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The Spicy History of Cloves
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The Spicy History of Cloves

The Spicy History of Cloves

The name clove is derived from the French word “clou” which means nail and likely refers to the shape of the dried clove bud. Cloves are often pressed into foods or fruits like nails when the clove flavor is desired in the food. Cloves are also often associated with protection.

The Spicy History of Cloves

Cloves are truly an ancient spice. Evidence of cloves has been found at Terqa, Syria dating to 1720 BCE. Putting a spice that could only be produced in the Moluccas some 10,000 km (or 6,200 miles) away far before modern trade routes were established.

In the third century BC it was recorded that the Chinese emperors of the Han Dynasty required those who were to address them to chew cloves to freshen their breath. Cloves reached the Roman world in first century AD as described by Pliny the Elder one of the inventors of the encyclopedia. By 176 AD, cloves had reached Egypt.

The first references to cloves are found in Asian literature from the Chinese Han period under the reference “chicken-tongue spice” apparently referring to the way the chemical eugenol reacts in a persons mouth. Starting in the 8th century on, cloves became one of the major spices in European commerce. In the Moluccas parents planted a clove tree when a child was born and judged the health of the child based on the health of it’s clove tree. When the clove forests were first discovered by the europeans, all were enchanted with the fragrance and beauty of this tropical evergreen tree which “must always see the sea” in order to thrive. The difficultly in creating a thriving clove made the Moluccas a very valuable place for much of recorded history.

Cloves were traded by Omani sailors and merchants trading goods from India to the mainland and Africa during the Middle Ages in the profitable Indian Ocean trade. Cloves were traded like oil, with an enforced limit on exportation.

Cloves, along with nutmeg and pepper, were highly prized to the Romans, and even Pliny the Elder once famously complained that “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.” Cloves were traded by Arabs during the Middle Ages in the profitable Indian Ocean trade. In the late fifteenth century, Portugal took over the Indian Ocean trade, including cloves, due to the Treaty of Tordesillas with Spain and a separate treaty with the sultan of Ternate. The Portuguese brought large quantities of cloves to Europe, mainly from the Maluku Islands. Clove was then one of the most valuable spices.

Slowly the Dutch East India Company consolidated control of the spice trade in the 17th century as they sought to gain a monopoly in cloves as they had in nutmeg. However, “unlike nutmeg and mace, which were limited to the minute Bandas, clove trees grew all over the Moluccas, and the trade in cloves was beyond the limited policing powers of the corporation.”

Although they were a private multinational corporation (the first of its kind), they had more power than most nations. In order to keep prices high, they limited the amount of clove available for export to 800-1000 tons per year. The rest of the crop was destroyed. Since clove trees only grew on the Maluku Islands, they had complete control over the clove market, and made huge profits. They used these profits to strengthen and expand their hold on the region.

One of the policies enacted by the Dutch in 1652 was extirpation: the elimination of any clove trees not owned by the company. The Dutch eradicated cloves on all islands except Amboina and Ternate in order to create scarcity and sustain high prices. The natives considered these trees sacred and the destruction of the tree lead to uprisings and the eventual loss of the Dutch Monopoly.

As the Dutch set about uprooting thousands of trees, one tree managed to avoid detection. Likely due to its out-of-the-way position on the side of a mountain, the Afo Clove Tree survived. In 1770, a French missionary stumbled upon the hidden tree, and smuggled some of its precious seeds out of the colony.

From there, the Pierre Poivre (aptly named Peter Pepper) brought these stolen seeds to the French colonies of Seychelles and Zanzibar. Afo’s descendants became the base for new clove plantations, bringing an end to the Dutch monopoly.

Afo grew to be nearly 400 years old, and at its tallest more than 40 meters. Although the soil around its roots belonged to the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch, and later the Japanese, it was a villager that was its ultimate downfall. With few living branches remaining, it was likely mistaken for a long dead tree, and its branches were chopped with machetes for firewood some time in 2014. What remains of Afo is now protected by a brick wall, a symbol of the importance of these small islands in world history.

Afo’s seeds were spread all over the world, ending the cycle of destructive exploitation. 

Folklore and Customs

Moluccan natives planted a clove tree for each child in the tribe and they believed that the health of the clove tree was directly related to the health of the child they had planted the tree for. When the European colonizers decided to control the trade by killing trees in certain areas the tribes began to revolt leading the eventual decline of the monopolies.

Clove is thought to be endowed with powers of protection, love, exorcism, and money.

Some people burn clove as an incense to attract money, drive away hostility and negativity, produce spiritual vibrations, and purify an area.  It is said to be able to stop people from gossiping about you.  When carried upon a person, it is believed to attract romance and bring comfort to a bereaved heart.

Cloves are thought to enhance psychic abilities, especially when burned.

Sucking on two full cloves without chewing them is rumored to help control the desire for drinking alcohol.

Clove is thought to be endowed with powers of protection, love, exorcism, and money.

Some people burn clove as an incense to attract money, drive away hostility and negativity, produce spiritual vibrations, and purify an area.  It is said to be able to stop people from gossiping about you.  When carried upon a person, it is believed to attract romance and bring comfort to a bereaved heart.

Cloves are thought to enhance psychic abilities, especially when burned.

Sucking on two full cloves without chewing them is rumored to help control the desire for drinking alcohol.

Sources:


Wikipedia – Clove https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clove
About Cove uses, pairings and recipes  https://www.mccormick.com/articles/mccormick/about-cloves – 
New World Encyclopedia – Clove https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Clove
McComick Science Institute – Cloves https://www.mccormickscienceinstitute.com/resources/culinary-spices/herbs-spices/cloves
Thetreeographer – The Clove Tree that ended a Monopoly. https://thetreeographer.com/2017/09/08/the-clove-tree-that-ended-a-monopoly/
Indian Mirror – Clove https://www.indianmirror.com/ayurveda/indian-spices/clove.html
Flying the Hedge – Clove  https://www.flyingthehedge.com/2019/12/magical-uses-of-cloves.html
Solidago School of Herbalism – Clove, A Spice That’s Extra Nice https://www.solidagoherbschool.com/blog/2020/12/4/pzlyjvnquk2dpmjstxeg5mr7g98mr8

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