The forgotten Indonesian island that was swapped for Manhattan

Today, July 31, 2017, is the 350 year anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Breda which ended the second Anglo-Dutch war. Included in the Treaty was an agreement to exchange the Dutch claim to the island of Manhattan for the English claim to the island of Run which is now part of Indonesia.

The following is an article by Jewel Topsfield, the Indonesia correspondent for Fairfax Media, published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age.

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can’t say
People just liked it better that way

Istanbul (Not Constantinople), 1953


Run, a tiny island in Indonesia, is about three kilometres long and one kilometre wide. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

Not many will have heard of the object of their feud – Run – a coconut-fringed island about three kilometres long and one kilometre wide. But everyone knows the island for which Run was eventually swapped.

On July 31, 1667 the Dutch and the English signed the Treaty of Breda. As part of the agreement, the swampy island of Manhattan in New Amsterdam – which the Dutch had “bought” from the Native Americans – was exchanged for the island of Run.


The island was famed for its nutmeg which is still farmed by locals. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

Ian Burnet, the author of East Indies, describes it as “the real estate deal of the millennium”.

At the time the Dutch were adamant they were the victors. “Few would have believed a small trading village on the island of Manhattan was destined to become the modern metropolis of New York,” writes Burnet.

Historian John Keay believes Run is to British imperial history what Runnymede, where King John signed the Magna Carta, is to British constitutional history.


Today Run has a population of about 2050 and is desperate for infrastructure.        Photo: Jefri Tarigan

“Every overseas empire had to begin somewhere,” he wrote in The Honourable Company. “There might, for instance, be a case for locating the genesis of the British Empire in the West Indies, Virginia or New England. But there is a less obvious and much stronger candidate. The seed from which grew the most extensive empire the world has ever seen was sown on Pulo [island] Run in the Banda Islands at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago.”


A farmer harvests nutmeg on the tiny island of Run. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

In 2017, Run is almost as inaccessible and isolated as it was 350 years ago. The trip is still epic. Theoretically a Cessna Grand Caravan flies twice a week from Ambon to Banda Neira, an island near Run. But a plane part is missing that has to be sourced from Jakarta, or Papua, or the United States.

When Fairfax Media photographer Jefri Tarigan finally catches the ferry, an expected 12-hour voyage blows out to 17 hours in the monsoonal swell. Run is another two-hour boat trip from Banda Neira.


Dried nutmeg in Run. Most islanders still farm nutmeg and cloves as well as fish for tuna. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

The fragrant reason for Run’s fame – the tropical tree Myristica fragrans – is still ubiquitous on the island. Its seed is the source of nutmeg; its aril, or seed covering, the source of mace.

The islanders sprinkle nutmeg in their coffee and make candied sweets, soup and a treacly jam from the fruit. They export the flower, used to make cosmetics for Europeans and to preserve corpses.

But the golden era, when nutmeg was worth more than gold, is long over. Up until the 19th century, the Banda (or Spice) Islands were the only place in the world that Myristica fragrans flourished. The coveted Run – one of the 11 small volcanic islands – must have seemed like heaven.


“What we need most is electricity and health practitioners”, Says Burhan Lohor. Photo: Jefri Tarigan

There is little the salt-and-pepper-haired civil servant Burhan Lohor doesn’t know about the history of Run, so named, he says, because the English ran here from Banda Neira to escape the Dutch.

“There was nothing in New Amsterdam, nothing to be proud about, it was an uninhabited island. Banda was famous among European nations.”

The first Britons to visit Run, in 1603, would “willingly have sailed around the world several times” for nutmeg, writes Keay in The Honourable Company.

It could be bought for a pittance in the Banda Islands but when sold in Europe its value went up about 32,000 per cent.

English East India Company officer Nathaniel Courthope took possession of the island in 1616 when the islanders signed a contract accepting King James I of England as their sovereign.

“Not without pride would James I come to be styled ‘King of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Puloway (Pulo Ai) and Puloroon (Pulo Run). The last named, thought one of its visitors, could be as valuable to His Majesty as Scotland,” writes Keay.

map showing Run island

The Breda Treaty ended the Second Anglo-Dutch war. The British relinquishment of Run gave the Dutch control over the Banda Islands and a global spice monopoly.

“It is important to know this event in history because it demonstrates how colonialism was carried out by Western nations in the New World,” says Indonesian historian Bonnie Triyana. “England, the Netherlands, the Portuguese and Spain were in competition to find new colonies driven by their desire for wealth. They arbitrarily treated what they found as mere commodities. These processes in history shape our situation today.”

