Soldiers and Spice: Indonesia

Why the Dutch traded Manhattan for a speck of rock in the South Pacific in 1667

From The New Yorker
August 13, 2001


In 1502, a Bolognese traveller named Ludovico di Varthema left Venice for the East, returning six years later. The book that he wrote about his travels, published in Rome in 1510, and translated into several languages, attracted considerable attention in Europe, both among readers interested in God--Varthema was the first European to visit the holy places of Islam--and among those interested in mammon. Varthema was also the first Westerner to describe nutmeg trees, which he saw growing in the Bandas, a tiny archipelago of nine islands about a thousand miles east of Java. The Bandas were just one small part of the region that used to be called the Spice Islands (and are now called the Moluccas), but they were the only islands in the world on which round nutmeg grew.

The crucial role that nutmeg played in early colonial history is hard to reconcile with the dusty tin of spice most Americans take out of the rack at the end of the year to garnish their eggnog, but at one time nutmeg was the most valuable commodity in the world, after silver and gold. In addition to preserving and flavoring food, nutmeg was believed to be a soporific, an emetic, a prophylactic against plague, and a hallucinogen. The great naval powers of Europe--the Portuguese, Dutch, English, and Spanish--all competed for control of the trade in nutmeg and mace (the vermillion-colored membrane that encases the nut), as well as in pepper, cinnamon, and cloves; the profits from these spices could be used to finance an Eastern empire. In the early seventeenth century, ten pounds of nutmeg cost less than an English penny in the Banda Islands, and sold for £2.10 in Europe, a markup of sixty thousand per cent. A house that smelled of nutmeg smelled like money. (Connecticut, in an early example of putting its best foot forward, called itself the Nutmeg State, although no nutmegs have ever grown within two thousand miles of there.)

During the Middle Ages, Chinese, Arab, and Malay traders brought nutmeg from the Far East to the Persian Gulf, where camels packed it through Arabia to the Levant, and ships carried it across the Mediterranean Sea to Venice. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, in 1453, the overland spice road closed, and European navigators began searching for a sea route to the Spice Islands. When Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Indian Ocean, in 1498, he was looking for the "spiceries." Christopher Columbus sailed in the other direction, with similar hopes, but found the New World in his way.

Varthema's account of the "open roses" he had seen in the Banda Islands was published in time to be read by Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese admiral who staked the first European claim in the area by seizing the principal trading port, Malacca, from the local sultan, Mahmud, in 1511. Afonso quickly dispatched a crew of explorers in the direction in which he believed the Bandas lay. When the sailors were within ten miles of the islands, they claimed they could smell nutmeg on the wind. Upon arriving, the crew loaded the ships' holds with nutmeg and mace--the golden fruit--carried the cargo back to Seville, and sold it for a fortune.


Everyone knows the story of the Dutchman Peter Minuit, who, in 1626, supposedly bought Manhattan from its Native American inhabitants for twenty-four dollars' worth of beads and trinkets--the first of the great New York swindles. The Treaty of Breda, in 1667, under which Holland traded New Amsterdam, as the Dutch called Manhattan, to the English for Pulau Run, one of the Bandas, is less familiar. I learned about the exchange from my tenth-grade history teacher, who turned European diplomacy into a classroom game: whoever finagled the trade of Manhattan for that tiny hunk of nutmeg-covered coral rock won first prize. I was reminded of Run recently by "Nathaniel's Nutmeg," a book by Giles Milton, which vividly narrates the entanglements between the Dutch and the British that led up to the treaty. My wife's brother is a political officer with the United States Embassy in Jakarta, and we had been talking about visiting Indonesia someday. This spring, four hundred and ninety-nine years after Varthema's departure, I went to smell the nutmeg for myself.

We arrived in Jakarta in late April, just ahead of twenty thousand Muslims, who were coming to the capital to show their allegiance to the country's embattled President, Abdurrahman Wahid. A reformer who had become President only nineteen months earlier, Wahid was in the process of being impeached for incompetence by the country's national assembly; he had turned out to be a much better critic of the establishment than a leader of it. The Jakarta Post carried pictures of demonstrations in East Java, Wahid's stronghold, where the most fanatic of his supporters, the "suicide squads," were reported to be in training. One photograph showed a man being stabbed, another shot--both, apparently, no worse for the experience, thanks to their "magical powers." It was the beginning of the endgame for Wahid, a three-month drama that concluded two weeks ago, with Wahid's dismissal and the elevation of the Vice-President, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to the Presidency of the republic.

Pulau Run is too small to appear in any of the world atlases I had consulted back in New York, but, according to a guidebook, the National Museum in Jakarta owned several large relief maps of Indonesia, and I thought they might give me a better idea of where I wanted to go. The three-mile car trip to the museum lasted more than an hour. The traffic was terrible, and the heat and the air pollution make walking impossible. Much of the old colonial city has been torn down; what we could see from the car was mostly the aftermath of colonialism, slums right next to ostentatious malls and skyscrapers built with money borrowed primarily from the West (money that is now contributing to Indonesia's huge debt, which is roughly equal to its gross national product). Near the museum, we discovered the reason for the delay: yet another "demo," as the Indonesians say. This one called on the central government to allow Aceh, a region in Sumatra where fierce separatist fighting has occurred, to secede from the union.

