May 31, 2020
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In Meluku, East Of Eden

The story of spices is the story of temptation—and human civilisation’s rise and fall. A string of fabled, fragrant islands forms its kernel.

In Meluku, East Of Eden
The Ternate island on eastern Indonesia, as seen from a seashore at Tidore
Photograph by Amitav Ghosh
In Meluku, East Of Eden


At my writing desk, as in my kitchen, I find it impossible to escape the lure of spices. Their flavours enliven many of my passions: history, cookery, botany and, of course, story-telling.

Some years ago, my interest in spices spilled over into my garden and I started to grow my own turmeric, galangal, ginger, black pepper and cinnamon. The experience has taught me a great deal: I learnt, for instance, that there is a huge difference between homegrown and store-bought spices—the latter are but a pale shadow of the former. The hand-picked, sun-dried pepper from my garden in Goa has a citrusy freshness and complexity I’ve never encountered in commercial varieties.

Growing my own spices has also made me wonder why some of them are used in dried forms and some are not. Consider ginger for example: many Western recipes call for dried, powdered ginger, an ingredient that most Ind­ian cooks would consider an abomination. Yet, many who scorn dried ginger have no qualms about using dried turmeric and chilli—even when they are available fresh. In Southeast Asia, by contrast, freshly plucked chillies and ‘raw’ turmeric root are usually preferred and in no small measure does this account for the vividness that is characteristic of the cuisine of the region. In flavour, as in colour, fresh turmeric has a brightness and subtlety that dried versions cannot match.

Nor are spices the same everywhere: as with chillies, there are many varieties of turmeric and ginger. Indian turmeric, which is bred to be dried, differs from Indonesian varieties, which are grown to be used fresh. There can be no doubt, in any event, that provenance makes a significant difference to the taste of many spices: these great builders of flavour are themselves flavoured by elements of the microenvironments in which they are grown.

Yet, spices rarely fall within the ambit of the localism that is now so enthusiastically celebr­ated in the culinary world. Famous European chefs, renowned for their use of the freshest local ingredients, continue to unashamedly publish recipes which ask for a generic ‘pinch of curry’; restaurants that name the very vill­age in which their meat has been pastured remain silent about the origins of the spices with which it is flavoured. The reason for this, perhaps, is that historically many spices were by definition non-local. They always came from places far away. After all, even in India, cloves, nutmeg and mace, now familiarly known as laung, jaiphal and javitri, were exotic imports until just a couple of hundred years ago.

But need it be thus? Often, while reading weighty tomes on the spice trade, the historian in me has been interrupted by my culinary self, which slips in questions such as: If the tastes of fresh, raw turmeric and ginger are so different from the dried versions, then what about freshly-picked cloves and mace? Could they perhaps also be used ‘raw’? Surely, in pla­ces that have long familiarity with these spices, local cooks have experimented with them when they are fresh from the harvest?

My curiosity on this score was keen enough that I did not hesitate when an opportunity arose to visit Indonesia, at the invitation of the country’s ministry of culture. Asked which part of the country I wanted to travel to, I knew exactly where I wanted to go—the fabled Spice Islands, once known as the Moluccas.


The Spice Islands are the original home of two spice-producing trees. One is Myristica fragrans that produces nutmeg and mace: the former is its seed and the latter the seed’s lacy outer covering. The second tree is the one that bears the clove, Syzygium aromaticum. Historically, these trees were each endemic to one small cluster of islands, about 500 kilometers apart. The clove had its home in the northern part of the archipelago, in what is now the Indonesian province of Meluku Utara (North Meluku). The nutmeg tree was indigenous to the Banda islands, in the south; they are now a part of Meluku province.

In size, the islands of the Moluccas are very small: on maps they look like berries, suspen­ded just beyond the hornbill-head of Papua New Guinea. The largest island in the chain, Halmahera, is less than half the size of Bhutan. But by a strange quirk of fortune the original spice-growing islands are tiny even in relation to Halmahera: they are visible only on maps of very large scale. It is as though dest­iny had embarked on a controlled experiment, depositing two priceless treasures with pinpo­int precision in order to observe the outcome.

