Journey to the Spice Islands

:

Where Globalization Began:  A  Journey to the Spice Islands

A Memoir

by

Gavan McDonell

The briefing from the international aid agency had said that the purpose of the project was that I should travel to the outer, eastern islands of Indonesia to identify investments in roads, ferries and ferry ports which would improve the reliability and efficiency of inter-island travel and trade. I was to proceed alone to Jakarta to consult with the Department of Communications and from there I would be accompanied by officials who would coordinate my journey and meetings with local government officials. I duly turned up in Jakarta and had a long meeting with the Head of the Communications Department and two other officials who were to be my guides, philosophers and friends.

The senior of the two, Subrowo, was a stout man of medium height, with an expansive stomach, who constantly pulled on kreteks, the powerful, fragrant, clove cigarettes. He had a sombre, somewhat glowering look in constant danger of obliteration behind billowing clouds of smoke, and he shook his head repeatedly as though in a state of mild consternation. He held a high position in the Department of Communications and was to advise me on the policy priorities in the various districts as we went along.

The other officer, the more junior Sadoran, who exuded the calm politesse of the Javanese, was a handsome man of strong build who was always smiling. His job was to coordinate our travel and I felt sure that I was in good hands. And the next day, he informed me, we were to commence our travel to the islands-first to Kupang and Roti in West Timor, then to Flores and Larantuka, in the Lesser Sunda islands, and then to Ternate and Tidore, the Spice Islands themselves, in Maluku, or, as we say in English, the Moluccas. From Jakarta to Maluku is about half the distance across the United States and we would travel it in a variety of air, road and water contrivances of many shades of antiquity. Another cup of tea, and the meeting was over.

Kupang, the capital of West Timor, straggles over a series of hills and along one side of a vee-shaped bay which has sheltered many wayfarers in these unfavoured parts for centuries. William Dampier left for Australia from here in 1599. Before that, for centuries, the local fishermen sailed regularly to the fringing reefs and the bare beaches of north-western Australia, just as they do today, to the alarm of Australian quarantine and immigration officials. William Bligh made his landfall here after rowing in a lifeboat across three thousand miles of sea from the mutiny of the ‘Bounty’. The first escapees from the convict settlement at Botany Bay reached Kupang after rowing up the east coast of Australia, and thence through Torres Strait. Many of the ‘boat people’, the refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s, and others since, made this their last staging point before heading for the northern and western coasts of Australia.

Kupang has been a fortress for hundred of years, but it carries its history lightly-there is a statue of an early sultan at one of the cross roads, the lone monument. Square houses and buildings made from the rough, pock-marked, coral rock which is the base material of the island. A few shrubs and trees. Some very small areas of thin soil reclaimed by piling up the rocks into dry walls, asa in the fields of Ireland, but without the greenness. Goats scrabble among the rocks. Pigs snort along the sea shore. Unkempt soldiers with rifles wander along the road as they probably have done for centuries.

The hotel which lodged us was a long, low building with an outside living room. Old club chairs were placed on the ground in the open air under a light tin roof. The dining room and the office were not far from the road along which desultory groups of people passed on their way down and uphill, to and from the government offices and the town. It was like the set of a modern play with audience participation. As we sipped beer in the middle of the drama, passing boys hailed us in limping English. Sadoran said that we were to meet with BAPPEDA at nine in the morning.

By eleven a.m., after many cups of tea, the local officials had ended their briefing. BAPPEDA was the government agency responsible for district planning, they were the guardians of the Pola, the five year national and regional plan. This was the centerpiece of our conversations, of their lives. A thick, two-volume, foolscap-sized report , the officials frequently referred to its many tables and diagrams and maps, to the lists of goals and priorities, all scrupulously written down and quoted from. The Pola, they said, could be called ‘The Big Picture’.

They answered all my questions and in return wanted to know whether the aid agency would give any priority to programs here in the outer islands, far from the large population centers. Clearly, they had been promised much and received little from other wandering dispensers of hope and expectation like myself. They listened calmly to my assurances. They bowed their heads in understanding. The books were closed and placed in a neat pile. Maps were taken from the walls. Teacups were cleared. There were smiles and small bows. The Pola, like communion wine, had been ministered unto us.

Outside was the four wheel drive, and our helpers in neat blue uniforms. We clattered down over crushed coral roads to the port, a few kilometers away. Awaiting us was a gray-painted, rusty vessel, used on other days for coastal inspections, unlikely looking, but it turned out to be a speedy c raft and took us quickly down the coast, in a clear, blue, breeze-laden morning towards Roti, the large island to the south-west. Perahus with square, lateen sails passed in the other direction, heavily down in the sea, carrying goods to Kupang’s market.