The maps were indeed impressive, and they illustrated the challenge of holding together a nation of such fragmented geography. Indonesia stretches from the northern tip of Sumatra to the eastern edge of Irian Jaya, some three thousand miles, about the distance from London to Baghdad. Seventy per cent of the nation is water. There are several very big islands (Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, and parts of Irian Jaya and Kalimantan), a half dozen or so medium-sized ones (including Bali, Lombok, Timor, and Flores), and more than thirteen thousand small islands, half of which are uninhabited. Many of the larger islands have their own cultural, and sometimes ethnic, identity: Java is heavily Muslim, Bali is Hindu, Flores is Christian. Two hundred and ten million people live in Indonesia, making it the fourth most populous nation in the world. The only modern nation with a comparable multitude of people, cultures, languages, religions, and ethnicities was the Soviet Union, and the U.S.S.R. achieved unity through invasion and occupation, and sustained it for only seventy years.

I found the Banda Islands, a few tiny specks in the midst of the South Pacific Ocean, but I couldn't distinguish Pulau Run, and I asked the Indonesian woman who was leading our small group whether she had heard of it.

"It's the island that the English traded to the Dutch for Manhattan," I said.

"Yes, I have heard that story," she replied, "but I don't believe it."

"But it's a fact," I protested. "It's history."

"But who were the Dutch and the English to trade islands that didn't belong to them in the first place?"


True, but if justice alone were the standard by which Indonesian history was told, large chunks of the past five hundred years would have to be erased. The Portuguese were the first European power in Indonesia, occupying the islands from 1511 until the beginning of the seventeenth century, when the Dutch took over. Early in the seventeenth century, the English managed to claim and hold two of the Banda Islands, Ai and Run, two of the earliest colonies in what would one day be the British Empire. (King James I's full title was King of England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Puloway, and Puloroon.) But, with the Treaty of Breda, the English left their holdings in the Bandas to the Dutch, and concentrated their regional interests in the Malay Peninsula. Except for two brief periods of British occupation at the turn of the nineteenth century, the Dutch controlled most of the islands that now make up Indonesia until 1945.

The British claimed territories, and administered them like miniature versions of the mother country. The Dutch claimed commodities--chiefly spices but also coffee, tea, and teak--and governed in a way that would maximize profits. The Dutch East India Company (known as the V.O.C.) was the ruling authority, and its typical approach was to monopolize trade, fix prices, and enslave or remove the local population. In the Bandas, a ruthless Dutch governor-general named Jan Pieterszoon Coen killed forty-four of the orang kayas, or traditional chiefs, in 1621, transported many of the native Bandanese off the islands, and brought in perkeniers, or planters, to run the nutmeg plantations.

The Dutch resisted Indonesian independence when it was declared, in 1945, and fought until 1949 to get their colonies back. When Holland finally accepted the inevitability of an independent Indonesia, it proposed that the new nation adopt a federal system--a United States of Indonesia--in which different regions of the country would have sovereignty, delegating certain powers to the federal government. But Sukarno, who became the first President of the independent nation, abandoned federalism, in part because he didn't trust the Dutch--to many Indonesians, federalism is merely the old Dutch policy of divide and rule--and in part because he believed that such a physically decentralized country required a highly centralized government to unify it. He divided the nation into provinces, each with its own governor, but the provinces were limited in their ability to make laws and levy taxes, and they couldn't police themselves. Even mineral-rich provinces on the perimeter of the nation, such as Irian Jaya or Aceh, were required to send all their revenues to the central government in Jakarta, which then decided how much to give back. (In 2000, new laws went into effect that allowed resource-rich provinces to keep a percentage of their production.) This system of government may have been necessary to unite the new nation, but it also created one of the biggest political problems in the country today, which is the provinces' desire for greater autonomy. B. J. Habibie, who preceded Wahid, set in motion legislation designed to shift power out of Jakarta and into the provinces, and Wahid continued those policies. Now Megawati, Sukarno's fifty-four-year-old daughter, may try to slow that decentralization process, and move Indonesia closer to the centralized state that her father had in mind.

Sukarno, a famous womanizer, married numerous times (some scholars say he had as many as nine wives); he left Megawati's mother, Fatmawati, when Mega was young. He was a charismatic leader who presented himself as the quintessential Indonesian, the man in whom all the inconsistencies and contradictions of the country were blended. His greatest achievement was to make the Sumatrans and Javanese and Timorese and Balinese proud to call themselves Indonesians. He created a national ideology (Pancasila) founded on five common principles that the people of all the islands are supposed to share: faith in God, civility, unity, representative government, and social justice. He also helped to promote the national language, Bahasa Indonesia.

In 1966, Sukarno was replaced by Suharto, the Army general who became Indonesia's second President. Suharto ruled not by personality but by military force, using a powerful and privileged Army to hold the country together, a vast and deeply corrupt system of patronage to buy the support of the Èlite, and a booming economy to help salve the consequent loss of regional autonomy and personal liberty. The boom ended in the Asian Crisis of 1997--the bursting of the "emerging Asian markets" bubble, which was a favorite source of foreign investment in the nineties. In May 1998, the Army opened fire on a group of demonstrators, killing six students, and in the widespread rioting that followed Suharto resigned. (The former President is currently being prosecuted for corruption but is too feeble to stand trial; his notorious son, Tommy Suharto, is on the lam somewhere in Indonesia, having been sentenced to prison for eighteen months on corruption charges. Two weeks ago, the judge who sentenced Tommy was assassinated.)


