The Spice Islands (or if you want to be pedantic “The Nutmeg Islands”)
Banda is all about colonial history, nutmeg and mace. It is also surrounded by azure seas, pristine and is an underwater paradise. These tiny islands are dominated by Gunung Api located in their centre, the active volcano across the bay from Bandaneira, a constant reminder of the precarious position on some fault line along the earth’s crust.
The Banda Islands’ fascinating history, rugged beauty and stunning underwater world, friendly smiley local people, and ultimately the Pelni schedule, all conspired to persuade us to extend our stay to four weeks.
However when you talk about Banda, you have to talk about nutmeg. They really dine out on nutmeg, adding it to everything from local vegetable dishes, to coffee and jam (we can highly recommend the jam). But it was the centuries long battle by the Dutch for exclusive control of the production and trade of nutmeg that shaped these islands and changed them forever.
Nutmeg is the seed of the tree and mace is dried lacey covering of the nut inside the seed. Both were highly valued spices in from the dark ages onwards.
Technically, the term the Spice Islands describes the whole of the Maluku Islands along with nearby parts of Sulawesi, areas rich in a variety of spices such as cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace. Spices have been traded across the globe from Africa, Asia and beyond for centuries but nutmeg became one of the most precious of commodities in Elizabethan times when it was widely believed that nutmeg warded off the plague. The value of the spice skyrocketed in Europe sparking intense colonial interest.
The Portuguese were the first to arrive in Banda but ultimately the islands were dominated by the VOC (the Dutch East Indies Company which was formed to represent and protect Dutch interests) with irritating and intermittent interference from the British.
These tiny islands were once the sole source of nutmeg in the entire world and as it became more desirable there was fierce competition to control production and trade of the spice. The Dutch gained control of the Banda Islands from the Portuguese and largely maintained dominance for the next 300 years but a sprinkling of rivalry and general annoyance from the British who maintained a largely benign presence on nearby Run and Ai.
History reveals the usual unsavoury, rather violent, murderous, disorganised, ill-informed, hugely expensive and ultimately disastrous Dutch reign over the region, even by European colonial standards of that period.
Today, those who call Banda home are a mix of people whose ancestors originate from Banda and other parts of Maluku, further afield across Indonesia, as well as Africa, China, other parts of Asia, and Holland. The local people are incredibly friendly, if at first a little shy and reserved. Tourism is picking up here but not so much that it has lost its charm.
A Potted History
The Banda Islands are a group of about 10 small islands hardly visible on a map of Indoneia and they are made up of the islands, Banda Neira, Banda Besar, Gunung Api, Hatta, Air, Run, Nailaka and Pisang. There are other even smaller uninhabited islands but some are literally small rocky outcrops with a coconut palm or two. A a miniscule dot on the map, their insignificant size belies their importance in historical terms during the spice wars in colonial times.
The Spice Islands was the name given to the Maluku Islands in the 16th century with the northern islands Tidore and Ternate more famous for producing cloves and the central Malukan islands of Banda as the sole source of nutmeg and mace, and cinnamon was also a valuable crop.
The islands were originally discovered by Portuguese explorers in the early 16th century. They embarked on a half hearted attempt to colonise the Bandas but met with resistence they left returning infrequently, preferring to trade elsewhere in the archipelago.
Recognizing the value of the Banda Islands and its nutmeg, the Dutch East Indies Company (the VOC) fought long and hard to gain control and monopoly of the trade of nutmeg (and mace) which was once worth more than gold in Europe.
Over a period of over 300 years the Dutch maintained an almost continual monopoly over the islands with the notable exceptions of the small islands Run and Ai which were occupied by the British. The British built fortified trading posts and provided protection to the local people from the VOC and traded on more generous terms with them severely undermining the VOC’s quest for monopoly. The British continued to be a source of irritating interference much to the chagrin of the Dutch.
For over three centuries the Dutch waged a continual, verging on obsessive, campaign for absolute control of the highly valuable nutmeg trade. Their tactics were simple: to keep costs low at source and secure a monopoly on trade back in Europe guaranteeing obscenely colossal profit margins. Maintenance of these enormous profit margins was central to their inflexible approach to the goal to control the trade and ultimately proved foolhardy, tragic and self-defeating.
