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Botanical Intoxication: Singapore’s History with Nutmeg

Words by Hilary Yeo

From tales of it being used to ward off the plague in mid-1300s Europe to one of the ingredients in dessert, we have all known, tasted, or at least heard of nutmeg. But not many know of the spice’s role in Singapore’s history.

*This is an extract of an article that first appeared in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice & Aromatics’ issue

The fruit of the Myristica species is about the size of an apricot, covered with a brown hard shell that splits open to reveal its prized seed encased in a cage of red tributaries.
The nutmeg spice is derived from this shiny seed, commonly found in powder form. Before finding its way into almost every kitchen in the modern world, it has had an intriguing, rich and sometimes not so pleasant history globetrotting from Southeast Asia to England.

While its trees now grow predominantly in Indonesia, where it is mainly produced, what is lesser known is the spice’s history here in Singapore. During the country’s time as a British colony, this small island was swept up in ‘nutmeg mania’ along with the rest of the world. Hectares of plantations filled with rows of tall, evergreen trees could be found all over colonial Singapore, covering all of Orchard road and Duxton Hill.

A photo of nutmeg trees in 1923 Singapore from The Encyclopedia of Food by Artemas Ward (Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

The streets of nutmeg

Originating from the Maluku Islands also known as the Spice Islands, nutmeg as a commodity was the affair of local kings, who controlled the export of it. Through trade routes across Malacca, where Portuguese sailors got their hands on it and brought it back to Europe, nutmeg grew in value, and at one point was worth 300 times the price to produce.

Nutmeg trees were one of the very first trees planted and cultivated by the British when Sir Stamford Raffles landed in Singapore in 1819. During that time, spices, in particular nutmeg, were a popular and valuable commodity between the various colonial powers due to its rarity in Europe. In the book One hundred years of Singapore, the authors
detailed the allure of Southeast Asia’s tropical climate that drew many seeking to capitalise on the trade. Forests were cleared for numerous plantations growing all sorts of spices.

Looking to seize monopoly of the spice trade from the Dutch East India Company, Raffles ordered for the cultivation of spices such as nutmeg and cloves in Singapore at sites around Bencoolen and Fort Canning Park. Most notable were those that covered the Tanglin and Claymore districts, known as Tanglin Hill and Claymore Hill today, which were some of the most lavish areas during nutmeg mania in the late 1830s to early 1840s famed for the fashionable bungalows of their British owners. The spice quickly became a symbol for wealth and power in Singapore, and as more saw the opportunity to cash in on the crop, even more plantations popped up across the country.

At the peak of the craze, the plantations islandwide were infected by a mysterious disease that killed the fruit even before it could ripen. The thriving nutmeg industry that existed and the mania that surrounded the spice inevitably ceased to exist, with the fever itself leading to its demise. In an article published in The Straits Times on May 20th, 1865, the cause was not the assumed nutmeg disease but overzealous plantation owners and planters who employed poor cultivation methods. A later study conducted by James C. Jackson in his book Planters and speculators: Chinese and European agricultural enterprise in Malaya, 1786-1921, came to another conclusion. It attributed the plantations’ demise to the existence of a beetle that worked to destroy the fruit, naming the entire phenomenon “nutmeg canker”.

With all research and investigation leading nowhere, large plantations were subsequently divided into smaller estates and put up for sale. The colonial rule over Singapore subsequently dissipated as well, ending 144 years under British powers.

*Read the full article in Wine & Dine’s 2021 ‘Spice & Aromatics’ issue. Available at newsstands and Magzter 

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