One mustn’t look into the abyss, because there is at the bottom an inexplicable charm which attracts us.
Serene, quaint, calm, are the words that come to mind in describing the Banda Islands, a small group of ten islands in the Eastern Indonesian province of Maluku. Banda Naira, the administrative center of the Bandas, is small. Nothing bigger than an 8-seater plane can land on a runway that spans the entire width of the island. Our approach was quite startling as we touched down barely over the shore and barreled toward the bay on the not very far opposite side.
Stepping off the plane onto the tarmac early in the morning, steam was rising off the blacktop, hinting at the moist heat that will shortly envelop us in a cooling sweat. We walked from the airport into the ‘city’. It took about 15 minutes.
As the sun rose higher over the aged flamboyant trees that lined the narrow street from the airport, one immediately imagines the Dutch colonials in their insanely overdressed, modest clothes, strolling from their elegantly pillared homes to their spice warehouses; huge masted ships carrying valuable spices bound for Europe in the harbor being loaded by scantily clad and scrawny local laborers. The passing of a motor scooter with its obnoxious whining engine breaks the reverie as reality sinks in. Jeng, my trusted guide here, is pointing out signs of significance.
There is so much about this group of islands that is utterly fascinating and bewildering. A 15 minute boat ride from Banda Naira brought us to Lonter on Banda Besar Island and to the nutmeg plantations that have been cultivated for well over 500 years. These very trees supplied the world with nutmeg and mace up to the mid nineteenth century. Banda was the world’s only source of these highly valued spices, used throughout Europe as flavorings, medicines, and preserving agents. In the 16th century, nutmeg was more valuable than gold, as people then believed the nut could cure the plague that was devastating populations across Europe. From the 15th century, only Arab traders knew the secret location of these islands and sold nutmeg to Venetians for exorbitant prices. Then, the Portuguese, the Spanish, Dutch and English traders fought for control once they were able to determine their location. Henry the Navigator, Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Ferdinand Magellan financed their voyages through this valuable Banda cargo. Later, Francis Drake made the trip and in 1603, James Lancaster arrived and claimed the Banda island of Roen as a British colony.
The famed Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) was founded in 1602 for the purpose of securing the nutmeg trade from the developing English presence, a conflict that lasted from 1609 to 1667 when the Treaty of Breda was finally signed, bringing an end to the Dutch – English hostilities. For those of us from Europe or the United States, this was a hugely significant moment in history. The Breda Agreement was based on a property swap: the English-controlled, Roen Island was exchanged for the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, what is now Manhattan, New Jersey and Delaware. For the Banda natives, however, a terrible price was paid as almost all were either slaughtered or transported to Java and a life of slavery.
But the economic importance of the Bandas did not last. With the Napoleonic wars raging across Europe in the early 19th century, the English returned to the Bandas, temporarily taking over control from the Dutch. The English then transported hundreds of nutmeg seedlings to their own colonies in Ceylon and Singapore, breaking forever the Dutch monopoly and consigning the Bandas to eventual economic decline and irrelevance. Now, these islands are merely a backwater, a place too hard and expensive to reach for ordinary tourists. This is why the Dutch sent Indonesian trouble-makers there. Some of the nationalist leaders exiled here were Tjipto Mangoenkoesoemo from 1928, Sutan Sjahrir and Mohammed Hatta from 1936. According to the Hatta museum here, they set up a school for local children during their exile.
Aside from these exile museums, many of the centuries old relics lay in ruin now, destroyed by war, tropical climate, apathy, and violence. Fort Belgica, the church and a few historic sights turned museum have been renovated on Banda Naira alone. Elsewhere, black tinged stone and fractured, burnt wooden frames expose the violence that erupted here in the post-Soeharto era when his iron-clad grip on power no longer held in bay the hatred and general religious or ethnic resentment long brewing under the surface throughout this province. The targets of this violence in the Bandas were Christian families, the descendants and inheritors of colonial wealth, history, knowledge, and the great Dutch homes passed down for generations. The Christians are all gone now, driven out by violent upheavals. The Bandas are almost entirely Muslim now.
