Monday 6th Aug 2018
We are anchored beneath a volcano in 30m of dark water, surrounded by traditional fishing longboats, opposite tired but substantial colonial Dutch buildings. We have arrived in Banda, the centre of the spice Islands.
Api volcano dominates the view
Sitting isolated by hundreds of miles of deep ocean, a unique but fairly indifferent tree evolved here, the nut these trees produce was to generate great fortunes and inevitably in turn to be the cause of wars and atrocities. Nutmeg was first introduced into Europe when traded between the Venetians and the Arabs. As spices increased in popularity and there value grew, the emerging powers within Europe sent exploratory expeditions out to the Far East to try and find the source of these prized and exotic flavours.
Nutmeg was tracked down to the Banda islands and eventually in the 17th century the Dutch won out as sole controllers of its trade. They created the Dutch East Indies Company, the VOC, and earnt a reputation for extreme intolerance, the native Banda population was almost exterminated until the Dutch realised that they still needed the skills of the islanders to successfully grow the nutmeg trees. The English very upset to be missing out on such a lucrative trade attempted to raid Banda many times with only limited success, holding on to just one of the small outer islands, Run.
Run however turned out to have greater value than expected as from here not only did the English manage to spread the nutmeg tree to other parts of the World eventually reducing the Dutch stranglehold on the spice but also in a treaty drawn up in 1667, Run, was among islands swapped by the British with the Dutch for a strange new land called New Amsterdam. Not happy to keep the obviously Dutch name the British renamed it New York. From this has grown the local story that the tiny island of Run was swapped for the Island of Manhattan.
Evidence of the islands violent past is everywhere from the ruins of forts topping many of the islands hills to original cannons littering the streets in Banda Niera. It is not often that we tie the dingy off to a 400 yr old bronze cannon!
Not a normal dingy dock, we are having to use this old cannon as a cleat.
Nutmeg is a complex fruit and every bit of it is put to good use. The sour tasting flesh is sweetened to create jams and syrups, the bright red mace that lines the nut shell is used in sweet and savoury dishes, as well cosmetics and of course the inner nut produces the spice we are familiar with.
Fruits of the forest, a cut nutmeg fruit with an almond on the side
At one time in Europe just one sack of nutmeg could buy you a small house, today although not quite that valuable its still the main income for these islands. We took a boat to the largest island in the group and passing through another brightly painted village, the houses perching on the side of the hill, we walked up to a nutmeg plantation. Nutmeg prefers to be out of the midday sun and so is grown in the shadow of magnificent stately almond trees. In the plantation they also grow cinnamon and cloves, the latter is dried in the streets in the sun and the pungent scent fills the air.
Ancient almond trees cast shade over the nutmeg forest.
Back in the main town Banda Niera, there is an eclectic mix of buildings. There are a fair sprinkling of crumbling grand colonial buildings, now mostly hotels or museums, In the Cilu Bintang Hotel we drank a cold beer on the columned terrace, sitting on beautiful period chairs, surrounded by all the trappings of its wealthy Dutch past. Outside scooters scurry back and forth down the ever narrowing lanes that lead into Arabic style souqs or tightly packed areas of small colourful sometimes Dutch influenced houses. On the sea front, homes appear more ramshackle, docks and boats competing for space. And encompassing all this are the steep volcanic hills rich with lush greenery and the once priceless nutmeg trees.
One for the dodgy dock collection
The main volcano, Banda Api, erupted just thirty years ago and two large streams of lava run down its steep sides. We were told there was good snorkelling where the barren black rock reaches the sea but as we approach through the deep dark water this doesn’t seem likely. So it’s a surprise when we put our heads under the water to find the best coral we’ve seen since Fiji. Banda gets the thumbs up.