Exploring the Banda islands

There’s still a bit of a side roll slapping Totem around when we head out to Banda, but it’s manageable and we’ve got a bit of moonlight to help us along. The rich history of these islands have made them one of our most anticipated stops in Indonesia. As they fade into view in the early morning light, I can’t help but feel a little tingly with excitement.

Landfall in the Banda islands

Summary backstory, for those unfamiliar: this handful of islands, in something of a nautical no-man’s land of Indonesia, were once the world’s only source of nutmeg. Nutmeg’s wonders are written of as far as ancient Greece, and it was long credited with a variety of health and medicinal properties. In Europe, it more costly more per ounce than gold, offering these distant nations incentive to find the source. When nutmeg was purported to aid bubonic plague, popularity exploded and the opportunity to get rich through the trade headed exploration up further. The first Portuguese ships arrive in Banda in 1511, and broke centuries of Venetian control (through their trade with Constantinople). By 1609, Neira (one of the primary settlements in the islands) became the first Dutch territory in the archipelago they would one day help to consolidate as Indonesia. For a while, the English maintained a foothold in the spice islands through Run island, just west of Neira, but eventually traded it to the Dutch for their small territory in the New World. We know that the island as Manhattan today. The voyages of Columbus, Magellan, Drake and countless others who do not have historic fame to recall their names were all centered around this race for control of spice.

So, yeah, in the scheme of modern world history, it’s kind of an important place.

The nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon which once drove explorers to Indonesia have long since been dispersed to grow in other places around the world. It’s a sleepy island town now, but reminders of the past are everywhere. To be able to walk through and touch pieces of this history feels just a little surreal.

The older if the two forts on Neira is little more than overgrown ruins, but can still be imagined.

Crumbling ruins

The “newer” (1611)  Dutch fort is restored and somewhat maintained. We have it entirely to ourselves for about half an hour before the caretaker arrives. He’s happy to help fill in some gaps to the extent that we can ask questions and understand answers in Indonesian.

Benteng Belgica

In the Rumah Budaya museum, Ibu Feni cranks up a gramophone to give us an audible peek into the era of colonial wealth and extravagance. The kids test drive traditional local weapons and a ceremonial Porteguese helmet, while Jamie weighs a piece of ‘uang potong’- cut money, the first currency introduced by European traders- in his hand.

Rumah budaya: Banda's museum
Rumah budaya: Banda's museum

There are shades of the past sprinkled around… from the cannons that look cast aside along the road to those placed decoratively along waterfronts, to the marble patio tiles that were almost surely brought by ship around Africa to enhance to a wealthy Dutch perkenier’s residence.

Life in Banda
Life in Banda

We treat ourselves to dinner ashore at the lovely Mutiara guesthouse, and feel a touch of colonial elegance at their garden table- shaded by nutmeg trees.  It’s a delicious dinner- high end dining for $7/plate. A vegetable soup cooked spice-island style with cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg… whole grilled fish with a tangy, spicy sauce…roasted eggplant with a sauce of kenari, the wild almond trees interplanted in nutmeg groves to offer shade…two kinds of rice… stir fried vegetables with shrimp… an avocado and chocolate puree for dessert. I have probably forgotten something. The bubbly Abba put on a Travel Channel show program that gave a tour of the spice islands, another vehicle for us all to learn from. Needless to say we rolled ourselves out of there.

Eating our way through Banda
See the cockatoo on the chair? How about that monster shell?

There’s so much more here than we can see. Great Indonesian statesmen spent years here under house arrest. But I guess that once again we’re feeling a bit of our own slant on history, and more interested in reliving the aspects that touch our lives than those that are specifically Indonesian. We could probably rush around and “do” everything on the historical points list here, but who wants to rush? We get so much more out of leisurely visits, getting to know people, then blindly gawping at all the sights. There’s still never enough time.

Reading notes- Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, by Giles Morton, is a fascinating and highly readable book about the history of the Banda islands. We highly recommend it for anyone coming this way! Jack Turner’s book Spice offers a broader context and more interesting reading on the subject.

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