“Unity”, “family”, “we are one people”, “all are equal in the eyes of God”, we heard over and over by the Muslim winners here in Banda, as well as the Christian losers in their exile on Ambon and further afield. No need to rebuild the church on Hatta Island as there are no more Christians here. European tourists who make it here for the diving think it is just a quaint, but ancient, unused building in ruins. I can’t help but wonder, would they still come here if they knew the truth? As we gather for an evening with local fishermen to laugh, tell stories, drink beer and sing local songs of heartbreak to the strumming of a ukulele or two, my thoughts shift back again to 1999. Were these people, whose company, songs and stories we enjoy so much in 2015, involved in murdering, terrorizing and burning their neighbors?
Had this been my research topic, I may have asked. But it wasn’t. My ‘job’ was only to accompany and assist Jeng as she was collecting data on tourism in the Bandas. So I am happy and not a little relieved to enjoy my passive role. Jeng was quite able to explain some of the history of conflict, wealth and power that centered on these Islands. The museums on Banda Naira, however, raised more questions than they can answer and the Muslim guardians were unable to answer our many questions. Other questions we could not ask for fear of upsetting the serenity. It was obvious that ethnic history is sensitive since we were told that the historic Chinese markets along the port were to be demolished and a modern shopping center built.
Yet, despite- and perhaps because of- our awareness of history and conflict we are utterly enchanted by this seemingly magical place and people. For me, though, it is hard to separate knowledge from simply enjoying myself here.
Every small island in Indonesia, where I spent enough time to get to know the locals, always has a middle-aged, ruggedly handsome man, who is likely a caretaker in the resort or area where I am staying. On Pulau Kotok, he was called Rambo, so for ease of description, I will call our local guide on Hatta Island Rambo too. These Rambos are descendants from a long line of fisher folk who carry in their muscular, dark, leathery frames the knowledge of the ages. It shows in their gaze, their selective words, their mischievous grins. All these local Rambos I have met play a ukulele and know the songs of their ancestors, love songs about enchantment, separation and loss based on the fragile and rapidly changing temperaments of the sea upon which they share their lives.
The man called Rambo on Hatta Island had all of these charms. No matter how early we rose, he had just been back from fishing with fresh delicacies for breakfast. He was strangely handsome, funny, competent, knowledgeable, trustworthy and fun. He exerted a fascination for us both, bordering on desire or admiration; it was difficult to say which. Jeng and I both joked about becoming his wives and happily spending the rest of our lives here on the Island. Yet while Rambo was never seen in anything beyond shorts and no shirt, his wife wore long sleeves, long skirts and a headscarf, not at all traditional Malukan attire.
While I cannot speak for Jeng, I know that part of my deep attraction to Rambo was also his secret. Was he involved in the destroying of non-Muslim lives on the island in 1999? As I happily share his home-brew palm wine and admire his sweet songs in his Malukan dialect, a language I do not know, I cannot help but imagine the terror as he and others whose company we are enjoying right now rampage through the lanes of this tiny island, wreaking havoc and I dread to think what else to their neighbors.
My American heritage taught me to admire the idea of justice and human rights, a belief that all hard work will be rewarded. The horrors of battle are recast in my country as an essential good that unifies and cleanses us, wherever in the world we offer our great and entirely superior military services. These myths of righteous nationhood, generosity, and equality are central to our sense of being American and they are drummed into our heads through history books, monuments to the “glorious dead”, the nightly news and mainstream articles that always cast us as benevolent saviors of oppressed peoples – even though they are entirely mythical and blatantly ridiculous. Here, I ponder these issues as I sit in the shade of Rambo’s scarred and poorly renovated house. The silence surrounding the transfer of power and ownership, and the false renditions of history have seeped into the minds of Bandanese and accepted as norms here as they are in the US. It is too much for me to ponder. The notion of conqueror killing conquered, and neighbor killing neighbor fits nowhere in any paradigm I can accept. As much as I am enchanted by the Banda Islands and its people, I am also way too absorbed by its history as I stare into the abyss of both glamor and horror, tradition and propaganda, what is written and what is omitted.