A historical true crime drama / Amitav Ghosh & Anders Dunker

The celebrated Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh has a university background in Social Anthropology. He is best known for the award winning ecologically themed novel The Hungry Tide (2004) set in the archipelago of the Sundebarans, as well as his trilogy of historical fiction about the Opium Wars and colonialism, The Ibis Trilogy (2008-2015). He recently came out with a fable about the Anthropocene called The Living Mountain (2022). In his non-fiction masterpiece The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), he discusses the problem of representing climate change in realist fiction and in culture at large. His book The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021) deepens his critical analysis of colonialism and discusses how its dark legacy haunts our world in the age of environmental disasters.

AD: The title of your book, The Nutmeg’s Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis (2021), sounds like a crime story or a mystery novel. You tell the story of globalization from the perspective of the people of the Banda islands, and other colonized peoples, taking a point of view from what is often understood– from the imperialist perspective – as the peripheries. When we go back to this beginning in the spice islands, what kind of stories did these traders come with – what stories did they tell about themselves and about the others? Where and how did you find the first clues to this narrative? 

AG: I’ve been writing about the Indian ocean for a long time, and I’ve been writing about Indian ocean commodities for a very long time. I wrote a trilogy of novels about the opium wars. I’ve always wanted to visit the spice islands because that is really where the whole history begins.

Some years ago, I was invited by the Indonesian government on a program whereby writers visit parts of the country. I went to Maluku and then I went to the Banda islands, and this was a very important part of writing this book, because as you’ve seen, it’s like a travel book in some sense. Much of my writing grows out of travel and the whole experience of being in places.

Placing it in the right context

AD: Places play a very important role in how you shape your stories, but you also chose a special point in time as your beginning. And in this beginning, there is a dark turn in the story of colonialist crime – it is almost like a horror story, when you see it from the point of view of the victims. Your former non-fiction book about climate change revolved around about narratives and climate change, our difficulties in comprehending and writing about what is going on. Your reflections on narratives, drawn from your experience as a storyteller, seems to inform all your work. For instance you explore how Western narratives have supported and shaped the history, leading up to the environmental destruction and injustices we see today.

AG: What happened in the Banda islands is almost unbelievable you know, and it is important to place it in the right context, so we need to proceed carefully. What happens is that Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the the governor general of the Dutch east Indies, who was only in his mid-thirties, wanted to gain control of the nutmeg trade. So, one day he decides that he is going to implement the final solution: he is simply going to eliminate all the Bandanese. The Bandanese were an enterprising prosperous community that had for a long time been important in transnational trade. Coen goes ahead with his plan and over a few weeks either kills, drives into starvation or enslaves the entire population of the island, except for a very few who managed to escape. Not even the Vikings would imagine going into Burgundy, liking the wine, and then decide to kill the whole population and take the grapes! The Vikings would recognize that there’s a connection between the place, the people who live in the place, their expertise, and the thing that they produce. Such atrocities could only happen in the context of racism. The reason why this occurred to a young Dutchman and his cohorts is because – you know – they realized that these are people of a different kind. At that particular moment in time, European doctrines basically said you can exterminate people at will. And as a consequence – in the Banda islands – place, people and commodity became completely separated.

Such atrocities could only happen in the context of racism.

AD: In a later part of your book, you connect this extractionism with a certain brutalization, which paradoxically happened at the same time as non-Europeans were talked about as “brutes”. So, what made them able to perpetrate actions that would be so unacceptable in their homeland? One theory would be that religious fervor was behind the disinhibition of the colonizers, but with the Dutch, God doesn’t really seem to enter the picture?

AG: I really think that it has to do with discovery of the Americas. These bonds between people, landscape and products got severed in the sixteenth century beginning with the discovery of the Americas and colonialist violence.

AD: It is very striking: if you go back to like the logbooks of Columbus on first arriving in the West Indies, he said something like: oh, these people are wonderful, they are like humans before the fall, like Adam and Eve in Paradise, they’re so innocent and so in harmony with nature. Not long after it starts contemplating the idea of making them slaves. On this later trip, as you write about in your book, there are already fully fledged massacres of native people…

AG: Adam Smith famously said that the discovery of the Americas was the most important thing that ever happened to humanity. I think he was absolutely right. You have one group of people in Europe, who’ve grown accustomed to incredible violence because of the sort of wars that they’d been waging for a long time. This group comes upon another group of people, who were by no means necessarily peaceful – they fought wars on their own and so on – but the level of violence that Europeans had been through at that point, especially if you consider the crusades and the religious wars, was such that we can literally see it as a case of disinhibition. They unleashed a kind of violence, which was truly beyond belief. I don’t think anything in human history is even comparable to the sort of violence that Europeans unleashed on north and south America.

