Sia Arnason on Indonesia’s Spice Island… Dick Slaney on Indonesia’s Spice Island… Alberto Guterres on The Cinnamon Route Rhyll Rivett. on The Cinnamon Route Charlotte Woerner on Spice Islands — Time for…
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Here is an article written on our 2013 sailing adventure.
Reposted from Destinasian. Article by Johnny Langenheim and photos by Jack Wylie
The sun is already hot and high by the time Run comes into view. Perched on the prow of the Ombak Putih, I have to squint to make out the island, a tiny smudge on a languorous blue horizon that stretches otherwise unbroken in every direction. We’re a good six hours behind schedule, having sailed overnight from Ambon against un-seasonable currents. It’s a small enough delay considering the three days it took me to get here from London, flying via Singapore, Bali, Sulawesi, and finally Ambon, the capital of Indonesia’s Maluku Province. I’m also mindful of the fact that four centuries ago, a journey like this would have taken the better part of a year, and that was if you made it at all, what with storms and scurvy and skirmishes with locals, not to mention getting hopelessly lost because no one could measure longitude yet. But that didn’t stop Europe’s most powerful nations from trying: back then, the Moluccas Islands were arguably the hottest property on the planet.
Our quarters are decidedly more inviting than those of an East Indiaman. Built in a Kalimantan boatyard in the style of a traditional wooden phinisi schooner, the Ombak Putih is 35 meters long, a beamy 10 meters across amidships, and sprouts two masts rigged fore-and-aft with marine-blue sails. Run by a Bali-based outfit called Sea Trek, she has a dozen snug en-suite cabins, decks strewn with sunbeds, and thrice-daily buffets that mean we’re more likely to gain paunches than perish.
“It’s amazing to think that these tiny volcanic islands sparked the Age of Discovery,” says author Ian Burnet as he joins me at the bow, a mug of coffee in hand. “And the establishment of the world’s first true multinational companies for that matter—the Dutch and British East India Companies,” he adds, gesturing at the indistinct blob on the skyline. Burnet, a retired geologist who’s making the most of his retirement by traveling the archipelago and writing books on Indonesian history, is the guest lecturer on this two-week voyage around the fabled Spice Islands.
An hour later we weigh anchor off Run, board a speedboat, and putter across a shallow reef to the shore, where two shyly smiling kids peep out from a beached fishing boat. There’s no one else to be seen. Considering its storied history, Run really doesn’t look like much—white sand, coconut palms, lush vegetation clinging to steep slopes, the rusting corrugated roofs of a neatly kept fishing village. A typical tropical paradise. But then our guide, Ari, points up at a stand of nondescript trees on a hillside and says, “Nutmeg.” And that’s really where the story begins.
These days, nutmeg is an unexceptional spice for the English, grated into mulled wine or eggnog when the weather turns cold. In the middle ages, however, it was believed to be a panacea for everything from the common cold to the plague. But it was as hard to come by as it was desirable; in Elizabethan times, nutmeg was worth more than its weight in gold. This unassuming seed together with another spice-rack staple, clove, drove the likes of Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake to circumnavigate the globe. Because back then, nutmeg only grew in the fertile volcanic soils of the Banda Islands, and cloves on just a few islands to the north. Control of these far-flung specks meant control of the most lucrative trade in the world.
It turns out that Run is not quite as deserted as it first seemed; it’s Friday, and all the men are at the mosque. After prayers, they spill out wearing sarongs and peci caps and neatly pressed white shirts. Burhan, a jovial young man who runs the Nailaka Homestay, takes us under his wing, leading us through a marketplace smoky with barbecuing fish and clove cigarettes and up to his little nutmeg plantation. In the 17th century, Run was positively overgrown with nutmeg trees. It was also the only island controlled by the British at a time when the notorious VOC—the Dutch East India Company—had all but monopolized the East Indies spice trade. Novelist Giles Milton describes how this came about in his rip-roaring popular history Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which tells the tale of Nathaniel Courthope, a merchant seaman from Kent who made Run his bolt-hole against the Dutch. Courthope built a fortified trading post here, defending it against all odds for more than four years until he was killed in an ambush. The British got the last laugh, though; in 1667, at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch agreed to a land swap that gave them formal control over Run in exchange for a small island on the east coast of North America. That island’s name was Manhattan.
