For all the nutmeg in the world
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’.
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.
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. ◊