After a brief interregnum under Habibie, a gifted technocrat with little talent for politics, Wahid, who had been a revered cleric (the "Muslim Pope," as one journalist called him), became President in 1999, promising to reform the country's political and economic institutions and bring the leaders of the Suharto regime to justice. But all the separatist movements and ethnic conflicts that had been suppressed by force under Suharto began to rise to the surface. Aceh, Irian Jaya, and Central Kalimantan have seen the worst fighting; in Kalimantan, the indigenous Dayak people have been killing immigrants from the overcrowded island of Madura (and resuming the traditional Dayak practice of taking their enemies' heads). This instability weakened the currency and the Indonesian stock market, and contributed to the ouster of Wahid. Most Indonesians don't want to return to the military rule of Suharto, but they do want a leader who can unite them, as Sukarno did and the erratic Wahid did not. They see that potential in their new President. Megawati has so far demonstrated few, if any, of her father's leadership qualities (indeed, her political strategy, which is to let everyone else do the talking, and then act, is more like that of her father's usurper, Suharto), but by remaining so aloof she has allowed people to invest her with whatever qualities they want to believe she possesses. Her father proved, in the end, to be a better nationalist than a democrat; whether Mega inherited his megalomania remains to be seen.


In our second week in Jakarta, we went to a dinner party given by Tamalia Alisjahbana, whose father was a celebrated Indonesian writer. Tamalia keeps a salon in the capital, where members of the political, social, and intellectual Èlite meet. Spice was the theme for this evening--the dinner table was strewn with nutmeg, cloves, and mace--and Tamalia had invited, as the guest of honor, a man who, she said, could get me to Pulau Run, if anyone could: the current orang kaya of the Banda Islands, Des Alwi.

Dinner parties in Jakarta run on jam karet, or "rubber time," a schedule that expands to include the accidental nature of everyday life in this city of eleven million. We arrived half an hour late--early by Indonesian standards--because we thought some of the other bule (white faces) might not be on rubber time. Already there were three Portuguese academics who had been visiting East Timor, a former colony of Portugal; another Portuguese expat, from the embassy in Jakarta; and a German Jesuit priest, the author of a guidebook to Jakarta.

We were sipping the nutmeg-flavored cordials that Tamalia had provided--the taste was like Coca-Cola without the fizz--when Des Alwi, a heavyset older man with gray hair, caramel-colored skin, and a rolling walk came in with his daughter Tanya, "the original spice girl," as she introduced herself. Des promptly installed himself in a low chair, watching with a sleepy, shrewd expression as the rest of us conversed. He was wearing a navy-blue military-style jacket, with breast pockets and epaulettes, and matching pants. In the Bandas, Des lives like an English country baronet, except that the fish are his hounds and the coral is his hunt, and when he returns from his forays into his watery estate one of his men kneels at his feet and strips off the master's aqua socks rather than his riding boots. In Jakarta, where Des spends much of his time, he is a businessman, wheeling and dealing in the marble hotel lobbies downtown.

There are seven orang kayas in the Bandas, each with separate authority on his respective island; Des is the overall leader. He inherited his position from his mother's father. (In the Bandas, the chain of succession passes through the females of one generation to the males of the next, a system begun in the seventeenth century after the Dutch governors started killing the sons of the orang kayas.) Like all Bandanese, Des is a mixture of other ethnicities, in his case Javanese, Sumatran, Moroccan, and Chinese. His mother's father, Said Baadilla, was known as the Pearl King of the Aru Sea (he once gave a pearl "as big as a pigeon's egg," Tamalia told me, to Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands) and was married to a Javanese princess. Baadilla had a fleet of forty pearl schooners, one of which was captained by the man who became Des's father. His father's father, Prince Umar of Palembang, a Sumatran, became the head of the powerful Sultan of Ternate's cavalry in the Spice Islands. In the nineteen-thirties, mother-of-pearl was replaced by Bakelite as the preferred material in high-quality buttons, and this invention, combined with the worldwide Depression, helped drive Des's maternal grandfather into bankruptcy.

Des's own life is intertwined with many of the major events in the creation of Indonesia, and is almost as unlikely. When he was eight, in 1936, he was swimming off the pier in the harbor at Banda Neira, the most heavily populated of the Banda Islands, when a Dutch ship pulled up to the dock and two Indonesians in tropical white suits were escorted off. The Indonesians asked the Dutch captain if he would help with their luggage, but he answered, "Let the Reds carry their own bags." Des clambered out of the water, and one of the men asked him if he knew where to find Dr. Tjipto Mangunkusumo, a political exile who had been confined to the Bandas. Des said he believed the man lived on the other side of Neira, but he added that there was another exile living close by, and he took the men there.