A boy plays on the ramparts of Fort Kalamata

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

Politically, it was the clove that gained ascendancy. The islands that came to dominate the archipelago in pre-colonial times were the historic centres of global clove production: Ternate and Tidore (pronounced Ter-NA-tay and Ti-DOR-ay). The half-rhyme of the islands’ names is a verbal echo of the mirrored drama of their topography: both islands are domina­ted by beautifully shaped, conical volcanoes that rise to a height of over 1,700 meters (5,000 feet). From the air, flying over the narrow cha­nnel that separates Ternate from Tidore, the two islands present a breathtaking sight, with their twin volcanoes soaring above the turquo­ise blue water, their towering craters encircled by haloes of cloud. The dense greenery of their slopes is broken only by dark streaks of solidified lava and the rust-red roofs of the pictures­que little settlements that cling to their skirts.

The islands’ idyllic appearance is not the least of the reasons why it is difficult to think of the Moluccas as pivotal to world history. Ternate and Tidore seem, at first glance, to be barely touched by the grimy workings of time.

Then there is the question of their remoteness. In an age of shrunken distances Ternate and Tidore are still difficult to get to. They are separated from Indonesia’s capital by two time zones and some 3,500 km. To reach them by sea, from Jakarta, takes days. Flights are few and most of them require a change of planes in northern or southern Sulawesi, either in Manado or Makassar. The Banda Islands are even harder to get to and generally require a five- to six-hour journey by ferry. If ever there were a perip­hery, far removed from the great global centres of history, where could it be if not here?

A monument to the clove

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

But the Spice Islands confound questions such as these. The biggest settlement in the archipelago, Ambon City (formerly known as Amboyna), is a busy modern port, with many ships anchored in its harbour. In the city centre, highrise buildings vie with church steeples and minarets; at rush-hour traffic slows to a crawl.

In Ambon, the hum of modern life is loud enough to create an impression of a bust­ling, globalised blandness. But this is, in fact, strangely at odds with the realities of Ambon’s encounter with globalism. Here in 1623, ten Englishmen, and some of their associates, ran afoul of the Dutch East India Company and were tortured and executed by Dutch officials. This incident, which came to be known as the Massacre of Amb­oyna, was by no means the worst colonial atrocity in the Dutch East Indies but it sent shockwaves across the globe and was memorialised in a 1673 play by the poet John Dryden. The massacre did not, how­ever, immediately dislodge the English from the Spice Islands: for the next few decades, they tenaciously asserted their claims to their toeholds in the Banda Islands.

The Anglo-Dutch conflicts of the 17th century were among the earliest global wars, and the part that Ambon played in them was reprised during the Second World War when the island became a fiercely contested battleground for Japanese and Allied forces. The Japanese succeeded in seizing the island after an intense bombing campaign in which much of Ambon City was destroyed; of the thousands of Allied soldiers who were taken prisoner, some 300 were summarily butchered. Once more the site of atrocities committed by foreigners, Ambon was witness to one of the largest war crimes trials of the post-war period.

A section of the Banda Neira Museum

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

Nor did Indonesia’s independence put an end to Ambon’s travails. In the 1940s and ’50s the region was rocked by rebellions and army actions. Then, beginning 1999, the Moluccas were convulsed by a three-year-long wave of communal violence that pitted Muslims agai­nst Christians. Ambon, with its large Christian population, was particularly badly hit.

The violence eventually subsided and over the last decade the Moluccas have been through an extensive process of reconstruction and rebuilding. Today, Ambon’s churches bear fresh coats of paint and the city has no lack of bars and clubs featuring local singers and musicians. If tensions remain, they are well-hidden from the eyes of the casual visitor. To all outward appearances, the city could well serve as a showpiece for Indonesia’s rapidly expanding consumer economy.


Ternate, the largest town in the northern Moluccas, is much smaller than Ambon, yet there too the hum of an accelerating economy can be quite clearly heard. The town’s streets are lined with neat, brightly-pain­ted houses and well-stocked shops and markets. A grand, new waterfront mosque, with soaring minarets, crowns its main thoroughfare which also winds past busy wholesale bazaars, several large modern malls and at least one immense ‘hypermarket’. The town has a fine, comfortable new hotel with fast internet connectivity; ATMs are ubiquitous, as are signs marking evacuation routes in case of a tsunami or eruption.

