The Banda Islands: from tragedy to tranquil tourist attraction

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The buildings that line its flower-filled streets include some fine examples of gracious old colonial architecture, many now crumbling under the merciless tropical sun.

On a plateau above Banda Neira is the pentagonal-shaped Fort Belgica. Built in 1620, this impressive fortress has survived several earthquakes, but is in fair condition.

Climb one of the towers for a breathtaking view of Banda Neira, the sleepy port, nutmeg groves and the looming volcano that erupted in 1988.

There are many things to see in Banda Neira for those who wish to step back into the past when the Dutch colonized Indonesia.

One of the area’s main attractions is the hauntingly empty Governor’s Palace, now called the Istana Mini (Mini Palace), which was once the residence of the all-powerful Dutch ticket inspector (inspector). This mansion was built in 1820 and features giant granite slabs, gleaming floors, polished marble, heavily carved beams, huge wooden doors, and shuttered windows.

A severe, heavy, colonial air of stately decay pervades the building. In a side garden is a statue of the proud Dutch King William III, now rusting in the quiet darkness.

Another great place to visit in Banda Neira is the Rumah Budaya Museum (Cultural Museum), which features centuries-old paraphernalia, including Dutch coins, earthenware pots, wickerwork, an old ship’s bell, and a fully functional wind-up gramophone.

The Dutch Reformed Church in downtown Banda Neira is also not to be missed as it includes a fascinating collection of old Dutch gravestones in its grounds.

Banda Neira Island is the only settlement of significant size on any of the Banda Islands, a group of nine jewel-like volcanic islands that have been an important part of history from the 17th to the 19th century, an era during which the European colonialists, including the Dutch attach great importance to spices.

The Banda Islands produce aromatic spices, such as nutmeg and cloves. These spices influenced battles, politics and the rise and fall of Europe’s great merchant empires – Portuguese, Dutch and English – which fought for control of the spice trade.

Until the invention of refrigeration, spices were inextricably linked to the history of these islands. Demand for cloves and nutmeg reached such a peak in Europe during the 16th century that expeditions were sent to search for the source.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to land here in 1512, and the first Dutch fleet arrived in 1599. In 1621, the ruthless Dutch Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen, whose name Dutch historians have said “reeks of blood,” invaded the Bandas from Batavia with a force of 2,000 men and carried out what today would be called genocide.

To gain control of the spice trade, Coen exterminated two-thirds of the indigenous population, selling the rest into slavery or driving them into the hills to die of exposure.

The Dutch then imposed a brutal monopoly on nutmeg production, dividing the islands into 70 plantations which were offered free to the Dutch perkenier(planters). Production was tightly controlled and prices were fixed, ensuring a guaranteed income for the perkenier and huge profits for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) for more than a century.

The irony that emerges from Banda’s suffering is that, while the rest of the world considered nutmeg and mace a rare delicacy, the inhabitants of these islands never used them as condiments.

Centuries later, the islands still offer magnificent geography with rainforests, white-sand beaches, volcanoes puffing under blue skies, nutmeg plantations, affordable and easy-going accommodations, ruined Dutch fortresses, unrivaled coral reefs, and crystalline waters so clear that even tiny objects can be seen at depths of up to 8 fathoms for the amusement of tourists.

Many races, languages ​​and religions have produced today’s Bandanese people who are homogeneous, highly distinct and complex.

Uncorrupted yet by mass tourism, the Bandas receive a trickle of travellers, odd adventurers and, increasingly, luxury cruise ship passengers. Besides tourism and limited nutmeg production, the only other promising sector of the economy is tuna fishing.

The Banda Islands are extremely off the beaten track. To reach the highlands, the most practicable means of transport are the Pelni boats which leave from Ambon, the provincial capital. The boats operate weekly and cost an average of Rp 125,000 (US$9.07) for a one-way trip, which usually takes between eight and 12 hours.

Tourists and visitors can also access the Banda Islands by using flights from Ambon to Banda Neira. These flights cost around Rp 400,000 per person for a one-way trip.

Most accommodation on the islands is located on the waterfront, with sweeping views of the harbor and surrounding islands. The cheapest accommodations are the dozens of homestays run by local residents. They include breakfast in their daily rates, as well as snorkel equipment rentals and boat charter arrangements for the outer islands.

The Delfika, located in a former perkenier mansion, regularly hosts foreign backpackers.

Other budget options that are good value for money are Delfika 2, Vita and Mutiara Guesthouse.

A more expensive hotel is the Hotel Maulana, a reconstructed Dutch colonial hotel with a beautiful veranda overlooking the waterfront among palms and old Ketapang trees. Laguna Inn is another major tourist hotel. Both rent canoes, motorboats, snorkelling equipment and organize marine tours and excursions. The best accommodation on the island is at the Cilu Bintang Estate, which is a beautifully renovated Dutch colonial building.


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