Indonesia’s Spice Islands by Schooner

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.

The ships purser serves breakfast

The ships purser serves breakfast

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.

The Ombak Putih

The Ombak Putih

“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.

The island of Run

The island of Run

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.”

The market in Banda Neira

The market in Banda Neira

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.

The Bajau Laut people live off what they can harvest from the sea

The Bajau Laut people live off what they can harvest from the sea

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.

A beauty aid of rice and tumeric

A beauty aid of rice and tumeric

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.

Wayatimu Island

Wayatimu Island

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.

Approaching Tidore Island

Approaching Tidore Island

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.

Ternate at dusk

Ternate at dusk

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.

About ianburnet

Author of the book, Spice Islands. Which tells the History, Romance and Adventure of the spice trade from the Moluccas in Eastern Indonesia over a period of 2000 years. Author of the book, East Indies.Which tells the history of the struggle between the Portuguese Crown, the Dutch East India Company and the English East India Company for supremacy in the Eastern Seas. Author of the book 'Archipelago - A Journey Across Indonesia'. Author of the book 'Where Australia Collides with Asia' Author of the book 'The Tasman Map'. Author of the book 'Eastern Voyages'.
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2 Responses to Indonesia’s Spice Islands by Schooner

  1. Dick Slaney says:

    i’ve read Ian’s book and Nathaniels Nutmeg both but this article reminds me so much of why i must go and see these places for myself, while they remain “hidden” from the world and before they turn into “Bali”

  2. Sia Arnason says:

    Reading this article makes me want to go back again to the islands I visited once as if it was a dream. Our 2012 voyage was such a dream come true – I hope that it is possible to bring another dream alive soon. The Moluccas are the key to so much history and beauty. Thanks Ian for sending this article.

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