Monday 7 March 2016

Indonesia's Spice Islands: It's all about the nutmeg



Guest contributor, Justin Friend, sends this dispatch from Indonesia's Spice Islands

The sun appeared over the horizon, just in time to bathe the conical volcanic peaks of the Banda Islands in a stunning orange hue, perfectly synchronised with our arrival of course.

I'm on board Ponant's Le Soléal for an 11-day expedition through the Spice Islands and Borneo and after a day at sea full of high quality lectures and presentations, we've arrived at our first destination: Banda Neira.

Despite being only a few hundred miles from Australia, the European history connected with these islands pre-dates Australia's European history by several centuries. And the simple reason behind that is all about spices.

The Banda Islands are the genetic home of the nutmeg plant. Ternate to the north of here, and our destination in two days from now, is the origin point of the clove plant. The monetary value attached to nutmeg and cloves together with other plants such as ginger, turmeric and cinnamon from nearby island groups drove the early European exploration and colonisation of not only the Spice Islands to Australia's north, but in fact much more globally.

Indigenous tribes of Indonesia of the late 19th century

When Christopher Columbus "discovered" America, he was actually looking for these fabled islands. Hence, the oft forgotten accidental discovery of Australia by the Dutch, long before the British "rediscovered" it, occurred due to the Dutch looking for quicker routes to the Spice Islands.

But today was all about the Banda Islands and the nutmeg! A traditional welcome awaited us as we were led ashore by renowned Australian expedition leader, Mick Fogg. During the ceremony baskets of nutmeg once worth thousands of dollars at the peak of the spice trade were presented to the ship's representatives. Local youth performed a nutmeg picking dance for us before we ventured off to explore the township on Banda Neira.

Fort Belgica
The narrow streets were lined with vendors selling all kinds of wares from bags of fresh spices to centuries old Dutch coins and equally old glass bottles. The main buildings of the township are remnants still from the early European colonisation and high on the hill overlooking the harbour stands the Dutch-built fortress of Fort Belgica, the scene of decades of fighting between the Dutch and just about every other European power. All of it over nutmeg.

After the morning's exploration, and of course a sumptuous serving of fine French influenced lunch back on board, the afternoon was time for a different kind of exploration. Directly opposite Banda Neira lies Gunung Api, a conical volcano complete with a solidified lava flow stretching down into the sea. This lava flow, which is only around 25-30 years old has become the substrate base for a dynamic coral reef teeming with tropical fish life. Mick and his team set up Zodiac platforms for us to snorkel from and for a reef system that didn't exist 30 years ago, it was stunning.

To top off our visit, shortly after our departure, Captain Mickael Debien steered Le Soléal on a slight deviation that saw us sail right past the island of Run. I have no doubt a great deal of you reading this have never heard of the island of Run, nor its significance in world history. So to cut a very long story short, whilst the British who occupied Run and the Dutch who occupied the rest of the Bandas were fighting over the spices all those centuries ago, they came to a compromise deal whereby the British would hand over Run to the Dutch and in return the Dutch would forfeit their far-flung colony of New Amsterdam to the British. The Duke of York promptly travelled to New Amsterdam to take possession of this new territory and promptly renamed it New York.

The fact that a great deal more people today can tell you were New York is compared to the isolated remote backwater of Run is indicative of who got the better deal.

Justin Friend is an experienced
expedition leader and proprietor
of Austronesian Expeditions 

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