There’s little else to be seen on Run, save for the ruins of a fort Courthope built there. But Banda Neira, 20 kilometers or so to the east, is a different story. An 18th-century lithograph of the island and its surrounds depicts a volcano with smoke billowing theatrically from its crater, a fortress presiding over a shoulder of rock, and little houses huddled on the shoreline. The scene today is almost as dramatic. Gunung Api (literally, “fire mountain”) hasn’t erupted for hundreds of years, but its steep flanks are no less impressive for the absence of sulfurous smoke; and Fort Belgica, a massive stone pentagon with circular towers built by the Dutch in 1611, is still largely intact. Banda Neira and its larger neighbor Banda Besar protect a glassy lagoon dotted with fishing boats. From a distance, the waterfront of its only town, also called Banda Neira, has an oddly Mediterranean look, with squat palms and the whitewashed colonnades of the Hotel Maulana.
On closer inspection, the town is a little run- down. But everywhere there are reminders of the colonial past, for Banda Neira was, until the end of the 18th century, the administrative capital of the VOC’s global trade in nutmeg. Bronze cannons, broad avenues, an imposing 19th-century church, and the elegantly dilapidated governor’s residence all cast an air of forlorn and incongruous grandeur. You sense that even in its heyday, the place must have had a melancholy feel. This suspicion is confirmed when I venture inside the governor’s residence. On one of the windows, you can just make out the letters of a suicide note scratched there 200 years ago by a homesick colonist. Ari tells me he hanged himself from a chandelier.
Later, Abba Rizal, proprietor of the Mutiara Guesthouse, places a young coconut in front of me and sits down for a chat in the shade of his patio. As I sip the coconut’s water from a straw, it occurs to me that there’s a decidedly Arabic cast to my host’s features. “That’s because my ancestors came from Yemen,” he says with a laugh. “Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the first VOC governor, massacred most of the native Bandanese in 1621, so the population today is descended from Arabic and Chinese traders and indentured laborers from other islands.” His immaculate guesthouse is filled with whimsical treasures: rusting cannonballs, a ship in a bottle, a hand-cranked gramophone. There are only three rooms, but he says he’s building a bigger waterside property. “It’s going to have themed rooms showcasing Banda history and culture.”
Rizal sees himself as the spiritual heir of Des Alwi, one of the Banda Islands’ most famous sons. Alwi was something of a renaissance man—an independence fighter, historian, diplomat, filmmaker, and, in his later years, the driving force behind the preservation and restoration of the islands’ heritage. He built the Hotel Maulana in the 1970s, and though its charms have faded over the years, in its heyday it played host to the likes of Mick Jagger and Princess Diana. Until his death in 2010, Alwi was also the Bandas’ most ardent tourism booster.
“I’m an entrepreneur,” Rizal says simply. “And this place could be an amazing destination if we developed it properly.”
We leave the bandas and island-hop slowly northwest. On Pulau Ai, we visit a large nutmeg plantation, where a man called Igo shows us how to harvest the ripe fruits using a long bamboo pole with a basket on the end. He explains the various parts of the fruit—the skin, used to make sweets and jams; the scarlet-colored membrane, which yields mace, and the nut itself. Torres Strait pigeons coo from the treetops; they’re a delicacy here as their flesh is naturally infused with the nutmeg they feed on. In the village, nutmeg dries in the sun and an old man sits on his doorstep calmly cracking a big pile of shells with a rock.
We skirt the south coast of Seram and visit the island of Saparua, scene of an early rebellion against Dutch rule led by an Ambonese soldier known as Pattimura, who achieved a number of unlikely victories before being betrayed and executed in 1817, gaining folk-hero status for his troubles. The slopes of Saparua are thick with clove trees. Harvesting their fragrant flower buds is a surprisingly hazardous pursuit. Salim, a local farmer, agrees to demonstrate, leading us up to a little orchard where he lashes a long bough to the slender trunk of a clove tree as a makeshift scaffold. “It’s easy to fall and kill yourself. Two people have already died this year,” he tells me cheerfully.
As we sail northward into the watery province of North Maluku, clock time begins to lose its grip and I surrender to a diurnal cycle marked by sunrises and sunsets that are humbling in their beauty. Mornings are spent visiting little villages; in the afternoons we snorkel vibrant coral reefs. The most impressive lies off Kusu Island, in a stretch of water where the British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace was becalmed 150 years earlier, en route to the twin volcanoes of Tidore and Ternate, our final destination. The waters here are filled with big pelagic species like giant trevally and dogtooth tuna.
