Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age

Steven Shapin writes:

In 1617, the governors of the Dutch East India Company placed an order for goods to be procured by their agents. The shopping list included a hundred thousand bags of black pepper and thousands of pounds of other sorts of pepper; as much in the way of cloves, ginger and cinnamon as the ships could carry; 1000 barrels of nutmeg and 300 of mace; 3000 pounds of cassia wood (closely related to cinnamon); 6000 pounds of camphor; and the same amount of the ginger-like galingale. That sort of cargo came from Asia: the pepper from Kerala, Java or Sumatra; the cassia probably from India or Sri Lanka; and the other spices mainly from the Moluccan (or Spice) Islands. They were extremely profitable goods: nutmeg sold for three hundred times more in Amsterdam than it cost Dutch merchants in the Spice Islands. And they were luxury goods: in Restoration London a pound of nutmeg went at wholesale for the present-day equivalent of £46; cloves for £76. Nutmeg was so valuable that the Treaty of Breda, ending the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667, delivered the tiny nutmeg island of Run to the Dutch in exchange for another island colony in America then known as New Amsterdam. When Samuel Pepys inspected a captured Dutch East India Company ship, seized in 1665, he was amazed by its cargo: ‘The greatest wealth . . . that a man can see in the world. Pepper scattered through every chink, you trod upon it; and in cloves and nutmegs, I walked above the knees; whole rooms full . . . As noble a sight as ever I saw in my life.’

(LRB 7 February 2008)