The abundant signs of a vigilant local administration, the excellent roads and infrastructure, and the absence of any visible signs of poverty form a stark contrast to out-of-the-way areas elsewhere in the world. Anyone familiar with India or Egypt, for instance, might well wonder how Indonesia is able to deliver goods and services in such abundance, across thousands of miles of ocean, when those countries struggle to provide much less over land.

But this presumes, wrongly, that transportation is easier over land than sea: it is because of the ocean that these seemingly remote islands have always been so closely tied to the currents of history. Cloves have, for instance, been found at an Aramaean-Assyrian archaeological site in Tell Ashara, Syria: they had arrived there at around 1721 BC. They had probably crossed the sea in short steps, going first from Ternate or Tidore to what is now Makassar and then on to the Middle East via Java, Sumatra or India (the cloves that are mentioned in the Vedas would also have come from these islands).

It was the sea too that permitted the Melanesians, the greatest seafarers and navigators of antiquity, to settle on these islands as they spread across the oceans, from Madagascar to Easter Island. Perhaps it was they who first carried the cloves of Ternate and Tidore to the Asian mainland, where they became an essential element not just of many cuisines but also of innumerable indigenous medical systems. Such was the demand for them in the ancient world that a cycle of trade and travel came into being that linked the Spice Islands to east Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, India and, perhaps most importantly, to China, which remained for millennia the single-most important market for cloves.

Along with people, goods and coinage, the trade in cloves brought beliefs and ideas of many sorts. Hinduism and Buddhism are sure to have figured among them at some time, but in this part of Indonesia neither religion has left spectacular traces of the sort that are to be found on islands like Java and Sumatra. Nor is there much evidence of Chinese cultural influence, except, curiously, in the islanders’ dominant religion, Islam. Along with traders from Gujarat and the Arabian Peninsula, China’s Hui Muslims are thought to have played a vital part in the Islamisation of the islands. In any event, by the early 16th century, when Europeans first came to Ternate and Tid­ore, the islands were ruled by Muslim sultans whose influence extended from Papua in the east to Ambon and the Banda Islands in the south.

Fort Belgica, Banda Neira

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

Both Ternate and Tidore were sustained by the clove trade and their sultans competed actively with each other to attract traders from different countries. This was the practice of many other rulers of ports and city-states in the Indian Ocean, including, for example, the Samoothiri Rajas (or Zamorins) of Calicut. These rulers could not afford to offend one group of traders over another; their prosperity depended on the number of merchants they could attract to their ports and to that end they would cut taxes, offer goods at lower prices, and provide land and protection for foreigners and their places of worship. Ruler competed against ruler and merchant against merchant; often there was not much difference between the one and the other.

These practices were very different from those of Europe and the Mediterranean where maritime powers commonly sought to monopolise the trade in certain goods. One of the most lucrative of these monopolies was that of the spice trade, which had for several centuries bel­onged to the Venetian Republic. But this was essentially a transshipment trade that depended on alliances with the Islamic realms of the eastern Mediterranean, most notably Egypt. By the time Asian spices reached Venice, they had already changed hands many times in the course of their long journey across the Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. This gave other European maritime powers many good reasons to find a different route to the Indian Ocean—by doing so they could at one stroke destroy Venice’s monopoly, weaken the Muslim states of the Middle East and also eli­minate the chain of middlemen who profited from the handling of spices on their journey to Europe.

So, it happened that spices became the grail that launched the great voyages of the Age of Discovery: they were the prize that caused Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan to hoist their sails. What they all hoped to do was to control the mechanisms of the spice trade and create monopolies. On reaching the Malabar Coast, Vasco da Gama lost no time in trying to impose terms that would exclude other buyers, particularly Arabs and Muslims, from the pepper trade.

But pepper was too widely cultivated for a monopoly to be feasible: the tiny, almost defenceless islands where cloves, nutmegs and mace were found offered much greater scope for monopoly-building—or so it must have seemed to the Portuguese who soon set off in search of the ‘spiceries’ of the East Indies. In 1512, just ten years after seizing Goa, they arrived in Ternate, where again they immediately tried to seize exclusive control of the trade in cloves. But their European rivals followed hot on their heels, first the Spanish and then the Dutch and the English: the latter were to fight each other as pitilessly as they did the inhabitants of the Moluccas.

