400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part I: The Bandanese and meaning of nutmeg for Europe

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Portuguese ships leaving Lisbon on their voyages of discovery to the Indies. In the background is the Tower of Belem aad on the left are The Lusiads. Photo credit: By Igordeloyola - Own work, FAL, https://commons. wikimedia.org/w/index .php?curid=15121027

IO – “The poetry of earth is never dead!” are the jubilant lines that always come to mind upon visiting the Banda Islands. The poet Keats was referring to the sound of birds and insects but in the context of Banda, ‘the poetry of earth’ reminds me of the great, almost poetic natural beauty and wonder of those magical little islands known as the Banda Islands. This is where nutmeg originates, and for centuries, they were the only place where it grew and was traded.

Map of the Banda Islands by Jacobus van der Schley. Manukang Island is missing from the map. Photo credit: Jakob van der Schley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Banda Islands are located in the Indonesian province of the Moluccas, popularly known as the Spice Islands. They consist of a small cluster of nine, tiny islands that are located about 55 minutes by plane from Ambon, the capital of the Spice Islands. Several of the islands are so close together that it is possible to swim from one island to another, whereas Manukang, the furthest in the island group takes several hours to reach by boat from Neira, the capital of the Bandas. One island in this group  is the Gunung Api or Fire Mountain which rises majestically out of the sea, so that on Neira one lives perpetually in the shadow of a live volcano. The Bandas are amongst the islands with the greatest marine bio-diversity in the great coral reef triangle of the Western Pacific which hosts 76% of the world’s coral species. Banda is embraced by seas with exquisite coral gardens; with numerous varieties of  tropical fish gliding between the delicate branches of the corals.

And yet, in this idyllic paradise of tranquil azure seas and hills enveloped in forests of kenari (a sort of tropical almond) and nutmeg, 400 years ago one of the most horrific and cruel events in Indonesia’s recorded history occurred namely, the Banda Massacre. It was carried out by the Vereinigde Oost Indische Compagnie  (United Dutch East India Company), usually abbreviated  to VOC,  in 1621 and it nearly decimated the islands.

A nutmeg garden with ancient kenari trees acting as shade trees. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection).

Who are the Bandanese and what brought about the Massacre and most importantly, how did it affect the Bandanese survivors and their society ? This series will attempt to provide some answers to these questions.

According to Portuguese sources, by the early 16th century the Bandanese were already very active and dominant in the Indonesian spice trade. Early 16th century Portuguese sources state that the Bandanese themselves transported the nutmeg from Banda to Java and further west to other parts of the Archipelago,  with their own traditional crafts.

Print of a Banda kora-kora in 1599 from the Travel Journal of Admiral Jacob Corneliszoon van Neck who led the Second Dutch Expedition to Indonesia in 1598. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

At the time the islands were divided into small districts or villages ruled by chieftains with the title of orang kaya meaning ‘the rich person’ (a title also used in other parts of the archipelago). The inhabitants of Banda were a community of traders, farmers and fishermen. Land was owned communally. As far as we know, they did not have kings but rather the elders of the community were the rulers. Who were they? In the distant past they must have been the wealthiest or most successful people in the community. Their representatives were the shahbandars or harbour masters that they appointed in the villages with ports and who were mostly Muslim traders from other parts of Indonesia.

When the Portuguese arrived in Banda, Islam was already well-established in Banda. Tome Pires wrote in the Summa Oriental as did several other Portuguese sources that Islam began to spread in the Banda Islands during the third quarter of the fifteenth century. According to the first Portuguese accounts from 1613, at that time the Bandanese had not yet all converted to Islam and still practiced headhunting as in other parts of Eastern Indonesia. Islam was brought by Muslim traders from Java and began to spread along the coast. There were a number of religious teachers from Tuban stationed in Banda. However, in the interior some of the Bandanese still followed the old pre-Islamic religion that was probably a mixture of animism and ancestor worship – as is still found to-day amongst some of the inhabitants in the interior of Seram.

John Villiers in Trade and Society in the Banda Islands in the Sixteenth Century says that Tome Pires as well as other European writers describe the Bandanese as having fairer skin than the inhabitants on the neighboring islands of Ambon or Seram which he writes suggests intermarriage with other ethnic groups from Western Indonesia, such as the Javanese and Malays as well as Chinese traders who had settled in Banda. Tome Pires wrote that the captains of the ships from Java and Malacca were adored by the Bandanese community. Dutch sources estimate that the population was around 15,000 Bandanese. Nutmeg was only cultivated on 5 islands of the Banda group namely, Greater Banda or Lontor, Neira, Ai, Run and Rosengain. The other islands produced different commodities such as coconuts, sago, fruit etc. Villiers writes that by 1535 the increased demand for nutmeg which the Portuguese presence promoted, had made the Bandanese a flourishing community.

Print of the inhabitants of Banda 1599. They represent a Turkish trader, an orang kaya and his wife, their slave and a cakalele warrior. Taken from the Travel Journal of admiral Jacob Corneliszoon van Neck who led the Second Dutch Expedition to Indonesia in 1598. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Bandanese culture there were no writing traditions so that we do not have any written accounts from the Bandanese dating from before the 19th century. Consequently, it is necessary to look to other nations with a writing tradition for information about the Bandanese. The Badanese grew the precious nutmeg that helped preserve and flavour food at a time when there was no refrigeration available and by the 16th century, nutmeg had become a very sought after commodity for the Europeans, as they began to sail their ships eastwards in search of spices. For the Europeans the trade in spices brought enormous profits. In the European mind for a time spices symbolized prosperity and high station for only such people could afford them. This may be why nutmeg is mentioned in European manuscripts already during Medieval times and why nutmeg and the Banda Islands even entered into European literature. Beside the Europeans there were of course, also other written traditions about nutmeg and the Banda Islands, from the Chinese, Arabs and other Asian sources both from within the Indonesian Archipelago as well as outside of it. The largest source of written information originates from European sources, however.

