Did the Dutch really trade Manhattan for nutmeg?

The Fight for Nutmeg

Jan Pieterszoon-Coen was a ruthless commander in the VOC who ruled the local populations with an iron fist.
Jan Pieterszoon-Coen was a ruthless commander in the VOC who ruled the local populations with an iron fist.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The scramble for land in North America was tame compared to the violent power struggles in the East Indies. European powers were vying for control of the spice trade, and the valuable spice at the center of it all was nutmeg.

The Europeans valued nutmeg for more than its distinct taste. Nutmeg was considered an aphrodisiac and hallucinogen. People even wore bags of the spice around their necks as a protection against the Black Plague. It may sound like superstition, but it's plausible that nutmeg actually repelled fleas that carried plague-causing bacteria [source: Le Couteur]. Nutmeg was so highly coveted that European traders were selling it at nearly a 6,000 percent markup [source: Weir].

Nutmeg is indigenous to the volcanic soils of the Banda Islands, a group of islands in Indonesia. To get their hands on nutmeg, the Portuguese annexed these islands in 1512. But in the 17th century, the Portuguese lost their grip on this side of the world. The VOC expelled its Portuguese rivals and subsequently attempted to enforce a monopoly on nutmeg. At first, the native Bandanese population considered the Dutch their saviors from Portuguese control. However, relations soon soured.

The Dutch thought they'd secured a monopoly when they established a treaty in 1602 with village chiefs. Yet, many Bandanese nutmeg growers continued selling to other traders. Historians speculate that the Bandanese didn't understand the terms of the Dutch agreement. What's more, the Bandanese relied on bartering nutmeg for food with nearby islands [source: Bernstein]. Regardless, the Dutch felt betrayed and responded with violence against the Bandanese. In addition to a series of skirmishes, the Dutch occasionally launched sweeping attacks that resulted in the destruction of villages, enslavement of natives and executions of chiefs [source: Le Couteur]. After killing thousands of natives -- most of the Bandanese population -- the Dutch imported their own farmers from Holland to take charge of growing nutmeg [source: Lamoureux].

The VOC's struggle to maintain a monopoly on the spice was further complicated by the British, who controlled Run (also known as Pulau Run), one of the smallest of the Banda Islands. It was a fight for control over this island that brings us back to the other island in question: Manhattan.