Ultimately it was the Dutch who triumphed and the Moluccas became the foundation of their empire in Asia, with its first capital at Amboyna. It was in the Moluccas too that the British had their first Asian possessions, two tiny nutmeg-growing islands in the Banda archipelago called Ai and Run. They were to cling doggedly to Run Island for decades and were to be richly rewarded for their tenacity. The Dutch became so eager to evict them from their toehold in the East Indies that in 1667 they signed a treaty in which the English gave up their claim on Run in return for the confirmation of their right to territories on the other side of the planet. Included among these was another island—Manhattan.


The clove tree was very picky in choosing its home. Ignoring the larger islands in the Moluccas, it zeroed in on the small chain of volcanic islands that stretches southwards from Ternate. Here, as nowhere else, a number of different factors fell into alignment in such a way as to create the perfect environment for this gift of the earth.

But what the earth gives, it can also take away. This became shockingly clear to me at the first clove garden I visited in Ternate. Overlooked by Mt Gamalama, the garden was in a wonderfully scenic location. A few of the trees were in flower, their leaves dotted with clusters of yellowish-pink buds. But much of the garden was dead or dying; the clove trees’ bran­ches were leafless, their trunks ashen.

This was happening all over the island, I was told, and the farmers I spoke to were unanim­ous about the cause: the climate had changed in recent years, they said; there was less rain and it fell more erratically. This had facilitated outbreaks of blights and disease. The prolon­ged drought has also been accompanied by another unprecedented phenomenon: in March this year a wildfire raged for three days on the slopes of Mt Gamalama. A forest fire of this intensity was new to the islanders.

In other words, the delicate balance of the islands’ environment has changed; no longer is their alignment well-suited for the clove. This is but one of the many ways in which the Spice Islands seem to be emblematic of a much lar­ger predicament—for human civilisation too was able to flourish only when a great number of physical systems fell into ali­gnment some 10,000 years ago, with the dawn of a period of relative climatic stability.

The journey of the clove is itself illustrative of the pace at which civilisation accelerated once the conditions were right. The earliest forms of writing appeared around 3200 BC and, within a millennium and a half, cloves had already become articles of luxury consumption more than 10,000 km from the islands where they grew. From then on, the demand for them mounted steadily—not so much because of the purpose they served but because of what they had come to represent. Cloves were a product that people needed in order to keep up with others, or to prove a point to their neighbours. They were the progenitor of the luxury good—the Fabe­rgé egg, or the Gucci handbag—except that they played that role for thousands of years.

‘[The clove] is the precious Commodity,’ wrote a 17th-century Spanish historian, ‘which gives Power and Wealth to…Kings and causes their wars. This is the fruit of Discord…for it there has been, and still is, more fighting than for the Mines of Gold.’[1]

The dockside market at Banda Neira is busy most time of day

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

What this passage describes, however, is just a moment in the life-cycle of this commodity. Eventually seedlings of cloves and nutmeg were smuggled out of the Moluccas and transplanted elsewhere. As spices became more eas­ily available, they lost their mystique. In Europe, where foods had once been very heav­ily spiced, tastes changed and the per capita consumption of spices began a long, steady decline. By the late 18th century the Dutch East India Company was mired in corruption and effectively bankrupt.

This cycle, too, is representative of something much greater than itself—it is a cautionary tale about processes of phenomenal growth that burn themselves out, depleting the very resources that fuel them. Today, like the cinders of a dead fire, evidence of the astonishing energies that were once generated by the clove and the nutmeg are littered across the Moluccas: the most revealing of them are the fortifications that stretch across the islands. Few are the places on earth that possess so dense and varied a collection of gun emplacements, citadels and strongholds.

The earliest of the Spice Island forts was erected by the Portuguese in Ternate in the 16th century, but some of the most imposing, like those of Tidore, were of Spanish origin. The Dutch forts came a little later, starting in the 17th century, and some of them are still in use today as military bases.

Most of the Meluku forts are now ruins, carefully tended by the government. They are well worth visiting, not only for their picturesque locations, but also because their very existence bears witness to the influence that spices have exerted on history and on the planet.

But the energies the Spice Islands generated were not only of a military nature; priests, dreamers and poets were also drawn into their orbit. St Francis Xavier came to Ternate, by way of Goa, in 1547, and one of his converts was a former queen called Nuk­ila, who had once led a rebellion against the Portuguese. She was to become a legend, not only in the Moluccas (where she is known as Rainha Buki Raja) but also in Eur­ope: Jacobean dramatist John Fletcher was inspired to write a 1647 play, The Island Princess, by an earlier Spanish novel about her.

