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'Humans have never learned from history'

Last updated on: December 17, 2021 11:37 IST
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'We need to retell this history from many different perspectives.'

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

Writer Amitav Ghosh spent many of those strange, mind-numbing COVID-19 days of 2020 by himself, in pandemic-imposed solitude in his apartment in Brooklyn, New York.

His wife, writer Deborah Baker, was away in Virginia taking care of her father. And his children were probably busy with their own lives.

He was affected, he says, like many of us, even till today, by a kind of bewildering COVID-induced 'fugue-like state' -- that's a colourful, crazy dissociative amnesia where memory, identity and time are at war with each other.

In this eerie situation of discombobulation Ghosh forged ahead writing his 17th book, The Nutmeg's Curse: Parables for a Planet in Crisis, which released October 14.

Even if his feet were unnaturally still, like a modern-day William Wordsworth, Ghosh's inward eye was breathlessly hyperactive, busy travelling, roaming.

IMAGE: The main harbour of the Banda Islands, seen from the ramparts of Fort Belgica, the 17th century Dutch fort that once stood guard over the islands.
The lagoon-like stretch of water is actually a kind of caldera, the crater of an exploded volcano, the last remnant of which is the still-active Gunung Api ('Fire Mountain').
The volcano's eruptions brought to the surface 'alchemical mixtures of materials' which interacted with the winds and weather of the region in such a way as to create forests that teemed with wonders and rarities.
The great gift of the Banda Islands was the nutmeg tree, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse. Photograph: Kind permission amitav_ghosh1/Instagram

Landscapes were constantly changing. So were the eras.

Mentally he was flitting, in the manner that a hummingbird travels from flower to flower, between Indonesia and Connecticut and North Dakota, Odisha and Bowerchalke, Wiltshire, England, in different centuries.

The epicentre of Ghosh's book moved from the sunny isles of falling-off-the-map volcanic Banda, the picturesque nutmeg capital of the world in the Indian Ocean, to Brazil's lush province of Amazonia, while, outside his window, New York was the epicentre of the pandemic and corpses were piling up in refrigerated trucks adjacent to Brooklyn's busiest hospitals.

History raged inside Ghosh's head. While an epidemic raged beyond his doors.

Both situations happened to be intensely sad. Tragic. And smelled of death. Despair too.

IMAGE: Portuguese nobleman Ferdinand Magellan was another explorer looking for the famous spice isles in the eastern Indonesian archipelago and his reputation was none too savoury either, especially his efforts in proselytizing natives at sword-point. He was eventailly stabbed to death (above) in the Philippine island of Macatan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Carl Frances Morano Diaman/wikimedia

In The Nutmeg's Curse, Kolkata-born, Doon School and St Stephen's - educated Ghosh, 65, traces and catalogues the unbelievably horrid sins of colonial explorers and conquerors of various nationalities, who sailed away from their homes or native countries to take over the world.

Their escapades might have sounded brave and adventurous to those who sent them off on these missions, some of them religious, in a flurry of petals; the stuff of those epic poems with gazillions of stanzas singing proud praise.

The names of leaders and conquistadors like Ferdinand Magellan, Cecil Rhodes, Vasco de Gama, Christopher Columbus, Francis Xavier, Kit Carson, Jan Coen, Francisco Pizarro, Robert Clive, Hernan Cortes, Panfilo de Narvaez, George Custer, John Mason have always conjured up visions of majestic, courageous men with ramrod straight backs, puffed chests and upright mien, for whom statues have been erected here and there.

But in reality, many of these explorers were petty people, with too much ambition, zero empathy, ready to disrespect any new environment they encountered on their travels. Men, who, we would now recognise, worked out their sociopathy, toxic masculinity and personality disorders through greedy pillage and murderous exploits in new places.

IMAGE: The Belem quarter of Lisbon showcases a giant monument honouring Portugal's explorers. Everyone remembers and celebrates their bravery and adventurous spirit. No one remembers or knows of the legendary cruelty of many of these men. Photograph: Kind courtesy Alvesgaspar/wikimedia

Disrespect is a powerful, nay, loaded word in Ghosh's lexicon in The Nutmeg's Curse.

