Book review: Amitav Ghosh's The Nutmeg's Curse lacks rigorous thought
Most of the information Ghosh conveys is generally available to the educated public and his contribution is primarily its assembly.
Amitav Ghosh is an anthropologist by training but is best known as a fiction writer, and he chooses anthropological subjects around which he constructs fiction – for instance, the people, ecology and legends of the Ganges delta in The Hungry Tide (2004). His writing involves extensive travel from his earliest work onwards. In an Antique Land (1992) was a non-fiction narrative based on his doctoral dissertation and set in the Nile delta. The Glass Palace (2000) is set in Burma, Bengal, and Malaya, and spans a century from the Third Anglo-Burmese War. The Ibis Trilogy – constituted by three separate novels – covers spaces beginning in India, is about the migration of coolies (indentured labour) to Mauritius in the mid-19th century.
His books are based on extensive research and The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, a work of non-fiction, was undertaken as a project based on a trip to the Banda Islands, an archipelago that is part of Indonesia. Ghosh is increasingly involved in climate issues and he traces the present crisis to the doings of colonialism in the book. The Banda Islands are known for the Nutmeg, a spice once so highly valued – since it grew nowhere else – that the Dutch massacred the inhabitants of the island, and sold the survivors into slavery to gain control of its trade. When the price of Nutmeg fell subsequently, they set about destroying the trees to make the spice dearer. Ghosh marshals an enormous store of material to make his points and his agenda is eventually to trace the ecological crisis to western ideas of progress. He tries to show that so called savages and shamans had a more sustainable relationship with the world than the civilizations that look to nature as a ’resource’. The coronavirus pandemic, Amitav Ghosh infers, is only the latest disaster in a series of man-made ones resulting from ‘progress’.
Ghosh makes a large number of connections in the pursuit of his argument and the first is the debunking of the idea that human made goods take precedence over natural products in the modern era:
“We are today even more dependent on botanical matter than we were three hundred years ago and not just for our food. Most contemporary humans are completely dependent on energy that comes from long-buried carbon – and what are coal, oil and natural gas except fossilized forms of botanical matter?”
Ghosh elaborates upon the quantity of fossil-fuel- based energy consumed in the world and cites sources. The case is impressive but one wonders if the original assertion even deserved a rebuttal. Humankind can only create goods out of what natural material was bequeathed to it by the planet. One could say that much of Ghosh’s scholarship is used in this way, to argue largely for what are well-meaning truisms.
From the massacre of the Bandanese by the Dutch, Ghosh jumps to a nearly contemporaneous event: the genocide of Pequot Indians by the British, the connecting link between the two being Anglo-Dutch rivalry in the Far East and America. He supports his delineation of the Pequot massacre with two different accounts of the event from British soldiers who participated. More interesting however is the fact that philosopher and polemicist Sir Francis Bacon, Lord Chancellor of England, explained in detail why it was lawful for Christian Europeans to exterminate certain groups ‘proscribed by nature’ or by the ‘immediate commandment of God.’ These parts justifying the massacres are the most rewarding part of Ghosh’s book since it is not simply reportage but argument. This is what Ghosh says:
“In essence (Bacon) was making the argument that a well-governed country (‘any nation that is civil and policed’) has an absolute right to invade countries that are ‘degenerate’ or in violation of the ‘laws of nature and nations.’ This is, of course the fundamental doctrine of ‘Liberal interventionism,’ and it has been invoked many times in recent decades to justify ‘wars of choice’ launched by Western powers.”
Ghosh does not go the whole distance by stretching it to US interventionism in Iraq and Libya but the liberal ethics by which genocide is judged appears to be that if a leader embarks upon a genocide of people in another country it is morally justifiable but if the leader kills people in his or her own country that would be inexcusable. Since the US is ‘well-governed’, its genocidal conduct elsewhere in ‘less well-governed spaces’ is justifiable by this doctrine but not so Stalin’s genocide in the USSR. A genocide of the ‘well-governed’ is evidently a much more heinous matter than genocide of the ‘less well-governed’.