Another visitor who came to Ternate by way of Goa was Luis de Camoes, author of the Portuguese national epic, The Lusiads: one if its verses is thought to be a description of Ternate. Even Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, was not immune to the influence of the Spice Islands: he invented a Moluccan character for one of his ‘exemplary novels’ of 1613.

But the flame of literary interest that the Moluccas had inspired in Europe withered with the fortunes of its prime commodities. In the 19th century, the Moluccas were instead written into the history of science by Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin’s fellow form­ulator of the theory of natural selection. Ind­eed, Wallace’s hallowed position in the annals of science rests upon an essay and a letter (the famous ‘Letter from Ternate’) that were sent from the Moluccas to London in 1858.

Wallace was the author also of one of the great 19th-century travelogues, The Malay Archipelago. He spent three years in Ternate and in his chapter on the island he writes: ‘About the centre of [the town] is the palace of the Sultan, now a large untidy, half-ruinous building of stone…. The sultans of Ternate and Tidore were once celebrated through the East for their power and magnificence.’

The dynasty that holds the sultanate of Ternate is one of the world’s oldest and its scions still command a great deal of authority on the island. The last sultan died recently and the succession is yet to be settled, but one of the main contenders, Hidayat Mujaffar Sjah, a son of the late ruler, still lives in the palace. I spent an hour with him there, and was glad to find that the palace is no longer the half-ruin of Wallace’s description: it is elegant, airy and unpretentious, with a wide courtyard that faces Mt Gamalama.

Ruins of a Dutch nutmeg plantation, Pulao Ali

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

Mr Sjah told me that his family had ruled Ternate for some eight hundred years and that the islanders believed that the dynasty had a special relationship with the spirit of the place, particularly Mt Gamalama. He too feels that connection very powerfully, even though he grew up mainly in Jakarta.

It was strangely moving to be seated in the shadow of the great volcano, talking to someone who was directly descended from the ruler who had welcomed Europeans to his realm, in the hope of adding a new set of customers for its cloves. Little did that long-ago sultan know that he was helping to set in motion a cycle of consumption that would ravage the lives of his descendants and subjects, ultimately depleting the value of the very commodity on which the island’s fortunes were founded. Nor could he have known that those ever-spiralling cycles of consumption would ultimately change the planet’s climate in such a way as to endanger the clove in its ancestral homeland.

I mentioned this to Mr Sjah and he answered with a smile: The clove, he said, had been both a blessing and a curse for the island.

His words reminded me of other stories about ambiguous offerings—the apple of Eden, for example, and Pandora’s box—which were given to human beings as a test of their wisdom and prudence. If Mt Gama­lama were a capricious god, it could have chosen no better test than the clove.


The islands of the nutmeg are a world apart from those of the clove. The first hints of this appear as the ferry from Ambon approaches Gunung Api, the principal volcano of the Banda Islands. Although Api is more active than Ternate’s Gamalama, it is neither as tall nor as imposing. If a volcano could be said to create a sense of sheltering intimacy, then this would certainly be true of Api.

The volcano’s size signals a distinct change of scale: the Bandas are small and intimate; they have the look of a mid-ocean atoll, distant from everywhere, a universe of its own. Here the hum of Indonesia’s acceleration is scarcely audible.

In the lee of Gunung Api lies a channel of startlingly clear water. The island of Banda Neira is on the far side, as is the eponymous town, the largest settlement in the chain. When the ferry noses into the channel, a string of low, brightly coloured houses appears, lining the waterfront. On one side of the main jetty is a rambling yellow-and-mauve building with a long arched veranda: this is the Hotel Mau­lana, Banda Neira’s oldest; it sits right by the water, across the channel from Gunung Api.

Bust of King William III of the Netherlands

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

As the ferry comes in to dock, a crowd converges on the jetty; a band begins to play and the town seems to wake suddenly from a long siesta. Shopkeepers race to open their shutters, a market appears, selling fruit and innumerable varieties of dried fish. The hubbub speaks of another era, recalling sailors’ accounts of canoes rushing out at the sight of a distant sail, of water-borne markets clustering around arriving ships, their hulls laden with fruit, poultry and other treats.

