The Disturbing Colonial History Of Pumpkin Spice

Genocide, slavery, and ... spices?

Pumpkin spice coffee Pavel Chagochkin | Benny Marty | Nataliya Arzamasova | Shutterstock

Pumpkin spice is all the rage these days. The flavor has become synonymous with fall, and for many people invokes the joy of the changing seasons.

What most people don’t realize, though, is that there’s a dark colonial past behind this seemingly modern, carefree flavor.

It includes slavery, corruption, and genocide. You may never look at a pumpkin spice coffee the same way again.

The origins of pumpkin spice

The concept of "pumpkin spice" as a flavor dates back to 1934.


Companies were beginning to sell canned pumpkin purée. Spice giant McCormick decided to get in on the action by releasing a spice blend specifically for use in pumpkin pie.

Really, though, the origins of what we call "pumpkin spice" go back way further.

Pumpkin spice is typically a blend of nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves. The first known mention of the blend dates to The Compleat Cook, a 1671 English cookbook that likely inspired America’s early pumpkin recipes. In its recipes for "Pumpkin pie," the book calls for "Cinamon Nutmeg, Pepper, and six Cloves" to season the pie.

Where did the book’s English author get the idea for that warm, autumnal blend? The idea probably comes from speculoos, a Dutch spice blend that dates to even earlier in the 17th century.


But even that isn’t the true origin of the blend. The idea of combining piquant spices into a warming blend isn’t American, English, or Dutch — it’s Southeast Asian.

In India, people have used the spice blend karha — which typically includes nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and cardamom — to flavor masala chai tea since antiquity.

So how did this Southeast Asian spice combo end up in Holland — and ultimately in your 21st-century coffee drink?

It was stolen and brought there by one of the most violent and corrupt colonial entities in history: The Dutch East India Company.

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Anything for spices

The Dutch East India Company was established in 1602 in Holland for one purpose: to exploit the Asian spice trade, bringing much-desired spices to Holland and the rest of Europe.

Dutch explorers had "discovered" the Spice Islands of Indonesia in the late 1500s. After several profitable spice-importing voyages, the Dutch government established the Dutch East India Company to formalize the trade.

The Dutch East India Company was a chartered company, which made it very different from a modern corporation. It was essentially an arm of the Dutch government and had many of the same powers as a government. The company could wage war, print its own coins, sign treaties, and enslave people — all in the name of advancing the spice trade.

In a PBS documentary covering the company, professor Nigel Worden says that in the areas the Dutch East India Company controlled, "it had total power — it was THE state — and it had the right of life and death" over indigenous inhabitants.


Essentially, the company was a colonial arm of the government, disguised as a corporation. That gave it the power to enact colonial rule while providing the Dutch government with plausible deniability when the company used brutal tactics to oppress its colonial subjects.

The Dutch East India Company used that power enthusiastically, and violently. After establishing a spice-importing port in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1603, the company set about securing access to supplies of the Southeast Asian spices that Europeans sought so voraciously.

The company would stop at nothing to ensure access to spices. In 1621, the company wanted to guarantee a monopoly on the spice trade in the Banda Islands. Sixteen hundred Dutch soldiers stormed the island, establishing a colony.

Under false pretenses, the colony’s Dutch governor claimed that the Indigenous Bandanese people had attacked his soldiers. The company’s forces rounded up and executed thousands of Bandanese. Some were caged and beheaded. Their villages and boats were burned. Many were starved to death.


Of the 14,000 original inhabitants of the island, only 480 native people escaped. It was genocide.

With the island’s indigenous people gone, the Dutch East India Company set about bringing in slaves to work the land. This was another typical way that the company exerted control.

It is estimated that the Dutch East India Company enslaved and imported thousands of people from Africa and other regions in order to work plantations and advance the spice trade.

The Dutch East India Company would continue this bloody trade for almost 200 years, importing millions of tons of spices to Europe, before collapsing under the weight of its corrupt and violent practices in the late 1700s.


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A high price for nutmeg

What kinds of spices was the Dutch East India Company importing, at such a massive and horrifying human cost?

Nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and pepper were the company’s most valuable imports.

Notice anything? Those spices are the main components of the kerha spice blend used throughout Southeast Asia since ancient times.

And they’re nearly identical to the spice blend we call "pumpkin spice" today.

Indeed, the Dutch trade in Southeast Asian spices was so profitable because Europeans were voracious buyers of these and other Indonesian spices. Nutmeg, cloves, and other spices imported by the Dutch East India Company became an integral part of 17th-century Dutch cooking, used in both speculooss and much else.


Again, those culinary innovations eventually made their way into English cooking, and ultimately to America’s colonies. They became the basis for the spices used in American pumpkin pie, gingerbread, and many other foods of supposedly European origin.

If you’re wondering why your modern-day pumpkin pie tastes a lot like a traditional masala chai tea, it’s not an accident. Southeast Asia’s traditional spices are present in modern European cooking because of the brutal trade of the Dutch East India Company and other European colonial entities.

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Cancel pumpkin spice?

Given this dark colonial history, what should we do as consumers? Is it time to cancel pumpkin spice?


No. Modern foodways, for better or worse, are deeply tied up in histories of colonial and other exploitation.

The cuisine of the Caribbean and American South, for example, is deeply rooted in the Atlantic slave trade.

My own Ashkenazi Jewish culture’s food reflects my own people’s historical, violent expulsion from indigenous lands in the 6th century. Latkes, gefilte fish, and matzah ball soup are all foods of poverty embraced by diaspora Jews living in Europe, often under oppressive antisemitism.


Rather than vilifying specific foods, we should understand their complex and often fraught history.

This year, the King of Holland issued a formal apology for the exploitative history of the Dutch East India Company, acknowledging its destructive influence on indigenous populations and its role in the slave trade.

We can also be aware of the ways spice cultivation remains tied to modern slavery and human trafficking. Today’s complex supply chains can easily conceal exploitation, and spice cultivation remains high-risk.

As consumers, we can advocate for brands to purchase fair trade and ethically sourced products, including spices.

The Dutch East India Company acted with such brutality in part because consumers demanded cheap spices, and both consumers and governments were willing to look the other way on abuses.


Conversely, if consumers and governments demand fair sourcing, modern companies will comply. Premium brands like Starbucks have already made ethical sourcing a central part of their business strategy. So has McCormick, the company that created the "pumpkin spice" name. Several companies now sell ethically sourced spices directly to consumers.

Governments should continue to regulate and monitor supply chains, especially in high-risk industries. And as consumers, we can vote with our dollars and choose brands that commit to ethical supply chains.

We can’t change the past, and the exploitative ways food was sourced. But we can commit to ensuring that blood is never spilled for spices, or any other commodity, again.

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Thomas Smith is a professional photographer and editor of the Bay Area Telegraph, a publication focusing on San Francisco Bay Area food and culture.