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Published: October 15th 2006
The cause of all the fuss...
So this is what it was all about. Nutmeg. This is a fruit a local man picked for us to have a look at. You can see the brown nutmeg, wrapped in it lacy covering of mace, sitting in the nutmeg fruit.
Eyes still heavy with sleep, I extract myself from my little niche to have a look around. No sooner has my head risen above the edge of the parapet that a terrifically strong wind threatens to blow me off the ferry ! It must be about 6am, and our destination is in sight, dead ahead. A place I have dreamt of visiting for years - the Banda Islands.
The Bandas are a small cluster of islands about 200 kilometres south east of Ambon, comprising six inhabited and four uninhabited islands spread out over 50 kilometres in the deep Banda Sea. Centrepiece of this miniature archipelago is Gunung Api - Mount Fire - an active volcano that rises suddenly out of the deep waters to tower 650 metres over its neighbours.
Now, a bit of history. Tiny they may be, but the Banda Islands and their thickly forested hills were for centuries among the most sought after pieces of land on the planet. Most of Europe was prepared to go to any length to lay claim to them. The reason was simple - unimaginable wealth. Indeed on the Bandas, money actually did go on trees. Nutmeg trees. Until the 19th
Show of force
The Dutch fortress of Fort Belgica guards the narrow waters separating Pulau Neira, Pulau Lonthoir and Gunung Api. The sky-high prices nutmeg could fetch in Europe justified these expensive fortifications.
century, by a peculiar quirk of botanical evolution, these small scraps of land - hundreds of miles away from the nearest islands of any size - were the world's one, and only, source of nutmeg. Nutmeg, a spice valued above all others for its miraculous medicinal powers. Nutmeg had been used in Europe since medieval times (it may even have been burned on the altars of ancient Rome) as a flavouring, preservative and cure-all. This nutmeg, along with other spices like mace (from the same tree as nutmeg) and cloves had traditionally been purchased from Venetian merchants, who in turn bought their spices from Arab traders. Such were the prices that nutmeg and mace commanded in European markets that the location of their source was a secret jealously guarded by the Arab traders. So jealously that until the 16th century nobody in Europe had the faintest idea where their precious spices came from.
This secret became common knowledge in the early 1500s when the Portuguese conquered Melaka, a vital trading port guarding the narrow straits separating Malaysia and Sumatra (see earlier blog entry). From here the Portuguese sent out numerous expeditions eastwards, establishing trading relationships around Maluku. In the
The restored Fort Belgica, bang in the middle of the town of Bandaneira, the "capital" of the Bandas. A sleepy place that can't have changed much since the days of the spice race.
Banda Islands for nutmeg and mace, and Ternate and Tidore for cloves and cinnamon.
Although the Bandanese cannot have been unaware that the fruit of their fussy little nutmeg trees were so highly sought after, they had no need for large quantities of nutmeg themselves and traded it for much more important commodities as far as they were concerned: rice, cotton, calico. The Portuguese had a nice little earner going: they picked up textiles in India - where they had trading bases such as Goa established already - for a song, which the Bandanese gladly exchanged for tonnes upon tonnes of nutmeg. That was, back in Europe, literally worth its weight in gold.
It couldn't last. The Spanish soon had their eyes on the so-called spiceries
- a squabble ensued over who could rightfully claim ownership of the Banda Islands. After much wrangling, the Spanish agreed to relinquish their claim to the nutmeg in exchange for a vast payment. Other European nations such as England and the Netherlands were not about to sit back and watch their sworn enemy Portugal laugh all the way to the bank with galleonfuls of nutmeg. Determined to have a slice of the
One of the many cannons to be found in Fort Belgica. The main islands of Neira and Lonthoir are so close together as to be within cannon shot of each other. Very useful when it came to keeping the pesky Brits away from the previous nutmeg.
pie - if not the whole pie - Dutch and English launched expedition after expedition to the Bandas. Most failed miserably, thwarted by the doldrums, tropical cyclones or Indonesia's treacherous reefs. So valuable was the prize at the other end, however, that the expeditions kept on coming. The occasional successful trip more than compensated for the countless shipwrecks.