The relationship between the Dutch and the Bandanese was one of mutual resentment and distrust from the outset. For centuries the Bandanese had happily traded independently with merchants from all over the world and they were understandably reluctant to submit to Dutch control under terms which were of no benefit or advantage to them.
They were, quite rightly, suspicious that they stood to gain little from the deals suggested by the Dutch and were particularly unhappy about price fixed in perpetuity and restrictive trade terms. The proposals were so inequitable and oppressive they bordered on slavery.
Some of the village leaders (orang kayas (literally “rich men”) were eventually persuaded to sign an agreement known as “The Eternal Compact” which granted the Dutch a monopoly on spice purchase and which the Dutch were later to rely on as evidence of their monopoly although the Bandanese had little understanding of the significance of this treaty and which was not signed by all the leaders and therefore arguably invalid.
The signing of the Eternal Contract did not have the desired consequences. The VOC’s shoddy treatment of the Bandanese, in particular their own persistent failure to honour their responsibilities under the agreement, led to the Bandanese openly undermining the authority of the VOC. They regularly engaged in smuggling which the Dutch struggled vainly to control.
Governor General Coen
Coen was appointed VOC Governor General and made it his mission to gain exclusive control of the nutmeg crop and subsequent trade and at any cost.
When the Portuguese first arrived there were 15,000 local inhabitants. After 200 years, about 1,000 had fled to the Kei Islands and beyond, and maybe 500 remained in Banda but the rest were slaughtered indiscriminately, starved or executed for minor crimes.
This annihilation of the population was as a direct result of the Coen’s overzealous plan to control the nutmeg trade. He believed the only solution to the problem was to was to wipe out the indigenous population and that remained his objective, come what may. He fervently believed this was the only way the VOC would be able to gain exclusive control of the nutmeg cultivation, harvest and trade.
Coen’s only slight hesitation was how his actions could be justified and he did this by drawing up tightly restrictive and highly punitive contracts which were signed by only two or three of the orang kaya. The remaining orang kaya remained ignorant of the contract and its terms agreed. Coen knew that the nature of the terms almost certainly guaranteed those terms would be widely but unknowingly breached as which his intention.
Breaches occurred Coen quickly and systematically proceeded to slaughter local people, raze villages to the ground and drive others to flee for their lives. He employed Japanese to publicly torture, butcher and behead orang kaya. It is recorded that 40 orang kaya were beaded in a mass execution and their heads impaled on bamboo stakes. Needless to say, no-one was given the opportunity to defend themselves in any court or otherwise.
Of those that were not massacred, many died of starvation while hiding out in the forest, or died at sea attempting to flee to neighbouring islands; others simply succumbed to their aggressors and were subsequently sold into slavery.
Village after village suffered the same fate as the Dutch were driven to accomplish their goal of complete annihilation.
Coen is no longer viewed as a hero in Holland but I hasten to levy any particular criticism against the colonial Dutch. Being British we have our own long history of colonialism, slavery, exploitation and destruction of people and property, as well as appropriation of resources, but Mr Coen does seem to come across as a bit more unsavoury than most (but I am no expert and I have no doubt we have our fair share of villains).
The Annoying Brits
Throughout their, at times fragile, period of control of the islands, the Dutch were intermittently irritated by the British, who continued to blatantly flout the VOC’s authority under their very noses. The British remained a thorn in the side of the Dutch and the Dutch never really knew how to deal with them.
The Dutch maintained their strangehold on the Banda Islands apart from a brief period during the Napoleonic War when the British managed to seize control in 1810 in an audacious attack by Captain Christopher Cole when he attacked the well-defended Belgica Castle at sunrise with only 100 men against 700 Dutch. The battle was over within hours when the Dutch surrendered without a single shot being fired. Cole was subsequently installed as Lieutenant-Governor of the islands.
The islands were eventually returned to the Dutch but before they left the British removed many nutmeg trees and transplanted them to Ceylon and other British colonies.
