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A Brief History of the Banda Islands

The Spice Islands

The Banda Sea is surrounded by the sprawling mass of islands that comprise eastern Indonesia, lapping the shores of Sulawesi to the west, Alor to the south and with West Papua to the east. Within this body of water lie the fabled Spice Islands in the modern day province of Maluku.

The view of Gunung Api volcano from Banda Neira - photo courtesy of Stefan

The islands have had a long and fascinating history, including being among the most expensive real estate in the world! Spices, foreign traders, wars and earthquakes have all featured heavily in their checkered past. Topside, the Banda Islands boast climbable volcanic mountains which are covered in lush green vegetation. For a taste of historic atmosphere going ashore in Banda Neira is a must for its remnants of colonial times.

The islands are 200 km from the nearest port town of Ambon, and are made up of 10 small volcanic islands - Run and Ai to the west, Manukang to the northwest, Pisang to the east, Hatta to the southeast, Banda Besar to the south, and the main central island of Banda Neira and its close neighbour, the volcano island of Gunung Api, and 2 rock islets - Batu Kapal to the east northeast and Keraka at the Banda Neira strait entrance. There are some 15,000 inhabitants.

They have attracted regional and international traders for more than 3,000 years. Prior to 1500, no European had ever landed on the shores of Maluku, but there had always been Asian traders. Up until the middle of the 19th century this was the only place on Earth where the spices nutmeg and mace could be found and as a result they were crucial hub for the spice trade. Foreign visitors are therefore nothing new to these islands.

The Colonial Powers Arrive

After the first Portuguese and European vessel, under the stewardship of Francisco Serrao, arrived in Maluku in April 1512, the balance of power that had remained quite stable and little changed over the centuries, changed abruptly. The building of a series of forts set a new precedent in Maluku. The forts were built to ensure security as an Asian trading centre and to protect goods and people so they would not be arbitrarily seized by a local ruler. This pioneer idea later evolved into the modern concept of foreign naval bases. But it also set an immediate cultural barrier between newcomers and local people; also a local legacy of foreign naval bases.

The Portuguese power in the islands faded with their empire. The Dutch had a confrontation with them in Ambon, and expelled them. That was the end of their presence in the Banda Islands at that time.

The huge impact that these tiny and remote islands had on the European continent at that time was immense. Maluku was the most valuable piece of real estate in the world 500 years ago. Thus Henry the Navigator, Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan began their fates with destiny. They spread the word of god and enthusiastically secured as much spices as their boats would hold. Although the work was treacherous, a sack full of nutmeg from Banda would put a common sailor into an early retirement if he made it back to Europe alive with the legendary spices to hand.

In 1579 the Englishman Francis Drake arrived in Ternate, at nearby Halmahera, aboard the Golden Hind, taking several tons of cloves with him; and in 1603 James Lancaster arrives and raises English flag on the Banda Island of Run.

In 1602 the Dutch East India Company was formed with a base on Banda Neira Island, and in 1609 the Dutch arrive in force, thus bringing the ensuing conflict with the English into sharp focus.

The Most Valuable Real Estate in the World?

A wall cannon at Fort Belgica, Banda Neira - photo courtesy of Stefan

In 1667 the Treaty of Breda was finally signed, bringing an end to the Dutch - English hostilities. It transpired to be a hugely significant moment in history, as the agreement was based around a property swap of the then English Run Island with the then Dutch New Amsterdam - Manhattan, New Jersey and Delaware Estuary, in modern day New York.

By 1770 the writing was on the wall for the Dutch monopoly in the Moluccas. The French arrived and secured a supply of nutmeg and cloves on Gebe Island, and in 1810 the English were at it again as Captain Christopher Cole seized Fort Belgica on Banda Neira.

1854 saw the arrival of the famous British natural historian Sir Alfred Wallace, who spent 8 years in the area and collected "125,660 specimens of natural history", mostly in Maluku.

Nutmeg and Mace

In the absence of a tourist economy, fishing and nutmeg are the only 2 industries that the Bandas have. Nutmeg is a large evergreen tree, native to the Moluccas and the Spice Islands, and is now cultivated in the West Indies. The fruit produces 2 spices - mace and nutmeg. Nutmeg is the seed kernel inside the fruit and mace is the lacy aril covering on the kernel.

Mace is the spice that originally made this commodity so precious as it was used as a meat preservative, but also critically it was thought to be a cure for the bubonic plague which was so fatal at that time. Nutmeg is usually used in sweets and spicy dishes, but also combines well with cheeses and sauces, and is used to flavour sausages, and lamb dishes. It has medicinal properties too, such as aiding digestion, treating diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea, improving appetite and reducing flatulence.

The tree grows from 12-20m tall, has dense foliage with dark green, 10 cm long, oval leaves, and a dark green-grey bark which produces a yellow juice which oxidises to red. It has small, yellow bell-shaped flowers. A single mature tree produces up to 2,000 nutmegs per year. Nutmeg has no particular season; the fruit ripens all year round, so its harvest supplies the Banda islanders with a steady income.

Current Affairs

These days intrepid visitors come not to trade for spice and fill their ships with booty, rather to photograph marine life both large and small and wonder at the richness of the local seas as the Bandas are now considered one of the finest dive destinations on the world.