By the time the cloud-capped cone of Tidore appears, it feels as though we’ve entered the realm of myth. For nearly a thousand years, Ternate and Tidore were two of the most powerful sultanates in the Malay Archipelago and the sole global supplier of cloves. Mortal enemies, they vied for dominion of territory and trade in precolonial times, and used Machiavellian cunning to mitigate the control of the Europeans. And they still survive, albeit in a much diminished form.
Much smaller than its neighbor, Tidore today feels like it has lapsed into a gentle dotage. I take a becak motorcycle taxi round the island, passing through Christian and Muslim villages with barely a division between the two. Cloves dry in the sun, their scent hanging heavy in the air. Built in 2010, the Sultan’s Palace is a replica of the original structure, which was erected 200 years earlier. I’m greeted not by the sultan, but by his personal secretary, who shows me around. There isn’t much to see, save for a beautiful hand-painted Koran dating to 1657, a collection of brass spittoons, and some old maps. “Sultan Djafar Sjah, the 36th Sultan of Tidore, died last year and we haven’t named his successor yet,” he announces, before slipping into childhood reminiscences of the old palace, where his father served before him.
Ternate, by contrast, is a bustling center of industry and commerce. The market is a happy mayhem of stalls selling batik textiles, great piles of fruits and vegetables, and every kind of fish, while the food stalls along the harbor hawk such regional specialties as gohu, a sort of tuna sashimi. The island is dominated by—or, more accurately, it is—the highly active Gamalama volcano, which had its last major eruption in 2012, when it showered the city in ash.
It was in Ternate that Alfred Russel Wallace wrote his famous letter to Charles Darwin, outlining his independently conceived theory of natural selection and prompting the latter to hastily publish his own work, On the Origin of Species. I visit the house Wallace was said to have lived in for a year, an airy but rundown bungalow now occupied by relations of the sultan. It offers no outward signs of its famous tenant.
Finally, there is the spice warehouse. An unassuming storefront behind the marketplace gives way to an enormous depot, where men empty sacks onto clove mountains and women sort through endless baskets of nutmeg. “We buy spices and copra from all the nearby islands—Halmahera, Tidore, Jailolo, Obi, and the Bandas,” says Ineke, daughter of the Chinese-Indonesian owner.
Back on board the Ombak Putih, Burnet tells me, “Nutmeg and clove have been traded here for at least 3,500 years. And the Chinese were trading with the Moluccas centuries before the Portuguese arrived.” There is a tendency to think of the spice trade as moving from East to West. But its arteries stretched from this remote seascape all over the world, affecting geopolitics in ways that can still be felt to this day. It occurs to me that, in a way, the quest for these islands was a key moment in the advent of our globalized world.
In 1750, a Frenchman improbably named Pierre Poivre smuggled 3,000 clove, nutmeg, and fruit trees from the Moluccas to Mauritius, marking the end of the VOC’s monopoly over the trade. And so the Spice Islands began their slow but inexorable decline on the world stage, eventually settling into somnolent obscurity. I’m glad for it in a way; it’s allowed for my own little voyage of discovery.
Taking the Mystery out of History
Reposted courtesy of the Museum Malaysia Volunteers website
The Museum Volunteers hosted a talk by Ian Burnet on 25 January 2014 on his two books, Spice Islands and East Indies. Spices, native to islands in the Malay-Indonesian archipelago found their way to Africa, the Middle East, India and China through trade voyages made by the intrepid, sea-faring Indonesians. The earliest proof comes from the journey made by cloves from its homeland in the Maluka Islands in Eastern Indonesia to Syria where cloves buds dated to 1721 BC were found preserved in a ceramic jar in the ancient city of Terqa.
Bas-relief of Borobudur Boat
One of the routes taken by these Malay-Indonesian traders was the direct sea-route from Indonesia to the island of Madagascar off Eastern Africa. The Malagasy people of Madagascar are descended from these Indonesian traders as shown by their language as well as DNA analysis which places their nearest living ancestors on the island of Kalimantan.
This ancient sea-route has been dubbed the ‘Cinnamon Route’ by modern researchers. Although the term is a bit of a misnomer as cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka and the correct term would have been ‘cassia’ which grows in South-east Asia, these journeys saw spices from the Indonesian islands reach Africa and the Middle East millennia ago.