It’s a curious thing that when we think of cruelty and extreme violence and so on, it has become common at least within European languages to jump immediately to comparisons with Genghis Khan or Atilla the Hun. But they never did anything even remotely close to what Europeans did in the Americas, you know, wiping out up to 95% of the population in places, and in ways that are so wanton and so excessive that the mind literally struggles to comprehend it.

Biopolitical warfare

AD: The difficulty in fathoming environmental destruction and climate change, which you wrote about in your other non-fiction book The Great Derangement is mirrored in this incomprehensible violence. And just to tie in the question of the environment right away: there seems to be a link between this sort of violence and the preparedness to destroy nature, and also the negligence of the bonds between humans and nature. In the story of the spice trade at this early stage in the Banda islands, how does this play out the relationship to the islands themselves. How is the mindset towards nature with the Europeans brought compared to that of the inhabitants?

AG: Well, that’s just it: When the Europeans saw north America, especially in the beginning, the forests, the swamps, were perceived as hideous. They thought of this land as ugly and unkempt, and they wanted to transform it completely. Very early on, ecological transformation became a very important part of colonialism. From the 17th century onwards, the English, especially, wanted to transform American landscapes. Within two generations, they managed to make this land into a kind of second England.

In the book, I call it a kind of biopolitical warfare. A lot of the conquest is actually done through animals and through disease, animals being livestock and disease being propagated often quite willfully. And that whole thing is very far from over. Those wars of ecological transformation are still going on in Amazonia, because what is at stake is the attempt to turn all of Amazonia into a kind of mid-west.

AD: What is at stake is in one sense of first the forest itself and the landscapes itself and secondly – just as important – the people living off and on that land, the people who depend on it. Conjoined with that you call biopolitical warfare is what you term “terraforming”, changing the land and adopting it to one certain lifestyle, to the so-called Western lifestyle or the colonizers’ lifestyle which is blind to the history of the land and the uses of landscapes and those things.

AG: The argument that I make is that we are seeing the unraveling of landscapes that have been terraformed. It’s the parts of north America that have been most extensively engineered to resemble European models that are the worst affected by climate change. If you look at California, or Southern Texas around Houston and most of the Mississippi river Delta, these are the places where the landscape is literally unraveling.

I’s clear from the fires are sweeping through California that what was done to that land was in fact a sort of profound provocation of the landscape. The same could be said of Southeastern Australia of Victoria. Many places that were subjected to colonial terraforming are now being devastated by terrible heat waves and wildfires.

The language of progress

AD: Drawing on indigenous knowledge and voices risks appearing like a romantic refuge from harsh political realities. But in cases like these, learning from indigenous cultures becomes more than a matter of protecting a cultural heritage, it is also about protecting the land in very concrete ways? How can we really learn from these cultures and how can we transfer their knowledge to a culture like our own, so different in so many ways?

AG: In exactly those places that experience the fires – in California, for example – there is a huge push to use what they call Traditional Ecological Knowledge. They actually made an acronym for it, TEK. In a way there is a commodification of indigenous knowledge, which is being fetishized and seen as something similar to Western forms of knowing. But they are not: these are forms of knowledge which depend absolutely on stories, on legends, on myths, on various kinds of beliefs. You can’t actually abstract the part of it that applies to ecology from the rest of the beliefs. So, in effect, traditional ecological knowledge is now something that Western governments are looking for, now that their own models of ecology and their own understandings of earth systems have unraveled. But we have to understand that these practices exist in a complete universe of beliefs, ways of life and so on.

AD: Part of the problem is that many of these practices, beliefs and ways of life have already died out. In your book you speak about a particular brand of evolutionism where Western people are prepared to accept the idea that just like certain species of animals die out, certain people and cultures simply are destined to die out in what is seen as a universal competition. This hardening or brutalization of ethics could intensify in a world where people begin seeing climate change as a state of war of all against all, a new survival game.

There is a book called Geospeculations by a German philosopher, Daniel Falb, and he is radical enough to say that in one respect evolution is our problem. And it’s a big problem, because our understanding of it is just the same as we have of the economy. It’s boom and bust. It’s a survival of the fittest. So, to me, at least it seems we’re on a tipping point between that kind of lifeboat ethics of survivalism, or on the other hand, going toward a sort of repentance and a humbler attitude, based on caring and solidarity. I guess the question is too big, but which are the ways that we can move towards this good side? How can we resist further brutalization?

AG: I think you’re absolutely right. The way that evolutionism came into being in the 19th century was very much dependent on the peculiar success that Europeans enjoyed in establishing a kind of absolute dominance across the globe. These doctrines constantly came to be incorporated into science and social science and so on. And sadly, I think those same doctrines are now being adapted and adopted by elites in the third world. Certainly in India, we see very similar discourses coming into being in terms of indigenous peoples, you know, especially over the last decade. All sorts of forests have been opened up to mining interests. Along with this, there’s been a wholesale adoption of this language of progress, where minority cultures will have to be made to become modern. They have to give up their primitive beliefs. One can see it very much progressing in the wrong direction.

