Published in: Sunday, 01 May 2011
Features > Indonesia - The Banda Archipelago (Page 1/1)

Indonesia - The Banda Archipelago

The Banda Archipelago in the Banda Sea of Indonesia, replete with beauty and an amazing history, is one of the most-favoured cruising areas of one Southeast Asia’s best-known charter boats, the majestic Silolona

The Banda Archipelago is a small cluster of six idyllic emerald islets and scattered rocky outcrops, covering about 40 square miles and located in the middle of the Banda Sea of Indonesia. The Banda group consists of the islands of Banda Naira, Pulau Lonthor, Pulau Ai, Pulau Run, Gunung Api, Pulau Rozengrain, as well as tiny Pulau Hatta. The islands are the native home of the stately myristica fragrans tree from which two spices, nutmeg and mace, are gathered. It was because of this that Banda became known as the original Spice Islands. 

Banda 2

Banda’s nutmegs have been traded to Europe as far back as the second century BC by land and sea routes to China and were among the precious cargos carried by camels along the Silk Road to the West. Nutmeg and other East Indian spices were brought to Europe by the crusaders.

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks, thus blocking the overland trade route for Christian Europe, and necessitating a sea route to the source of these spices. This launched the European Age of Exploration and Discovery. Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and other famous early explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope in search of a sea route to the spiceries and greatly expanded European knowledge of the known world.  

The Portuguese were among the earliest European arrivals in Southeast Asia. Alfonso de Albuquerque conquered Mallaca and immediately dispatched a squadron of three small ships to the fabled spiceries with the help and guidance of a local Malay pilot. Their search for the original source of the spices led them to the Banda Islands by early 1512. After friendly trading, the ships returned to Lisbon having realised more than one thousand percent profit. The Dutch arrived in 1599, almost 100 years after the Portuguese, who would then be displaced.

Banda 3

Banda Map 4

The golden orb that grows from the nutmeg tree produces two spices, mace and nutmeg. The bright round yellow fruit pops open on the tree when ripe to reveal the fiery red, lacelike mace, a spice more than twice as valuable as the nutmeg. The mace wraps around a shiny black shell, which is broken and discarded, to reveal the nutmeg within. In Europe of the Middle Ages, it was used as a flavoring, and also as a preservative for meat and as an antidote and protection against the Bubonic Plague.

To travel to Banda today is to undertake a journey of exploration, history and adventure. The best time to visit is from September through November, due to the calm conditions in the Banda Sea. Silolona offers charters year-round throughout Southeast Asia, but focuses on Eastern Indonesia and the Banda Islands from September through November.

Arriving at the Spice Islands

Banda 5

In September 2010, Silolona sailed from Ambon, the capital of Maluku Province, to the Banda Islands and Banda Naira, a distance of 125 nautical miles, to help produce the episode on nutmeg and cloves for the “BBC Spice Trail Series”.

Just after dawn, the huge monolith rock of Suangi (04’19 770 S, 129’42.810 E) appeared portside and a lookout was posted on the bow for the first glimpse of the fabled Spice Islands of Banda. Soon after, the excited call was heard when the tip of Gunung Api, Banda’s tallest peak (660 metres) and still an active volcano, was spotted dead ahead with a thin plume of smoke trailing upward in the distance. One can only guess at the emotions of the early sailors, with their first look at the fabled Spice Islands after a long and treacherous voyage from Europe.

Banda 15

As the sun rose, the morning mist at sea level dissipated and to the west, the low-lying islands of Pulau Ai and Pulau Run appeared. There are few more evocative and spectacular approaches than the arrival into the picturesque harbour of Banda Naira. 

On our approach to the Banda Neira anchorage, we were greeted by six ceremonial war canoes called kora-kora, paddled by scores of men to the beat of the gongs and drums. This required weeks of preparation and offerings to welcome Silolona, and were an amazing sight to behold – a scene straight out of history.

Although there is a very substantial commercial ferry dock, Silolona usually anchors across “the bay” from the main town of Banda Naira, just under the slopes of Gunung Api volcano in 26 metres of calm water. Smaller yachts can tie up at the wooden dock just north of the Hotel Maulana in Banda Naira town for a small fee. The hotel provides a welcoming atmosphere, cold beers, lots of local information and a safe place to tie up tenders.

