Banda: The Secret Island of Nutmegs

Nov 3, 2020 0 comments

In the Banda Sea, roughly 2,500 km east of Jakarta lies the Banda Islands, a part of Indonesia. For thousands of years, this group of ten islands were the world's only source of nutmeg and mace, which is derived from nutmeg’s shell. Before the arrival of Europeans, Banda was ruled by the nobles called orang kaya, who traded with the Indians and the Arabs, who in turn sold spices to the Europeans for exorbitant prices. In those days nutmeg was worth more by weight than gold, as the spice was believed to be a cure for the dreaded plague that routinely devastated populations across Europe. The crafty Arabs kept the location of this precious spice a secret, which helped keep the islands valuable and prices high. It wasn’t until 1511 when the king of Portugal, Afonso de Albuquerque, conquered Banda as well as the neighboring islands, that Banda Island’s closely guarded secret was out. The islands soon became the center of the spice trade.

Banda Islands

The Island of Banda-Neira and Gunung Api. Photo: Collin Key/Flickr

The Portuguese traders tried but failed to obtain a foothold on the islands. The Bandanese were hostile to anything but fair trade, and for the rest of the 16th century all the Portuguese could do was visit the islands every few years and return with ships full of nutmeg, mace and cloves. Once a Portuguese trader named Captain Garcia Henriques attempted to build a fort at Banda Neira, but the islanders went up in arms and attacked Garcia’s men. Realizing that it was both costly and tiresome to fight, the Portuguese started avoiding the Bandas Islands, preferring to buy their nutmeg from traders in Malacca instead.

The Dutch followed the Portuguese to Banda, but unlike their southern cousins, the Dutch traders were less than accommodating. They tried to force a monopoly on the spice trade, ordering the Bandanese to sell their products only to the Dutch. The Bandanese refused; they wanted free trade so that they could play out the various European countries' merchants against each other and sell their products to the highest bidder. Negotiation was arduous, and at one point, the Bandanese lured a Dutch admiral into an ambush and killed 46 Dutchmen. In reprise, the Dutch soldiers plundered several Bandanese villages and destroyed their ships.

Banda Islands

Map of Banda Islands. Photo: Lencer/Wikimedia Commons

The unfortunate incident worked out in favor of the Dutch. In the peace treaty that followed, the Bandanese recognized Dutch authority and monopoly on the spice trade. That same year, the Dutch erected Fort Nassau on Banda Neira to control the nutmeg trade.

Despite the supposed peace, the Bandanese resented the Dutch and willfully violated the treaty by trading with the English, the Malay, and the Javanese. The islander’s hostility aggravated the Dutch-Bandanese relationship culminating in a violent takeover of the entire Bandanese archipelago by the Dutch. The Dutch massacred the villagers reducing their population from fifteen thousands to a mere thousand survivors. The numbers fell by so much that the Dutch had to bring additional slaves from India and China to work in the plantation and keep it profitable.

nutmeg with fruit

Freshly harvested nutmeg fruit. The red covering is mace while the seed is nutmeg. Photo: Santhosh Varghese/

The English too vied for a piece of this lucrative trade. Before the Dutch had full control of the archipelago, the English had two trading posts on the tiny Ai and Run islands, some 10 and 20 kilometers from the main Banda Islands. In 1615, the Dutch drove the English out of Ai but they continued to hold on to Run until 1667, when they traded Run for the island of New Amsterdam on the east coast of Northern America. It wasn’t a bad deal. In 350 years, New Amsterdam would become the center of global commerce, an island we now know as Manhattan.

During the Napoleonic Wars, when Netherlands fell to France, the English took their chance and temporarily seized Banda Islands. Before the Dutch regained control of the islands, the English uprooted hundreds of valuable nutmeg seedlings and transported them to their own colonies in Ceylon, Singapore and India, thus breaking the Dutch monopoly forever. Bandas’s exclusivity was destroyed and the islands were never the same again.

Banda Islands

The capture of Banda-Neira by the British squadron under the Command of Captain Cole in the morning of the 9th August 1810. Photo: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

Nutmeg is still a major source of income for many islanders in Banda, but the economic prosperity is gone. The spice is now grown in several other countries, and although Indonesia still leads the trade, Banda islanders no longer control it. The island is now a quiet tropical backwater with a population of less than twenty thousands. Those who are not in the nutmeg business fish in the pristine coastal waters. The rest are into tourism.

Banda Islands are now prized for their marine environment, including a resilient coral reef and high biodiversity. It is believed that the surrounding Banda Sea acts as a buffer protecting the islands from extreme equatorial temperatures and the effects of climate change. The sea winds and salty rains also influence the taste and quality of the nutmeg, which is still claimed to be the best in the world.

Nutmeg processing in Banda Islands, circa 1899-1900

Nutmeg processing in Banda Islands, circa 1899-1900. Photo: University of Amsterdam

Nutmeg harvested in Banda islands

Nutmeg harvested in Banda islands. Photo: DjunaPix/

Fort Belgica, Banda Neira

Fort Belgica in Banda Neira. Photo: Riana Ambarsari/

Aerial view of Banda Neira with Fort Belgica in the foreground

Aerial view of Banda Neira with Fort Belgica in the foreground. Photo: farhankudosan/

# Peter Milne, Banda, the nutmeg treasure islands, The Jakarta Post 
# Ian Williams, Why the Banda Islands Were Once More Valuable Than Manhattan, NBC News
# Wikipedia


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