Ghosh is writing non-fiction but it is basically as a narrator that he emerges since he piles fact upon fact without producing much argument, only using irony. Take the earlier remarks about Sir Francis Bacon, for instance, or Sir Francis Bacon imagining a utopia (as New Atlantis) when he was advocating the liquidation of ‘unnatural’ peoples. In a later intervention Ghosh is again ironic about the Netherlands having a ‘Golden Age’ just when the Dutch were destroying the Bandanese so they could dominate the trade in Nutmegs. I think Ghosh’s use of irony is misplaced because it only implies ‘hypocrisy’; it is as though Rembrandt’s paintings are tainted by what the Dutch did in the Banda islands.
Even though this contradiction can be resolved Ghosh declines to so; Western progress may have caused the destruction of non-European peoples (dubbed ‘unnatural’) but it is a moral judgement made by the same liberal viewpoint authored by ‘Western progress’ through ethical thought. In other words, Ghosh and those he cites, are all products of the same civilization that engaged in genocide. One can hardly justify the genocide but one cannot also write with irony when one is describing western progress. Irony of Ghosh’s sort refuses to contend with complexities and contradictions. To illustrate, there is as much irony in a civilization that produced Rembrandt also engaging in genocide as in that civilization – which destroyed the environment – producing a book such as Ghosh’s. The western idea of progress relies on contradictions to advance but this notion eludes Ghosh.
Climate change being traced to progress and the world being destroyed by this idea of progress is not an unreasonable supposition, and virtually nothing that Ghosh says bears disagreement. But as alternatives he only puts forward those devised by ‘primitive’ groups in which the words and doings of shamans and mystics are paramount. My own argument is that human beings have little control over what they may ‘know’ and how they use it, and knowledge itself is not ‘moral,’ regardless of how admirable moral choices might be. The compulsion to ‘know and use’ is much stronger than the ‘moral’ urge, which means that if the primitive tribes had had the same propensity to explore as the Europeans, they might have put the world in the same position that it is in today – because the urge to ‘know’ would have driven them. At no point does Amitav Ghosh propose an alternative kind of knowledge that might have yielded the same swift results that European thinking did, but of a more benign kind.
There are some very interesting things that Ghosh has to say that includes the colonizers use of ‘nature’ – like epidemics – under the pretext that nature had undone them because of their primitive practices. A particularly interesting thread is the Gaia hypothesis according to which the Earth is a living entity and that ‘life maintains the conditions of life.’ This is the exact opposite of the beliefs of Judeo-Christian religions that what is on the Earth is essentially for Man because he has been chosen by God. The later viewpoint may be responsible for the enormous value placed upon human lives in western rhetoric although, in actual practice, the high value is placed only on western lives. Ghosh acknowledges this but The Nutmeg’s Curse ends with a missive extolling human life, ‘the fate of humans, and all our relatives.’ My question here is whether the inflated value placed on human lives is compatible with the Gaia hypothesis. Would it not follow from it that the planet and life are more valuable than human life itself and if human losses caused by itself could not simply be ‘collateral damage?’ I am not advocating anything here except that every kind of speculation needs more thought than Ghosh gives to it.
In Amitav Ghosh’s castigation of Western science and progress is evidence of a scholar who has studied extensively and who cares for the future of humankind; but one does not find traces of rigorous thought in his writing. Most of the information he conveys is generally available to the educated public and his contribution is primarily its assembly. The subtitle of the book ‘parables for a planet in crisis’ also suggests that Ghosh did not quite know what he had assembled. Perhaps a thinker at the heart of so much feeling would have been able to give his undertaking more unity and purpose.
Mk Raghavendra is a cultural, literary and film critic who has authored 11 books on cinema, politics and literature. He won the Swarna kamal for best film crity in 1997. Two of his books have been translated into Russian.