Once the world’s only known source of nutmeg the Banda Islands are a remote, tiny group of volcanic islands located approximately 130kms south east of Ambon Island in the Banda Sea. The total land area is roughly 180 square kilometres with a population of approximately 16,000.
During the early 1500’s the Portuguese tried to take control of the Banda Island group in order to take advantage of the lucrative spice trade. The locals provided fierce resistance to the construction of a fort on Banda Neira Island so much so that the Portuguese gave up and chose to purchase nutmeg from traders elsewhere.
The Dutch were not so easily deterred and in the years following, sent a number of trade expeditions to Banda Island. By 1609, determined to establish a more permanent presence, they sent a party to commence construction of a fort (later Fort Nassau) at Banda Neira. Most of the party were ambushed and killed by Bandanese before construction even began.
Meanwhile, the English had established fortified trading posts on nearby tiny Ai and Run islands and were seriously undermining the Hollander’s attempts to create a spice monopoly by paying higher prices. With growing tensions between the two nations, the Dutch returned to Banda Neira in 1611 and built the larger and more strategic Fort Belgica above Fort Nassau.
Anglo-Dutch rivalry came to a head in 1615 when the Dutch invaded Ai, forcing the English to retreat temporarily to Run where they regrouped before retaking Ai later that same night. The Dutch launched another attack on Ai a year later and this time, successfully held the island. Then they turned their attention to the last remaining English stronghold in the Spice Islands – Run.
Swapped for New York
The tiny spice island of Run, in the Banda Islands, became the first English overseas colony in the early 1600’s when spice traders from the English East India Company convinced the inhabitants to sign a treaty accepting King James I of England as their sovereign. But after 4 years of siege, they were forced to abandon the island to the Dutch. The English got their own back during the Second Anglo-Dutch War, by capturing New Amsterdam city on the island of Manhattan. The war came to a halt with the signing of the Treaty of Breda in 1667. Under the agreement, the English ceded Run Island to the Dutch, thereby handing the Hollanders a world wide monopoly on nutmeg and mace. In return, the Dutch ceded New Amsterdam to the English who quickly renamed it New York. So in effect, Run Island was swapped for New York!
Dutch rule over the Banda Islands and their monopoly of the spice trade lasted for nearly 200 years until the British returned in 1810, They stayed just long enough to successfully transplant spice trees from the Banda’s to Sri Lanka, Grenada, Singapore and other British colonies. This significantly reduced the value of nutmeg, thus returning the islands to the little know backwater they are today.
As a result of European rule colonial architecture abounds on the islands with numerous impressive houses built by Dutch spice planters, churches and forts.
The islands are administratively the Banda district in Central Maluku. The main administrative centre is Banda Neira located on the island of the same name.
Banda Neira has air and sea ports which make it the main arrival and departure point. Getting there is not easy. Be flexible and allow plenty of time to visit the archipelago. Tight schedules are unheard of in this part of the world so allow plenty of time for delays due to weather, late arrivals and departures, fully booked services, break downs etc.
A local airline (Aviastar as of 2016) operates between Ambon and Banda Neira twice a week using small propeller planes. Advance bookings cannot be made so travellers have to go to the airport to try and book a seat. It may be easiest to ask your accommodation host to book for you. The 2016 price is IDR 367,000. Also note limited luggage can be carried on the flights. If you can get a seat hope the weather holds or the flight may be cancelled.
Pelni Ferries run all through Indonesia including the Banda Islands. These can be slow, unreliable and uncomfortable with varying schedules. They are cheap and an option for those with a limited budget and plenty of time. Hygiene and petty theft have been noted as problems on some ferries.
The Express Bahari ferry company began running a high speed service from Ambon to Banda Neira a couple of years ago. Running twice a week it is reportedly a fast (5-6 hours) and efficient service. Tickets cannot be booked but must be purchased at the harbour prior to departure. Expect to pay around IDR 400,000 for economy.
Once you arrive there a plenty of private, public and charter boats to get you where you want to go, weather permitting. Ask at your hotel to confirm boats will be running every day. If using public boats for a day trip make sure there is a return boat before setting off as an overnight stay may be required.
If not travelling by boat then it is pretty much on foot. Stroll around taking in the architecture, find trails to secluded beaches and enjoy the peaceful island atmosphere.
The remoteness of the archipelago and the time required to get there make the Banda’s a relatively quiet destination however, booking accommodation in advance is advisable. There are numerous hotels and guest houses on the islands to choose from.
Built by the Dutch in 1609 the fort is located in Banda Neira, on the site where the Portuguese first attempted to construct a fort and is down the hill from the better known Fort Belgica. The fort overlooks the channel between Banda Neira and Banda Besar Islands. Having fallen into disrepair the fort is being restored by the Indonesian government as of 2015.
Sitting on the hill overlooking the town of Banda Neira the fort was constructed by the Dutch in 1611. The fort is a pentagon shape with the only access via stairs on the southern most wall. Having been partially demolished in 1904 some repairs were carried out in 1919. Renovations have been done since 1990. Whilst the fort grounds can be accessed all the time there’s is no guarantee somebody will be there to let you inside (20,000Rp admission). If you can get in, the views are fantastic including Mount Api volcano.
Mount Api National Park
Rising 656 meters above sea level, Gunung Api (fire mountain) is a 3km wide perfectly conical volcano. Due to being on the spice trade routes Mount Api is one of the World’s most documented volcanos. Quite active it last erupted in 1988 sending ash plumes up to 3km in the sky. Roughly 10,000 of the 16,000 inhabitants of the Banda islands were evacuated during the eruption which lasted from May to August 1988.
The impact of lava oozing on to fringing coral reefs was initially devastating. However, 20 years later the coral had recovered and is now considered the fastest growing coral in the world.
Mount Api can be climbed. Wander down to the nearest jetty and haggle for a ride across from Banda Neira, or ask your accommodation provider to help organise a boat for you. Rp 20.000-30.000 should be a reasonable price. Alternatively, if you’re flexible regarding time, you can catch a public boat.
The Mt Api trail starts behind a yellow house opposite the jetty and is easy to follow. The hike to the top will take one and a half to two hours. Wear good shoes and take plenty of water. It is best to leave early in the morning to beat the heat and enjoy the breathtaking views of the archipelago.
Diving and Snorkelling
With clear deep water and visibility from 30 to 50m diving around the islands is an unforgettable experience. There are numerous sites offering fantastic diving with abundant and varied sea life. Check out the dive shops in Banda Neira to get started. Alternately dive tours can be organised from the South Maluku capital of Ambon.
If you’re not a diver there are plenty of fringing reefs offering superb snorkelling opportunities. Boats can be chartered for snorkelling day trips around the islands.