The town’s main street is a short walk from the jetty. It is lined on both sides by colonial-era mansions that once belonged to Dutch nutmeg planters and dealers.

In the 1930s, some of these mansions were turned to another use: by that time the Banda Islands had become a kind of oceanic Siberia where troublesome radicals were banished by the Dutch colonial government. The most pro­minent of Banda’s exiles were Sutan Sjahrir and Mohammad Hatta, both leading intellectuals and major figures in Indonesia’s anti-colonial struggle. The mansions that once housed them have now been turned into museums.

Hatta and Sjahrir’s sojourn in Banda Neira had a transformative effect on the island. They set up an informal school that was attended by local children, among them the sons and daughters of a wealthy local family of Arab origin. On his release, Sjahrir took some of these children to Jakarta and one of the boys, Mohammad Des Alwi, became a colourful globetrotting adventurer who fell in and out of favour with Indonesia’s leaders. From the 1980s onwards, Des Alwi began to spend more time on the Bandas and developed a vision for the island’s future. It was he who founded the Maulana Hotel; he also set up a foundation that is working to preserve the heritage of the Bandas.

A painting of the 1621 Banda genocide

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

I was told all this by Des Alwi’s daughter, Tanya Alwi, who is herself a remarkable chara­cter. Schooled in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Switzerland and the US, she has travelled widely and met famous people, including President Barack Obama. Now she divides time bet­ween Jakarta and Banda Neira, and helps run the family hotel and her late father’s foundation.

It was Tanya who led me around the centre of the old town, an improbable little square which looks as though it belongs in one of the spookier tales of the Brothers Grimm. On one side of the square is a tall-steepled Dutch chu­rch, paved with centuries-old gravestones: the building was badly damaged in the riots of 1999, but has since been completely restored. On the far side is a sprawling Dutch East India Company warehouse, presided over by a curious little, statue of King William II of the Net­herlands. Next to the warehouse are the former residences of the islands’ seniormost colonial officials, empty, echoing buildings with an air of ineffable melancholy. A windowpane in one of the houses has a suicide note etched upon it, in French. The wreckage of a burnt-out Catholic church lies nearby: it was set on fire during the riots of 1999 and has yet to be restored.

Overlooking the town square are the massive 17th-century ramparts of Fort Belgica, one of the largest and best-preserved of the Spice Island forts. On the other side, down by the waterfront, is an equally formidable hulk, Fort Nassau. The little town is enclosed like a nutmeg between these two stone-fisted citadels.

A few of the town’s old mansions have been converted into small hotels and coffee houses for tourists. But the visitors who now come to the Banda archipelago are mostly drawn there not by its history, but rather by its rich marine life and magnificent coral reefs. The latter are notable not only for their variety, but also because they have mostly been able to weather the recent blight of bleaching that has devastated corals worldwide, in the wake of a global rise in sea temperatures.

At a diving centre on Banda Neira’s waterfront, I met Mareike Huhn, a marine biologist with a doctorate from the University of Kiel, in Germany. Dr Huhn has been monitoring the Banda reefs for bleaching, and was alarmed to see signs of it earlier this year. But the outbreak lasted only a few weeks, affecting no more than 20 per cent of Banda’s reefs.

Dr Huhn believes that the Banda corals owe their resilience to two factors: one is that they have a very high degree of biodiversity. “A healthy reef with high biodiversity is more robust against bleaching,” she said. “Site per site, of all the reefs that have been investiga­ted, this one has the highest biodiversity.” Secondly, the Bandas are surrounded by very deep oceans and cold water sometimes wells up from the abyssal depths, lowering temperatures at the surface: that is what seems to have happened this year.

But climate change has affected the Banda archipelago in other ways: it too has seen droughts and unprecedented wildfires. “If higher temperatures persist,” said Dr Huhn, “then Banda’s reefs will also suffer.”


