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Myristica fragrans

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View Asia 2008 on Wardsan's travel map.

At the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore I bought two postcards of old maps of southeast Asia. One dates from 1574, according to the postcard, and depicts India, China and the Orient, with Latin and Portuguese names. The postcard does not say who made the map, but I think it is by Ortelius, who was following the map drawn by his friend Mercator in 1569.

The map makes the errors usual for the time. Southeast Asia is too big in comparison to India and China. There a pars continentis Australis just south of Java, which is itself too round. Persia is too big, Borneo too small, Sumatra too wide. Timor is too far north. Sulawesi is cigar-shaped and roughly the same size as Halmahera. Surprisingly, Singapore is on the map; it was then but a backwater, in decline after its golden age.

Most informatively, the Spice Islands are too large. Seram, inaccurately labelled “Ambon”, is huge. Banda is listed as being southwest of Seram – in fact it lies to the southeast – and it is far too large.

The "1607" map shows southeast Asia alone. It is, I believe, by Hondius in 1606, created for Mercator's Atlas. Its plan of Indonesia is in general similar to the earlier map, but the Philippines have improved, and so have Java, Nusa Tenggara (although Lombok is missing) and Borneo. The Dutch had, after all, established operations in Tidore, Ambon and Banda by then. But Indochina has got worse; and Singapore is far too large.

Seram seems to have been duplicated, and Banda is now south of the correct Seram, which is labelled Cenaon. Banda Besar, Run and Ai seem to be shown, although only Banda is labelled. Again, the Bandas are far too large.

This is so for a reason. Maps are social statements. The map is a bit like the famous New Yorker map of the world: it depicts importance from a particular perspective. By the time the map was produced, it was known that the world’s entire supply of nutmeg and mace came from the tiny Banda Islands, so they had to be shown. Their surface area is only 180 square kilometres – a fraction of that of London. On a modern map to the same scale they would not feature at all.

Why was nutmeg so important? Spices were in demand, mainly as medicines. Cloves, for example, were worth their weight in gold. Columbus sailed west in order to find their source. Nutmeg was also a preservative (slowing the oxidation of meat) and a medicine. The Romans used nutmeg as a preservative; so even 2,000 years ago there must have been a complex chain of trade stretching from the Bandas to Rome. It was used as a cure for flatulence and the common cold. In Elizabethan England medics began to claim that it protected against plague.

Although it was not known in Europe until the Portuguese arrived, the nutmeg grew only in one tiny archipelago between Sulawesi and New Guinea: the Banda Islands. Each of the islands occupies only a few square kilometres. The central island is a volcano, Gunung Api, a perfect green cone 650 metres or so high. It is periodically active, and was so for much of the islands’ Dutch history. Today you can see a couple of lava flows down the mountain, where things still do not grow.

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Just across a narrow channel, curving slightly around the volcano, is Banda Neira. The main town of the islands, Neira, faces the volcano. It is in fact part of the caldera of Gunung Api.

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The other side of Neira, to the south and east, is the largest and hilliest island, Banda Besar (Great Banda). This is where much of the nutmeg was grown, as it still is.

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To the east of Banda Besar lies a small island known in the seventeenth century as Rozengain, and now called Hatta after one of the heroes of independence. A few miles to the west – crucial miles, when ships could not sail against the wind – is Pulau Ai. A few miles west again lies Pulau Run. Ai and Run also had a lot of nutmeg plantations.

I visited the Banda Islands in December. After a very bad start – my wallet stolen and my trousers slashed with a knife – I grew to like them very much. They are your archetypical tropical islands, covered in green trees and surrounded by white sand and coral reefs.

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Many of the trees are nutmeg. As described by John Cameron in 1864, the leaves of the nutmeg tree are like bay leaves. The tree is thirty feet high and thirty feet wide at the crown, and flowers all year round. The blossoms are small, thick, waxy bells. The fruit looks like a peach. When it ripens it splits open and reveals the mace. Eventually the nut and its surrounding caul of mace fall to the ground.

The mace is dried in the sun. It is an attractive dark red reticulum.

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Then the nut itself is split. The nutmeg is the kernel. A good tree yields six hundred nuts, or eight pounds in weight, per year.