Replica of Majapahit Boat, on display at Muzium Negara
How did they make the journey across open seas? The Greeks have described Malay vessels plying the Indian Ocean as early as the first century AD. Further clues as to the design of the vessels comes from the five bas-reliefs of ships on the walls of Borobudur, a 9th century Buddhist monument. This design survived through the centuries as evidenced by Majapahit boats of the 14 century; a replica of which can be found at Muzium Negara.
How best to determine if the ships on the bas-reliefs at Borobudur were really capable of making this open sea journey than by building an actual life-size ship and sailing it along the Cinnamon Route. This is exactly what Philip Beale did with the help of Indonesian shipwrights under the leadership of Assad Abdullah.
The Samudra Raksa, now housed at the Borobudur Museum
The Samudra Raksa (Defender of the Seas) set sail from Jakarta on 15 August 2003 and reached Seychelles on 12 September 2003. From here, it sailed south passing the Comoros to Madagascar. The journey did not end at Madagascar and the ship sailed further south rounding the Cape of Good Hope to reach Cape Town on 5 January 2004. On 23 February 2004 Samudra Raksa reached Accra in Ghana and the journey terminated here.
Communications equipment on the Samudra Raksa (at Borobudur Museum)
This journey led by Philip Beale not only showed that it was feasible for Borobudur ships to made open-sea voyages across the Indian Ocean from Indonesia to Africa but that there was also the possibility that these ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope to western Africa, making the Indonesian seafarers the first to achieve this feat. There is circumstantial evidence pointing to this by the presence of yams, taro, bananas and Asian rice in West Africa in the first millennium AD.
The Samudra Raksa is now housed at the Borobudur Museum.
The Kitchen is held daily at the Toko Toko Restaurant
October 5, 2:30pm – 4pm, Ian Burnet
While our chefs cook up some spicy delights, Ian Burnet will be talking about spices and the Spice Islands.
For a serving of spice islands history, Ian Burnet, will dish up a tale of the high seas and colonial rule focusing on Indonesia’s legendary spices, cloves and nutmeg. One of the world’s greatest authorities on the East Indies and the history of the Spice Islands. Burnet will deliver his pearls of wisdom along with fragrant nutmeg cake and clove-spiced cookies, from a man who knows his nutmeg.
The Indonesian province of Maluku (or the Moluccas) is famous for two trees that only grew in this part of the world and the spices they produce – cloves and nutmeg. The clove tree is indigenous to only five small volcanic islands off the west coast of Halmahera, namely Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Machian and Bacan. The nutmeg tree is indigenous to the equally small and even more remote islands of Banda, Lontar, Ai and Run in the Banda Sea.The exact location of these islands was long shrouded in myth and mystery, and together they became know as the Spice Islands.
Step into The Kitchen to witness sizzling cooking demonstrations led by our exotic authors and chefs. Held daily near the Main Program venues, it’s your chance to gain an up close and personal encounter of the writer’s culinary skills. You can feast on words, wisdom and home-cooked specialties from across Indonesia and beyond while soaking in the laid-back ambience of Ubud.
For the full Ubud Writers and Readers Festival program go to http://www.ubudwritersfestival.com/2014-program/
Bound: An Expatriates Journey to China and Beyond
04 October 2014, 4:30pm – 6:00pm
Venue: Rouge, Jalan Bisma, Ubud
A Literary memoir explaining why expatriates choose to live and work in very different cultures to their own. Combining personal experience with interviews carried out in Shanghai and Hong Kong, Bound:An Expatriates Journey to China and Beyond was long-listed for the Proverse International Prize and for the 2014 Australian Book Review Calibre Prize. To be launched by Ian Burnet
Christine Lavender’s first doctorate was in education, and her second in creative writing. During her University teaching career she authored and edited two academic books and published articles in international refereed journals. She contributed to an anthology of creative writing, Relay in 2011. She was Academic Director of a design and business college in Shanghai, China and had an association with the city between 2002 and 2012. Her memoir Bound:An Expatriates Journey to China and Beyond emerged from these experiences. It breaks new ground in its focus on expatriates who by taking risks and, “turning to the foreign” attract both challenges and new opportunities.
Ian Burnet has spent 30 years living, working and travelling in Indonesia. Fascinated by the diverse cultures and history of the archipelago, he believed the story of the tiny islands of Ternate and Tidore and their effect on world history needed to be told. His book Spice Islands (2011) tells the history, romance and adventure of the spice trade over 2000 years. It has received critical acclaim and has been described as “a wonderful book – a triumph of passion and scholarship”.
