This is a story that never ceases to fascinate. Whenever I give a ‘Spice Islands’ book talk, I am always asked “Is it true that the island of Run was exchanged for Manhattan?”
Manhattan is often referred to as the ‘capital of the world’, this densely populated island on the Hudson River is home to the United Nations where the world’s political leaders decide the fate of nations and Wall Street is undoubtedly the financial capital of the world.
However, before Manhattan there was New Amsterdam.
And before New Amsterdam, there was the island of Run.
The island of Run?
The island of Run, only 3 km long and 1 km wide, is a speck on the map of Eastern Indonesia. It is part of the six Banda islands which surround a central volcano in the middle of the Banda Sea. To reach these tiny islands we sailed overnight from Ambon on the Ombak Putih, a traditional Indonesian sailing schooner owned and operated by Sea Trek Sailing Adventures.
The outline of Run appeared in the first pink light of dawn. Its limestone cliffs rise directly out of the sea and as we are looking for a place to anchor I can see the green foliage of the nutmeg and kenari trees that cover the island. It is still a mystery to me but for some reason the nutmeg tree originally only grew on these remote islands in the middle of the vast Banda Sea. The mere existence of this magical tree on these isolated islands still seems incredibly unlikely, nutmegs when they reached Europe were said to be worth their weight in gold and the Portuguese, Dutch and English fought over access to this valuable commodity.
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) captured the the fort on the main Banda island from the Portuguese in 1605, which meant that when the English East India Company ships arrived, they could only trade for nutmegs on the outer islands of Run and Ai.
We anchor opposite the main village on Run in probably the same place where Nathaniel Courthope anchored the English East India Company vessels Swan and Defense in 1616 to claim the island for King James I of England. This was the very first English colony and King James was able to declare himself, ‘King of England, Scotland and Puloo Run’.
The thin, wizened headman receives us and arranges for a guide to take our group around the island. I ask him “Do you know that your island was exchanged for Manhattan”, he says yes and then asks for the historical details.
Walking along the village street that follows the shoreline we see fishermen repairing their nets, the food staples of fish, coconut and cassava drying in the sun, as well as nutmegs which are still the main export from the island. I even find the neat and freshly painted Manhattan Guest House (only US dollars accepted?).
On the other side of the world the Dutch started construction on Fort Amsterdam in 1625 after Dutch colonist had acquired rights to the island in exchange for sixty guilders of trade goods. It was after the Treaty of Breda in 1667 that the Dutch claim to the island of Manhattan was exchanged for the English claim to the nutmeg island of Run.
This was not just the real estate deal of the century but probably of the millenium. Who would have believed that Manhattan would become the ‘capital of the world’ and the valuable nutmeg island of Run would sink into obscurity?
Ian Burnet and Sea Trek Sailing Adventures sail to the Banda islands in October this year and details are available at http://www.seatrekbali.com