Banda Quest 3: The Most Amazing Islands Ever

23 July, 2011

Perched on the back of a motorbike on my scoot from the airport I see my first Dutch colonial building. Then another, and another and myriad more beyond. Amidst lush tropical surrounds, I’ve plunged back 400 years to another era.

Dutch doors and more

The 18 years it had taken me to reach the Banda Islands suddenly seems trivial; the worry, concern and indigestion from the dodgy flights and meals of the previous few days mere inconveniences. I’ve landed on the short dusty airstrip on Pulau Neira, a small island with the main town of the Bandas, Bandaneira. My room at one of the handful of homestays is spotless, my host Abba (no relation to Dancing Queens or Swedes) extraordinary. He’d set me up with “No Problem!” Michael in Ambon and had otherwise figured out how to get me to these, the original Spice Islands.

Bandaneira's waterfront

Bag dropped I’m soon out exploring and marveling at streets and buildings with evocative appeals I’ve not seen in such profusion anyplace else in Indonesia or Southeast Asia. Sporadic efforts by locals have kept hundreds of years of history in decent repair and the isolation of the islands has kept modern influences at bay.

A forlorn welcome at the Governor's House

You can’t escape the phrase “undiscovered country” as you wander Bandaneira. At best the Bandas receive about 600 visitors a year (Bali gets 2.3 million). Round a corner and there’s Istana Midi, the old Dutch governor’s residence looking out onto the harbor where ships from Holland once arrived. The doors are open and you can wander among rooms with decayed crystal chandeliers and stone floors polished for dignitaries never to come. When the museum proves locked, somebody sees me outside and a woman appears with the key. While I look at dusty of artifacts, she is joined by friends and an impromptu – I kid you not – badminton match starts in the street, just a couple meters from an old brass Dutch cannon laying in the gutter.

Although the Dutch colonial past gives the Banda Islands much of their surprising intrigue today, it’s a legacy that shouldn’t be romanticized. Prior to their arrival in 1599, the Bandas had enjoyed a mutually beneficial trade in nutmeg with Chinese and Arab merchants for centuries. All sides profited and the Bandanese had the time and the resources to develop a rich culture on their remarkably fertile islands.

The Europeans proved to be turds – and very smelly turds at that – in this punchbowl. Willard Hanna writes in his fabulously readable and tragically almost forgotten gem Indonesian Banda about the locals’ initial impressions:

The Dutch soon came to be regarded mainly as curiosities, not altogether harmless but diverting eccentric, their peculiar aversion to the comfort of near-nudity and the refreshment of frequent bathing being considered only mildly offensive.

In other words, the Dutch, in their heavy woolen duds which they wore for months at a time, stunk.

Still holding the low ground, Benteng Nassau

Through the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the sweaty, smelly colonialists declared that they had monopoly on trade in the coveted nutmeg (which only grew in the Bandas) and they declared that henceforth the price paid to locals would be much less. As commercial strategy it was a failure from the start and relations with the Bandanese rapidly soured. In one of their earliest of what would prove to be centuries of boneheaded moves, the Dutch built their first fort, Benteng Nassau, at the lowest point in Bandaneira. Soon locals, stiffed by the Dutch price for nutmeg, were raining destruction down from the surrounding hills.

A new Dutch governor, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, arrived in 1621 to sort out the mess. Today if he is recalled it all, it should be with a phlegmy spit of disgust for Coen soon set about eliminating the roughly 15,000 Bandanese through mass slaughter and exile to far away islands. In their place he brought in slaves and the dregs of the Dutch empire, who get this description from Hanna:

Most were drifters or misfits, rakes or scoundrels, nobody’s first choice for model colonials.

In the coming centuries the Dutch efforts in the Bandas continually tottered on the brink of failure, hobbled by fiascos that included double-dealing, crop-failures, volcano-blows and slave revolts. The bosses back at corporate HQ in Amsterdam continually complained that nutmeg shipments were filled with spoiled goods and faux nuts (although they managed to turn on a profit on this subpar merchandise by selling it to the English).

The Dutch lion croaked

In 1795 the spectacular mismanagement of the Bandas caught up with the VOC and it went bankrupt, becoming the Enron of its day. The Dutch government took control for the next 150 years with only somewhat better success. (In the early 1800s the English got their revenge for all that third-rate nutmeg when they briefly took over the islands during the Napoleanic wars. Cuttings from the best nutmeg trees were spirited away by the thousands and taken to plantations in Sri Lanka, India and Grenada in the Caribbean, thus ending the Banda’s monopoly and ensuring that the English larder was only supplied with proper, first-rate nutmeg.)

No matter where you are in Bandaneira, you feel the looming presence of Gunung Api, the small but deadly volcano just across the narrow harbor channel from town. Topping out at a mere (but devilishly appropriate) 666 meters, it erupts regularly. During the Dutch times it had a propensity to blow whenever a ship carrying dignitaries arrived, maybe due to their stench. And while Bandaneira radiates a low-key serenity, in 1999 boatloads of thugs from Ambon arrived to start deadly riots as part of Muslim attacks on Christians and other atrocities that occurred across Maluku province here in eastern Indonesia.

One whiff of the Dutch and it blows

Meanwhile, Danny, my friend from the somnolent plane ride from Ambon is here, there and everywhere. News that someone had arrived looking for their Banda roots quickly spread by the word-of-mouth local news service (the landing of a good haul of fish at the market is transmitted with a speed that rivals Twitter) and locals begin dropping by Abba’s guesthouse to help bolster his few fuzzy facts about his family’s past. “This is fantastic, I can’t sleep” he says, despite days of bleary-eyed travel from Rotterdam.

Abba presents Dilla's fine fare

At night Abba’s wife Dilla provides the “Mama Mia” moment when she lays out dinner. Highlights include cinnamon soup (brothy, spicy and tingly going down the throat) and roasted eggplant with a locally special almond topping. As I’ll see the next day when I explore the other islands, everything grows in the Bandas. Besides getting the low-down on the deeply strange fruit that is nutmeg, I’ll see where the almonds came from, sacrifice my undies for a plunge into gorgeous turquoise waters and gaze out at the reason for the most idiotic international trade ever.

Next: Fruits, Nuts & Deserted Beaches


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3 Responses to “Banda Quest 3: The Most Amazing Islands Ever”

  1. Claudia Says:

    Fabulous read, great captions, too (particularly the Dutch ones).

  2. bridetobe Says:

    Please stop writing about this place because you’re making everyone else very jealous 😉

  3. Nitsos Says:

    This has been a blast! Great storytelling, and great humor! I love the laughs I’m getting, and I love even more the old familiar wanderlust seeping out of my pores as I read these posts.


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