Irina Ridzuan

Those who bled for nutmeg

The narrative contextualized within Banda Island's larger history

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Map of Banda Islands -

“The island can be smelled before it can be seen. From more than ten miles out to sea a fragrance hangs in the air and long before the bowler-hat mountain hoves into view you are nearing land.” (Milton, 1999)

The Banda Islands, a set of isles in province of Maluku, also famously known today as the Spice Islands. The people and the place itself require no elaborate introduction when it comes to their contribution to our contemporary culinary paradigm: nutmeg. Yet, the island’s story is complex, with many sides untold, as is the nature of history. We thought it would be interesting to frame the re-telling of this gruesome narrative through the perspective of some Malay sources.

Imagine the setting:it is the 16th century, and Maluku is a thriving collective of islands wedged between Papua in the east, and Borneo in the west. Its geographical proximity to the medieval equivalent of a highway not only makes the island easily accessible but its prized produce was valued like edible gold: nutmeg. The pungent, spicy aroma of ground nutmeg is tantamount to a wintery treat here in the West. It is the warming fragrance in eggnog, a Christmas pudding, or even a good old-fashioned cup of cocoa. The massive cargo of nutmeg and mace wafting by the will of the ocean breeze, perfuming the houses by the Port of Amsterdam. But this seemingly benign spice is also a symbol of identity, pride, and a renaissance for the Bandanese. Parallel to that, it is worth mentioning the plant by its indigenous name, Pala, and nutmeg itself as Buah Pala.

Economic flourish did not begin in the early modern ages for Maluku. Prior to European interference, the Maluku islands were a part of the Srivijaya empire, headquartered in Sumatera. And naturally, as the empire were trading allies with India and China, the production of nutmeg in Banda was rooted in an international demand (Leirissa, 1999). Traded amongst silk, Chinese porcelain, and other expensive goods, nutmeg was also traded by the Arabs to the Venetians. Therefore, by the time the Dutch was introduced to this edible gold, the trading network was only ripe. 

The first instance of colonial presence in Banda was the Portugese, by way of having taken over Malacca, a then-famous port for Southeast Asian trade. Nutmeg (and mace, its byproduct) were taken by long-faring traders from Maluku or Java. And having followed the Portugese merchants, the Dutch stumbled upon the Spice Islands themselves. Yet, from the beginning, the Dutch and the Bandanese people were resentful of each other. On one hand, the Dutch has found the Bandanese knieving and untrustworthy people, whereas the Bandanese found the Dutch offer to be least profitable as compared to the goods brought by traders from around the Indian ocean (Mansyur, 2014). Nevertheless, the Dutch was adamant to make connections with Banda. At this point, nutmeg was sold in Amsterdam at 122:1 times its sale price in East Indies (Jordan, 2016). And quickly, the Dutch expeditions came flooding in. Back in the Netherlands, the merchants knew that competition was going to eat up everyone; therefore, a union was prompted. In 1602, the VOC was established so that the Dutch could maintain their course to monopolize the spice trade. 

But back in the Banda islands, the ruling elite (known as Orang Kaya) was in control as they have been for centuries. Once the VOC was established, the Dutch came to realise that India was consuming twice as much as the European market. Soon the Dutch came to the Orang Kaya with a treaty to grant the former with full monopoly on the trade. However, whether all the Orang Kaya signed, or if those who signed did not understand the extent of the treaty, the agreement was never kept by the Bandanese. This led the VOC to justify their military means to fulfilling the treaty. In 1609, Fort Nassau was established by the Dutch to claim the island and keep the locals in check. Though, this has only angered the locals and caused them to retaliate with an attack resulting in the ambush of Dutch admiral, Pieter Willemsz Vierhoff and his entourage. One low-ranking merchant managed to escape the attack: Jan Pietersz Coen. This might have an influence over Coen's approach towards the Bandanese about 2 decades later.

In 1620, the now Governor-General Jan Pietersz Coen led a VOC fleet from Batavia. This began the horrific events known as the Massacre of Banda Though the story is often told in details by Western sources (Corn, 1998), local sources appear to not dwell on these details. What is interesting to note here is how the Indonesian sources and studies often focused on how the monopoly worked economically rather than focusing on the emotions and senses of these histories. However, that is not to say that the pains of the massacre did not impact the people at all. Simply, it was never recorded so as to not be embedded forever. After all, contemporary identities take root in the de-colonized histories of Indonesia. 

What is valuable in this narrative is not the dwelling in unpalatable stories from the VOC's past. Towards the aim for de-colonising history, it is interesting to see how nutmeg is valued in the east and how its story is preserved in local academia. The story of the Bandanese massacre is clearly one that cannot be told in in any easy way and it is amongst the un-told story of the Dutch colonialisation. And yet, at the very surface, what is masking this profound history is the aroma of Christmas pastries in Amsterdam.