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Dotted around the islands are kenari trees, Kanarium commune. They provide shade for the nutmegs. They are fine, very tall trees, with dark red dipterocarp buttresses, producing nuts that taste like a cross between an almond and a hazelnut. These can be eaten raw, or chopped and baked into delicious bricks with sugar or honey. The best local dish is baked aubergines in a spicy kenari sauce, which is also lovely.

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Alfred Russel Wallace, who visited in 1857, 1859 and 1861, found few interesting animals in Banda, and his chapter mostly comprises an extremely eccentric defence of the Dutch monopoly system. (He is not remembered for his economic analysis.) But he wrote of the fruit pigeons which “eat the nuts whole and digest the mace, but cast up the nut with its seed uninjured.” He had earlier seen the same bird in the Kai islands, to the southeast. By the time he wrote The Malay Archipelago he had described the species. In his entry on the Kai islands he writes of it as

A magnificent bird twenty inches long, of a bluish white colour, with the back wings and tail intense metallic green, with golden, blue, and violet reflexions, the feet coral red, and the eyes golden yellow. It is a rare species, which I have named Carpophaga concinna, and is found only in a few small islands, where, however, it abounds. It is the same species which in the island of Banda is called the nutmeg-pigeon, from its habit of devouring the fruits, the seed or nutmeg being thrown up entire and uninjured. Though these pigeons have a narrow beak, yet their jaws and throat are so extensible that they can swallow fruits of very large size.

There were plenty of large pigeons on the islands, but I cannot now remember if they were the same species; I had lost my Wallace and could not check. I suppose they were.

For a few days I stayed in a guesthouse in the main town of the islands, Neira, on the island of the same name. Also staying in the guesthouse were Vera, Niek, Hans and Bruno, all from Holland, and Robert, from Austria. These were the people who lent me money and thereby saved my skin.

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(It is a mild paradox, although not unexpected, that I found the best social life on the trip in the most remote places. In Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia you are rarely far from tourists. Where there are crowds of tourists, they do not acknowledge each other or talk to each other very much, any more than you would if you happened to bump into an Englishman in the West End of London (which does happen sometimes). East of Lombok, though, if you see a white face you probably talk to it. So I spent most of my time in Vietnam on my own, while in Sulawesi, Nusa Tenggara and the Moluccas I was rarely alone.)

The guesthouse was near the port and the water was a little paraffinny, but it was nevertheless worth dipping in with a mask. For under the piles of the house next door were mandarinfish, a most extraordinary goby. They are rather shy but tend to come out around dusk. Some people travel a long way to see a mandarinfish; when I saw a mandarinfish in Malaysia my dive guide said he had dived a thousand times before seeing one. Here there were dozens. Robert took photos and we discovered that behind the adults, which we had seen, were lots of juveniles hiding in crevices.

We went snorkelling at several locations around the islands. On one occasion, as we returned from snorkelling, the captain of our chartered boat caught a beautiful fish of the mackerel family, possibly a wahoo. He was delighted, and gave us half of the fish, which we ate barbequed in the evening. It was extraordinarily tasty, possibly the best fish I have ever eaten.

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We ate wonderfully on Neira. On another occasion, returning from Pulau Ai, we ran into a man with half a dozen lobsters in a bucket. He was going to Neira to sell them, so we bought them and Data from the guesthouse cooked them. They were, however, nowhere near as good as the wahoo.

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Nutmeg is also used for food, as you might expect. The fruit is used to make jam (aromatic, spicy, moreish) or turned into a spicy cordial. Or you can eat the fruit dried, as I am doing right now. It tastes almost like a panforte, with flavours of nuts, spice and dried apricots.

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Neira town faces Gunung Api and consists mainly of two streets running parallel to the sea. Until the 1960s the road by the sea was an attractive gravel street shaded by trees, but the trees were cut down, and now it looks much like any other road. Farther inland are the villas in which Syahrir and Hatta resided during their internal exile. Another colonial villa held the expats’ social club. There is a single block on the islands where a mobile signal can be found, so people congregate on the verandah of a public building to use their phones.

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In the same area are the remains of the two forts, Nassau and Belgica. Fort Nassau, built in 1607-09, is in a romantically ruined state.

