climate crisis.

Today, Ghosh feels that the western notions of development and militarization are the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. His words have proved prophetic. In Chapter 10 of The Nutmeg’s Curse, “The Father of All Things,” he writes, “The role that fossil fuels play in war-making is another, monstrously vital, aspect of their enmeshment with structures of power and forms of violence.”

He asserts that a direct relationship exists between fossil fuels and war-making. “A country’s ability to project military force is directly connected to the size of its carbon footprint—and this has been true since the early 19th century.” And so it is right now with the current Russia-Ukraine war.

Ghosh also addresses the issue of climate migration in his books, which he feels “is not very visible at the surface,” and so “climate experts don’t pay too much attention to it.”

On one of his travels to Italy, he found several people from Bangladesh who undertook a hazardous journey to Europe via Libya because their lands in the native Sundarbans were being submerged by the sea.

“What is that if not climate migration?” he asks. The crisis is “here and now. It is an urgent reality we cannot ignore anymore.”

With the recent COP26 meet being considered a failure, are governments in developed nations still scrambling in the dark?

He laughs. “I would say governments pay far more attention to the optics of the COP meetings than to actual climate change. It’s just an unfolding disaster, no other words to describe it. In the US, we have a corporate capture of the state. They won’t allow any legislation to happen. It’s basically the same story everywhere. Vested interests are holding things back.”

As if to echo his words, the Biden administration announced on April 15, 2022, that it will resume onshore oil and gas lease sales on federal land, albeit with a higher royalty payable by companies. Good sense, it seems, will not prevail anytime soon.

So where do the solutions lie?

“We need to completely rethink the ways in which we live,” Ghosh says. “Alternative energy is not going to give us a miraculous solution. The only possible thing to do is to use less, to consume less.”

To learn more, attend Ghosh’s online event:

Dr. Ghosh will discuss his most recent work at an event organized by SACHI (Society for Art & Cultural Heritage of India).

DATE: Saturday, April 23, 2022

TIME: 3 PM.

LOCATION: Virtual Online Webinar.

For more information, visit: https://sachi.org


Nandita Chowdhury Bose is a journalist, writer, and editor. In the past, she has worked at publications like India Today and Society. Since moving to the United States, she has been a freelance communications professional.

This article was edited by Contributing Editor Rasana Atreya.


 

Nandita Chowdhury Bose

Nandita Chowdhury Bose is a journalist, writer, and editor. In the past, she has worked at publications like India Today and Society. Since moving to the United States, she has been a freelance communications...