The sun is already hot and high when Run Island hoves into view. Perched on the prow of the Ombak Putih, I have to squint to make it out – a tiny shadow on a horizon that stretches otherwise unbroken in every direction. We’re a good six hours behind schedule, having sailed overnight against unseasonable currents from Ambon, capital of Indonesia’s Maluku Province – a mini archipelago flanked by Sulawesi to the west and New Guinea to the east. In all, it’s taken three days to get here, flying via Singapore, Bali, Sulawesi and finally Ambon.
500 years ago, it would have taken the better part of a year in a flimsy wooden carrack the size of a large yacht. And that was if you made it at all, what with storms and scurvy and skirmishes with locals – not to mention getting hopelessly lost because no one could measure longitude yet. Often less than half of a ship’s crew would make it back home alive. But that didn’t stop Europe’s most powerful nations from trying: back then, the Moluccas Islands were arguably the hottest property on the planet.
Our quarters are more inviting. The Ombak Putih is a traditional wooden Phinisi schooner made by the legendary Bugis navigators of Sulawesi Island. But this vessel, run by Sea Trek which specialises in cultural maritime tours, has been outfitted for comfort not piracy – the snug cabins have en-suite bathrooms, decks are strewn with sunbeds and the thrice-daily buffets mean we’re more likely to gain paunches than perish.
“It’s amazing to think that these tiny volcanic islands sparked the Age of Discovery,” says author Ian Burnett as he joins me at the bow, coffee in hand. “And the establishment of the world’s first true multinational companies for that matter – the Dutch and British East India Companies,” he adds, gesturing at the indistinct blob on the skyline. Burnet, a retired geologist who now writes books about Indonesian history, is the guest lecturer on this two-week voyage around the fabled Spice Islands.
An hour later we weigh anchor off Run, board a speedboat and putter across a shallow reef to a beach, where two shyly smiling kids peep out from a dry-docked fishing boat. There’s no one else to be seen. Considering its history, Run doesn’t look like much – white sand beach, coconut palms, lush vegetation clinging to steep slopes and the corrugated roofs of a neatly kept fishing village. A typical tropical paradise. But then our guide Ari points up at a stand of non-descript trees on a hillside and says “nutmeg.” And that’s really where the story begins.
In Europe in the Middle Ages, nutmeg was worth more than its weight in gold. It was thought to be a panacea for a multitude of ills, from the common cold to the plague. And it was incredibly scarce – the little that found its way to Europe came overland across central Asia, its value increasing with each leg of the journey. Few knew where it came from save for wild rumours of a paradise in the east. It was spice that compelled the likes of Ferdinand Magellan to circumnavigate the globe – everyone wanted to find and control the source. Because back then, nutmeg only grew in the fertile volcanic soils of the Banda Islands, while clove too was endemic to the Moluccas.
It turns out that Run is not quite as deserted as it first seemed - it’s Friday and the men are in the mosque. They spill out wearing sarong and peci and pressed white shirts. Burhan, a jovial young man who runs the Nailaka Homestay takes us under his wing, leading us through a marketplace smoky with barbecuing fish and clove cigarettes, up to his little nutmeg plantation. Back in the 17th century, Run was overrun with nut trees. It was also the only island controlled by the British at a time when the V.O.C – the Dutch East India Company - had all but monopolised the spice trade. In 1667, the British eventually ceded Run to the Dutch in return for an island in the New World then called New Amsterdam. They renamed it Manhattan.
Banda Neira lies 20km to the east. Old paintings and lithographs of the main Banda cluster depict a volcano with smoke billowing from its crater, a fortress built on a shoulder of rock and little houses huddled on the shoreline. The reality is almost as dramatic. Gunung Api hasn’t erupted since 1699, but her steep, verdant flanks are no less impressive for the absence of sulphurous smoke. Fort Belgica, a massive stone pentagon with circular towers built by the Dutch in 1611, is still largely intact. Banda Neira and her larger neighbour Banda Besar protect a glassy lagoon dotted with fishing boats. The town is a little run down, though well kept. Everywhere there are reminders of the colonial past, for Banda Neira was the V.O.C’s governorate – the administrative capital of the global trade in nutmeg until the end of the 18th century. There are bronze cannon and statuary everywhere as I stroll with Ari along the broad central avenue toward the elegant but dilapidated governor’s residence, which has an air of forlorn and incongruous grandeur. On one of the windows, you can just make out the letters of a suicide note scratched there by a French governor who couldn’t bear the solitude:
When shall strike the bell which sounds the hour,
The moment that I return to the arms of my country,
The care of my family, which I love?
“They say he scratched it there with his diamond ring and then hung himself from the chandelier,” Ari tells me. Whoever he was, he certainly had the French knack for flair.
Abba, proprietor of the Mutiara guesthouse, places a young coconut in front of me and sits down for a chat in the shade of his patio. He’s dressed smartly in a Hawaiian shirt and slacks and as I sip the sweet slightly acidic water, it occurs to me that there’s a decidedly Arabic cast to his features. “That’s because my ancestors came from Yemen,” he says with a laugh. “Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the first VOC governor, massacred most of the native Bandanese in 1621, so the population today is descended from Arabic and Chinese traders and indentured labourers from other islands.” His immaculate guesthouse is filled with whimsical treasures – rusting canon balls, a ship in a bottle and a wind up gramophone with a 78rpm record on the deck. There are three rooms, but he’s building a bigger waterside property. “It’s going to have themed rooms showing different aspects of Banda history and culture.”
