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For all the nutmeg in the world

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The islands lie half-forgotten, ten volcanic specks in the vast, tempestuous waters of the Banda Sea. And yet this tiny archipelago was so important its name was once writ large on maps of the East Indies. Until the 19th century, the coveted Banda Islands were the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace – spices that were prized for their medicinal value. In Elizabethan England, nutmeg was believed to cure all kinds of sickness, from the common cold to the plague. In Amsterdam, the seed sold for 320 times its original price.

For years, European traders had seen these precious spices turn up in the bazaars of Constantinople and the markets of Venice, their value inflating each time they changed hands. The Age of Discovery was spurred on by the desire to find the source of these treasures, and the lure of great profit in controlling their trade.

Columbus sailed to the New World in the hope of finding a shortcut to the fabled ‘spice islands’, known as the Moluccas. More than a century later, Sir Henry Hudson tried to navigate the Northwest Passage through Arctic Canada, convinced that he would find another alternative route. But it was the Portuguese who made a head start in the European spice race with their exploration of the Indian Ocean.

By 1498 the Portuguese had made landfall on India’s Malabar Coast, and later expeditions captured Muscat in 1507, Goa in 1510 and Malacca in 1511. With the help of Malay pilots, they reached the Moluccas early the following year, becoming the first Europeans to set foot in the ‘spice islands’.

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Fort Belgica, on a hilltop overlooking Banda Neira harbour

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A surviving gateway at Fort Nassau

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The volcano Gunung Api looming above the walls of Fort Nassau

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A colonial house by the stairway to Fort Belgica

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Here come the British

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Nutmeg drying in the sun at the village of Lonthoir, on Banda Besar island

Banda by this time was already a thriving entrepot port, home to communities of merchants from all around the Indonesian archipelago, with others from as far afield as China and Arabia. The Portuguese kept its location a secret from other European nations, but soon the Spanish, English and then the Dutch would follow in their wake.

While the Portuguese largely neglected Banda, the Dutch were keen to exert a monopoly on its spices. In 1609 Fort Nassau was built over the foundations of an unfinished Portuguese structure, angering the local islanders. Under the pretense of a meeting with the community leaders, or orang kaya, the Bandanese ambushed and killed the Dutch admiral along with forty of his men. Among the witnesses was a sailor by the name of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, who would rise through the ranks to become governor-general of the infamous Dutch East India Company, the VOC. In time he would exact his revenge against the Bandanese.

It began in 1621 with the Dutch conquest of Banda Neira and neighbouring Lonthor, the largest nutmeg-producing island of the group. The local leaders were forced to sign a treaty they could not keep, and the Dutch punished them with the massacre of 44 orang kaya in an enclosure just outside Fort Nassau. Each one was executed by Japanese mercenaries, with their heads impaled on bamboo spears.

Jan Pieterszoon Coen’s revenge was not yet complete. Under his leadership, the VOC carried out the systematic genocide of the native Bandanese. Out of a pre-colonial population of roughly 15,000 islanders, only 1,000 remained by the time the killing and deportations had ended. The Bandas were then divided into 68 Dutch-owned plantations, and repopulated with slave labour from elsewhere in the Moluccas, Papua, Sulawesi and Java. It would be a turning point in the history of Indonesia, setting the scene for three centuries of Dutch colonial rule.

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A nutmeg plantation on Banda Besar, shaded by enormous wild almond (kenari) trees

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A ripe nutmeg plucked off the branch

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Separating the mace from the nutmeg

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The spice harvest

For all his actions, Pieterszoon Coen was considered a national hero and empire-builder in the Netherlands, but Indonesia remembers him as a cruel, murderous man, eager to achieve his ambitions through ruthless violence. Contemporary English accounts are just as damning.

In time, Banda’s new overlords constructed a string of fortresses throughout the islands. Fort Belgica took shape on a hilltop above Banda Neira, and Fort Hollandia would guard the harbour from a vantage point on Lonthor. The Dutch maintained a firm grip on the Bandas until the British launched a brilliant surprise attack in 1810, capturing Fort Belgica under cover of darkness and training its cannon on the unsuspecting Dutch defenders in low-lying Fort Nassau. Before handing the islands back to the Dutch, the British took a large number of nutmeg trees and saplings, transplanting them to Singapore, Penang and Sri Lanka. The Dutch monopoly was finally broken.

As nutmeg became more widely available and its value plummeted, the Banda Islands slipped into quiet obscurity. Today vestiges of the Dutch presence are visible in the whitewashed bungalows of Banda Neira, each one embellished with decorative wooden shutters and colonnaded verandahs. The town is still dominated by the turrets of Fort Belgica, as Fort Nassau stands in a half-ruined state just down the hill. And while Europe has long forgotten its obsession with spices, the Bandanese still harvest their wild nutmeg three times a year, using the same instruments as they have done in generations past.

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Bama atop the ramparts of Fort Hollandia, on Banda Besar (Lonthor)

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The village of Lonthoir and Gunung Api as seen from Fort Hollandia

43 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have read about the murderous Dutch in the area. What a violent time in what must have been a beautiful peaceful place.

    October 14, 2015
    • It is horrifying to read about the brutality that people are capable of inflicting on others. Thankfully the modern day Bandanese do not endure the same kind of exploitation as their ancestors did.

      October 15, 2015
  2. Another great post with history and information, James. I’m just wondering if they have luwaks there, and if they eat nutmeg, and if they sell nutmeg luwak?

    October 14, 2015
    • Badfish, that’s pretty funny! I don’t think they have luwak there – it is the other side of the Wallace Line so the fauna in Banda are closer to what you’ll find in Papua and Australia. We even saw some cuscus (like possums) running along the fence of our guesthouse.