All boats entering Banda must report to the Harbour Master directly, adjacent to the big ferry dock for clearance. The friendly, sleepy atmosphere of Banda Naira comes to life with the arrival of the large Pelni Ferry, approximately once every two weeks. All the local woman set up stalls in the main street with home-cooked Bandanese specialties wrapped in banana leaves for the ferry passengers and this provides a colorful, delicious introduction to the local food and friendly people of Banda Naira. 

Banda 9

Wander for a languid stroll or pedicab (becak) ride past evocative remnants of Dutch mansions dating from the 1600s, including the old Dutch Governor’s Mansion and the adjacent newly-restored Deputy Governor’s Mansion, the headquarters of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United Dutch East India Company, shortened to VOC), the graceful arches of the old mosque and Protestant church, as well as a 16th century Chinese temple – all reminders of Banda’s trading history.

Tidy, brightly colored houses with nutmeg trees growing in their gardens line the quiet streets and lanes of Banda Naira town. The childhood home of the recently deceased Des Alwi, “the King of Banda” and an important national figure, houses the Banda Museum, with an eclectic and fascinating collection from Banda’s past. This street is lined with Dutch mansions and provides a setting straight out of a Somerset Maugham novel.  

Banda 8

There are colonial forts to explore. A sunset stroll in front of the Governor’s Mansion, past the massive trees planted centuries ago for wood to repair the Dutch ships, to the jetty and gazebo built over the location of the old VOC wharf, offers spectacular vistas as the sun disappears behind volcanic cone of Gunung Api. All is peaceful now, but it was not always so.

A tragic past

The VOC emblem is everywhere; engraved in the stones of the fort, the tombs on the church floor, on old coins and cannons scattered about, and the collective memory of the Bandanese people. The Dutch insisted on non-negotiable prices, use of inappropriate trade goods, and wanted to establish a monopoly on trade; as a result, these islands would be destroyed. Jan Pieterszoon Coen, a Dutch “visionary” in the area, had developed a master plan for Dutch dominance of trade in Asia extending from India to Japan.

In 1609, fed up with their treatment at the hands fo the Dutch, the people of Banda ambushed some Dutch soldiers, killing their leader Admiral Verhoeven. This was witnessed by a Coen, then a young lieutenant. By 1621, Coen had been appointed the Governor General of the VOC, and he set out to destroy resistance in the islands of Banda. He ordered the brutal murder 44 local leaders, called Orang Kaya. Then, Coen orchestrated the massacre of virtually every single member of Banda’s male population over 18 years of age, reducing the total population of 15,000 to less than 1,000, the remainder consisting of mostly young girls and older women. The year 1621 is therefore etched into the minds of the Bandanese people to this day.

Cakalele, traditional war dances of the Bandanese, are now performed to commemorate the 44 Orang Kaya of Banda, accompanied by sacred rituals to keep their memory alive. This ceremony requires weeks of preparation, offerings, training and participation of the whole village in the sacred rituals. The five young men chosen represent the entire Bandanese Army carry only wooden shields and swords, with golden flowers clenched in their teeth to show that they had no voice or power. All five dancers are dressed in elaborate textiles, some dating from the time of the massacre. Valued trade items appear, including ancient gold Portuguese helmets, whole birds of paradise, imported textiles and carved serpents adorn the heads of the dancers.

Jan Pieterzoon Coen never achieved his goal of trade dominance, though this policy did lead to the bankruptcy of the VOC in the 1790s, and the downgrading of Banda’s position as a world trade center to a forgotten backwater.

Ancient gardens of spice

Banda 12

The largest island of the Banda group is Pulau Lonthor, an ancient caldera of a long extinct volcano. Here, the rich volcanic soils at one time produced the majority of the world’s nutmeg. The huge, crescent-shaped island rises sharply from the sea and is filled with nutmeg gardens shaded by ancient kanari or wild almond trees, both of which flourish on the rich volcanic soil, clean sea breezes, and plentiful rainfall. It was here that Dutch overseers established their nutmeg gardens. 

