Sunday, June 28, 2015

If you owned Manhattan island and were, er, persuaded to trade it away, what would you hope to get in return?


So these are the Banda Islands of modern-day Indonesia. You can see Run all the way over there on the left.

"In the 17th century, nutmeg was considered precious -- it grew only on the Banda Islands in the East Indies and was thought to protect against plague. With the Treaty of Breda, which ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch (who had prevailed militarily) secured a worldwide monopoly on nutmeg by forcing England to give up Run, the most remote of the Banda Islands. But the English did manage to get a little something in return: a lightly inhabited New World island called Manhattan."
-- from "Lessons from the Past," David Goodstein's American Scientist
review of Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History

by Ken

This came as news to me. I always thought of the English just taking the colony of New Amsterdam away from the Dutch and leaving them crying. (Not so much the people living in New Amsterdam, who were there to make money, mind you, and pretty much went right ahead with their plan once they had a different flag flying over their heads. But I figure the Dutch owners took it personally. Like if you were the Dutch governor general of the little colony, you were out of a job.) Who knew that the English eventually forked over what we today would call "compensation," and not in the form of draft choices. Following the ancient precepts of island-trading (this part I'm just making up), they gave an island for an island (this part, however, I'm not making up).


It's pronounced, we're told, to rhyme with "dune," and is also known as Rhun and Pulo Run. It's seen here from an approaching boat.

All photos by Muhammad Fadli via National Geographic

Writer Janna Dotschkal explains in "The Spice Trade’s Forgotten Island," an installment in National Geographic's "PROOF: Picture Stories" series, that "there’s just something about an isolated island that captures my imagination." Which apparently mad her a sucker for the Run story.

Run isn't the "important trade lynchpin" it was back in the 17th century, when it supplied nutmeg to a nutmeg-crazy world. (One assumes that back then nutmeg lovers knew that you have to grate the stuff to order off a little nutmeg nut -- that the flavor of the powedered you get in the little cans and bottles pretending to be nutmeg bears no relation to the real stuff.) Nowadays, in fact, Run is way off the beaten travel path. You don't just log onto Travelocity and book a flight there, or even a bracing ferry ride from some convenient destination port. As Janna learned in her e-correspondence with photographer Muhammad Fadli, who we're told "is part of the Arka Project, a photography collective based in Indonesia," it took him "a four-hour flight, an eight-hour voyage on a passenger liner, and a rickety boat ride" to get there, with the goal of "captur[ing] its isolation."


Here's what Janna learned via e-conversation:
JANNA DOTSCHKAL: How did you first hear about Run island? Why did you want to photograph it?

MUHAMMAD FADLI: I am a big fan of history and I read a lot of it, regardless [of] the genre. Several years ago, I stumbled across a short magazine article written by a famous Indonesian author. He wrote a brief passage about the swapping of Run for Manhattan. I haven’t let it go since then. Run is an important part of my larger ongoing project about the Banda archipelago, a group of ten tiny islands in the middle of [the] Banda Sea.

JANNA: Tell me more about the history of Run. Why is it important?

MUHAMMAD: It was the setting of some of the earliest European ventures in Asia and played a central role in the economic history of the world. It was all because of nutmeg, [considered] the most precious of all spices—once worth its weight in gold—which was almost exclusively grown in the Banda.

National Geographic caption: Djamal Sabono, a fisherman and nutmeg farmer, stands on one of Run’s beaches.

Finding the Banda and the rest of the Spice Islands was the main motivation behind Europe’s age of exploration. The Dutch succeeded in controlling most parts of the Banda, while the English laid their claim on Run, which was considered one of their first colonies overseas.

And then the tale about Run’s swapping with Manhattan. This is a key point that can probably help people connect with the story. Everyone knows Manhattan but not Run, even though they share one history.

JANNA: What’s it like to live on the island now?

MUHAMMAD: Life in Run is pretty simple. There’s no mobile phone signal or cars, and electricity only runs for a few hours in the evening. Coming from Jakarta, it was quite difficult for me to adjust at first. I had a hard time sleeping at night because it was all too silent. There was a strange feeling of isolation too.

JANNA: How did you want to capture the mood on the island?

MUHAMMAD: I love making portraits and landscapes. I chose to photograph Run like this because I was dealing with the past—which is now essentially nothingness. So I needed to focus on all its subtleties, whether it’s a landscape, details, or people. It’s mostly just wandering around and hoping to find something valuable. In Run, I spent more time photographing the people because they are part of the history. I think the story would fall apart if I didn’t collaborate with them.

National Geographic caption: A newlywed couple in Run. The groom comes from the island of Ambon but decided to hold the wedding in Run.

JANNA: Did you have any interesting or unusual experiences on the island?

MUHAMMAD: When I asked how to get to the nutmeg farm in the forest, most people were hesitant to answer. It turned out that just a few weeks earlier, a farmer was found dead and dismembered in the forest. People said it was a supernatural phenomenon, making the argument that no predators inhabit the island. In Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world, Islam is still intertwined with local beliefs. Especially in remote places, people still believe ancestors’ spirits are everywhere. Run is one of those places.

In the end I managed to go to the farms, but for the sake of my safety the villagers insisted that I be accompanied by a local. Ridiculously enough, they sent a ten-year-old boy to go with me.

National Geographic caption: Lapase shows off his catch of the day, a nearly 21-pound yellowfin tuna.

JANNA: What do you hope to show people with this project?

MUHAMMAD: I want to show how the history of global trade shaped people’s fate and how it might not be as glorious as we’ve heard. The spice trade brought fortunes for the seafaring Europeans, but it acted like a curse for the islanders. Once [nutmeg] lost its value, they were all forgotten. It is a kind of reflection on what is still so common, even today. While history clearly provides us certain lessons, we only can learn them if we are aware of it. I’m not hoping for some sort of sudden change to happen because of my photographs. As long as I can make people aware of the story, that’s enough for me.

To see more photos, and to see these in larger format, visit the article onsite.

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