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It was destroyed by Captain Cole, an Englishman, in 1810. He captured Fort Belgica first and then turned its guns on Fort Nassau. This is Fort Belgica, built in 1611 in the form of a five-pointed star, and extensively restored. I kept on meaning to undertake the ten-minute walk to see it, but somehow never got around to it.

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The day after being robbed I tried to book a ticket on the weekly plane back to Ambon through the headman. In the event, however, the plane did not fly owing to bad weather in Timor, so I stayed on the islands for a little over a week. There used to be three flights a week to the Bandas, but the religious violence that hit the Moluccas in 1999 also disfigured the Banda Islands. Churches were burnt, and Wim Van den Broeke, the ‘last perkenier’ was killed in the violence along with five female members of his family. (He was a descendant of Pieter Van den Broeke, a governor of the Bandas in the early seventeenth century. His portrait, painted by Frans Hals, hangs in Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath.) Most of the Christian population fled to Seram. Tourists stopped coming – partly because the government would not let them, I suspect – and the tourist trade has almost disappeared.

Down the coastal road to the south is the old governor’s residence, known as the Istana Mini. It was originally built in 1611. It is not in bad shape, but it is unused. The doors are locked. It stands next to a barracks – half the buildings in Indonesia stand next to a barracks – which was, perhaps, the VOC Authority headquarters. There is a sign warning that the maximum penalty for trespassing is ten years, if I remember rightly. So I walked up to the guard post and asked for permission to enter, and the captain accompanied me to the governor’s residence. We walked around a bit and he offered to unlock the place. What is inside? I asked. ‘Kosong’ – ‘empty’. I declined. If there was any significant tourism they would do well to turn the building into a museum.

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Wandering around the back of the barracks, next to the soldiers’ bikes, I found the old bust of Stadhouder Willem III. It was thrown into the sea during the Dutch-Indonesian conflict of 1950, but later retrieved.

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Down the road in the other direction is a set of three large square openings filled with sea water. It is a sort of aquarium. It is in a sad, dilapidated state, and the water level is very low. This is a black-tipped reef shark.

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Like Indonesian, Bandanese Malay contains a lot of Dutch loan words, but it also contains a few Portuguese words. But there are more Portuguese words in the dialect of Ambon, where the Portuguese had a more permanent presence. As Wallace recorded:

The following are a few of the Portuguese words in common use by the Malay-speaking natives of Amboyna and the other Molucca islands: Pombo (pigeon); milo (maize); testa (forehead); horas (hours); alfinete (pin); cadeira (chair); lenco (handkerchief); fresco (cool); trigo (flour); sono (sloop); familia (family); histori (talk); vosse (you); mesmo (even); cunhado (brother-in-law); senhor (sir); nyora for signora (madam). None of them, however, have the least notion that these words belong to a European language.

After a few days we all relocated to Pulau Ai. To a Brit this island is even more historically significant than Neira. It was here that the English, on several occasions, bought the entire crop of the islands from under the noses of the Dutch. It was the scene of the fierce battles of 1615 and 1616. Nutmeg used to cover the island entirely.

Ai is a lovely place. There is no mobile network, no internet, and almost no tourism. There are probably three guesthouses, all apparently run by the same family (try getting permission to do anything if you are not related to the headman). Four of us stayed at the Green Coconut, which looked out on to the sea.

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There is nothing to do. You can wander around the village and see the old cemeteries, tended by goats.

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And next to the remaining corner of an old plantation mansion is the bastion of a fort, all that apparently remains of Fort Revenge. That is about it. So we spent most of the time snorkelling or sitting and staring at the Banda Sea.

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The snorkelling in the Bandas varied from the excellent to the terrible. Even the same site varied from the interesting to the dull.

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The primary reason is simple. The environment is excellent for marine life, but whole stretches of the coastline have been dynamited. You drift over dead and shattered coral, devoid of life, an underwater desert. Dynamiting a coral reef to obtain fish is like chopping down an apple tree for the apples. It destroys the reef and the corals and algae that live in it; as a consequence it takes away the foundation of life in the reef. It seems amazingly shortsighted (although it could just be a consequence of common ownership of a resource). But people all over Indonesia actually believe that they have to harvest coral. They believe that unless it is harvested, it will grown to block navigation channels. In fact coral regrows painfully slowly, over decades, even without the hindrances of global warming and carbonic acid.

