Frigates, War Canoes, and Volcanoes
by Ian Markham -- October 26th, 2015
Arriving at dawn flanked by frigates and war canoes to Banda island, it struck me that, were we calling into port in the 16th century, we would be more than likely to have a hail of cannonfire or spears being lobbed at us by way of greeting. The “Spice Islands,” however, have mellowed considerably with age. Our frigates were not pirate corsairs but the Lesser frigate bird wheeling overhead and the “war canoes” were friendly Bandanese coming to welcome the National Geographic Orion through the narrow channel and into the deep harbor of Banda Neira.
Our group quickly fanned out with local guides across the town. Helping to carry two of his five cameras, I wandered with the resident NatGeo photographer, Jason Edwards, through the narrow, colorful avenues of markets and houses. One thing became clear very quickly: Banda is steeped in history. Canons lay rusting beside the road like rubbish and hawkers sell coins with dates like 1640 and 1754 bearing the VoC of the Dutch East India Company or the Portuguese royal crest.
The spice islands, as Banda and its neighbors are called, were once the center of international political conflict and intrigue. They traded hands between the local Bandanese royals, the Dutch, the English and the Portuguese with great bloodshed involved at each handoff. In fact the small island Banda Run was traded to the Dutch from the English for a somewhat bigger piece of territory in the New World called “New Amsterdam” (presently known as Manhattan). The remnants of this violent heritage can be seen in the devastated fort in the middle of town, the towering Fort Belgica bristling with canons on the hill above it, a ghastly mural depicting mercenary Japanese and Dutch torturing the Bandanese rulers in punishment for a well laid ambush that cost the colonists an admiral, and my personal favorite, a perfect cannonball divot in the back wall of the town hall now framed like a piece of modern art. Even the expression “sail the seven seas” refers to the seven seas surrounding the spice islands according to our global perspective speaker Dr. Lawrence Blair.
What about this place could possibly merit such clashes? So many lives lost? Treaties brokered? It was actually just a fluke of biogeography combined with European tastes. In short: Nutmeg. The Myristica tree whose fruit produce the spice mace from its fleshy arils and nutmeg in its seeds grows only on the Banda islands. And nutmeg came to be worth much more than its weight in gold at the peak of the spice trade.
In one of the bloody handovers between the Dutch an British, the Brits decided they’d had enough and grabbed a handful of trees that they successfully transplanted in Sri Lanka and India. After that crafty bit of horticulture and the winding down of the spice trade, this corner of the world fell into relative obscurity. The nutmeg trade is all but gone but has left in its wake some beautiful traditional dances mimicking the harvest.
Though we left the town by midday, the afternoon proved just as interesting (particularly as a biologist) investigating a natural phenomenon around the other side of the Volcano. In 1987 “the fire mountain” belched out a great flow of lava down its side and into the sea. We spent the afternoon snorkeling and diving around it. I was astounded by the dense profusion of coral. Almost 100% cover. The eruption had completely wiped the reef off the map but in 27 years (which is not much time at all in coral-reef years) a completely new reef had grown. On closer inspection the reef was largely species and growth forms that are fast colonizers and opportunists. Nonetheless the reef probably has already more coral species than the entire Caribbean (a mere 58 in the Carib compared to around 800 potential colonists in Indonesia) and certainly had higher percent cover than any Caribbean reef I’ve ever seen. Moreover, I have never seen so many red-toothed triggerfish, a swarm of juveniles forming a black halo above the reef and any freedivers. I suppose it goes to show you how resilient reefs can be in the face of devastation when freed from other stresses like runoff, sewage and overfishing.
Eventually we had to steam away from Banda but as we headed toward the almost clichely beautiful sunset a pod of Frazer’s dolphins and Melon-headed whales guided us out of port. As if passing us off to our open sea guide they lead us to a pair of Blue Whales. The two stuck with us until the sun dropped below the horizon and the volcano of Banda disappeared from sight ending an incredible day.