I remember in elementary school we made Christmas decorations by pushing whole cloves into oranges. They smelled great, and you could express your creativity by placing the cloves in the design of your choice. I don’t know if they still do that in American schools. Since whole cloves have pointy bits, probably not.

Orange pomander studded with cloves. Photo: Wendy Piersall

Orange pomander studded with cloves. Photo: Wendy Piersall

Potentially mangling the hands of school children is not the only violence in the history of this spice. A combination of natural and man-made circumstances created a supply/demand situation that highlighted some of the worst aspects of individuals and businesses.

Dried cloves. Photo:  Jorge Barrios

Dried cloves. Photo: Jorge Barrios

The Molucca Islands in Indonesia were the only place in the world where cloves grew naturally. There is evidence of cloves in Syria from 1700 BCE, and Muslim sailors and merchants were trading cloves for other goods during the Middle Ages, but it wasn’t until the late 16th century that Europeans learned the secret about where this spice originated. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to sail to the islands and purchase cloves, which they then sold or traded for other goods. But it wasn’t long before the Dutch expelled the Portuguese and took over the trade. In the interests of profit, these merchants banded together in 1602 to form a corporation, the Dutch East India Company. To maximize profits, the VOC (the company’s initials from its Dutch name) decided they needed to be the only ones selling cloves. “There can be only one”, as they say in the Highlander world. The Dutch wanted a monopoly; to make every last clove on earth their possession.

During the early 17th century, the VOC signed treaties with the locals in charge of the islands, guaranteeing the VOC control over all the clove trees and the subsequent trade in the spice. The VOC also made sure that their monopoly was maintained and enforced by any means necessary. Although the VOC was a company, they were backed by the state with money and military support.

Indonesia regions map. Note the alternate spelling, Maluku instead of Molucca. Photo: Peter Fitzgerald, minor amendments by Joelf

Indonesia regions map. Note the alternate spelling, Maluku instead of Molucca, on the right side of the map. Photo: Peter Fitzgerald, minor amendments by Joelf

The VOC understood the concept of supply and demand, and ensured the market was not glutted with cloves. To this end, they controlled the exports, exporting only 800-1000 tons a year, manipulating the market and creating artificial scarcity. All the cloves that were over that limit were either burned or dumped in the sea. They consolidated the trees onto one island, over which they had complete control. They destroyed all the plants on the islands that weren’t under their control.

Because this was a monopoly, the VOC was also able to buy low and sell high. After all, they were the only game in town. The great thing about a monopoly, at least for those in charge, is that they set the prices on both sides of the equation.

That’s all pretty sleazy, but they were also brutal in their colonization of the islands. They controlled not only the end product, but the production. They set up a plantation system and imported slaves and used some of the islanders for forced labor. They had rules and were ruthless in the face of any type of rebellion, including the unauthorized possession of cloves. Smuggling of cloves or seedlings was harshly punished and the punishment for cultivating clove trees was death. Within the first 20 years of VOC occupation, almost the entire indigenous population was gone, either escaped, exiled or dead. On these islands, the Dutch were the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing.

The Dutch maintained an almost complete monopoly for close to 200 years, but at great cost in terms of brutality and human lives. Ultimately, wars and blockades and ships are expensive, people stopped using cloves because they simply could not afford them, and despite the VOC commitment to total control, seedlings were smuggled out and grown elsewhere. The Dutch East India Company went bankrupt and the company was dissolved in 1800.

***I just realized that this is the second week in a row that I’ve written a post about a bad business. I believe there are plenty of businesses that are responsible to their employees, clients, communities and the planet. I’ll make a point to write about one of them soon!