Today, the Banda Islands are so tranquil, sleepy and other-worldly that it is hard to imagine the extent of the violence that has been visited upon them. In the 17th cent­ury, they were the main theatre of imperial rivalry in the East Indies, with the Dutch trying to enforce monopolies on the islanders and the English doing their best to thwart them. The islanders, for their part, were obstinate in their resistance and made every effort to preserve their ancient trading relations with merchants from China, India and elsewhere. They frequently disregarded the treaties that were thrust on them and in 1609 they ambushed a Dutch military contingent and killed its commander and some 27 others.[2]

The incident persuaded a merchant by the name of Jan Pieterszoon Coen that a monopoly of the islands’ spices could only be secured by doing away with the Bandanese and replacing them with Dutch burghers and freed slaves. In 1621, after having risen to the rank of governor-general, Coen brought an army of a couple of thousand soldiers and some one hundred Japanese mercenaries to the islands. As had often happened before, talks with the elders quickly broke down and Coen soon found an alibi for an attack. What followed was a systematic orgy of slaughter in which fourteen thousand of the islands’ estimated fifteen thousand original inhabitants, men, women and children, were killed or taken into slavery. Forty-four of the islands’ elders were brought to Fort Nassau where they were beheaded and quartered. ‘[They] died silently,’ a Dutch witness later wrote, ‘without uttering any sound except that one of them, speaking in the Dutch tongue, said “Sirs have you then no mercy” but indeed nothing availed.’[3]

Coen’s genocidal plan achieved its aim. The Bandas, and the monopolies in nutmeg and mace, were to remain secure in Dutch hands for the next century and a half.

Freshly cut nutmeg, with the seed still encased

Photograph by Amitav Ghosh

At the time of the Banda genocide, the Golden Age of Dutch art had just dawned. This amazing efflorescence would create the images of Holland that have endured in global memory: of tranquil, rustic landscapes, serenely-lit, tiled interiors, and God-fearing burghers and their bonneted ladies. A visitor who looks at these masterpieces today, in Amsterdam’s magnificent Rijksmuseum, will be hard put to imagine that much of the wealth that underwrote this great outpouring of art came from an archipelago on the far side of the planet; nor will they see any hint of the violence that made it possible.

On Banda Neira, the great killing of 1621 is memorialised by a few plaques, affixed to a small well: this is where the bodies of the 44 Bandanese elders are said to have been thrown after their execution.

But the massacre is also remembered in other ways. The islands teem with stories about gho­sts and, strangely enough, many of these tales of hantus are not about the victims but rather about tormented Dutch souls. One of the most striking of these tales was told to me by a man who swore he had once seen tears pouring down from the stone eyes of the bust that sta­nds in the compound of the old nutmeg godown.

Attributing remorse to this long-ago monarch is perhaps one way of making peace with history.


And what of the questions that had launched this journey: are ‘fresh’ cloves and mace used in the cuisine of the Spice Islands?

A clove is actually a bud, picked unopened and dried. When the bud first appears it is of a pale-yellow hue, with four sepals enclosing an equal number of unopened petals; these lie INS­ide, curled into a tight little ball. As it ripens, the bud changes colour, turning a delicate pinkish-red; plucked and dried at this point, the young bloom turns dark and its texture becomes hard and woody.

A freshly-picked clove bud tastes milder and more interesting than a dried one. But so far as I could determine, the fresh bud is not used in the cookery of the Moluccas. And this makes sense: to the people who grow them, cloves are, after all, merely merchandise.

In the case of the nutmeg, the story is a little more complicated. The fruit, which has a sharp, astringent taste, is used to make syrups and sweets. Fresh mace, peeled off the nut, is often made into tonics or chewed, like gum; the islanders swear that it is a good remedy for sleeplessness.

The taste of raw, freshly-peeled mace is like an explosion in the mouth: the scent is literally intoxicating; it induces a mild euphoria (both nutmeg and mace are known to have psychotropic properties). But once again, I could find no evidence of fresh mace being used in cookery. Indeed, the commonest spice of the Spice Islands is no different from that of the rest of the world: it is the ubiquitous and all-conquering chilli.

But I remain convinced that newly harvested cloves and mace could be combined with green peppercorns and shavings of cinnamon bark to make a delicately fragrant, ‘fresh’ equivalent of tired old spice mixes like ras al-hanout and garam masala. I do not doubt that such a concoction will one day transform the kitchens of the world and bring untold riches to its inventor.

[1] Bartolomé Leonardo de Argensola, The Discovery and Conquest of the Molucco and Philippine Islands &c,  trans. John Stevens, 1708.

[2] Cf. Willard A. Hanna, Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands, reprinted 1991, Banda Neira, p. 29.

[3] Quoted in Ibid. p. 56.

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