Banda Islands: The Remote Archipelago That Was Once the Centre of the World's Nutmeg Trade

The Banda Islands were once the centre of trade for nutmeg, the world’s most sought after spice. Today, the island of Naira, the main commercial hub for the whole tiny archipelago, is the location for the islands' only airport
The Banda Islands were once the centre of trade for nutmeg, the world’s most sought after spice. Today, the island of Naira, the main commercial hub for the whole tiny archipelago, is the location for the islands' only airport | © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip
The Banda Islands were once the centre of trade for the world’s most sought after spice: nutmeg. The atmospheric images in Indonesian photographer Muhammad Fadli’s series, The Banda Journal, depict the remote archipelago today, showing traces of the islands’ European rule and the enduring importance of nutmeg.

For millennia, 10 small volcanic islands in Indonesia were the only place in the world where nutmeg and mace were grown. Nutmeg is thought to have made its way to Europe by the eighth century, where it soon became highly prized – it was coveted for its supposed medicinal properties in the Middle Ages, and used as an ingredient in food. The markup on nutmeg reached such heights that one small pouch could pay for a sailor’s retirement, making the trade so lucrative that the Banda Islands became a battleground for European merchants vying for control.

The village of Rhun was historically a source of dispute between the English and the Dutch. By 1667, the English finally surrendered it to the Dutch in exchange for Manhattan © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip
Fort Concordia was built by the Dutch to protect the village from pirates. After the end of the colonial era, it was looted by villagers as a source of building material, but is still relatively intact today © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to reach the Banda Islands in 1512, and were followed by the Dutch in 1599. As part of their endeavours to monopolise the valuable nutmeg trade, the Dutch built fortifications across the islands to fend off attacks from their imperial rivals. The ruins of these forts, as well as the remains of cavernous nutmeg warehouses, stand as a stark reminder of the islands’ colonial past.

The sheer number of defensive battlements demonstrates the value the Europeans placed on this rarest of spices. The first fortification built by the Dutch to protect the nutmeg trade was Fort Nassau, which was completed in 1609, followed by Fort Belgica, Fort Hollandia and Fort Concordia. Fort Hollandia is now just a ruin, but while Fort Concordia was looted by villagers at the end of the colonial era, Fadli’s images reveal that it is still relatively intact, with centuries-old Dutch canons visibly rusting atop its walls.

Fort Belgica, which was constructed in order to protect the nutmeg trade, was the strongest Dutch defence structure ever built in Banda. Today there are at least six surviving forts spread across the islands © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip
Old Dutch canons can still be seen atop Fort Concordia in Wayer, Banda Besar Island © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip

But it wasn’t only the Dutch who tried to secure the Banda Islands for themselves, the British were also interested in their bounty and built trading posts on the outlying Run and Ai islands. The British fought the Dutch over these islands, and eventually surrendered Run in 1667, in exchange for Manhattan Island (now part of New York City). This agreement lasted for more than a century before the British invaded and briefly took control of the archipelago from the Dutch in 1810. Before the Dutch reclaimed their stake, the British uprooted hundreds of nutmeg seedlings to replant in some of their more accessible colonies, including Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). The Dutch monopoly was ended and the importance of the Banda Islands to Western traders diminished.

Kiong, a local middleman, is the biggest player in the Banda Islands’ nutmeg trade today. He collects nutmeg from local farmers to ship to Java, where it is exported to Europe, China and other countries © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip
Nutmeg farming remains a major source of income for many islanders. Workers at nutmeg storage units separate nutmeg based on quality before it is shipped out of the Banda Islands © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip
Nutmeg is still exported from the Banda Islands today. © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip
Although nutmeg is no longer the important commodity it used to be, many islanders still farm the spice © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip

Nutmeg is still exported from the Banda Islands now and as Fadli’s photo series shows, nutmeg farming remains a major source of income for many islanders. Most of the islands’ population today are descendants of plantation workers brought over by the Dutch, and there are many more traces of colonial control. Dutch and European architecture, words borrowed from the Dutch language – such as lepe from the Dutch lepel (spoon) – and belang (wooden war canoes) that were once used to fight against the invading Dutch, stand as a reminder of the many years that Europeans battled over the islands’ rule.

The descendants of plantation workers, who mainly came from Java and Sulawesi, still dominate Banda’s population today. The influence of this heritage can be seen in elements of the islands’ culture and clothing, such as traditional dance outfits © Muhammad Fadli / Culture Trip