Disrespect of people and animals leads to Disrespect of environment and then to Disrespect of the earth as a whole.

This Disrespect, which first reared its ugly head in the adventures of these explorers and wanderers, has ultimately lead, proves Ghosh, to climate change, as through history more and more lands were ransacked, resettled and original populations of natives, fauna and vegetation/forest cover, even languages and religion were wiped out.

The damage that invaders began, and wrought through hundreds of years, was continued willfully by big business, insensitive capitalism/communism and non-visionary political leadership, as, even today, suicidally, acres and acres of forest are demolished in the Amazon, oil pipelines are laid across red Indian homelands, cherished native forests are destroyed for mining and billions of dollars are expended on ginormous defense budgets that darkly billow mega tonnes of pollution into the air.

An intense, highly-informative book, packed with intriguing historical facts -- that all of us peoples who have been colonised ought to read -- Ghosh, in his role of a global thinker, for which he won an award, examines the historical and cultural events, and their nuances, that have brought us, as inheritors of the earth, up against imminent disaster in the form of impending climate change.

IMAGE: Protesters march after the sentencing of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis policeman found guilty of killing George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, June 25, 2021. Photograph: Eric Miller/Reuters

Ironically, COVID-19 is an advance shit show of what's to come. The pandemic is, after all, an environmental event, brought on by Disrespect of a virus and Disrespect of the laws of nature that caused its birth, that has devastated countries irrespective of their incomes, means and scientific knowhow.

COVID-19 -- and the Black Lives Matter movement, fittingly, inexplicably -- happen to be other backdrops in Ghosh's book, hovering in the wings, while he polemically presents the wrongdoings of a series of colonisers, firmly and savagely correcting history, as he goes along, linking today and tomorrow's climate change to yesterday's vicious misdeeds.

In The Nutmeg's Curse, a book which is an excellent and meaningful sequel to The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh persuasively analyses for Vaihayasi Pande Daniel/, this historical violence and how and why it came about with and its ultimate and, perhaps, eternal price.

Part 1 of a multi-part, eloquent, interview:

In your latest book you indicate that the narrative for eventual climate change was written the moment Western powers started large-scale colonising, disrespecting the planet and attacking the gentler indigenous people. Basically, it was a narrative in which non-violence was alien? Any concept of non-violence was overridden by huge ambition?

Yes, yes.

I think the peculiar circumstances under which the European colonisation, of the Americas especially, took place, created a situation where really violence between human beings also became violence directed towards nature.

Your book is also importantly about rewriting history from the perspective of people of colour, describing how events happened in the eyes of indigenous people. History really suffers deeply from this kind of Rashoman effect and it needs to be told over and over again from other perspectives ie in non-Western language perspectives. And we must study those various versions of history too or we will be doomed to repeat it as the saying goes?


(Laughs) I don't think that humans have ever learned from history in the sense of learning to avoid the catastrophes of the past.

In fact, everything points in the other direction!

But yes, I do think that history, as it has been written, and told, especially world history, is a completely distorted account of what actually happened.

We need to retell this history from many different perspectives. So, I certainly agree with that.

Because the voices, like when you talk about what happened on Banda Islands, have not even been heard? Nobody knows about the extermination that took place on Banda by the Dutch. We know of stories like that, but not the extent. Those voices have been obliterated, partly because the culture has been partially obliterated. How can there be a telling of history when a good portion of the world's voices are not there?

That's absolutely true.

What happened in the Banda Islands, has been completely obscured, completely sort of papered over.

Even within Indonesia, I wonder, how many people are aware of exactly what happened on the Banda Islands. The Banda islanders, of course, are very well aware of what happened -- the people who live there.

But the broader story is just completely neglected. Silenced. Obscured.

In its place, we get really an absolutely distorted narrative about the world and about what has happened in the world over these last 200 years.

IMAGE: Top view of Fort Nassau on the Banda Islands. Photograph: Kind courtesy H (Hendrik) Veen/wikimedia

It was the same story everywhere. One was very deeply influenced by the film The Mission (1986), where it's a similar tale. What's interesting is it's the same story everywhere and in all the little corners of the world where colonialism happened?

I wouldn't say it's the same everywhere. Because, in the Asian context, what happened in the Banda Islands is actually absolutely exceptional. I mean, that didn't happen in most parts of Asia.