The Dutch got their foot in the door first, the English being kept busy by their repeated attempts to reach the Moluccas via the North Pole. They wasted no time in unceremoniously booting the Portuguese out of the Moluccas, capturing their fortresses including the one in Amboyna. The Banda Islands were a piece of cake, as the Portuguese had not fortified or even settled them. Although the Portuguese had established friendly trading relationships with the Bandanese, the same cannot be said for the Dutch. Relations quickly soured, the Dutch accusing the Bandanese of cheating on the weights and mixing rocks, twigs and dirt with the precious nutmegs. The Bandanese, on the other hand, were - unsurprisingly - not particularly impressed with the barter goods the Dutch insisted on using for trade. Indeed in the Banda Islands, four degrees south of the
It does't take a great leap of the imagination to picture this fortress being patrolled by Dutch soldiers while galleons in the channel loaded up their valuable cargos of nutmeg and mace.
Equator, heavy Dutch woolly clothes were not particularly highly prized.
In spite of the squabbling, the Dutch made astronomical profits from the nutmeg and mace, and it was precisely to protect the Low Countries' stranglehold on the spice trade the Dutch merchants joined forces to form the mighty V.O.C., the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie
- the Dutch East India Company. The V.O.C. got building - fortresses popped up all over the islands, promising to blow out of the water anyone foolhardy enough to try buying nutmeg behind Dutch backs. Fort Belgica. Fort Hollandia. Fort Nassau.
The English finally gave up their plans to discover the North-East Passage, but made it to the Moluccas the conventional way. Despite the cannons and gunships, they infuriated the Dutch by setting up trading posts in the Bandas' western islands, Run and Ai. Skirmishes were frequent, and try as they may, the Dutch could not shake the English off - they kept turning up like bad pennies. It took decades, until 1621, for the Dutch to finally succeed in enforcing their monopoly. England never stopped vociferously stating its claim to Run and Ai.
The Dutch got tired of the Bandanese people's request for
Belgica may have dominated Holland's enemies, but Gunung Api dominates everyone, Dutch or otherwise. This active volcano makes its presence known quite regularly and in devastating fashion.
fair prices and usable goods. They tricked local chieftains into signing blatantly unfair contracts, forcing them to sell their spices to nobody but the Dutch, and at ridiculously low prices. Drunk on their profits, the Dutch became more and more repressive, and the V.O.C. governor-general, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, ordered the massacre of the entire population - only a handful survived. The Dutch brought in licensed planters or perkeniers
to harvest the nutmeg trees, and to make sure the profits from trade were theirs and theirs alone, they proceeded to uproot every single nutmeg tree on the outlying islands which were less easily controlled. The money came rolling into the V.O.C. coffers - they sold the spices in the markets of Amsterdam at 120 times the prices they paid the perkeniers
. The Banda Islands thus became the Netherlands' private nutmeg plantation. The pesky English, however, would not pipe down in their claim to sovereignty over Run, and in the treaty of Breda, signed in 1667, they finally agreed to give up Run in exchange for an equally small piece of land halfway round the world. Thus it was that the Dutch ceded the island colony of Manhattan to the English -
Where else in the world do V.O.C. cannons litter the pavements ? Apparently thousands upon thousands of V.O.C.-minted coins can be found all over the islands as well.
who knows how things might have turned out if it hadn't been for tiny Pulau Run, lost in the Banda Sea ?
Towards the end of the 18th century, profits from the trade were dwindling. Violent eruptions by Gunung Api destroyed half of the islands' nutmeg trees, the fortresses and garrisons were hugely expensive to maintain, rampant smuggling by soldiers and perkeniers
eroded the V.O.C.'s profits, and to top it all some crafty fellow managed to sneak some nutmeg seedlings off the islands - nutmeg trees were soon popping up in the Caribbean and Mauritius. By that time, however, the Netherlands had got their mitts on the rest of the Indonesian archipelago which had become a de facto
Since then, the fortunes of the Bandas have dwindled further. During the 20th century the islands were used by the Dutch as a place of exile for nationalist campaigners and not much else. Tourists attracted by the Bandas' swashbuckling history formed the backbone of the islands' economy, until the 1999 Ambon troubles spilled over in Banda. Even this little green corner of paradise was not spared religious violence, with most of the islands' Christian population fleeing north towards Pulau
Majestic Gunung Api
The perfect cone of Gunung Api forms a fantastic centrepiece, visible for anywhere in the Bandas. To the left of the photo you can see the dark traces left by lava flows. These have helped create a wonderful underwater environment for corals and fish - see next entry !
Seram, near Ambon. Today the islands fortresses, colonial buildings and churches are falling into disrepair. The nutmeg plantations are still there, but nutmeg prices have tumbled - the market is flooded with cheap nutmeg from Grenada in the Caribbean - and the spices are all bought up by Dutch firms at artificially high prices.
All but forgotten by the world that once coveted them so intensely, the Banda Islands continue to crumble away in the shadow of the nutmeg trees.
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