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Nutmeg Spice Islands

Best Day On Expedition | The Story Of Nutmeg

Whale sharks, green fiords at Tufi, traffic in Jayapura, the original Bible belonging to Pastor Bink and more wondrous surprises daily are a few of the highlights of our New Guinea Circle expedition. But for me, it wasn’t the swim with the whale sharks or even the stunning scenery looking over the lush green fjords of Tufi, it was a day so unexpected and special.  This was all about the little nutmeg whose influence in world history is deep and far reaching.

On 18 November 2017, we had left West Papua and were sailing north around the “bird’s head” of New Guinea through the fabled mountainous, green Spice Islands where the golden domes of mosques were visible through the hills covered in jungle. I had finished reading “Nathaniel’s Nutmeg” by Giles Milton while on this adventure and being interested in history, I hoped this trip would add to my knowledge about the little nutmeg.

We expected a dry landing that morning at the wharf to Selkey village but the tides were against us and most of us were forced to accomplish contortions to disembark. Waiting to greet us in the school’s quadrangle was a children’s choir whose tone was so sweet and pure, while overhead thunderous, black and threatening clouds swirled and gathered. We were familiar with the layout of the villages but yet each village held uniqueness and with approaching showers we ran to see as much as we could. There was a man planing timber for his boat, chooks scratching through coconut shells, mothers washing and playing with youngsters and some folks sitting, smoking and watching us, the tourists.

Without warning the warm rain fell torrentially as it does in the tropics.  Nearby I saw a small house with two teenagers sitting on the verandah. After asking if I may come onto the verandah to shelter, they obliged. My presence did not interrupt their unusual chore. Immediately I observed a large basin containing nuts, something red spread on a sheet and a bucket of off-cuts. I was wet through as I stood on that little verandah but this was a day I will not forget.  The teenagers, no doubt part of a cottage industry, were preparing nutmeg for sale by removing the outside flesh, and then removing the aril which becomes mace from the kernel. What a practical lesson I was learning about the composition of nutmeg and early stages in the preparation of nutmeg prior to sale. Then through the front door of the little house came two beautiful ladies whose smiles would light up any day.  Using broken English we conversed.  I learned they were midwives for the village and this little house was the place the midwives worked from. Proudly they showed me through the house, so neat and clean.

As we boarded the Xplorer to leave Selkey, children with wide smiles swarmed to the wharf and my first lesson about nutmeg was over but because of my experience at Selkey, I was now more sharply aware that there would be more stories about nutmeg.

And my best day led to two best days with the destination to the old headquarters of the Dutch East India Company or VOC where pretty nutmeg trees laden with the fruit were growing.

Being in the legendary Spice Islands all about were the forts built by the Dutch. At Banda Neira, at Fort Belgica, we were right in the area where terrible atrocities were perpetrated by the Dutch and the English for and against the Bandanese over the spice, NUTMEG.

In another large colonial building, a display of implements for harvesting nutmeg made understanding harvesting easier for me.  At the end of the day on the roof of the fort, young ladies and men performed the nutmeg harvesting dance and refreshing drinks were served.

To remember my best day I bought a framed botanical drawing, a wooden nutmeg and a bottle of jam.  Now I fully understand the story of the swap between the Dutch and English of Manhattan Island and the tiny island of Run.  I hope the folk who live on Manhattan Island know and appreciate the story of NUTMEG!