At Roti, the villages came down to the beach and the camat, the local administrative officer, rode up on his Honda motorcycle. It was hot. A boy shinned up a coconut palm, green nuts were brought, a slice taken off the top with a bush knife, and we were given to drink. The slice removed is fashioned with a few blows into a sharp-sided spoon, and with this the tender, white meat which lines the coconut is scraped up and eaten after the clear milk has been drunk.

But Roti’s fame is due not to the coconut but to another palm, the lontar, sometimes called the fan-palm. The hills of the island are covered with stands of this tree, with jagged, pointed fronds and rough limbs. Its stark profile suggests economy and scarcity and endurance in this harsh climate which has long, dry months. Not here the soft flowing romantics of the South Sea coconut palm. This palm is made for survival and it permits the survival, too, of the island people. When tapped, it gives up over forty liters of syrup a week and is the world’s most productive sugar-palm. This, as a drink or boiled down to a syrup, is the staple food of the islanders, the Rotinese.

The palm also provides thatch for roofs and walls, for umbrellas, containers, r opes, bridles, bindings, fence partitions, troughs, funeral mats and even coffins. As Jim Fox, an anthropologist who has written a fascinating account of the Rotinese and the lontar, ”The harvest of the palm”, Harvard University Press, 1978) says, “They are fed, equipped, attired, buried and remembered after their decease by the products of their palms.”

In September, 1770. Captain James Cook passed this way and called at Savu, the next island, with a similar economy to Roti’s. “The fan-palm”, Cook wrote, “requires more particular notice. At certain times it is a secedaneum for all other food both to man and beast. A kind of wine, called toddy, is procured from this tree. The juice is collected, morning and evening, and is a common drink of every individual upon the island. The syrup is prepared by boiling the liquor down in earthenware pots: it is not unlike treacle in appearance, but is somewhat thicker and has a much more agreeable taste…it was more agreeable to our palates than any cane sugar, unrefined, that we have ever tasted…I have already observed that it is given with the husks of rice to the hogs, and that they grow enormously fat without taking any other food…also, this syrup is used to fatten their dogs and their fowls…The leaves of this tree are also put to various uses, they thatch houses, and make baskets, cups, umbrellas and tobacco pipes.”

The accounts of old travelers always surprise by how much they they were able to stack in those cockle-shell boats they whizzed around the world in, and Cook was no exception. When he left Savu, he had crammed the ‘Endeavour’, a modest craft-she was just under thirty metres long and nine meters wide-with “…nine buffaloes, six sheep, three hogs, thirty dozen of fowls, a few lime, and some coconuts, many dozens of eggs, a little garlic and, “the lontar’s largesse,” several hundred gallons of palm syrup.”

It was almost dark when the master said we must leave soon. The crew sat around the foredeck, eating fish and rice from battered aluminum saucepans. A small man, with long locks and a drooping, pirate-chief black mustache, sat propped against the short mast and strummed melodies on his guitar, melodies which came from other Indonesian islands but which had the lilting softnesses of south seas music everywhere.

And thus back to Kupang. It was one o’clock before we got to bed and four thirty when we were awakened for the flight. But it was seven o’clock before we took off, after repeated calls to check tickets, weigh baggage (and ourselves), and sit down again.

We approached Larantuka, on Flores, which is due north of West Timor, just after eight. The island of Solor appeared first, then Flores behind it, and Adonara and Lembata rising to the east. Mountains reaching to sixteen hundred meters cover their surfaces. As the Twin Otter circled over the strait separating Flores from Adonara, just north of Larantuka, two whales surfaced in the gray-blue, light-soaked water, spouting and splashing.

“Of course, “ the bupati , the local district governor, said, and as he spoke his subordinates, sitting around in cane chairs on the pleasant veranda, stilled themselves and listened respectfully. The young man, an administrative assistant, who had greeted us earlier in the evening, dressed in a well tailored bush suit, flicked his ash, crossed his creased trousers, and leaned back portentously in his chair, to hear the better.

“Of course,” the bupati went on, as if the first utterance of the two words had been but a call to attention, “the problems here in Flores, and the people, are very different from Java. Here there are many resources, in Java there are few. Here the problem it is under-population, Java is over-populated. Here there is food, food everywhere,” he opened his arms and waved them widely towards the dark trees and the hills in the night beyond us,” in Java they do not have enough food, there is no more land, and they are having, now the government is having, the transmigrasi, you know,” he raised an eyebrow politely in my direction to ensure understanding, “they are wanting to move peoples to-where?”

