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Published: December 13th 2016
Arriving in Ambon
There is a Dutch tinge to Ambon and the surrounding islands. An umbilical cord connecting it with the former colonial power. This umbilical cord takes the form of family. Everybody I meet has an uncle, aunt, nephew, grandfather, brother or sister who lives somewhere in The Netherlands. Names of cities and towns fly by, Frankie who lives in Venlo, Jaap who lives in Almelo, Tony who lives in Amsterdam. Older folk speak Dutch to me spontaneously when I tell them where I am from. For good or for ill, Holland is quite popular out here. Which, if you think about it, is rather strange, seeing the atrocities we committed.
The reason so many Moluccans and specifically Ambonese live in Holland has to do, as is often the case, with the past. We have to go back around 70 years during the war of independence, when Holland was frantically trying to hold on to its colonial possessions in the east. In this war the Ambonese sided with the Dutch, fighting as soldiers in the Royal Dutch East India Army, known as KNIL in Dutch. The Dutch lost, and the Moluccan soldiers were forcibly evacuated by the Dutch, and there you have
Ambon City from the boat
Nowadays the Dutch invasion is much more peaceful. With a shared history, Indonesia is a popular holiday destination. And in Ambon specifically the biggest group of foreigners are my fellow countrymen and women, a large part of them with Moluccan blood. Often this takes the form of family reunions, Dutch Moluccans seeking out their roots, finding the places their grandfather or mother talked about, visiting aunts and uncles.
As I took a bemo from Ambon City to Tulehu, the starting off point for boats to the Lease Islands, my driver greeted me with a big smile when I told him I was Dutch, and started talking about his brother who lived in Holland. And about the rather contentious subject of Moluccan independence, a subject I was eager to avoid. You see, the reason the Ambonese sided with the Dutch is that they didn’t want to be ruled by Jakarta. And when independence did come to Indonesia they in turn proclaimed their own Republik Maluku Selatan (South Moluccan Republic). The Indonesian army quickly reinstated control, but the dream of a free Maluku remained a thorny issue for quite some time. These days most Moluccans rather just get on
Statue of Pattimura an anti-Dutch hero
with their lives instead of pursuing vague notions of independence. But, clearly, there are still some who feel strongly about it, my bemo driver was one of them. I deftly tip-toed around the topic and before long we had arrived in Tulehu which brought a natural end to the awkward conversation.
The hydrofoil to Saparua, one of the Lease Islands, brought me more Dutch-family based chats with random names of people and places being whispered in my ear. As we docked in Haria an older man wished me good luck and a pleasant journey in Dutch and my next bemo driver regaled me with yet more family-tree tales. More tangible reminders were Fort Duurstede, overlooking a turquoise bay, and the many Protestant Churches. To get away from all this Dutch-ness I decided to stay in a small beach resort on the other side of the island. I nearly succeeded, except that there happened to be quite a few other Dutch (mostly of Moluccan descent) staying there. In fact after day one, there were only Dutch left, as the one Spanish family moved on, leaving us Dutch behind to cope with ourselves. All four of us coped just fine.
But time was running out for me, and I still wanted to visit Nusa Laut, the smallest of the Lease Island, and supposedly with one of the best reefs in the Maluku’s. Naique, my new Dutch friend, with Moluccan heritage (needless to say), who was visiting family and travelling around, decided to come with me.
Nusa Laut has the oldest church in the Maluku’s and a Dutch Fort, which looks more like a watch tower, called Beverwijk. It also has seven villages, who each have a Raja, or King, as chief. And it has those coral gardens. They are lying just outside the jetty of Ameth the principal town of the island, which isn’t saying much. In Ameth we stayed at a homestay called ‘Voentje’ which sounds quite Dutch. In this homestay a couple of other Dutch were staying (surprise, surprise). Dutch Moluccans. They were living in Indonesia, and one of them, Charlie, was related to the Royal Family of Ameth. That is, one of the lines.
You see it seems, the Royal Family has two lines, an elder and a younger. The younger line holds the throne now, and the elder line wants to reclaim it. Charlie,
belonged to the elder line. A man of power, by his own claim, he has taken the case to court with legal papers proving that his line is the rightful inheritor to the throne. Not that Charlie wants it for himself, but for one of his line at least. Charlie doesn’t really speak much Indonesian, mostly he speaks Dutch with a very heavy Rotterdam accent. Possibly Charlie doesn’t want the throne because he can’t have it, seeing that he is actually Dutch, even if his heritage is Indonesian.
Charlie’s claim to the throne was backed by myth, obviously. Tradition states that his ancestor arrived in an earthenware jar from Mesopotamia. Furthermore his great-grandfather killed a dragon. The proof lies under the water, a natural feature called the eye of the dragon. More practically Charlie had enlisted the help of powerful political figures to advance his cause. Figures like the Governor of the Maluku’s, former Indonesian Presidents and retired Generals. I suspect a degree of exaggeration and mere fancy to this list, in other words, wishful thinking. Charlie had a knack of coming up with the most fantastical tales about his exploits, as if to prove he was as worthy
View of the city centre
of the throne as his illustrious dragon slaying forebears. Little Charlie with his big dreams, who had moved from Rotterdam to Jakarta ten years ago, and had in that short time managed to save Indonesia from several calamities and make friends in the highest circles of power. He certainly was amusing. And seeing him scheme and plan for the downfall of the current King gave the whole scene a Hamlet in the tropics kind of feel, with a Dutch twist. It turns out we just can’t leave the Indonesians alone. Even now plotting to overthrow Kings and supplant them with more pliant rulers.
Ah, Charlie, it was a pleasure listening to your over-the-top tales.
As for the reefs outside Ameth… They are truly spectacular. Jump of the pier into the water and you find yourself surrounded by schools of big and small fish, and magnificent corals. As far as I am concerned Charlie can claim his little Kingdom back, as long as he doesn’t mess with the reef!
Naique and I, meanwhile, left Ameth and its Shakespearean drama’s, for Ambon. I to catch my flight home, Naique to pick up his girlfriend who is going to join
This boy wanted his picture taken...
him for a couple of weeks of tropical island bliss.
It’s time to leave Ambon to the… ehmmm Dutch (Moluccan) hordes that are coming for Christmas and return to the Dutch hordes that stayed at home.
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