I think it’s a mistake to think of what is called ‘climate migration’ as being caused by the climate crisis. I think rather that mass migration, the climate crisis, the pandemic are all effects of the same thing, which is the enormous acceleration of systems of production and consumption over the last 30 or 40 years.

What is just as troubling is the fact that – especially within continental Europe – there’s always been a tradition of eco-fascism, and these ideas are now surfacing again. What we are seeing today is a sudden surge in right wing approaches to environmental issues. You can see this in many of the manifestoes put out by the killers who have perpetrated massacres in recent times. One the one hand they advocate opposition to migration or internationalism, and at the same time they use a language of green values. I certainly think that we see the surfacing of eco-fascism across the board.

AD: As you point in the book where you talk about there is a real danger of misreading when you talk about vitalism, building on local legends, mythology and a local sensibility, because all those things that were also – unfortunately – present in Nazi Germany.

AG: Absolutely.

AD: So again, we’re at a difficult crossroads because we can’t throw that valuable tradition over board. We need to build on local knowledge, but at the same time localism can become very toxic. How can we make this something international and inclusive instead of making it something national and exclusive? What are the ways that such knowledge is actually has been shared successfully?  You already mentioned power management and local knowledges in California and Australia. Do you have other examples?

AG: We’ve been talking about this in relation to traditional ecological knowledge and indigenous peoples, but we have to accept that the same divide exists within the sciences. I would say that a lot of the scientific initiatives around climate change are really designed to benefit elites – especially Western elites – at the cost of the poor. Some of the geoengineering strategies are obviously going to have a disastrous impact on poor countries. Similarly, much of the alternative energy generation is based on expensive technologies, which are going to be used mainly within the West.

At the same time, there are many scientists who are anti-colonial, and who want to do their best for the world. So, there is no escaping this, whether we talk about the indigenous knowledge, or we talk about science, this division exists. We have to judge each of these projects on the basis of their politics. We can’t just say, let’s trust rationalism, and it will save us. It has never done that. In fact, this whole tradition of rationalism is largely at fault for the situation that we’re in. It is increasingly claimed that technoscientific endeavors can rescue the world. But they can’t; in fact, they generate a kind of magical thinking, especially in relation to the carbon capture technology – it’s just magical thinking, but it has come to be adopted whole-heartedly by technological elites. In many ways those technological elites are really much more irrational and damaging than shamans. Technocratic elites are pinning their hopes on unproven technologies. I would say that it is this approach that is irrational and mystical.

The colonial narrative

AD: How can we open people’s eyes to the shortcomings of the suggested solutions and policies? People want hope, so they buy false ones offered instead of the painstaking real efforts that are needed.

AG: How do we make this critique international? Greta Thunberg has shown us one of the ways in which these ideas can be propagated worldwide, with the enormous influence that she has succeeded in building a movement. And I do feel that that movement has achieved some momentum.  And I think they’re showing really helping to show the way.

AD: In your book, you talk about Black Lives Matter and the big protests happened while you were writing it, which added to COVID and made it a very special period. One of the things you highlight is the toppling down of statues of colonialist characters and various villains of history. It is as if we’ve done the detective work and found the villains, and now they’re taken down, even if it is by a belated lynch-mob. Is there a chance for a kind of justice, delayed by centuries? Do we learn something on a collective level for real?

AG: Yes, I do think so. What are those statutes about? They’re about creating certain narratives in which European colonists appear as heroes and saviors. They appear as people who created progress around the world. If there’s anything that climate change shows us, it is that this was not progress at all. It was just an acceleration towards disaster, towards catastrophe. I think also that’s one of the reasons why these movements were so effective and so powerful, because everything that is happening in the world today is happening against the background of climate change.

AD: An important part of your argument with respect to climate change, is that the narratives really need to stretch backward into the past. Narratives have been tailor made to make climate change into an event in the future and not in the present. And there has been a prevailing narrative that this is something that just happened now, that it is something new, that the Anthropocene took us by surprise. What can be gained by finding the deeper roots of the problems?

AG: I think this is echoed in a lot of the narratives, you know, of the Anthropocene and of science fiction, which always visualizes the future as something radically new, as a complete break from the past and so on. And also because historians have been unnecessarily deferential towards scientists so they have failed to point out the continuities. I think there is no way we can understand the present-day crisis without paying attention to history. As I’ve written in the book, if you ask any Westerner what climate change is about their answer will be, oh, it’s a, it’s a technoscientific problem. It’s all about technology and science, and there are technical solutions, et cetera. And that’s how this problem is conceived of in the west.