It is generally considered by those in the know to be the big fish capital of Indonesia. If you join a liveaboard cruise in the area you could see practically anything there. Have a read through our Banda dive site descriptions to learn of some of the wonderful creatures and breathtaking dives this part of the country has to offer.

The Banda Islands most famous citizen and leader was Des Alwi, who was an influential figure in Indonesia's struggle for independence. He was forced into exile in the late 1950s by the Sukarno government, but in 1970 he returned to Banda and began the first moves to bring tourism to the Banda Islands. In 1995 he successfully restructured the Indonesian nutmeg contractual rights in favour of the small Bandanese producers.

Unfortunately Alwi died in 2010 but his family continue to push his unbridled optimism about Banda's future as a tourist eco travel destination, provided that proper management is in place to safeguard the long term interests of the local environment, natural resources, historical sites, and Bandanese cultural integrity.

The region has already been nominated as a World Heritage Site, and talks are under way to create a national marine park in the islands too.

The Local People

The majority of the inhabitants of the Banda region are descended from migrants and labourers who arrived from various different parts of Indonesia and mixed with the indigenous population. However, immigration from many parts of the world are evident in the people including from Java, the Bay of Bengal, and indeed Europeans who mixed with locals during and after the time of the spice trade. The unique cultural identity of the pre-colonial Bandanese is still very much in existence.

Language is one such example with a form of Malay dialect, distinguishable from Ambonese Malay, being spoken by the Bandanese. Ambonese Malay is the main language of the greater area however, the more local dialect with its Dutch influences and sing-song character sets it apart.

Approximately 95% of the local population are Muslim and 5% are Christian.

Climate

Dry season in the Banda Sea runs from approximately May to November, with more likelihood of rain in the months of January and February. The temperature is quite constant between 27°C and 32°C.

Around the Banda Islands

Getting There

The only Church remaining in the Banda Islands. Legend has it that the clock stopped at the exact time the Japanese invaded during World War II - photo courtesy of Stefan

The Bandas are best visited by liveaboard, and there are several different points of access depending on the boat and its itinerary. While some trips that visit the region begin in Raja Ampat and others in Alor and Flores, the most common access is from Ambon.

Things to Do

Banda Neira is the major town in the Bandas and is where you kind find a bustling local market where all the aromas, colours and characters are concentrated. Colonial Dutch architecture is evident and while many are in ruins, some have been restored and carry an air of faded grandeur.

Other islands here offer their own activities although they are much less developed than Banda Neira. Banda Neira may have roads but it has very few cars. The other islands such as Banda Besar are characterized by rugged, mountainous interiors with small developments scattered around the shoreline. Trekking up Gunung Api gives amazing panoramic views of the area.

Tourists, particularly divers, are beginning to visit the Banda Islands more and more, although you will still feel like you are a pioneer adventurer since it is still very much a region off the beaten track and tourist facilities remain largely undeveloped.

Ambon is often the start and end point for Banda liveaboard cruises and, while many guests simply fly in and out, some choose to spend some time enjoying the many wonderful beaches and other activities the region has to offer.

Among the finest beaches are Namalatu, 16 km to the south of the town, which enjoys excellent coral shallows, making it a great spot for snorkeling. 21 km from Ambon, you can visit Poka-Rumahtiga beach, where many watersports events are held such as local canoeing competitions. Other beaches include Natsepa and Pantai Liang, and all of them offer the kind of white sand and sparkling clear water that beach-lovers dream of. They are often deserted too so you can have the shore to yourself.

For those not content to laze in the sun there is an interesting museum at Siwa Lima, only about 20 minutes from the town. Here you can immerse yourself in the fascinating history of the region. The Commonwealth War Museum set in beautiful serene grounds, can be a welcome break from the noise of the city. There are also lots of churches around including the impressive cathedral and the Maranatha Church, which has been fiercely protected from damage over the years.

Dining Out, Shopping & Nightlife

Since tourist numbers are still low in the Banda Islands, you will be considered a novelty and you may find yourself the greatest entertainment in town. You may be roped into dancing sessions with locals, who enjoy dangdut parties where gyrations are to the sound of a strange but interesting blend of Arabic and house music - the closest you will find to a disco!

Aside from local markets in Banda Neira and the outlying islands and the occasional curio stand, there is not much in the way of retail which might interest the international market. If you need to be within touching distance of an Ikea or a Tesco then perhaps Banda is not for you.

Similarly, dining options are restricted to a few small restaurants serving tasty local fare, where you can expect plastic chairs and less-than-salubrious surroundings.

Ambon is a bustling city of markets and local businesses, and you can find quite a variety of restaurants serving a wide selection of food. The higher end hotels probably serve the best food in comfortable surroundings, and the Mutiara Hotel is a cozy little spot for a coffee and to unwind. There is plenty of Indonesian food to choose from including Malukan food like papeda and sweet potato.

Local Transport

There is nowhere big enough in the Bandas to need public road transport. Indeed, only Banda Neira has proper roads. Most of the local transport you will use will be boats.

Getting around Ambon is probably best done on foot, but for longer journeys you can use taxis, minibuses and becaks. A taxi from the airport to the city takes about 45 minutes.

Useful References


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