“Of course,” and he smiled again, as though the answer was written in lights above his head , and he was merely displaying his courtesy by assuming that his visitors might not know these elementals,” to the outer islands, to Flores, they want to move peoples to all the outer islands of our national archipelago,” flicking his ash carefully into the waiting ashtray fashioned from a great conch shell, crafting a pause in his oration. And then he concluded, taking a final pull on his kretek, ” But what is there here in Flores besides food and land? Nothing, there is nothing, we have small towns, little harbors, tracks for roads-and when it rains, there are no roads, just muddy pools, no factories, no ferries, no experts, that is what we have.”

Mr Michael, a local officer who had been attached to us as our liaison, nodded his head and shifted in this seat, contriving by these two movements both to agree and to disagree with his superior’s assessment. He agreed, he told me later, that there was a sorry state of affairs for planning development. He did not agree there was no local expertise. He, Michael, had spent several years at a Catholic seminary, and since his transfer to Larantuka from Reo, a small town west on Flores, he had reorganized the local agency, set up rural projects, sent people on training courses, decorated his office with colored graphs showing this year’s and last year’s and the coming year’s goals and achievements. And he besieged his head quarters in Jakarta with submissions whose result, generally, was silence. But it was not true that there was no expertise on Flores.

“Of course, “ the bupati commenced again, assuming once more an air of patient explanation, as though his speech was merely commentary upon a mosaic of well-known and inescapable certainties, “ the people of Java are different”. He had picked up the theme which, unspoken, had taken hold of Michael’s thoughts and those of his other listeners-the remoteness of Java, the foreignness of Java.” The Javanese are very cultured, very bureaucratic, very, how do you say it, inward? They like everything to be, ah, just so, everything in a place. It is said that the Javanese are still afraid of tigers, the fierce tigers-oh, yes, very fierce, you know, that used to live in the jungles, and come out at night-and they could feel safe only in their villages and compounds away from savage tigers. Look,” he said as though to underline the difference between Flores and Java, “there is a tiger on my wall,” he smiled and pointed towards a fine spotted skin hanging on the wall of his living room, which could be seen through the internal shutters, clear evidence that he, the bupati, a Timorese, was not as the Javanese, was not afraid of tigers.

“ They do not like anxiety, or uncertainty, the rains come, the rice grows, the priest blesses, the gamelan plays, the gods are happy, everything is in its place” he smiled again, and slightly bared the tips of his top teeth, “ but here, here in the outer islands, here on Flores,” he gestured wide again, with his arms above his head, and looked out to the trees gently rustling in the heavily scented air, which was just beginning to cool, “it is always uncertain. Life has always been a mystery. There are big tornadoes in some places, and earthquakes and volcanoes, oh yes,” he smiled and leaned over to me, pointing vaguely behind him into the dark. “That mountain is a volcano, last year it erupted and all the roads and trees fell rushing down the hill and two hundred people were killed in the town, you know, there on the coast road, near that church, the one you saw, that’s the place, near your hotel, and two years ago there were three hundred people washed away by a tidal wave on Lembata island, “ he pointed east this time, into the darkness,”just two hours away in a motor boat”.

It was then that I realised that I was on a sort of time machine, set in reverse, and running east, that I was drifting backwards through history. From Jakarta, a modern city, an anachronism within the feudal fastnesses of Java, where in its heart still glow the glorious Hindu and Majapahit empires of ages past, through these precarious islands of the Lesser Sundas, fought over for centuries, and still further on to Maluku, the Spice Islands of Ternate and Tidore, and what would we find there?

A calm had settled upon the small group in easy chairs around the bupati’s veranda. At his last words they had all fallen into a silent, collective meditation upon the past. For Indonesians, even very modern ones, the past is a continuing present.

A man in a sarong and patterned shirt had brought cakes and tea, and now returned, and the plates and cups quickly disappeared. We would be leaving soon.

“Have you been yet to Solor and Adonara?” The bupati’s question was a flag signaling the next stage of our mission. He knew, of course, that we certainly had not yet been to the other islands, that there was no chance we had been, for we had been waiting two days for the outboard motor on his motorboat to be fixed.

In fact it never did get fixed before we left, and a day later we went finally by a local passenger boat, a wooden affair about twelve meters long, filled with a giggling, boisterous crowd below and above and spread over the cabin roof , with bundles, wrapped in bright, printed batiks and local, hand-made cloths, piled on the floor and jammed into corners, cages of parrots, and girls sitting on the edge, their feet almost in the water, carefully eating sticky rice from banana leaves.

