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A Brief History of the Banda Islands

The Spice Islands

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 fabled Spice Islands lie in the modern day province of Maluku in eastern Indonesia. The Banda Islands are 200 km from the nearest port town of Ambon, and are made up of 9 islands - Run and Ai to the west, Manukang to the northwest, Pisang to the east, Hatta and Sekaru 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 - together with 2 rock islets - Batu Kapal to the east northeast and Keraka at the Banda Neira strait entrance.

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. The biggest and most valuable commodities were nutmeg and cloves.

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.

Current Affairs

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. More tourist information about the Banda Islands.

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 - the Spice Islands - and 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 - 20 metres 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.

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