Chapter 4, Part 6
In 1512 the Portuguese successfully reached the fabled Spice Islands after decades of sea explorations and conquests in the Indian Ocean. Ambon (Amboina), Ternate, as well as the Banda Islands were the main ports of call for the Portuguese in the sprawling islands better known as the Moluccas (Maluku) today. Nutmeg and clove were the reasons for these islands’ prominence in the global trade despite their remoteness for the two spices only grew in this part of the world at that time.
Portuguese colonial rule in Ambon proved to be both weak and limited, and by the early 17th century they were driven out by the Dutch through the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). The Dutch were indeed late in joining the spice race, but the VOC had pioneered new ways of running a company. It was the world’s first ever multinational company as well as the first to issue stock, making the Amsterdam Stock Exchange the progenitor of modern stock exchanges.
With quasi-governmental powers, the VOC was run like a state of its own, and Ambon was chosen to be its administrative seat for all nutmegs and cloves would go through the port in Ambon before leaving for other parts of the world. Ambon remained the capital of the VOC until 1619 when the company moved its headquarters to Batavia (modern-day Indonesian capital of Jakarta) on the island of Java.
Throughout centuries of Dutch colonial period in Ambon, the island was from time to time contested by both the Dutch and the English – whose own East India Company (EIC) was the VOC’s main rival. After several brief periods of English colonial administration on the island, and Japanese occupation in the World War II, in 1945 Ambon – and the Moluccas – became a part of the newly-independent Indonesia. However, separatist movements soon emerged in multiple regions of the young, vast and extremely diverse archipelagic country. The Republic of South Moluccas was declared in Ambon five years after Indonesia’s independence, comprising of the island of Ambon itself, Seram and Buru. Less than a year after the declaration, the insurgents fled to Seram following their defeat from the Indonesian forces in Ambon. Eventually in 1966 the separatists withdrew completely from Seram and left the country for a self-imposed exile in the Netherlands.
The most palpable vestige of European colonization in Ambon is the religion where around 60% of its people are Protestants and Catholics. They had been living with the Muslims peacefully until 1999, one year after the fall of Suharto, a dictator who ruled Indonesia for 32 years. The former military general relented to the mass protests across the country following the 1997/98 Asian Financial Crisis when the Indonesian rupiah plunged more than 80% against the US dollar in just a few months, the nation’s economy shrank by almost 18% in the third quarter of 1998, and more than 70% of the companies listed on the Jakarta Stock Exchange went bankrupt. The collapse of the Indonesian economy created instability across the nation, a condition which gave enormous pressure to the social fabric of the troubled country.
In January 1999 the first communal riot broke, which was soon followed by large-scale sectarian conflicts across the Maluku islands. Often started as petty disputes, the squabbles then grew as a bloody massacre with belligerents from both Muslim and Christian militias, reportedly backed by hidden political and economic agenda as is the case with many other conflicts around the world. After four years of widespread violence and enmity from both sides, a peace agreement was finally signed in Malino, a hill town in South Sulawesi. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, the conflicts had claimed at least 5,000 lives and displaced more than 700,000 people.
As our plane approached the airport in Ambon, the island was covered in thick clouds. Yet despite the gloom, a turquoise ribbon along the coast was laid underneath, as if it was guiding us toward the runway. Soon afterward we landed on the wet tarmac of Pattimura International Airport with lush hills peeking from the background. We were ushered toward the immigration area, with neither immigration counter nor officer. In fact, 1998 was the last time the airport served scheduled international flights, one year prior to the deadly conflicts.
On our way to downtown Ambon, churches and mosques were spotted every now and then, and unlike in other Indonesian cities where either mosques or churches or pura (Hindu temples) dominate the skyline, there were as many churches as they were mosques in the city. Ambon was also far more developed than I previously imagined. A suspension bridge was under construction which would significantly reduce travel time from the north to the south parts of the island – naturally connected by an isthmus – and vice versa. In addition to that, an underpass was also being built to alleviate traffic congestion in the city.
During our short stay in Ambon we met Max, a mid-aged driver who left the city for Jakarta in 1971 and returned to Ambon for good in early 2015. In the Indonesian capital he literally started from zero and found a job as a manual laborer. As he grew up he changed job several times until he met a woman from West Sumatra who then became his wife.
“Ambonese are easy to smile, but also easy to be provoked,” he told us.
“I won’t be proud if my children become jagoan,” referring to the Indonesian slang for gang members. Indeed due to their physique many Malukans who move to Jakarta end up working as preman (another word to call gang members who are often associated with crime and violence) or debt collectors. “Many parents are proud when their children become jagoan, but not me,” he said, and quickly added “both the Bible and the Quran say that it is forbidden to earn money through bad ways.”
Curious of what an Ambonese thought about the sectarian conflicts more than a decade ago, I asked him more questions.
“Before the conflicts, the Muslims would help the construction of churches and the Christians would help their Muslim neighbors to build mosques. But now the society is more segregated. They are tired of the conflict, but they’re still segregated,” he recounted.
It will take years, if not generations, to heal the wound inflicted by years of conflict. Trust from both sides cannot be restored only in one night. Multiple efforts have been taken to ensure peace to forever stay. But the Ambonese might also need to look at the plethora of famous singers in Jakarta who were either born in Ambon or of Ambonese descent. Music is often dubbed as a universal language of friendship, and it surely can heal a wounded soul.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.