But if you go, if you go to Asia, if you go to India or China and say, well, are you willing to make cuts in your emissions or use less energy, the first thing they’ll say to you is why should we do that? When we were weak and poor, they got rich at our expense and now it’s our turn. So, you see, for people in the global south, it’s seen as a matter of history, it’s conceived of as something that is completely rooted in the past. And I think there is an incommensurability in this, a vast chasm between the Western imagining of climate change and the imagining of the planetary crisis in the global south.

Well, I think that across the planet, we can see more and more people are waking up to the realities that we’re in a dystopia. Sadly, instead of stepping back from this dystopia, we’re actually accelerating towards it.

AD: This is a tricky question, a tricky problem, because even if we don’t live in the same world, we do nonetheless live on the same planet. So, we need to think with several perspectives at the same time. Also, the West is not separate from everything else, people move about – and we’ll see more of this as the climate changes become more intense. As you pointed out after your travels to Italy to speak with so-called climate refugees, their own perspective is often very different from that of typical Westerners. How was it to meet all these people, and was there a great deal of variety in their perspectives?

AG: In the West, it’s become sort of a habit to add the word “climate” to certain categories, like the ‘climate migrant’. This category has to be taken with a pinch of salt, because the whole idea of the climate migrant is that of people who have no agency, who are as it were blindly pushed from one situation and place into another. And of course, that’s certainly true in certain cases, there are involuntary migrants, like the people leaving Afghanistan right now, or the people who are leaving drowning islands. But equally, a lot of people are moving simply because they can.

Among the migrants that I spoke to across Italy, one thing that was really striking: Westerners tend to think that the internet and digital abilities are largely confined to the West. That is not the case at all. In fact, the penetration of smart or cell phone networks is much greater in some poor countries than it is in the west, with something like 99% penetration of social media and so on. That’s also true of certain African countries. And it often happens that kids growing up in a very poor village will be experts on the internet. So, it has opened up a world of possibilities for them. It’s opened up whole worlds of access. Climate disasters cause changes, but for 30 or 40 years now communications technologies have been expanding very, very rapidly, to the point where things can be shuttled around the globe constantly. We have what’s it called just-to-the-minute manufacturing, where intricate logistical systems shuttle things from one place to another. You no longer have everything being produced in a single factory, it just all comes together in these extended supply chains. So how can you expect that these technologies will not also have some effect upon human beings?

I think it’s a mistake to think of what is called ‘climate migration’ as being caused by the climate crisis. I think rather that mass migration, the climate crisis, the pandemic are all effects of the same thing, which is the enormous acceleration of systems of production and consumption over the last 30 or 40 years.

New planetary narratives?

AD: Can the learning-process be turned around? If we were to circle back to the Banda islands or to the country of a colonized people in your narrative, what is there to learn from them, and how can we avoid the perception that it involves going back to something more primitive?

AG: There are many lessons to be learned, not just from the Banda islands or what is seen as faraway places. There are alternative local traditions even within Europe. It is not like all Europeans became mechanistically minded in the 17th century. Different mentalities coexist in the same culture. The vitalist traditions within the West were certainly suppressed – constantly under attack from various directions. But they still exist, and those are things to draw upon, besides learning from other cultures. In Sweden the Sámi people of the north were able to stop a geo-engineering project. They protested against the experimentation with technologies for atmospheric manipulation by Harvard scientists. They spoke out in the name of climate justice, because the experiments were to be carried out on theirs lands without them being consulted – and because it went against their worldview. I think this was an important inflection point where the Sámi showed the way.

AD: The question of an experiment with planetary consequences, carried out locally opens difficult perspectives. Can we have a sense of place with respect to the planet? How do you see the attempts at creating new planetary narratives, and how do you see your own work as contributing to that?

AG: Well, I think that across the planet, we can see more and more people are waking up to the realities that we’re in a dystopia. Sadly, instead of stepping back from this dystopia, we’re actually accelerating towards it. So, it’s a very grim situation. I am not a doomist, by any means, but it is certainly not easy, at this point, to be filled with radiant optimism. I think it’s very hard to see anything that we’re doing which is going to help things get better.

AD: The more utopian aspects of your book only come in in the last part, where you speak of a lost vitalism – a vital connection to non-humans, found outside what has been the hegemonic Western way of living and thinking.

AG:  I do feel that in these new youth movements that we are seeing, these traditions are playing a very important part. The ways in which younger people today are now thinking of their relationship with the earth, is remarkable, and it is already quite different from what existed only 20 or 30 years ago.

/ Photo: Mathieu Genon


Anders Dunker works as a journalist and philosophical author, focusing on the environment, technology, and the future of the planet. His works includes a series of interviews with leading international environmentalists for the Norwegian journal Samtiden, that was published as Gjenoppdagelsen av Jorden (2019) and translated into English in 2021 as Rediscovering Earth (O/R books).

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