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European nutmeg craze that drove the Dutch to commit genocide of Banda Archipelago Muslims

16th Jul 2021
European nutmeg craze that drove the Dutch to commit genocide of Banda Archipelago Muslims

Photos: 1. 1652 Map of Banda Islands by Jan Jansson. 2. Pulau Run Island Harbour. 3. Painting depicts the massacre of Banda “Rich” Muslim men by Japanese mercenaries hired by Dutch traders in the 17th century. 4. Monument where it is believed the Banda Massacre took place. 5. Portrait of Jan Pietersz Coen, Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies and 6. the memorial plaque listing the 40 Bandanese Muslims massacred by his order.

(Photos Courtsey of M Ahmedullah/ Museum Rumah Budaya, Banda Neira, Maluku, Indonesia)

M Ahmedullah

Many community leaders, artists and activists in Indonesia’s remote Banda Islands have, for several years, worked on a major 400-year commemoration, with the hope of utilising the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that a four-century anniversary provides to raise awareness, both home and abroad, about the fateful day on May 8, 1621, when the Dutch executed more than three dozen prominent islanders initiating the Banda Genocide.

The beheading and quartering of 44 Banda Muslim leaders and what unfolded subsequently was the near-entire destruction of the (Muslim) population that lived in the archipelago for thousands of years with their unique culture and rich traditions. It also marked the eventual creation of a new mixed community of transported slaves, contract and transport workers as well as traders.

Though unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic derailed the original commemoration plan for April/May 2021, in its place, they managed to hold smaller events, consisting of online international discussion, exhibitions and local ceremonies.

The four-hundredth commemoration of the Banda Genocide was planned as an international effort, drawing inspiration from the 2017 remembrance of the Treaty of Breda. The 1667 treaty was an agreement between the Dutch and the English to swap one of the Banda islands, Pulau Run, for New York’s Manhattan Island.

That 350th- anniversary involved efforts by artists, activists and intellectuals from many parts of the world, including the US, the Netherlands and, of course, Indonesia.

The Dutch waged a brutal campaign to conquer the Banda islands during the early 17th century, with the first two ships arriving in the deep port of the Neira island in 1599. Subsequently, until the massacre of 1621, Dutch ships arrived with increasing force in 1600, 1602, 1605, 1608, 1611, 1615, 1616, 1617 and 1621, and incrementally they took control of the Banda Islands, the entire archipelago.

The conquest was achieved through imposing European-style agreements with island leaders, designed to fail and punishing them when they violated the terms.

Through the agreements, the Dutch tried to exclude others from the Banda Islands nutmeg trade by preventing outsiders, especially European rivals such as the English, from buying the valuable spice and forbidding the islanders from selling nutmegs to outside buyers.

By 1616, the Dutch took physical control of several islands and made legal claims to the rest except Pulau Run island.

Although the English tried to establish a base in the Nutmeg islands from the beginning of their Asian ventures, such as the instruction given by Captain James Lancaster before his return journey to England in early 1603 to the 23 individuals that he left behind in their settlement granted by the Sultan of Banten in West Java, the first East India Company factory in Asia was to proceed in speed to the Nutmeg island.

At that time, the English could not match the drive and the efforts made by the Dutch to achieve a monopoly of the trade in nutmeg and cloves in that part of modern-day Indonesia.

The English only managed to send a fraction of the ships to the Banda islands. By the time the Banda Genocide began in 1621, the Dutch had sent more than 80 ships to the archipelago against 13 by the English.

While the English were unable to gain a foothold in the Nutmeg islands, they did not give up their hope completely. With the last island still out of Dutch control, either by physical force or European-style legal claim, the English made a successful move to establish a base in Pulau Run and, through an agreement, claimed the island for King James I of England.

In December 1616, two English ships arrived at Pulau Run harbour, and within a day managed to get an agreement with the island leaders, who signed over ownership of the territory to the English king.

According to the English sources, the natives were elated to see the English arrive as they thought this would mean they would not fall under Dutch control, who took the other islands with brutality.

Although the remote Banda Islands are scattered within about 25 miles of sea, unlike other places in that region, the Banda islands did not have a central sultan.

Their society was divided into villages, and each village was headed by a leader known as orang kaya (rich man). All the heads maintained the governance of the islands without a collective head.

This meant that when the Dutch/pressured one or several island leaders to sign an agreement, within the island tradition, it could not have applied to all the islands or villages within each island. This was the opposite of the Dutch, who viewed any contract signed by any leader to be binding on all.

To prevent the English from consolidating their foothold in Pulau Run and establishing a permanent presence in the Nutmeg islands, the Dutch placed a siege around the island preventing the English from gaining supplies of necessities or trading with others.

The English, in turn, encouraged rebellions in the Dutch-controlled islands and secretly promised help. The English encouragement and promises of help may have contributed to some natives making Dutch control of the islands not fully secure.

In October 1620, the near-starving English men in Pulau Run gave up their hope after their leader, Captain Nathaniel Courthope, was ambushed at sea in the dead of night by the Dutch and killed.

He was returning from several islands after gaining secret agreements with some islanders who did not previously sign any agreement with the Dutch but were claimed by the Dutch, based on other village leaders signing a forced agreement.

By early 1621, a few months after the English hold on Pulau Run collapsed, the new Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, led a large expeditionary force to subdue the Banda Archipelago.

He used pretexts and European-style legal contracts, designed to fail to round-up more than 40 leaders, try them for treason, find them guilty and execute them in the most brutal manner imaginable. The incident followed a period of deaths, exile and enslavement of the native Bandanese population.

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