Once the most coveted of Indonesia’s fabled Spice Islands, the Bandas have seen their fortunes fade over the centuries. Photographer Muhammad Fadli takes stock of the archipelago’s haunting colonial legacy and uncertain future.
Speak of Banda today and you might be greeted with nothing more than a puzzled glance. But to 16th-century European explorers, the faintest whisper of these islands meant the promise of instant riches. For Banda’s tropical soil was planted with a commodity more precious than gold—a miracle spice so potent it was believed to cure even the plague.
Nutmeg was its name, and up until 1817, it was grown exclusively in this remote corner of eastern Indonesia. In time, Banda became a battleground between the English and the Dutch for control over the lucrative spice trade. England claimed one of its islands, Run, as an overseas colony, sending a small naval force to set up a trading post and arm the inhabitants with muskets. But the English presence was short-lived. After expelling their European rivals, the Dutch launched a brutal conquest in which more than 90 percent of Banda’s original population was massacred. The new masters divided Banda into 68 plantations and repopulated the islands with slaves and indentured laborers, setting the scene for three centuries of harsh colonial rule.
Indonesian photographer Muhammad Fadli, whose images appear here, calls the far-flung archipelago “a largely forgotten place, torn between its troubled past and the unpromising future.” In The Banda Journal, an ongoing documentary project with writer Fatris M.F., he captures the reality of daily life beyond historical narratives and the swashbuckling exploits of European adventurers. The viewer observes an empty hammock on the site of a long-lost English fort; a lone plantation worker amid his quarry; and sacks of nutmeg waiting to be transported onto a passenger liner. Fadli’s photos are often melancholic, with an air of neglect that points as much to the islands’ isolation as it does to the suffering wrought by the Dutch.
Modern-day voyagers who come to Banda Neira, its main settlement, immediately see how the past forms an inescapable backdrop to the present. Children file into a whitewashed colonial bungalow for after-school music classes, one of many on a street where rusted cannon lie abandoned by the roadside. From a hilltop perch, the turrets of Fort Belgica cast a cautious gaze on the harbor, as fishermen unload catches of skipjack tuna and rickety boats ferry villagers to the outlying islands.
The scene is anchored by the lumbering presence of Gunung Api, whose conical silhouette is visible even from Run, the most far-flung of the Bandas. In 1667, the English settled their dispute with the Dutch by trading the island for another called Manhattan. While the latter takes pride of place in the global spotlight, its unlikely counterpart moves to a much slower rhythm, then, as now, dictated by the life cycle of its nutmeg. —James Louie