How a Tiny Indonesian Island Changed American History

How a Tiny Indonesian Island Changed American History

The Moluccan Islands of Indonesia.

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Why you should care

Because some deals don’t stand the test of time.

When Major William Thorn, a British officer touring Dutch colonial Indonesia, came upon the tiny, nutmeg-rich island of Pulau Run in the Banda Sea in 1812, he was looking at the last link of the Netherlands’ lucrative supply chain. It was there, in the far reaches of Southeast Asia, that this “small and thinly peopled” island, as he described it, had once found itself at the center of a long, bloody war between two naval superpowers — the outcome of which changed world trade and American history.

The Bandas’ soil, Thorn wrote in The Conquest of Java, was great for the “culture of the nutmeg-tree, which flourishes not only in the rich black mould of all these isles, but even among the Lava of the Gunung (volcano).” Nutmeg, the small tropical species of evergreen native to the region, is little more than a holiday spice today, often relegated to the forgotten corners of kitchen cabinets. But 400 years ago, this little brown seed changed the world.

The spices helped serve as an engine for a kind of global connection.

Southeast Asian expert Eric Tagliacozzo

Europeans had become enamored with spices for turning their once bland dishes into flavorful affairs. Long before the advent of refrigeration, these magical powders masked the taste and smell of decaying food, even helping to preserve some by killing off harmful bacteria.

By the 1600s, the spice trade was a highly structured global enterprise that gave birth to the world’s first multinational corporation, the Dutch East India Trading Company, and with it the world’s first stocks. Early explorers, driven by a lust for spices and the fortunes they could bring, had already mapped much of the globe. “The spices helped serve as an engine for a kind of global connection,” says Eric Tagliacozzo, a Southeast Asian expert and history professor at Cornell University. At the time, he explains, spices “were sought after more than anything else by an entire side of the world.”

And few were more successful at delivering them than the Dutch East India Trading Company. It was something of a monster in its time — part corporation, part sovereign nation, with the power to establish colonies, wage war and topple kingdoms in its quest for profit. The company had established an outpost on the Indonesian island of Java, centering its activities in the city of Batavia, modern-day Jakarta.

It was there that the head of the Dutch East Indies, a man named Jan Pieterszoon Coen, had a dream of conquering the nutmeg, mace and clove markets with a total monopoly. But there was a problem: The spices came from the Banda Islands, deep into a disputed part of Indonesia where Portuguese and British traders had already established outposts.

Coen’s dream “pivoted on Holland’s takeover of the Bandas, Moluccan flyspecks placed in history’s crosshairs by a unique soil that made them the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace,” wrote William J. Bernstein in A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World. The British East India Company was already trading in the Bandas; the English, nervous after Dutch traders cornered the pepper market in the 1500s, were aggressively pursuing the spice trade. In 1616, the Dutch attacked nearby Pulau Ay, where the Brits had a trading post, slaughtering the natives. The British fled and set up camp a few miles west on Pulau Run — a move that incensed Coen.

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Italy, 17th century. Descriptio Medicamento Confetionem. Plate: Virtues of nutmeg.

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“At this point Coen, who had been appointed the local VOC commander in Bantam on Java a few years earlier, warned the English that he would consider any further support of the Bandanese an act of war,” Bernstein wrote. As it turned out, Coen died long before the Dutch could seize control of Pulau Run. But 50 years later, the two superpowers were embroiled in a long, stuttering war. And in 1666, British soldiers marched into the Dutch territory of New Amsterdam and renamed the island New York, while out in the Bandas, the Dutch controlled Pulau Run, commanding a near-total monopoly on the nutmeg trade.

On July 31, 1667, the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Breda. The Dutch dropped their claims to New Netherlands, ceding it to the British in exchange for Pulau Run and Suriname. The treaty handed the British control of a region that ran south from Rhode Island to Delaware, cementing their claim over the New World and changing the course of early American history. But, technically, the Dutch had won the war.

“At that time Manhattan was totally low-lying forest; there was very little here,” Tagliacozzo says, explaining how the long, thin island once seemed to have far less earning potential than the Spice Islands. “But Manhattan became an economic powerhouse,” he says — with the nutmeg trade paling by comparison.

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