Where the snorkelling is good, it is very good. The best soft coral I have seen anywhere was on Pulau Hatta. There are several nice drop-offs; not far from the Banda Islands the sea is 6.5 km deep.

Pulau Hatta: notable for the best soft coral I have ever seen. Not very good for large fish though. I saw five different kinds of unicornfish in large numbers. Five Napoleon wrasse. Huge numbers of black triggerfish and many pink-tailed triggerfish, lots of titans and clown triggerfish. Lots of bluefin trevally, and few bigger ones. Some crocodile longtoms, and lots of yellow trumpetfish. Lots of black snapper and big yellow snapper and sweetlips. Blue fusiliers, yellow fusiliers, batfish, bannerfish, only one starfish, very few sea squirts.

Pantai Panjang on Pulau Ai. Strong currents. Didn’t see much of interest except for an eagle ray, 3.5 m long, 1.5 m wide. It came past a couple of times and the second time is came close enough to frighten me. Its head extends forward; the head is shaped like a cuboid with a bullet projection in front, which functions as a sandshovel. It had a strange alien face, with an open mouth, and gave me the creeps.

North of the jetty at Pulau Ai: a brilliant swim. Three barracudas, a biggish Napoleon wrasse, 1.2 m or so, lots of batfish. Forty schooling cornetfish, and a weird sea snake in very shallow water as I waded back. Then half a dozen big bumphead parrotfish swam past, the biggest in the lead. Five minutes later, in only three feet of water, I saw even more: a school of 27 by my count. The adults were patrolling the perimeter, and the smaller ones were feeding on the coral. The patrols displayed aggressive defensive behaviour, swimming straight at me and raising their dorsal fins.

Pulau Run, very strong currents, two small turtles and a barracuda.

Pulau Neijalakka, little of interest.

Pantai Panjang again: not very interesting. Clouds of ebony triggerfish, black with white margins like piscine guillemots. A very large dark green moray. A few red-tooth triggerfish. Lots of snapper, some very large, and some large groupers.

Pantai Panjang again, two turtles, including a good look at one, 10m down, male, illuminated by bright sunlight. Orange masked pufferfish, three crown of thorns starfish, several bluefin trevally, yellow cigar wrasse, a small Napoleon, two bumphead wrasse, lots of big snappers and plenty of small batfish, a spiny lobster, lots of yellow-margin triggerfish, lots of humpback and brown unicornfish.

Two more snorkels on the village side on Pulau Ai, both fairly poor. The coral has been dynamited to smithereens.

By the lighthouse at the top of Pulau Gunung Api: some scorpionfish, and crabs, and a flatworm.

And in the evening the people who owned the guesthouse would cook for us. And we would each suck on a bottle of warm beer. It is illegal in the Banda islands – regarded in exactly the same way as illegal drugs, and listed as such on a poster at the police station - but one or two guest house owners will buy it. Electric power was intermittent, operating only for a few hours in the evening, so fridges were little use. We drank beer with slushy ice that melted almost instantly. On Neira we could buy beer from the Chinese shop. In principle we could also buy arak, but this was harder to get hold of as the police were cracking down. When we did get hold of some, we drank it with a nutmeg fruit cordial, which worked very well.

On 5 December it was Sinta Claas day, and Niek and Vera exchanged presents: traditional Dutch spice biscuits and hot chocolate.

In the village 100 yards away from the Green Coconut were two longboats in a shed. They were kora kora, racing boats. They are supposed to be raced annually, but in fact there had been no races for 15 years, until a race was held two weeks before our arrival. Apparently it was held to celebrate the reopening of a well. Children around the island were obviously particularly excited by the event, as we saw several kids trailing wooden kora kora toys.

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Nowadays the perken are still producing nutmeg, but they are all owned by a single government-owned company. Nutmeg does not command the prices it used to, and income per head in the Moluccas is well below the Indonesian average.

Posted by Wardsan 04:03 Archived in Indonesia

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