Over the next 70-odd years the Dutch East India Company would become the most powerful trading company the world had ever seen.

But East Indies author Burnet says over time the prices fetched for spices – once the ultimate prestige item in Europe – began to decline. “The advent of tobacco, tea, coffee and other stimulants reduced the social status of spices,” he says.

When the British recaptured the Banda Islands during the Napoleonic wars they transplanted nutmeg seedlings to places such as Bengkulu in Sumatra and Penang. The price of nutmeg in Run plummeted and the Banda Islands ceased to be of much value to the Dutch.

And as for Manhattan? Well the rest, as they say, is history.

Today Run has a population of about 2050. Most islanders still farm nutmeg and cloves as well as fish for tuna. After the colonial era nutmeg farms were owned by the government. In 1982 the locals took over a state-owned enterprise called Praja Karya and distributed nutmeg trees equally among all the families on the island.

But the island is desperate for infrastructure: “What we need the most is electricity and health practitioners,” Burhan says.

Run has one medical clinic with no doctor and insufficient medicine: “People complain that every time they are sick and go to the clinic they are always given three pills – the yellow one, the blue one and the white one.”

A doctor is an often treacherous 2½-hour boat trip away in Banda Neira – too far for an emergency caesarean or heart attack.

Burhan says islanders turn to traditional medicine, using leaves, roots from their garden and herbs. Toothache is treated with the sap from a tree known locally as Akar Olaola. “God willing, the pain will be gone.”

Electricity is only available between 6pm and 11.30pm, none of it provided by the government. Three years ago a Run native – now a successful Jakartan businessman – provided a diesel generator to supply the homes for five hours every night.

“After that you sleep in the dark all night long on Run Island,” Burhan says. “So if you come from Manhattan to Run you’ll see a huge difference.”

Some tourists do come to Run despite the isolation – mostly westerners and journalists. One famous visitor was Indonesian artistic director Jay Subyakto, who was making the documentary Banda, The Dark Forgotten Trail, which is partially filmed on Run.

“It is very ironic. Run Island does not exist on the map,” Subyakto says. “People hardly know where it is and Run Island is now neglected.”

When Subyakto tells people about the first genocide in Banda Neira their eyes glaze over. But they boggle when he tells them Run was swapped for Manhattan.

“Why do we always marvel about anything to do with the West? In the context of Run Island, they should be ashamed they don’t know history.”

Subyakto says Indonesia has been blessed with natural resources such as nutmeg, cloves, oil, gold, coal and palm oil that is sought after by other countries. “But in the end we were colonised or cheated by trade contracts and politics. Until today, our people never enjoy the blessings of our rich natural resources. I think we never learn from history and therefore we made Banda, The Dark Forgotten Trail.

The documentary will premiere on July 31, to coincide with the 350th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Breda.

But the Run islanders who appear in the film won’t be able to watch it on the island. There is no movie theatre in Run nor is there Wi-Fi. “Even our phone connection is bad, let alone internet connection,” Burhan says.

“Honestly, there is a feeling of pride that our island was chosen to be exchanged with another place. However, there is also regret that years after the exchange took place there is a huge difference between Run and New Amsterdam today. It’s like heaven and earth … but now the situation is in reverse”.

A new paperback edition of East Indies by Ian Burnet is now available from your favorite bookstore or online retailer for A$29.95.





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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4 Responses to The forgotten Indonesian island that was swapped for Manhattan

  1. Carol Graham says:

    Dear Ian,
    Yesterday’s post is fascinating. I surely do not know my history of east Asia. Thank you. So, a very important anniversary.
    A more minor one, but personally as significant: Today, 1 August 2017, is the 75th anniversary of the date Mathis (age 16) took the train from Paris to the south of France, which after a number of escapades eventually saved his life. Paid vacation had just been introduced in France, and the trains were mobbed, No one paid a fare. Today also he has been dead 13 months.
    Please continue your very interesting work!
    Best wishes, Carol

  2. ianburnet says:

    I consider myself lucky to have met yourself and Mathis and to have been able to hear and share his story. What a remarkable man and what a remarkable life!
    Regards, Ian

  3. Hi Ian, How do we get to see the full documentary: Banda, The Dark Forgotten Trail? Would you have a copy we can watch on Ombak Putih? Regards Anne

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