You see, when European colonisation started on a large-scale in the 16th century, the differences between Asia and Europe were not so great.

Especially the technological gap was not very great at all. In fact, especially in terms of military technology, there have been studies that show that up till the late 18th and early 19th centuries, any new innovation in military technology that happened in Europe, was adopted in India within 20 to 30 years. So, that difference was really not that great in terms of Asia, and even in terms of North Africa, and West Africa, the not difference, wasn't so great.

So, they couldn't get away with just exterminating people, as a rule.

It was in the Americas that the difference was the greatest and it was the Americas that bore the brunt of this completely exceptional violence. The differences in technology were very, very pronounced.

And not just technology, the peoples of the Americas, were not prepared in any way for the nature of the holocaust, that really engulfed them.

So, you're right The Mission does show you this.

That's what's so exceptional about the Banda Islands case, that it was one instance in which the Europeans use their tactics, the tactics they used in America and they use them in Asia.

This has to be a racist question. Historically-speaking why was the white race so inclined towards this kind of destructive aggression and materialism? The second part to that question is: What is historically the Eastern guilt -- say the Indian, Japanese or Chinese etc -- in this narrative? Were other older civilizations equally culpable?

Yes, I think it's the case. There's always been a great deal of violence everywhere. But human beings are very violent species.

There was a lot of violence in India. India, I think, historically been one of the most violent places in the world. There was a lot of violence in China. There was violence in many places.

But Europe, you know, it's one of those circumstances where history conspired to create an extraordinary situation.

In the 15th century Europe was going through extraordinary violence. And a lot of it was religious violence, that came from European encounters (with other worlds), especially with the Muslim world.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

The Inquisition?

Especially Spain was going through a period of extraordinary violence.

That happened to be exactly when these big voyages were made, when America was first revealed to the Europeans.

So, emerging from an extraordinarily violent context, those people suddenly found themselves in a situation where they were dealing with a circumstance where people (Native Americans or Amerindians) were more or less helpless in front of them.

There again, there are so many sort of strange questions that arise. The Aztecs were a very powerful empire on their own. And they had huge armies and so on.

But when the Spanish conquistadors turned up -- they were just a few hundred -- but they sort of very easily overwhelmed this vast Aztec empire.

That's a very long history. I can't afford to do it any kind of justice. But I think it is certainly the case that what happened in the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries -- even by the standards of human violence -- was absolutely exceptional. Nowhere on the planet Earth, I think, has it ever happened before, that 90 per cent of the population was just completely destroyed. This is what happened in the Americas.

Westerners, when they try to think of exceptional cruelty and exceptional violence, they always cite the case of (Mongol empire founder) Genghis Khan.

Genghis Khan never exterminated people. He never wiped out entire civilizations. In fact, what was remarkable about Genghis Khan is how quickly he and his descendants assimilated.

Within two generations, one of Genghis Khan's grandchildren had become the king of Persia, and one was the king of China. They were completely assimilated within a few generations. They never set about destroying a flourishing civilisation.

Why can this severity of violence, that occurred globally, be ascribed to people of the white race? Does it have some religious basis? Why were they the so much more aggressive than other comparable civilisations? What is the explanation for this attitude by a certain race?

Again, as I said, it's really hard to account for.

I think, we must be careful here not to over-generalise, as it were. I doubt that (say) the ordinary Spanish peasants and so on were violent in the same way.

We're talking about a small class of soldier mercenaries. And this class of soldier mercenaries had grown up fighting these terrible wars, many of them religious wars.

Even as they were fighting these awful wars in the Americas, their own wars inside Europe grew more and more violent -- the Catholic - Protestant divide and so on.

It's just one of those circumstances in world history, where history really conspired to create a circumstance, where the people who are undergoing the worst kind of violence historically, suddenly come upon these two continents, where the people (the Native North and South Americans who faced them) were completely unprepared.

Also, it's not only the violence, Europe, especially in the 15th century, was a place of incredible pestilence and disease. It was a terrible place, terribly unhealthy.

So, when Europeans actually came to the Americas, many of them were astonished by how healthy the people were and how beautiful the landscape was.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/

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