Later, when the newcomers were settled in a house in town, they saw Des passing by on his way to school, and called him in to thank him. Only then did he learn that they were Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, two of the three founding fathers of the soon-to-be-independent state. (The third, Sukarno, had been exiled to another remote island.) The Dutch had sent them to the Bandas, by this time an isolated backwater; but, as it turned out, the cradle of Dutch colonial power was to be the cradle of Indonesian nationalism. Des became a kind of adopted son to Sjahrir, who taught him Dutch and English. While Des played, Hatta and Sjahrir developed some of the core principles of Indonesian independence.

In 1942, the Japanese seized Indonesia from the Dutch. Sjahrir and Hatta went to Jakarta. Many Indonesians initially welcomed the Japanese, believing that Japan would be more open to Indonesian independence than Holland had been. Des, now fourteen, took a boat to Ambon--the capital of the Moluccas--and eventually got to Jakarta, where he joined Hatta and Sjahrir in their underground efforts to promote independence. In 1945, he was wounded in the leg by a mortar while fighting in Surabaya, a city in East Java. Shortly afterward, Sjahrir arranged for Des to attend school in London, where he received a degree in radio communications; one of his classmates was Tunku Abdul Rahman, who later became the first prime minister of Malaysia. When Des returned, he became a diplomat for the newly formed Republic of Indonesia, serving as a chargÈ d'affaires in Switzerland, Germany, the Philippines, and Malaysia, and acting as Sukarno's diplomatic protocol officer during his European tour of 1954-55.

In the late nineteen-fifties, Sukarno dissolved the national assembly and introduced Guided Democracy, a system of government that he once explained by saying, "O.K., now, my dear brothers, it is like this, and I hope you agree." Around the same time, Des, who was now married, with young children, joined a number of other Indonesians in the Permesta Rebellion, which was, in part, an attempt to force Sukarno to distance himself from the P.K.I., Indonesia's Communist Party. The rebellion failed, and Des left Indonesia for Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia, where he remained with his family. In the mid-sixties, Sukarno provoked a disastrous confrontation with Malaysia, and Des was called back to Indonesia to help mediate between the two countries. In the years that followed, he used his political connections to secure the Volvo dealership in Jakarta, and became adept in the ways of what Indonesians call "KKN"--corruption, collusion, and nepotism, which was how business was done during the Suharto era, and, for the most part, still is.

In 1971, he wrote and produced a film, starring his handicapped son, called "The Grandson," a mixture of his own life and Nicholas Nickleby's--a poor orphan boy is beset by hardships until he is discovered to have a rich grandmother living in Banda. The film was a box-office smash, and Des used the money to convert his grandfather's former pearl-fishery warehouse in Banda into a hotel, and began to promote the Banda Islands as a tourist destination, with considerable success. He also established a factory in Malaysia to assemble transistor radios. In the early eighties, Des impressed Suharto with his agricultural ability by introducing a cocoa plant from Malaysia, which dramatically increased Indonesian cocoa production. This success led to Suharto's interest in nutmeg, and in 1995 Des obtained a promise from the Indonesian government to invest two million dollars to revive nutmeg production in the Bandas. He had been cultivating nutmeg since 1997, and had come to Tamalia's party to talk about his progress.


Dinner was served. Des was quiet at first, except to comment favorably on the tamarind-seed flavoring in the tuna--a Banda touch. His English is good, but he is partial to idioms, and needs to pause to remember them. ("Tamalia, the tuna is--how do you call it?--finger-lickin' good.") But when he had finished his sagu pudding, a tapioca-like dessert made from palm fibre, he picked up one of the nutmegs from the table, held it up for all to see, and shook it. The nutmeg could be heard rattling around inside the polished outer casing.

"Did you know," Des began, "that nutmeg was the first global commodity? Long before sneakers, there was nutmeg. Even today, it is hard to find a flavoring so widely spread throughout the world. The Chinese use nutmeg as a preservative in sausage. The Japanese put it in fish curry. In India, it is in the Mogul dishes. Germans enjoy it in wurst and on sauerkraut. The Dutch sprinkle it on fish and mashed potatoes and put it inside--what do you call them?--croquettes. And, of course, nutmeg is the secret ingredient in Coke."

Was it true that the world's first global commodity was an agent in Coke, a symbol of twenty-first-century globalism? Coca-Cola will neither confirm nor deny this. But, according to Des, Coke is the biggest consumer of nutmeg in the world.

"The proportion of nutmeg to the other ingredients is eight-tenths of one per cent," Des declared. "The company has written me two letters, asking for Banda nutmegs." He rattled the nut again. "So you see, it's like this: the world might be able to go on without nutmeg, but it isn't the same world with it."

He went on to say that only a fraction of the world's nutmeg still came from the Bandas, and that the spice was in danger of disappearing from the islands altogether. "And this is our heritage. Six thousand of the Bandanese died because of this nutmeg." Several of the Westerners glanced down at the table. "So this is what I have decided to do with my life, what remains of it--to save Banda's nutmeg."

After dinner, we returned to the living room to watch some video footage Des had shot of his nutmeg plantation in Banda. He made a peculiar calling sound--Oooo, Oooo--the sound, I later learned, nutmeg workers use to call each other in the jungle (it penetrates the heavy foliage), and several of his men hustled in from outside and set up the VCR. (Fiddling with VCRs is beneath the dignity of an orang kaya. ) After about half an hour, someone could be heard snoring in the dark; the Jesuit historian had fallen asleep.

