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Disease sweeps through nutmeg plantations 1855
Most of these plantations are now abandoned, the [nutmeg] trees being dead or dying, and it is a somewhat melancholy sight to see acre upon acre of these skeleton trees, upon which many enterprising men have lost fortunes...(Cameron,1865, Our tropical possessions in Malayan India, p. 82).

In the latter end of 1819, following his second visit to Singapore (31 May to 28 June 1819),[1] Raffles ordered an experiment to grow spices on the slopes of Fort Canning Hill by sending nutmeg seeds and trees from Bencoolen.[2] There were great expectations that Singapore (and Penang) would allow the English to break the Dutch spice monopoly, and supply "all the spices needed by the civilised world".[3] In the late 1830s and early 1840s, when existing nutmeg plantations returned good profits, nutmeg cultivation turned into an "unthinking" mania.[4] Nutmeg plantations flourished in the Tanglin and Claymore districts where hills were fashionably named after big plantation owners and peppered with their lavish country bungalows. These included names like Oxley, Carnie, Montgomerie, Prinsep, Cuppage and Scott.[5]

The nutmeg dream was soon tempered by a disease that first made its appearance in the 1840s. The "nutmeg canker" disease caused the nutmeg fruits to wither before they ripened. By the end of the 1850s, its scourge had spread to every plantation,[6] with "ruin staring the proprietors of the plantation in the face".[7] By 1862, the cultivation of nutmeg had ceased. Huge plantations previously used for growing nutmeg were subdivided into smaller estates and sold.[8] Large sums of money were spent to investigate the cause of the disease outbreak but to no avail, and it continued to be shrouded in mystery.[9] However in 1865, a writer well versed in nutmeg agriculture dismissed the curious disease as "really nothing but natural decay” that had resulted from the  poor cultivation methods of ignorant or overzealous planters.[10] Others pinned it down to the work of an insignificant beetle, a suspicion confirmed by H. N. (Henry Nicholas) Ridley more than three decades later.[11] But ultimately, the demise of nutmeg cultivation in Singapore was due to the inexperience of the amateur planters.

1. National Archives of Singapore. (2012). Treasures - A showcase of our collection. Retrieved November 23, 2013, from National Archives of Singapore website:  http://archivesonline.nas.sg/
2. Makepeace, W., Brooke, G. E., & Braddell, R. St. J. (Eds.). (1991). One hundred years of Singapore [online book], (Vol. 2, pp. 65–66). Singapore: Oxford University Press. Retrieved July 23, 2013, from Internet Archive website: http://archive.org. Call no.: RSING 959.57 ONE; Simmonds, P. L. (1853). The commercial products of the vegetable kingdom [Online book] (p. 410). London: Retrieved July 11, 2013, from Project Gutenberg Ebook website: http://www.gutenberg.org; Jackson, J. C. (1968). Planters and speculators. Chinese and European agricultural enterprise in Malaya, 1786–1921 [Microfilm: NL 29738] (p. 111). Kuala Lumpur: University of Malaya Press.
3. Makepeace, Brooke & Braddell, 1991, p. 29.
4. Jackson, 1968, p. 112; Cameron, J. (1865). Our tropical possessions in Malayan India: Being a descriptive account of Singapore, Penang, Province Wellesley, and Malacca; their peoples, products, commerce, and government (p. 82). London: Smith, Elder. Retrieved from BookSG.
5. Walsh, B. A. (1991). Forty good men: The story of the Tanglin Club in the Island of Singapore 1865–1990 (pp. 17–18). Singapore: The Club. Call no.: RSING 367.95957 WAL; Tyers, R K., & Siow, H. H. (c1993). Ray Tyers' Singapore: Then & now (pp. 162, 170, 176). Singapore: Landmark Books. Call no.: RSING 959.57 TYE-[HIS]; Makepeace, Brooke & Braddell, 1991, p. 490.
6. Jackson, 1968, p. 125.
7. Jaffrey, A. T. (1860, March). On disease of the nutmeg trees in Singapore. Transactions and Proceedings of the Botanical Society of Edinburgh, 6, 368. Retrieved July 8, 2013, from Google Books.
8. Makepeace, Brooke & Braddell, 1991, p. 213; Walsh, 1991, pp. 17–18; Buckley, C. B. (1984). An anecdotal history of old times in Singapore 1819–1867 (p. 48). Singapore: Oxford University Press. Call no.: RSING 959.57 BUC.
9. Cameron, 1865, pp. 168–169; Collingwood, C. (1867, February). On nutmeg and other cultivation in Singapore. The Journal of the Linnean Society (Botany), 10(41), 48. Retrieved July 10, 2013, from Internet Archive website: http://archive.org
10. Nutmeg planting. (1865, May 20). The Straits Times, p. 1. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
11. Jackson, 1968, p. 126.


The information in this article is valid as at 2013 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

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