Food and Drink

Fall’s favorite spice blend has a violent history

The invaders struck the island from three sides simultaneously.

The Dutch fleet of 1,655 soldiers and sailors and more than a dozen wooden ships landed at the Banda Islands, an archipelago located in modern-day Indonesia, in 1621. It was the most powerful military campaign the Dutch East India Company had sent to Asia thus far.

After a swift Bandanese surrender, the victors rounded up local leaders. They signed treaties that turned the Bandanese into Dutch subjects, then tortured them for confessions revealing alleged plots to attack the Dutch.

Thousands were killed, others enslaved, and many who fled to the mountains were starved out.

“The population of around 15,000 Bandanese was decimated to just a few hundred in a few months,” said Adam Clulow, a historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Dutch company was later accused of carrying out what some describe as the first instance of corporate genocide.”

“And it was all for nutmeg,” he said.

At the time, nutmeg, one of three key spices in the blend known as pumpkin spice, grew nowhere else in the world. It was considered a miraculous substance, rumored to cure the plague, make consumers more beautiful, sharpen the memory and calm the mind, Clulow said.


Today you can buy a jar of the spice mix, typically made with cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, for as little as $2.39, or drink it in Starbucks’s perennially popular Pumpkin Spice Latte, confident that the nutmeg wasn’t grown through means of violence.

“Some spices are part of a natural course of trade,” said Sarah Wassberg Johnson, a food historian. “It just happens that the main spices in pumpkin spice are fraught with colonizer histories.”

While the Banda Islands grew nutmeg, Amboina — a set of nearby islands also in Indonesia — was famous for cloves. The fight to control the clove trade was almost as bloody and dramatic as the battles for nutmeg, and nearly drove the Netherlands and England to war in the early 17th century, said Clulow, who is a spice historian.

Cinnamon, mostly cultivated in Sri Lanka, was first controlled by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, and eventually the British, according to the Sri Lanka Export Development Board.

It was after the 1500s, when European explorers wanted to bypass the middlemen and create monopolies over sought-after spices, that the willingness to trade with Indigenous people dwindled and things started to get violent, Johnson said.

“It’s true that if we didn’t consume food that hadn’t been touched by slavery and Indigenous displacement, we wouldn’t be eating a lot of food,” Johnson said. “But whenever foods enter the pop culture lexicon the way pumpkin spice has in the U.S., it’s important to acknowledge how it reached us.”

Pumpkin spice products are firmly established as an economic juggernaut today. Sales of pumpkin spice products (not including those at restaurants and coffee shops) totaled more than $802 million in the year ending July 2023, according to NielsenIQ data.

In the 17th century, the average European knew about nutmeg and cloves but probably didn’t have access to them, Johnson said. But once the plantations began using enslaved laborers to mass-produce the crops, the increase in supply caused the price to fall.

Over the next century, supply increased because the spice plants were taken to other regions including Mauritius and Réunion, and eventually Sri Lanka and Grenada. Soon, the once-exclusive spices could be found in recipe books.

One of the earliest recipes for pumpkin pie was written by Amelie Simmons in the first-ever American cookbook, published in 1796. It used “lots of sugar and spices,” The Washington Post previously reported.

By the mid-19th century, nutmeg, mace, cloves, cinnamon and ginger became common, and foods such as gingerbread cake, spice cake and spiced pumpkin and apple pies became indelible parts of American food history, Johnson said.

Soon you didn’t even have to blend pumpkin spice at home. It came prepackaged in a bottle. Contrary to popular opinion, Johnson believes that McCormick was not the first company to create “Pumpkin Pie Spice” — Thompson & Taylor beat the company to it by at least a year.

Johnson cites an advertisement for Thompson & Taylor’s Pumpkin Pie Spice in a 1933 issue of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. McCormick’s website says it manufactured the “original” spice in 1934.

Another early reference to “pumpkin spice” appears to be a 1936 recipe that ran in The Post. “Pumpkin spice cake is a desirable dessert for a family dinner, and a healthful pick-me-up for children after school,” read an outdated recipe, referring to pumpkin as a food of the “Italian peasantry,” The Post reported.

When the Dutch had first landed on the Banda Islands, they behaved like traders. In 1599, they paid a port fee and bartered nutmeg for cotton and other manufactured goods.

Their 1621 conquest sprang from years of failed attempts to win a monopoly over nutmeg, Clulow said.

“A lot of commodities have terrible histories — there’s sugar and tobacco to think about,” he said. “But nutmeg, now used in pumpkin spice, has the most compressed terrible history. Thousands were killed.”


Today, nutmeg has no negative connotations, he said.

Photos of Starbucks’s Pumpkin Spice Latte, however, remind Clulow of still-life paintings by Dutch masters from the 17th century.

Still Life with a Turkey Pie, painted by Pieter Claesz in 1627, depicts a table filled with luxurious products: olives, savory pies, fruits, nutmeg and cloves.

He described the painting as the “ultimate symbol of stunningly opulent, globalized consumption in the 17th century.”

“It’s the same with these Starbucks lattes,” he said. “You’re getting stuff from all over the world and repackaging it for wealthy consumers without acknowledging the history of the ingredients.”