Tamalia said, "Why don't we fast-forward a bit, Des?" No response. "Too much nutmeg, Des." Des took umbrage at this remark. "Tamalia," he said indignantly, "you can never have too much nutmeg."


Des promised to take me with him the next time he went to the Banda Islands, toward the end of May. In the weeks that followed, this plan became more elaborate, as a Dutch delegation joined the expedition, led by Holland's ambassador to Indonesia, Baron Schelto van Heemstra, a stocky, fair-haired man in his fifties. Last year, Holland helped Indonesia in its efforts to nominate Banda as a World Heritage site, which would allow it to receive money provided by a UNESCO-sponsored program. Des hopes that Banda's application will be approved in 2002.

On the flight to Ambon, where we would spend the night before leaving for the Bandas, Des was in very good humor. He talked of holding a ceremony on Pulau Run to cancel the old trade for New Amsterdam.

"Then I will become King of Manhattan. John, what do you think, it's a good idea, no? I am eying the United Nations building." He said he had sent a telegram to Mayor Giuliani, proposing Pulau Run as Manhattan's sister island, but so far he had received no reply.

Ambon is a port city in the middle of the Moluccas, and was the center of the spice trade for centuries. For the past two and a half years, the city has been the site of intermittent fighting between Christians and Muslims. Facts in Indonesia tend to be debatable, whether they are facts about history or facts about what happened last night. As best as can be determined, part of the trouble in Ambon started when Bugi migrants from Sulawesi arrived in Ambon looking for work. Tensions rose between the Christians in Ambon and the Buginese, who are predominantly Muslim, and the spark came in January of 1999, when a Bugi migrant apparently demanded money at knifepoint from a Christian minibus driver. A quarrel ensued, machetes were produced, and within two months more than a hundred and fifty people were dead, and thousands had been left homeless. Many churches and mosques were burned. Last year, much of Pattimura University, which had one of the leading marine-science research centers in the world, was destroyed. Laskar Jihad, Indonesia's homegrown fundamentalist Islamic movement, has been using the events in Ambon to recruit followers, sending them out to the Moluccas to fight the Christians.

Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, but it is not a Muslim state. Indonesians have always prided themselves on religious tolerance--Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity have all flourished in the islands over the centuries, and each religion has been more or less peacefully absorbed into the pantheist and mystical practices that remain popular in the villages, especially on Java. But without censorship and military rule to sustain the myth of the big, happy Indonesian family, fault lines are beginning to appear throughout the society. To those who are pessimistic about Indonesia's future, the religious conflict in Ambon offers a taste of what the whole nation could be like one day. Thirty-two years of Suharto's authoritarian rule, which included the massacre of an estimated half-million alleged Communists in 1965-66--an act of twentieth-century mass murder that is still rarely discussed in public--created a reservoir of grievances that Indonesians have only just begun to express.

Ambon had been relatively quiet in the month prior to my visit, and I thought the Ambassador's presence would provide extra security. As it turned out, I was wrong.


That night, the Ambassador had organized a kind of plenary session in a hotel called Amans, in Mardika, a border area in Ambon between Muslim and Christian neighborhoods. The Dutch were driven from their hotel in a big tour bus, with an Army escort. The guests, many of whom had been in the Balkans in the mid-nineties, consisted of about thirty relief workers from different aid groups now serving in Ambon. (Des, who was staying in a hotel in a Muslim part of Ambon, did not attend.) The Ambassador, a man of very deliberate movements--he speaks slowly, gestures slowly, and even blinks slowly, in a way that conveys gravitas--began the evening by welcoming everyone to the dinner, saying that he had come to Ambon to learn and to help. During dinner, he and his staff went from table to table, asking the guests for their opinions on the causes of the violence, but no consensus was reached. Some people talked about the socio-economic disparities between Christians and Muslims; others spoke about the Army, which is seen to have a vested interest in provoking and prolonging the unrest, because this proves that the provinces can't manage without it.

At around nine-thirty, the Ambassador stood up and said that we should leave in order to beat the ten-o'clock curfew. As we were walking to the bus, a bomb went off a few streets away, the soldiers took cover, and gunfire erupted. Then the lights went out, both in the hotel and on the street. We retreated to the covered parking lot behind the hotel, where some racily clad women from the hotel's karaoke bar joined us. After about ten minutes, the lights came on again. More bombs exploded. Many of these bombs are made by children, and most of the casualties are the bomb-makers themselves.

Finally, it began to rain hard and the explosions stopped. We climbed aboard the bus with about half a dozen soldiers and drove the short distance back to the hotel. Intermittent explosions and gunfire continued until dawn.

The following morning, the Ambonese went about their business as though nothing had happened. People headed toward the market with umbrellas; boys were selling a daily newspaper with headlines that read "tragedi maluku"--the Moluccan Tragedy; armed soldiers squatted under the palm trees, smoking clove cigarettes; and rickshaw drivers cycled slowly past the hotel, looking in vain for fares.

Seven people were dead, all Christian. Everyone was killed during the period when the lights went out--black-clad assassins with standard Army-issue weapons had broken into homes close to the hotel we were dining in, killed the occupants, and set the houses on fire.