His next work, East Indies (2013), tells the story of the 200 year struggle between the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East Indies Company and the English East India Company for trade supremacy in the Eastern Seas. The story begins in Malacca, one of the world’s biggest trading ports in the 16th century, documents the founding of Batavia (Jakarta) one of the world’s biggest trading ports in the 17th century and concludes with the founding of Singapore and Hong Kong, some of the world’s biggest trading ports today.
Asian Civilizations Museum, Singapore
Friday Evening Lecture Series, 26 September 2014, 7 to 8:30 pm
Speaker: Ian Burnet – Author
This lecture is based on the speaker’s book ‘East Indies (2013). It follows trade winds and trade routes to the ports across the East Indies and the Orient. It documents the struggles for trade supremacy between the Portuguese Casa da India, the Dutch East Indies Company, and the English East India Company.
The histories of port cities will be discussed, beginning in Malacca, which was one of the world’s largest trading ports in the 16th century, then moving to Batavia – one the world’s largest trading ports in the following two centuries. And finally, to Singapore and Hong Kong, two of the world’s largest trading ports in the 19th century.
About the speaker
Ian Burnet has spent more than 30 years living, working, and travelling in the Indonesian archipelago in his career as a petroleum geologist/geophysicist. He first came in 1968, and was fascinated by the rich history of the archipelago, the spices that grew there, and particularly the roles played by the colonial powers in the history of the islands. His first book, Spice Islands (2011), tells the story of the romance and adventure of the spice trade from Eastern Indonesia over a period of 2000 years. He is currently preparing another book on the history of the Indonesian archipelago.
This lecture is free and co-organised with Friends of the Museums (Singapore). Seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis. No registration is required.
The Long Table Lunch, 5 October 12:00pm – 3:00pm, Rondji Restaurant
Join us in a culinary journey across the Indonesian Archipelago. Savour specialities from Sumatra to Ambon as dished up by one of Jakarta’s hottest chefs, Marco Padang, Rondji’s chef Meidy Zuhri, and URWF’s own Janet de Neefe. As you sit back with a view over the Campuhan Ridge rub shoulders with extraordinary authors from the East and relish in a once-in-a-lifetime-meal from the fabled Spice Islands.
Janet DeNeefe, the Founder & Director of Ubud Writers & Readers Festival, is a Melbourne-born artist, author and restaurateur who has lived in Bali for nearly three decades. Her memoir Fragrant Rice charts her love affair with Balinese food, culture and traditions. Her latest book is Bali: Food of My Island Home.
Chuah Guat Eng, broke the silence of Malaysian women writing in English in 1994 with her first novel Echoes of Silence. She has since published Tales from the Baram River(2001), a collection of Sarawak Folk Tales retold for children; The old House and Other Stories(2008); a second novel Days of Change(2010) and Dream Stuff(2014), a new collection of short stories.
Andrew Lam is a writer and cofounder and editor of New American Media, an association of over 2000 ethnic media organisations in the America. Born in Vietnam and coming to the US when he was 11 years old Lam has a Master in Fine Arts from San Francisco State University in creative writing, and a BA degree in biochemistry from UC Berkeley.
Chef Marco Lim was born in West Sumatra, where he became an expert at the history and creation of Padang cuisine. He is owner and chef of Marco Padang Grill.
Can Xue was born in Changsa City in Hunan Province, Southern China. In 1957 her father, an editorial director of the New Hunan Daily was condemned as an Ultrarightist and sent to reform through labour, and her mother, who worked at the same newspaper, was sent to the countryside for labour too. Can Xue lost her chance for further education and only graduated from a local elementary school. Can Xue has published numerous short stories and five novels which have all been translated into English.
Khrishna Udayasankar is the author of The Aryavatar Chronicles
a best selling series of mytho-historical novels that have received critical acclaim, and Objects of Affecton a series of prose-poems that form the story of a relationship seen through the eyes of everyday inanimate objects.
Ian Burnet has spent 30 years living, working and travelling in Indonesia. Fascinated by the diverse cultures and history of the archipelago, he believed the story of the tiny islands of Ternate and Tidore and their effect on world history needed to be told. His book Spice Islands tells the history, romance and adventure of the spice trade over 2000 years. It has received critical acclaim and has been described as “a wonderful book – a triumph of passion and scholarship”.
The Ubud Writers and Readers Festival is one of the great events on the planet because it incorporates books, ideas, music, dance, food and film all in the village atmosphere of Ubud in Bali. For the full program go to http://www.ubudwritersfestival.com/2014-program/