An interesting visit to SpanCB, a recently restored Dutch colonial mansion, is the starting point of a walk through some of the oldest nutmeg gardens owned by the Yayasan Banda, a non-profit organisation that restores and maintains the old buildings and historic sites of Banda. Foreign visitors are asked to pay a one-time fee of Rp.190.000 (US$22), which allows access to all Banda’s historical sites and can be paid at the Maulana Hotel.

There are two anchorages that Silolona often uses off Pulau Lonthor, one on the eastern hook near a small sandy beach and the other midway along the island in the straits   between Banda Naira and Pulau Lonthor. A word of caution: the water is too shallow to sail for any but the smallest boats from the docks of Banda Naira to Pulau Lonthor heading south.

Some of the oldest settlements are on Pulau Lonthor, and a hike up the steps to Lonthor village makes a lovely excursion, with young children giggling and smiling at every turn. A hike to the lookout point near the ruins of the fort provides a scenic vista across the crystal blue waters of the straits to Gunung Api Volcano and the southern lava flow from the most recent eruption of the volcano on 10 May, 1988.  

Natural wonders

Gunung Api, though only 660 metres high, is a tough but rewarding climb to the summit for dramatic dawn views and a scenic bird’s eye view of Banda Naira. Climbers should begin before the first light of dawn, carry lots of water and use a local guide. If you begin pre-dawn, you should be back on shore by 10 or 11am, hot and ready for a snorkel or dive on Gunung Api’s northern lava flow also dating from the 1988 eruption.

You will need to use your dinghy or hire a small wooden local boat to access this amazing site marked by a gazebo onshore. The main lava flow came from the northern flanks, and a huge river of hot lava entered the sea, destroying all in its path including the lovely coral gardens. Today, this is a most amazing dive site, with magnificent coral growth and lots of fish. Marine scientists had thought it would take hundreds of years for the corals to recover from the lava, but something in the volcanic soil and nutrient rich waters that surround Banda promotes not only the growth of nutmegs, but also rapid growth of corals. This is a uniquely Banda, must-see dive site. There are more, including an area of four seamounts (one is exposed, and is called Batu Kapal), which harbours a huge amount of sealife. Local fishermen in tiny dugout canoes use simple hand lines to catch yellowfin tuna. The ready supply of top quality, fresh fish for sashimi is another of Banda’s delights, either purchased in the daily market or directly from the fishermen.

Banda 14

The nearby islands of Pulau Ai (20 kilometres west of Banda Neira) and Pulau Hatta (11 kilometres southwest of Banda Naira) are noted for their dive sites, but you will need a good tender or hire a local boat for the day to dive. Both sites are also quite good for snorkelling as the reef top is shallow and very rich in marine life.

Pulau Ai (04’30.86 S, 129’46.48 E) has a long jetty extending quite far over the shallow reef that can be used by small boats and dinghy’s but is not suitable for deep draught vessels. The reef face drops abruptly to depths of more than 100 metres, so the Captain of Silolona usually “floats” while guests go onshore. Pulai Ai is a delightful village to wander around, with no motor vehicles and sidewalks strewn with nutmegs and mace, as well as cloves, drying in the sun. My favorite walk up the village steps is to a sacred well and then still upwards to an enchanted forest of massive kenari, or wild almond trees, planted by the Dutch over 300 years ago. This magnificent forest is now owned by the community, and it is strictly taboo to harm the trees.

Banda 6

The English maintained tentative holds on Pulau Ai (1601 until 1615), and Pulau Run in the early 1600s. Today, Pulau Run, is far off the beaten path in Banda, with no fresh water supply and sometimes cut off from the other islands for months at a time due to rough seas. However, Pulau Run now has a long pier extending far out into the shallows, which are suitable only for small craft.

Little remains of the British on these islands, except a few crumbling, unkempt ruins. But of all the islands of Banda, Pulau Run is perhaps the most famous. In 1667 by the Treaty of Breda, the tiny nutmeg island of Pulau Run was traded by the English for an equally tiny island half way around the world owned by the Dutch. That island is still referred to today by its Dutch name, Manhattan.


Silolona Sojourns: