Secrets of the Spice Islands

Part 2: Nutmeg

What if I told you that New York City owed its fame and fortune to a tiny, forgotten island in the backwaters of Indonesia?

Today the Big Apple tops bucket lists. It’s the centre of global trade. With an iconic skyline and nicknames like Capital of the World and Centre of the Universe, no wonder Manhattan is home to some of the world’s hottest real estate.

But five hundred years ago, every one of the these accolades belonged to Pulau Rhun—a tropical island where money grew on trees. Hidden away in the remote Banda Sea, this palm-studded paradise and three neighbouring isles produced Earth’s only supply of nutmeg.

“A small sack of nutmeg could fetch a London manor.”

Like its cousin the clove, this mysterious nut—thrice wrapped in a hard shell, red webbing and tart flesh—was bling for Europe’s well-to-do. It flavoured food and spiced wine, but was also hailed as a cure for infertility and The Plague. As such, a small sack of nutmeg could fetch a London manor.

It was a scramble as empires like Spain and Portugal sunk fortunes, men and ships into the spice race. Out of the fray rose the Dutch, with a business proposal that would change the course of history.

The VOC (or Dutch East India Company) was founded, promising private investors a share in unthinkable wealth. The only catch was that they help fund dubious high-seas treasure hunts on creaky ships that may never return.

So it was that in one foul swoop, the VOC created the world’s first corporate logo, pioneered transnational commerce, and single-handedly invented the stock market.

In 2017, the screens of Times Square and Wall Street shine bright with names like Apple and Microsoft. But with profits eight times their size, the VOC still stands unrivalled as the most successful business venture in all of history.

But let us return to Rhun. Here in the shade of scented nutmeg groves, a faithful band of Englishmen traded spice with friendly locals. To their delight, the island’s treacherous reefs and cannoned forts had kept the Dutch at bay for decades.

To the Dutch, however, this was an infuriating curse. Rhun was the only piece of real estate that stood between them and their ultimate reward: a worldwide monopoly on spice.

“Empires like Spain and Portugal sunk fortunes, men and ships into the spice race.”

In London, King James (of KJV fame) was so pleased with this turn of events that he traded his title for a new one: “King of England, Scotland, Wales and Pullorun”.

But it was no secret that VOC ships were everywhere and The Company’s influence grew. Soon the English found themselves outnumbered, outsmarted and outgunned. Tragically their slice of fortune fell to Dutch control.

And so Rhun’s fate would be decided at the negotiating tables of Europe. Determined to secure all of the planet’s nutmeg, the Dutch compelled England to unconditionally surrender Rhun. To sweeten the deal, they’d throw in an obscure island in the Americas known as New Amsterdam.

Little did any of them know that a few centuries later, New Amsterdam would reinvent itself as the world’s most famous metropolis.

Today, the residents of Banda still harvest nutmeg as they did generations ago. And in a delicious twist, their spice shaped another global icon. Nutmeg, it turns out, is one of Coca-Cola’s famed “secret ingredients”.

But while high-flying corporates sip Coke in Manhattan, and Banda’s farmers patiently tend to their nutmeg crops, they all remain blissfully ignorant of one thing: New York City was bought for a little island called Rhun.

Well could we label this the most incredible trade in history. Almost. For there is one transaction that trumps even this. And that is the exchange of a God, wrapped in flesh, whose death bought his creatures everlasting life.

“What he asks of us is costly: an unconditionally surrendered life.”

At his word, roaring seas are calmed, planets turn and trees sprout forth. Yet he has his eyes set on us. We humans are his joy and crown. Far be it from us to be our maker’s only masterpiece that resists his perfect will.

Yes, what he asks of us is costly: an unconditionally surrendered life. But he’s proven his great love and his unfailing commitment to us: he unconditionally surrendered his.

Let the tale of New York keep you from any foolish exchange. And at the same time, let it assure you that for all who trade wisely, the best is yet to come.

The promise stands. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.

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