Millions of lives lost for it. Whole cultures were decimated as a side effect of getting it. Mountains of pure gold were spent on the operations to find it. And yet today although it is a common ingredient in the processed food you eat, in toiletry, medications and is found nearly everywhere, few remember the story or acknowledge the history behind nutmeg.
Yes, it is a nut the world went nuts for. The craze lasted hundreds of years. Nutmeg was worth its weight in gold when it arrived in Europe, carried across the dangerous seas in sailboats limping back home after going through unimaginable difficulties. These days it seems world craving for nutmeg is still huge but current supply meets all the demand.
The story of nutmeg is a real thriller. It does however turn very ugly at times. Cruel, vicious, deadly and dishonest. And these unholy acts took place on some of the most pristine, paradise-like locations on Earth, as if to contrast the dirty deeds against a pure background. The people behind this story were extremely brave and courageous. It is true that the main motivation for sailors and captains to go out into the dark boiling seas and sail into the unknown was mostly money and fame but still it is an impressive undertaking.
It begins at a time when most of Europe was busy fighting endless, bloody, expensive religious wars with their neighbors, while Portugal was busy doing something completely different. A Portuguese nobleman known as Prince Henry the Navigator was hard at work preparing to send his people into the unknown world. Prince Henry was a unique character in Portugal’s history and a pioneer in marine navigation. His dedication to discovering new lands by sailing was unmatched at the time (early 15th century)
He invited the best cartographers, navigators, ship captains, astronomers, mathematicians and shipbuilders to create the most accurate marine charts ever made until then and to develop new navigation techniques, sailing vessels and routes. He investigated sailors and acquired, using all kinds of trickery, ship log books, charts and instruments. Ship logbooks were the highest secrets a country kept, and so was all information related to marine expeditions. The country with the most navigation and knowledge about new lands could potentially win the race to control immense treasures. And Prince Henry was determined to make Portugal the world’s exploration leader.
All wanted to find the source of the spices. They were looking for the Spice Islands. It is not only nutmeg that Europe was hungry for. Pepper, cloves, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla and other spices were in use in Europe even before the spice islands were found. They arrived mainly through Venice which was a major commerce hub, but no one knew where exactly it came from. Spices were transported to Venice over land from somewhere in the east.
And so Prince Henry gathered an impressive band of experts in what some claim was a sort of university for marine exploration. Prince Henry established this institute of learning in a place called Sagres in Portugal. A flat, windswept cliff on the very south-west corner of Europe. He then started building ships, equipping them with his newly found knowledge and sending them out again and again, to cross the boundaries of the known world by sea. He himself, so they say, never sailed. He sent his captains each time with new orders to seek new routes, find new lands and claim them for the Portugueese king. They were successful, ultimately.
One of the most fascinating places to get in touch with Prince Henry’s times and actions, to walk and breath the same spaces and air he used to and to see exploration and discovery is in the covenant of Tomar in Portugal. Tomar was Prince Henry’s domain as he was the Governor of the Order of Christ which built Tomar and operated from it.
Tomar is one of those places you need to see when the sun is slanted. Late afternoon or early morning, when the golden sunlight brings the cut rock to life. This article is going to be too long if I start writing about the artwork in Tomar. The details, meanings, construction and talent put into the artwork in Tomar is simply too much to describe. Just have a look at the images. The amazing motifs of seagoing, navigation, world exploration and the curiosities brought home from these voyages are amazingly depicted in the artwork throughout the numerous mysterious and history ladden buildings in the compound.
I can’t be sure what makes Tomar such an incredibly spiritual place. Is it the thick, stone walls with their pink hue and earthy dust scent, the echoes and silence in its vast corridors and halls, or many centuries of warring and praying and intrigue this compound enabled. It could be the stories told in the intricate public art, depicting the first ocean voyages into the unknown, into the new world. Tomar touched me, my mood and my mind.
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Oh, BTW, Grenada is the king of nutmeg production worldwide today, but that is a completely different and amazing story
All content was created by me aside from that nutmeg image which I could not find on my device