Interesting fact: While the British peacefully negotiated with the village leader on the tiny island of Pulau Run to protect them from the Dutch in exchange for a monolopy of the the nutmeg on the island. The village leader accepted King James I of England as their sovereign and it became the first overseas British colony. Later, in 1667, by which time Run was worthless to the British as the Dutch had destroyed all the nutmeg on the island, the British famously traded Run for Manhattan Island in the Treaty of Breda in North America.
After successfully ridding the islands of its local inhabitant Coen set about dividing the islands into Even with their own perken plantation system into which they installed hand picked Dutch perkeniers to invest and manage the nutmeg plantations, they imposed similarly unreasonable and barely profitable contracts. The VOC were suppoed to provide slave labour, and import and provide basic foodstuffs and clothing (the islands being a tad remote and a huge expense for the perkeners).
They also included restrictive, punitive terms in the contracts relating to general conduct, inter-racial relationships and smuggling among other things, and any perceived breaches were tried in kangaroo courts and often even minor breaches were punishable by death.
The perken system ultimately ended in failure after a brief honeymoon period of prosperity. The perkeniers struggled to maintain profitable crop yields, lacking the local knowledge of the Bandanese, support from the VOC dwindled despite their responsibilities under the contracts and ultimately the quality of the nutmeg diminished.
Add to that the fact that the majority of the people providing the labour and harvesting the nutmeg were unhappy with their lot and therefore prone to rebel, vast sums of money and huge resources were necessary to maintain the VOC’s stranglehold of the market under their terms. The system became unworkable this was partly what eventually led to the bankruptcy and downfall of the VOC.
Throughout their tenure the VOC steadfastly refused to compromise one iota on profit and that resulted in their ultimate downfall. Had they invested just a little upholding their side of the bargain and providing incentive to either the Bandanese or later the perkeniers they would still have enjoyed a healthy revenue and there may have been less bloodshed.
The fact that the British stole a few nutmeg trees and started cultivating nutmeg (it is claimed of a quality equal or superior to Banda nutmeg) in other parts of Indonesia and further afield in Malaysia was also no small contribution to their ultimate failure but at the time Banda was still by far the largest provider of nutmeg and the Dutch continued to cling to their monopoly of the islands’ produce at all costs.
The Dutch colonial history of Banda is fraught with the usual unsavoury tales of death and subordination, almost complete population annihilation or displacement, and a good deal of slavery. The VOC ultimately failed because it was too greedy, it imposed unreasonable contracts providing fixed trade terms for eternity which were barely profitable leaving little incentive for the local people (and later their own hand picked perkenier) to comply.
There are obviously several lessons, When invading a distant and shamelessly stealing assets or crops or whatever, you would do best to not mistreat the local people because they tend not to cooperate.
Do not treat the land as a prison and its people as slaves and impose stupid laws on them (and your own imported workers) which you then try summarily and treat with no semblance of justice which would be unacceptable in your home country and which history .
If you massacre the entire population you may find yourself without the knowledge required to cultivate your beloved crop and your rabid dreams of unimaginable wealth will turn into a nightmare of bankruptcy and historical shame.
The British, on the other hand, employed completely different tactics on the nearly tiny islands of Run and Ai and in return of sole trade of the nutmeg on term profitable for the local people and return for that monopoly provided protection from the Dutch.
Colonialism is almost always a very bad thing but there are clearly degrees.
When British production of nutmeg began to thrive elsewhere in Asia the ensuing competition drastically diminished the value of the Banda Islands to the Dutch. The centuries invested in their control of these islands and the nutmeg trade, revealed itself to be a hugely unprofitable waste of time, effort and money as well as the huge cost of many, many lives and a culture all but destroyed.
Oddly enough, the Banda people do seem to have a sense of pride in their colonial past (although it has to be remembered, they aren’t the original Banda people but the same could be said of most of Indonesia). The Indonesian Dutch colonial history is centuries older than Indonesia itself so that may be part of it. But you do get a sense from Indonesians generally that they move on and a grudge is not something that is worth holding on to.
We both read a book on local history which we found in Bandaneira and which is a comprehensive account of the Banda Islands’ history (by Willard Hanna). If you ever visit, it’s widely available and an interesting read not least because it’s not too dry for an historical account.