The poet Luis Camoes reading aloud from his epic poem ‘The Lusiasds’. Photo credit: António Carneiro, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

As previously touched upon, mentions of nutmeg and the Banda Islands appear in European literature. They are cited in what many regard as the greatest work of Portuguese literature known as Os Lusíadas or The Lusiads which in European literature is ranked with the Greek Iliad and Odyssey. This epic poem was first published in 1572. Lusiadas means the sons of Lusus or the Portuguese. Luis Vaz de Camoes’ wrote this poem about the Portuguese voyages of discovery and he mentions the Banda Islands in canto X as follows:

“See the islands of Banda, enamelled
In diverse colours by the dark red fruit;
The varied birds which leap there,
Taking unripe nuts as their tribute…”

The fruit Camoes describes is the nutmeg. The actual fruit itself is not dark red but rather shaped like a pale orangy yellow apricot when ripe. Other European accounts have described it as golden pears or apples. When the fruit is ripe it partially splits open and the bright red filament or aril surrounding the brown nut is then visible. This is the mace and may have been why Camoes refers to the fruit as red in colour. The brown nut enveloped by the mace has a hard shell which when broken reveals the actual nutmeg. The Bandanese sold both the mace and the nutmeg which were not only used for cooking and preserving food but also for medicinal purposes. The fruit of the nutmeg was preserved in vinegar (for use in salads) or sugar as a preserve or candid peels. They also sold oil distilled from unripe nutmegs which the Portuguese wrote was very good for colds. However, when an unripe nutmeg is plucked, sap drips from the tree which is red like blood and in fact it is bleeding the tree and if done for several seasons in a row, the tree more or less bleeds to death. During the 1980s there was a governor of the Moluccas who sold nutmeg oil and Des Alwi, the then Orang Kaya of Banda was worried that his company was decimating the nutmeg plantations.

The nutmeg appears as well, in an early English nursery rhyme:

Nutmeg fruit that has split with red mace visible. Photo credit: O.Mustafin, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

I had a little nut tree nothing would it bear
But a silver nutmeg
And a golden pear.
The King of Spain’s daughter came to visit me
All for the sake of my little nut tree.

Her dress was made of crimson,
Jet black was her hair,
She asked me for my nut tree
And my golden pear.
I said, “So fair a princess never did I see,
I’ll give you all the fruit from my little nut tree.

The first time the rhyme was known to be in print was in 1797, although the text is thought to be older than that. In the past nursery rhymes were frequently created as metaphors for political events. It has been conjectured that the nursery rhyme refers to the arrival of Catherine of Aragon the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, at the court of King Henry VII to wed his oldest son Prince Arthur in 1501. Arthur died in 1502 and in 1509 she was wed to Arthur’s brother, the future King Henry VIII. Alternatively, it has been suggested that it refers to the visit of Catherine of Aragon’s sister, Joanna of Castile to England in 1507. In 1509 the first Portuguese ships reached Indonesian waters under the command of Diogo Lopes de Sequeira. In 1512 António de Abreu led the first Portuguese expedition to the Banda Islands. The Spanish only reached the Moluccas in 1521 when Magellan’s fleet under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano arrived. From 1580 till 1640 Portugal and Spain were united as one kingdom.

Nutmeg was in fact, already mentioned in European literature long before this. Alex J. West, a researcher with a blog on Indonesia during Medieval times writes that during the Medieval period (5th till late 15th century), nutmeg together with cloves and other spices was already mentioned in European manuscripts. This includes the literature connected to the Holy Grail. West has written some very interesting articles about nutmeg being mentioned in several gems of Medieval European literature.

Engraving of Chrétien de Troyes in 1530. Photo credit: Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Holy Grail is in European literature at times described as a cup or a dish, while Wolfram von Eschenbach described it as a stone, with miraculous powers. It was said to have been Christ’s cup or vessel from the Last Supper and was used to catch his blood after the Crucifixion. The story is that it is kept by the Fisher King who has terrible wounds and can only sit and fish. The first Holy Grail romance was Perceval written in Old French by Chrétien de Troyes in the 1180s. This was followed by the knight-poet, Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival at the beginning of the 13th century in Middle High German.

In Chrétien de Troyes’ French Perceval, nutmeg appears amongst the food that is served:

‘The food was both fair and fine; Such food as kings and counts and emperors must have…

… And the servants prepared beds and fruit at bedtime.
Those they had were of great expense:
Dates, figs, and nutmeg
And pears and pomegranates…

Whereas in the Medieval German of Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach nutmeg and cloves appear as part of the furniture and are used to hide the smell of the Fisher King’s festering wounds:

The Berner Parzival of the epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach was commissioned in 1467. Photo credit: Wolfram von Eschenbach, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

“When sharp and bitter anguish inflicted severe discomfort on Anfortas (i.e. the Fisher King) they sweetened the air for him to kill the stench of his wound. On the carpet before him lay spices…

‘Wherever people trod on the carpet, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg lay crushed beneath their feet for the sake of the fragrance — as these were pounded by their tread, the evil stench was abated…”

West says that in one of the major works of English literature, The Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, there are also several mentions of nutmeg and in Dante’s Inferno although nutmeg is not mentioned, cloves are.

And then in 1599 came the arrival of the first Dutch ship in Banda. It was part of a fleet of 4 ships with 200 men from the Second Dutch expedition to the East Indies, under the command of Vice Admiral Jacob van Heemskerk and it is here that the story of the Banda Massacre really begins…  (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Freshly picked nutmeg removed from its fruit. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)