The Ambassador's party had intended to fly to the Bandas in a small military aircraft, but the Army general in charge of Ambon declared that the situation was too dangerous for planes to take off. The new plan was to proceed to the islands on board the Rinjani, one of two big German-built passenger boats that travel between Surabaya and Irian Jaya, stopping at islands in between. But how to get the Ambassador safely from his hotel in a Christian neighborhood to the Muslim-controlled pier where the big ships docked? At one point, the plan was to take a speedboat from the Christian part of the harbor and board the liner at sea, but this was scrapped because the speedboat drivers, who were Christians, couldn't pull up alongside a Muslim boat.

Around noon, a telephone call came from the assistant governor of Ambon, who said the Army could no longer guarantee the Ambassador's safety, and that he should return to Jakarta immediately. Soldiers were already beginning to take up defensive positions outside in the street, preparing for the reprisals that were expected that night.

The news that the Ambassador wouldn't be coming to Banda after all enraged Des. "It is all political!" he told me later. "The assistant governor is only jealous because the Dutch want to go to Banda, where the situation is so much better than Ambon!" But the Dutch were leaving, and the best Des could do was me.


"Where are you going?" Indonesians ask travellers they encounter, not "Where are you from?," as Americans ask. This is partly in the hope that you will employ their assistance in getting to wherever you are going, but it's also because people always seem to be going somewhere else in Indonesia. On the Rinjani were former refugees returning to Irian Jaya, and new refugees fleeing the violence in Ambon, taking everything with them--their sewing tables and their beds, sometimes with invalid parents atop them--crowded into the steerage berths or sleeping out on the open deck in the rain.

I went out onto the deck. The daylight was fading quickly, as it does in the Tropics, and land and sea were dissolving into a single shade of Conradian gray. I tried to picture the map I had seen in the museum and work out where we were, but the country's geography is hard to visualize. Land takes on the characteristics of a people--the building style, the names of roads, the advertising--but the sea is the same everywhere, and it is a fragile weld. In the absence of a national landscape, one must rely on the ideals of nationalism, which one encounters constantly in Indonesia's newspapers, in the discourse of its politicians, and in the conversations of ordinary people. But Indonesia's nationalism often seems to be at odds with its geography (as it was designed to be), and in the long run the sea may prove to be the more powerful force.

On the boat, I met a man named Alan, who owned a hotel somewhere near Des's hotel, on the main island of Banda Neira. He talked gloomily of the troubles in Ambon, and of how they had destroyed his business. "Now no one comes to my hotel anymore. We used to have people from all over who came for the diving, but now all the embassies post notices warning people not to come. And Banda is not bad! Banda is peaceful! I think if only the travel guides would come back and see, they would say Banda is O.K., but they don't come."

The Banda Islands form one district within the province of the Moluccas. Until January of this year, the provincial governments had the authority to appoint the bupati, or heads of the districts, but a recent change in the laws, giving districts the power to choose their own leaders (partly as a way of countering the fear that the newly empowered provinces will decide to secede from Indonesia, as East Timor did two years ago), has disrupted the old hierarchy, and the relationship between Ambon and the Bandas reflects that. Flights to the Banda Islands used to go through Ambon, which gave Ambon a share of the tourist dollars, but because of the unrest air service has been suspended. The Bandas are trying to get the routing changed, so that tourists can fly directly from other provinces. But Ambon hasn't relinquished its authority, even though that relationship has all but destroyed the islands' tourist economy.

Des plays no official role in these negotiations, but he is using his political connections to help the Bandas, and Alan said he admired Des's efforts. "Some people don't like Des," he told me, "because they think he is a--what is it?--a bully. But he always promotes Banda, and that's good for all of us."

I asked Alan what he thought should be done in Ambon, and he said the Army should take over, as it would have done under Suharto. "Under Suharto, no problems, yah? Under Wahid, many, many problems. I think for the poor people Suharto was better."

But what about all the rich friends of Suharto who pocketed money that was intended to help the poor?

"Yes, but the poor people, they don't care about the corruption, as long as they are safe and can do their work. Under Suharto, they were safe. Now they are not safe--and they are more poor, because they can't work."


The dock at Banda Neira was crowded with people who had come to greet the Ambassador. When they saw only me, looking less than ambassadorial in coffee-stained shorts, their faces fell.

A blue-suited security guard at the gate of the harbor barked out a ceremonial greeting to Des.

"What did he say?" I asked.

"He said, 'Welcome to your kingdom.' "

Across the quiet water of the harbor, I could see the dark silhouette of Banda's volcano, a perfect cone shape, looming. Inland, some spotlights shone on the walls of the old hilltop fort, Belgica, built in the shape of a pentagon by the Dutch in 1611, a near-copy of which once stood in lower Manhattan. We walked to Des's hotel, the Maulana, which is right next to the pier. The few remaining staff brought out cakebread and nutmeg jam, a delectable quince-like confection, and nutmeg-flavored drinks.