      October 15, 2015
      • yeah, those tectonic plates…gotta be careful with those things when it comes to drifting animals

        October 16, 2015
  3. I’m pretty ashamed that my knowledge of Banda’s history is not as deep as yours. Thanks for sharing, James. Will learn Indonesian history more 😀

    Love the last picture of yours when beige, blue, turquoise, and green blend together.

    October 14, 2015
    • Matur nuwun, Matius. There is no need to be ashamed since Indonesia is such a big country and Banda is so far away from Java. I doubt that most people have even heard of the place!

      October 15, 2015
      • You’re right! Not all Indonesians know each other. Even some Javanese don’t know what the capital of Central Java is. Lol.

        October 16, 2015
  4. Thank you for this well told account of just one of the many colonial atrocities. A violent history I knew nothing about but am sad to say doesn’t surprise me.

    October 14, 2015
    • Unfortunately the atrocities happened all over the world – particularly in Asia, Africa and the Americas. I think it is important to remember these events so that they are never repeated.

      October 15, 2015
  5. Beutiful pictures and what a storyteller you are, James! Como siempre, enhorabuena!

    October 14, 2015
    • Eskerrik asko, Mikel! I am happy that you are writing so much about your experiences of living and travelling around Indonesia – keep it up!

      October 15, 2015
  6. I m so envy that you were there, Banda is always in my list !

    October 14, 2015
    • You have to visit, Fabiola… it is one of my favourite places in Indonesia and the world!

      October 15, 2015
  7. Interesting and informative account. Many thanks.

    October 14, 2015
    • Glad you enjoyed it – thanks in turn for reading.

      October 15, 2015
  8. That’s interesting to think that Banda led Columbus here to the Americas and the Caribbean. I suppose the Portuguese had a much better sense of direction. Go figure…

    October 14, 2015
    • Absolutely. I’m not sure how Columbus thought he had reached China when he first made landfall in the Caribbean…

      October 15, 2015
      • Likewise. You would think that since he knew the world was round, he would expect to find landmasses in between…

        October 16, 2015
  9. Unfortunately we still have greedy people like this even today

    October 14, 2015
    • Some things never seem to change.

      October 15, 2015
  10. Lael #

    That was really interesting. I had no idea nutmeg was harvested in such a manner.

    October 14, 2015
    • It was totally new for me too. If I had more space in my backpack I would have considered buying one of those harvesting baskets.

      October 15, 2015
      • Lael #

        That’s a problem, isn’t it? Not buying all the interesting things one finds.

        October 20, 2015
  11. Lerry #

    Interesting history.. beautiful clicks 🙂
    Lerry
    https://inflateddreams.wordpress.com/

    October 15, 2015
    • Thanks for dropping by, Lerry. 🙂

      October 15, 2015
  12. exploringthisearth #

    Wow!

    October 15, 2015
    • Banda was such an incredible place – and not only because of the history.

      October 15, 2015
  13. I had no idea nutmeg and mace came from the same plant! Unfortunately, I did know about European exploitation of spices and people and … so many things around the world. Great photos, too (especially loved the ethereal last one.)

    October 16, 2015
    • The Bandas were achingly beautiful – I found so many wonderful photo opportunities at every turn. In hindsight maybe I could have provided a better explanation of nutmeg and mace in this post… I got so wrapped up in the history I didn’t think of writing in detail about the fruit.

      October 16, 2015
  14. Fantastic and insightful blog! Love the photos, what camera did you use?

    October 16, 2015
    • I’m glad you like it – thanks for the kind words. For my travels I use a Nikon D5100.

      October 16, 2015
      • Nice, it’s a good camera, I recently used a Canon EOS750D to capture my images for my blog ‘Top Ten Things To Do In Tuscany’ on gapyear360.wordpress.com

        October 16, 2015
  15. This area has such a fascinating history ~ to be traveling along these famous spice trade routes would be a dream, and it is very fortunate that you are able to describe the scenes and feel of the place the way you do and pass them onwards in such a story. Cheers and safe travel.

    October 17, 2015
    • Randall, thank you so much for the encouragement and well wishes. Travelling to Banda (and this extended trip as a whole) has been a dream come true. I know you would appreciate these islands as much as I did – fingers crossed you’ll get to visit in the near future.

      October 18, 2015
  16. This was a fascinating read James, a wonderful trip back into a time and place that I’ve never known before. I knew nothing of the details of the early spice trade, so this is a start to fill in the grim realities of it. Adds to my desire to visit all the islands of Indonesia.
    Alison

    October 29, 2015
    • It is shocking what the Dutch East India Company did to the people of Indonesia in those days. I think Banda is just the kind of place you and Don would love. The warm, hospitable Bandanese, the history, gorgeous scenery and fabulous snorkelling… and very few people seem to know about it. The locals told us October was the best month to visit (we were there a month too early) as the seas are at their calmest and that’s when the kora-kora boat races are held.

      October 29, 2015
  17. Fascinating read indeed James. It is hard to wrap ones mind around the bloody conflict and wasted lives involved in the Western world’s race to control spice routes. Banda is going into my ever lengthening Indonesia list. Would love to witness the Kora Kora races.

    November 2, 2015
    • Thank you, Madhu. Even the kora-kora races were used by the Dutch conquerors as a way to pit Banda’s villages against each other. Fortunately it’s friendly these days although the races do retain a spiritual significance for the islanders.

      November 3, 2015
  18. Fascinating post James – both the history and the images

    February 2, 2016
    • Much appreciated, Chas. It’s not so far from Australia!

      February 2, 2016

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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