Chapter 4, Part 8
Among the remote islands of the Bandas, Run (Rhun) is situated at the westernmost corner of the chain, some two hours away by a small boat from Banda Neira – the most populated of the Banda Islands. Like its sisters to the east, until the 19th century Run was one of the only places in the world where nutmeg trees grew. Highly sought after by Europeans, nutmeg was valued as much as 320 times its original price once it reached Amsterdam.
As a response to the lucrative spice trade, European explorers and merchants scoured the oceans to find direct sea routes to the fabled Spice Islands. Spearheaded by the Portuguese and the Spanish, other European nations soon followed, including the Dutch, the English, the French and the Danish. In 1600 the East India Company (EIC) was established in London to strengthen the English trade in the East Indies (modern-day Southeast Asia). Two years later the Dutch launched the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to rival the EIC, and soon the centuries-long fierce competition between the two began to escalate.
In 1603, the English reached the Banda Islands for the first time and made contact with the people of Run. This happened at a time when the VOC’s dominance in the nutmeg trade started to grow, by way of imposing a trade monopoly across the Bandas and procuring nutmeg from local producers at very low prices. Captain Nathaniel Courthope, who was sent by the EIC a few years earlier to reach the Bandas, arrived at Run in 1616. The locals saw the English as a more favorable trading partner compared to the Dutch as the former was willing to buy nutmeg at a higher price.
On the island of Run, Courthope managed to persuade the local people to acknowledge England’s sovereignty over the island in return for the premium price the English paid. Such an agreement effectively made Run the world’s first ever English colony. Nevertheless, due to the strong presence of the Dutch in the Banda Islands, the English were forced to retreat in 1620 despite having built fortifications on Run and the nearby island of Nailaka. Since then England maintained its claim over Run even though the Dutch were the de facto rulers of the island. This led to a series of treaties resulting in England’s insistence that Run must be returned to them.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, competition between the English and the Dutch also flared up.
Following the rediscovery of America by Christopher Columbus, waves of European immigrants arrived on the eastern coast of America and established settlements to support their trade interests. The New England Confederation was formed in a region which is part of modern-day Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, meanwhile New Sweden was established along the banks of Delaware River. In between the two colonies, New Netherland occupied the areas around present-day Manhattan and the Hudson River.
The relentless enmity between the English and the Dutch resulted in the Anglo-Dutch wars. In 1664, the English captured New Amsterdam on the island of Manhattan and renamed it New York. Three years later a treaty was signed in the Dutch city of Breda to end the second Anglo-Dutch War, with both sides agreeing to relinquish their claims of places already effectively administered by the other side. In this respect, the English kept the island of Manhattan and the Dutch formally retook control of Run. Subsequent wars were fought among the English and the Dutch for over a century, including in a period of history when the Netherlands was a vassal state of Napoleonic France. But after the introduction of nutmeg trees in several British overseas possessions in the 19th century, the Bandas no longer enjoyed a prominent status in the global spice trade.
To the east of Run, the island of Ai (Ay), situated midway between Run and Banda Neira, saw bloody battles between the Dutch and the English. In 1615 the Dutch attacked Ai which at that time was briefly controlled by the English. But that very night the English launched a surprise attack against the Dutch. A year later the Dutch returned to Ai for another attempt to take the island, this time with a bigger force. After a month of bombardment, the English eventually conceded defeat and retreated from Ai. The Dutch later strengthened a fort on the island and renamed it Fort Revenge.
Today, life in Ai is not so different from the other Banda Islands. The island was very peaceful and laid back when I went, albeit with notable distinctions I didn’t see on the other islands. A no-catch and no-swim zone was imposed on the northwestern coast of the island as an effort to preserve the coral reefs and fish there. A sasi (a local customary ban on taking and consuming certain animals or plants) was in force upon four marine species: lobster, sea cucumber, commercial top shell, and green turban to ensure their healthy numbers around the island.
Ai was also where I witnessed how a local man called Djakaria started an initiative to reduce plastic bottle waste on the island. He encouraged the local kids to collect bottles around the island and take them to a ‘waste bank’. Then books or clothes would be given to them as a reward, hoping that this would instill the awareness of the importance of keeping the environment clean from early age. The entrance fee paid by all visitors to the island was used to provide the incentives for the kids.
The distance between Run and Ai is roughly the same as the distance from Manhattan to Staten Island. But the difference between the two parts of the world could not have been starker. New York City is now the center of the global economy, while the Banda Islands has long bid adieu to the ships from faraway lands that once flocked to its waters. Our small boat left Ai for Banda Neira with dozens of dolphins swimming not far from us. Such is the typical hustle and bustle in the Bandas, a silent witness of a dramatic turn in world history.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.