The nutmeg in that pumpkin spice latte of yours has a downright sinister history. (Nataliya Arzamasova/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Pumpkin-spice latte season is starting even earlier this year, with the famous drink spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves pouring into Starbucks coffee shops Tuesday.

But underneath those fuzzy-sweater vibes, the spices in “the PSL” have a dark history. Particularly nutmeg. It’s a story of war, genocide and slavery.

The variety of nutmeg we’re familiar with is native to the Banda Islands in what is now Indonesia. In the Middle Ages, the Bandanese became rich trading the spice — plus mace, which comes from the same plant, and cloves, which also grew there, according to Atlas Obscura. Nutmeg made it to the lips of Chinese and Malay elites, and to Europeans via Arab traders, who kept the location of the source secret.

All that changed in 1511, when Portuguese explorer António de Abreu became the first European to land on the Banda Islands, according to food historian Michael Krondl. Portugal, which was absorbed into the Spanish empire in 1568, had a foothold in the nutmeg trade for nearly 100 years, but the Bandanese resisted their efforts to gain more control.


This 1614 engraving depicts a maritime battle between the Dutch and Portuguese for the control of the nutmeg trade in the Banda Islands in 1606.

The Dutch showed up in 1599, and everything got gruesome soon afterward. They seized the islands, built a fort and informed the Bandanese they were no longer allowed to trade with anyone else, according to historian Vincent C. Loth. The Bandanese signed contracts agreeing to the arrangement, though it is unclear if they understood what they were agreeing to, Loth wrote. They ignored the contracts anyway, continuing to trade with whomever they always had, plus a new partner on the scene — the English.

This led to a number of violent skirmishes between the Dutch and the Bandanese, Loth wrote. Then in 1621, Dutch Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen led 2,000 troops on an assault on the Bandanese. Their leaders were beheaded, and the wealthy were enslaved and sent overseas. The remaining inhabitants fled into the mountains, where, over the following months, nearly all met one of three fates: They were murdered in Dutch attacks, starved to death, or jumped off cliffs in despair.

By the end of the massacre, only about 1,000 of an estimated 15,000 Bandanese had survived. Some escaped to other islands, where their descendants still live, while others were enslaved to teach the Dutch how to cultivate nutmeg themselves.

Even after the near-extinction of the Bandanese, the English continued to fight with the Dutch for control of the nutmeg monopoly. (The monopoly wouldn’t be busted until the 1750s, when a French trader stole nutmeg seedlings and cultivated them in French colonies, according to Krondl.)

The matter was settled in 1667 when the English agreed to end its claims to the Bandas in exchange for an island the Dutch considered worthless: Manhattan.

And, for the record, Manhattan boasts 240 Starbucks that are peddling pumpkin-spice lattes at this very moment.

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