As we ate on the veranda of the Dutch colonial-style building, Des pointed out pictures of himself with Princess Diana, Jacques Cousteau, and Mick Jagger, all of whom had been guests of the Maulana in better times. Since the troubles in Ambon began, fewer than twenty tourists have stayed at the hotel. Banda has remained mostly peaceful during that time, although there was a bad period in the spring of 1999, when a clash between Christians and Muslims escalated into violence. As in Ambon, houses were set on fire. Des's hotel became a sanctuary for some two hundred and fifty people who felt unsafe in their homes. One night, a mob of three hundred gathered outside, calling on Des to send out the Christians. He put on his white prayer clothes and black kepi, and went outside to confront the crowd.

Tamalia Alisjahbana calls Des a "practical romantic." The idealism that he had learned at the feet of Hatta and Sjahrir was hard to sustain as an Indonesian businessman, but it returned as he left his hotel to face the mob.

"What do you want?" he asked the mob.

"We want to kill all the Christians!"

"Over my dead body!"

The Bandanese in the mob were not prepared to kill an orang kaya; the Ambonese had no such scruples.

"Don't you remember," Des cried, "that in the Koran Muhammad says it is a sin to harm people who have come to a place for sanctuary?"

With this appeal, Des managed to hold off the mob for two nights, until a destroyer came from Ambon and took all but a few Christians off the islands. For his bravery, Des was awarded the Mahaputra, the highest civilian honor in Indonesia.

That scene was difficult to imagine on this beautiful evening; the colonnades and the curving second-story balustrade conspired to hide conflict in the graceful lines of the colonial architecture, which had achieved a harmonious marriage of East and West in art that could never be managed in politics. We finished our meal, and Des retired to his house on the hill above the hotel, saying that tomorrow we would visit the nutmeg plantation. I stayed on the veranda, savoring the feeling of having finally arrived. For about five minutes, I was as far away from New York as I had ever been; then some young men appeared from the shadowy street outside, turned on the TV, found MTV, and sat transfixed before the Spice Islands of celebrity back home.

The Dutch monopoly on nutmeg lasted about two hundred and fifty years. But local uprisings, lazy and corrupt perkeniers, and a variety of natural disasters (on a single day--April 2, 1778--the Bandas suffered an earthquake, a tidal wave, a volcanic eruption, and a hurricane) made the monopoly difficult and expensive to maintain. The British, who occupied the Bandas for a total of about fourteen years, took seedlings and cultivated them in Grenada; a quarter of the world's nutmeg now comes from there. Nutmeg's miraculous health-giving properties were debunked, its popularity as a flavoring declined in European cuisine, and the advent of refrigeration reduced demand for the use of the spice as a preservative. By the time the Japanese invaded the Bandas, in 1942, the nutmeg plantations were in steep decline, and two attempts by the Indonesian government to revive them ended in failure.


Des's nutmeg plantation is on the site of one of the old Dutch perkens, on the nearby island of Lonthor. We made the trip there in his outboard boat. Lonthor has a village in the highlands; the rest of the island is covered with jungle. As we approached it, Des pointed to the bottom of the ocean, twenty feet down but perfectly clear, where an old Dutch urn rested, encrusted with coral. Near the shore were the ruins of a Dutch building, and beside that Des had set up a greenhouse to nurture his seedlings.

Nutmeg is a dioecious tree, which means that some plants have pistils (the females) and some have stamens (the males). Since the females give more fruit, it is important to sex the seedlings early, before replanting, for the greatest possible yield. "What I have learned," Des said, "is that nutmeg has the same nature as a human being. From the flower to the fruit takes nine months, as with humans." He pointed to several two-year-old trees. One was approximately twice as high as the other. "I will bet a thousand dollars the tall one is the female. Again, just like human beings. The girls reach puberty more quickly than the boys."

We headed into the jungle. Very tall tropical almond trees grow throughout the plantation, providing the nutmeg trees with necessary shelter from the tropical sun. We passed some of the plantation workers' houses, made of bamboo and palm thatch, with wet laundry hanging outside, soaked by a recent downpour. The workers are paid in nutmeg--half of what they pick, they keep. Nutmeg has no particular season; the fruit ripens all year long, so its harvest supplies the islanders with a steady income. With the price of ground nutmeg currently between nine and ten dollars a pound-growing demand for nutmeg from Eastern European countries has raised the price in recent years--people in the islands can subsist on what they pick. In the absence of a tourist economy, fishing and nutmeg are the only two industries the Bandas have.

Des pointed to some of the nutmeg trees that were more than two hundred and fifty years old. They no longer bear fruit. "We learned that the reason the plantation was dying out," he said, "is that you can't grow healthy new trees from trees that are more than sixty years old. You see, in Banda we have green pigeons that eat the nutmeg seeds. Having a few seeds in their stomachs helps with their digestion. And when these birds expel the seeds, complete with its own fertilizer, a new tree grows. But if the nuts come from trees more than sixty years old, the seedlings are no good. They are weak and--what do you call it?--scrawny." He pointed to a couple of unhealthy young trees that had been generated from the seeds of older trees. "Again, it is just like with human beings. Old men don't produce the healthiest children."

I asked if the nutmeg plantation could pay for itself.