As the sun sets, lending a bronze burnish to the lagoon, we head up to Fort Belgica where a group of Bandanese girls in batik sarongs perform the ‘nutmeg dance.’ Two older women strike up counter rhythms on the gamelan and the shadowy bulk of Gunung Api volcano provides a dramatic backdrop. Not for the last time, I’m struck by a feeling of being out of synch – as if, having been all but forgotten, this place still clings to an earlier, grander era. We head down to the Hotel Maulana for a drink - a neo-colonial edifice that was quite the rage in the seventies when the Bandas enjoyed a revival of interest. Its charms have rather faded, but in its heyday it played host to the likes of Mick Jagger and Diana, Princess of Wales – I spot a photo of her above the reception desk.
I’m reluctant to leave - the elegiac atmosphere of Banda Neira is oddly compelling. But I perk up as the Ombak Putih sets sail once again - we’re accompanied by a pair of narrow kora-kora war canoes that race each other out of the harbour. Each is filled with 30 warriors or more, who let out a staccato bellow with each stroke.
We island hop slowly northwest. On Ai, we wander up to a large nutmeg plantation, where a man called Igo shows us how to harvest the ripe fruits using a long bamboo pole with a basket on the end, deftly snapping them from their stems. He opens one of the fruit on a stone and shows us the constituent parts – the skin, used to make sweets and jams and the red flower (mace) that clings stickily to the nut, which only develops its sharp, distinct smell once its been dried in the sun causing it to secrete its pungent oil. Torres Strait pigeons coo from the treetops – a delicacy here since their flesh is naturally infused with the nutmeg they feed on. In the village, nutmeg dries in the sun and an old man, shirtless, sits on his doorstep calmly cracking a big pile of nutmeg shells with a rock.
We skirt the south coast of Ceram and visit Saparua, whose slopes are thick with clove trees. From a distance they resemble poplars. Harvesting the fragrant flowers is a surprisingly hazardous pursuit. Salim, a local farmer, agrees to demonstrate, lashing a long bough to the slender trunk of a clove tree as a makeshift scaffold. “It’s easy to fall and kill yourself,” he shouts cheerfully from the treetop – “two people have already died this year!” His daughter collects the fallen cloves, which sell for around Rp.150, 000 (€9) per kilo.
As we sail northward, clock time begins to lose its grip and I surrender to a diurnal cycle marked by sunrises and sunsets humbling in their beauty. One morning, we visit one of the iconic over-the-water stilt communities of the Bajau Laut sea gypsies. Until as late as the mid-20th century the Bajau lived at sea, following migratory routes and visiting land only to trade for staples like rice. We happen to arrive when local elections are taking place and there’s much excitement as the locals gleefully show us their ink stained thumbs. The Bajau are accomplished free divers, going as deep as 40 metres in search of sea cucumbers and reef fish. Agus, a strongly built fisherman shows me his hand carved wooden goggles and his spear gun, made from boat wood, tyre rubber and scrap metal - rudimentary tools that have sustained the Bajau for centuries.
By the time the cloud-capped cone of Tidore appears, it feels as though we’ve entered the realm of myth. For nearly a thousand years, Ternate & Tidore were two of the most powerful and wealthy sultanates in the Malay Archipelago and the sole global supplier of cloves. Mortal enemies, they vied for dominion of territory and trade in pre-colonial times. Much smaller than its neighbour, Tidore feels like it has lapsed into a gentle dotage. The most notable building is the Sultan’s palace, a large pavilion structure built in 2010 that is an exact replica of the original, erected 200 years earlier. The personal secretary to the sultan appears, wearing a uniform complete with ceremonial turban and medals. He shows us some artefacts, including a beautiful hand painted Koran written in 1657, a collection of brass spittoons and some old maps.
Ternate by contrast is a bustling centre of industry and commerce. The market is a happy mayhem of stalls selling batik textiles, piles of red chilli, fruits & vegetables and every kind of fish, while the food stalls along the harbour sell regional specialties, including a delicious tuna sashimi called Gohu. The island is dominated by the highly active Gamalama volcano, which had its last major eruption in 2012 when the city was showered in ash. My final visit is to the spice warehouse. An unassuming shop front behind the marketplace gives way to an enormous depot, where men empty sacks onto clove mountains and women sort through endless baskets of nutmeg from the surrounding islands.
“Nutmeg and clove have been traded here for at least 3500 years,” Ian Burnet tells me. “And the Chinese were trading with the Moluccas centuries before the Portuguese arrived.” There is a tendency to think of the spice trade as moving from east to west. But its arteries stretched from this remote seascape all over the world, affecting geopolitics in ways that can still be felt to this day. It occurs to me that in a way, the quest for these islands was a key moment in the advent of our globalised world.
In 1750, a Frenchman improbably named Pierre Poivre (poivre means pepper in French), smuggled 3000 clove, nutmeg and fruit trees from the Moluccas to Mauritius. And so the Spice Islands began their slow but inexorable decline on the world stage. I’m glad for it in a way – it’s allowed for my own voyage of discovery.
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