This Sunday, let's turn to a fascinating historical morality tale, courtesy of Simon Worrall of the BBC. Reporting from the island of Ternate, in the heart of Indonesia's Spice Islands, he recounts the history of the world's oldest clove tree, apparently named Afo, living on the forested slopes of the wonderfully named Gamalama volcano and estimated to be nearly 400 years old.
The tree itself, once 40 metres high, has died back to a stump and presents a massive, gaunt skeleton to the sky. But what is most interesting in the report are some snippets of spice lore—a Han dynasty ruler forbade any subject to address him who had not chewed cloves beforehand—and the horrific practices of The Netherlands United East India Company (VOC), the world's first multinational corporation.
To ensure its lucrative trade monopoly, in 1652 the VOC instituted a policy of "extirpation": its agents would uproot, burn or otherwise destroy all spice-bearing trees outside its own plantations. Only Afo, high on the mountainside, survived the arboreal genocide.
Anyone caught growing, stealing or possessing clove plants without authorisation faced the death penalty. On the Banda Islands, to the south - the world's only source of nutmeg - the Dutch used Japanese mercenaries to slaughter almost the entire male population.
Like Opec today, the Voc also limited supply to keep prices high. Only 800-1,000 tonnes of cloves were exported per year. The rest of the harvest was burned or dumped in the sea.
Worrall also alludes to Monsanto as well as the OPEC oil cartel for latter-day examples of this ruthlessly monopolistic corporate lineage. And since we have recently been informed by the US Supreme Court that corporations are people too, it is also enlightening to know that they all sprang from a psychopathic Dutch progenitor.
But redemption was to be found in the person of a French naturalist with the Dickensian name of Pierre Poivre (Peter Pepper), who "stole" some of Afo's seedlings (aka trade secrets), which became the foundation stock of the clove plantations of the Seychelles and Zanzibar, ending the Dutch monopoly.
Not a great deal of morality in the tale, but fascinating nonetheless.