"No, not yet. In five years, when all the trees we have planted begin to bear fruit, then maybe we can become a major supplier in Holland, perhaps establish our own brand--who wouldn't want a taste of Banda in their food? But now we just sell what we harvest to the Chinese in Surabaya. The next few years will be the test of whether we can survive. If tourism to Banda was good, I could use the money from my hotel to pay for the plantation, but because of the problems in Ambon I can't do that. And although the Indonesian government pledged two million dollars to help me get started, only twenty thousand has ever been paid. We asked the World Wildlife Fund to help, but so far no funds have been made available."

Deep in the sodden jungle, we came upon some nutmeg trees that were loaded with the golden fruit. The trees were about forty feet high, the size of a pear tree, but with short, bushy branches and glossy, dark--green leaves. The fruit's flesh, yellow with a faint orange blush, is about the size of a nectarine and has the downy texture of a peach. When ripe, the fruit splits, and the bright-red casing of mace shows inside. The workers core this fruit with a paring knife and leave it lying under the trees; the mace and the nuts are dried in the sun. The nutmeg itself is a kernel about the size of a plum pit. Medieval travellers used to carry whole nutmegs and graters in their pockets, to season their meat and ale.

Des cracked a nut for me, and I chipped a piece off the enclosed nutmeg with my thumbnail and inhaled. It didn't smell like Christmas anymore. Now it smelled like trouble.


Since the next boat back to Ambon wouldn't be in port for another week, I had plenty of time to get over to Pulau Run, which is fourteen miles from Banda Neira. As it turned out, time was necessary, because we had to wait for the east wind, which blows from mid-May through October, to slacken enough to permit us to cross the sea in Des's powerboat. While we waited, Des took me to see different corners of his kingdom. We followed dolphins, fed Des's pet sharks, which are kept in large pens in the ocean, explored the ghostly European quarter of the town, and I climbed the volcano on the nearby island of Banda Gunung Api, and swam back to Banda Neira.

The islands had all the elements of paradise, at least in the sense in which tour operators use the word, but it was hard not to feel bad for the Bandanese. In the market, the wood carvings and pearls went unbought, and the festively painted Ice Cream Shoppe was always empty. In the mornings, Des was full of enthusiasm for showing me some new aspect of the islands' beauty, but by late afternoon he seemed tired and depressed, as though the effort to remain optimistic about the Bandas' prospects exhausted him.

One evening, Des looked up at the sky and declared that tomorrow we could make the passage to Pulau Run if we left early. I got up before dawn and ate my cakebread and nutmeg jam, listening to the now familiar sounds of the morning: bristles sweeping wet leaves from the concrete, the drowsy slap of rubber flip-flops in the kitchen, the crowing cocks, and fishermen singing as they paddled their dugout canoes out of the harbor.

The water in the harbor was calm, but in the open sea we encountered four-to-six-foot swells, almost more than the boat could manage. Run, in the hazy distance, looked forbidding, its western headlands buttressed with cliffs and covered with jungle. After about an hour and a half of rough seas, we made the lee of the island and headed for the village. Landing on the beach, we tied the boat to a log and walked up some stone steps to the house of the local camat, or mayor, who produced some chairs and sweet tea for us.

The village is built along the hillside, and is traversed by two concrete walkways that are connected by steps at either end. It has about twelve hundred inhabitants. The island has no fresh water, no telephones, no cars, a few TVs, and only occasional electricity. Night life consists of the call to evening prayers and karaoke.

We went along one walkway, then turned around and followed the other back. On both sides were blue and white houses with bright tiled floors. Exotic birds squawked from inside many of the homes. Along the walkways, families had spread out recently harvested spices on rattan trays to dry. Mace, nutmeg, cloves, and coffee were browning in the hot sun. A crowd of boys tagged along behind me, and astonished cries of "To-reest!" filled the quiet village.

When we returned, Des sat down in the camat's house to rest, and I climbed up a slippery cliff and walked through the jungle until I came to the ruins of a Dutch nutmeg factory. The rusted iron girders of the two-story structure were all that remained, with the white sky for a roof, and the vast, empty ocean showing through the sides. "I have seen the mysterious shores," Marlow says of the East in Conrad's story "Youth," where a stealthy Nemesis lies in wait, pursues, overtakes so many of the conquering race, who are proud of their wisdom, of their knowledge, of their strength." By valuing the spice over the islands that produced it, the Dutch policy contained its own nemesis, because, as the commodity declined, so did the Dutch East India Company's investment in its colonies. When the V.O.C. finally closed its books on the Dutch East Indies, the company was twelve million guilders in debt.

As I stood beside this ruined trade tower, the breeze brought the sweet-savory, vaguely medicinal smell of nutmeg. I followed the scent and found a family engaged in harvesting the fruit in a small clearing in the jungle. A woman and four young children sat beneath a few trees left over from the Dutch perken, splitting fruit and collecting the mace-covered seeds in a rattan basket. An older boy was up in a tree with a long bamboo pole that had a knife attached to it, slicing fruit from the branches, while a young man, bare-chested and muscular, loaded the cored seeds into a sack.

The children looked startled, but the woman on the ground pointed at her pile and smiled, pleased with her harvest. Like so many before me, I felt the desire to trade. I had a Yankees cap in my bag, a token of my island, which I had brought from home as a gesture of cultural exchange--but the woman didn't want it. So I took out some money and filled my pockets with nutmegs to take back to Manhattan.


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