A short chimney gave off noxious fumes and good-natured honks at random. At the very top of the scene, on the roof, a man from the customs agency, in carefully pressed uniform and with black slicked hair, wrapped himself away from the hubbub, with an air of patiently official detachment, pulled slowly on a kretek, and gazed towards Adonara, where he was going to check some ships.

Thus we went-but we returned by the official motorboat which, on the third and last day of our visit , had achieved miraculous mechanical health and arrived, sharp at 3.30, at the Adonara jetty, to pick us up. During the days we had seen projects for new warehouses, for schools, for roads, where now there were only rutted tracks. We bumped over large, round stones in the road which thumped, like gloves in a prize ring, against the face and chin of the transmission and the sump of the badly punch-drunk truck which was our conveyance. We had seen sites for schools and crowds of quiet children in green and brown and red uniforms of a neatness, starchedness and smoothness which, for Western teachers, have long since passed into the dreams of a golden age. We had been taken from the beating sun in a clear, electric-blue sky to sit once more under palm trees and drink fresh coconut juice and listen to the village head discourse on his people’s need for development.

Finally, we had been set in a small, local wisma, a guesthouse, and watered with beer and fed with deep-fried chicken, and grilled prawns, and piles of fluffy rice, and dishes of pomeloes and mangoes, and pineapples and pawpaws, sliced and manicured and sculptured. While my companions from the Jakarta Ministry talked with local colleagues, I caught sufficient of their conversation in Indonesian to know that it was about two subjects, one painful, one pleasant, one dark and foreboding, one light and playful, which seemed to float into and out of each other’s path, like the colored kites which were being flown overhead in the first breezes of the monsoon season.

And the first of these topics was the low chance of the government and the aid agency coming good soon with funds for the projects, the excellent projects, whose bleedingly obvious merits they had spent so much time in the heat of the day explaining to these visitors from Jakarta, and to me the foreigner, who was beyond all calculation and whose influence could only be likened to that of one of those gods who spring out unpredictably at dramatic moments in passages of the Ramayana epics and must be placated and sated with food and drink. This was one subject which fixed their attention.

And the other, which was embroidered backwards and forwards, like patterns in a batik, was the glory, the generosity and the economy of the women of Ujang Pandang, and especially of Manado, on Sulawesi. These had crossed the path and enlivened the hours of Michael, our liaison, who had been translated to that fair island for training courses and had recently returned, a more contented and a wiser man, and now sat in the corner, complacently, in sharp peaked cap and spruce blue uniform, spinning travelers’ tales.

So the days and hours passed, and we wondered how we would get back to Larantuka. Having waited for three days for the motor boat, and been given lively accounts of what had befallen it, and of the independent spirit of its master, who, it seemed, was proof even against the bupati’s direction , we had fallen into fatalism. We amused each other with jokes about the stories of unlikely interventions in the motorboat’s affairs which we were daily told to fob us off.

“You have seen the whales out there in the sea, Mr Donell,” Subrowo said, shaking and twitching his head and blowing out heavy, scented smoke from his kretek, gazing in his sorrowful way out to sea . From our first meeting he had dispensed with the ‘Mc’ in my name, as some foreign conceit. “Mr Donell, the whale has taken our motorboat with his tail and is swimming to Timor for the volcano relief program where they need more boats, it is part of our new energy saving drive in the Pola, and government and BAPPEDA think of everything. Yes, the Pola, Mr Donell.”

He shook and twitched his head again, more slowly, and looked at me from under curling eyebrows, and paused, and passed on to the next thought: the motorboat was too unpleasant to continue with. “Did you hear that Mr Michael has been to Manado, Mr Donell? Ah, Mr Donell, the girls in Manado are very beautiful, and very cheap, they are Christians, in North Sulawesi there, you know, they are very loving and generous, they are spreading their religion, do you think we can come back through there from Ternate and Maluku, and learn some Christianity?”, and the motorboat, like the sharp edges of other, painful, present realities, faded from view behind the slopes and pastures of a future, warm Manado.

I, too, as one day turned into two and then into three, had had fantasies about the motorboat and, particularly, its driver, who must be some layabout, or else a crook, busy on smuggling, a common occupation in those islands, or a fixer conniving with some other Department to double his fee. Thus had our lonely fears led us on, so that when the motorboat was there, material, before us, bobbing at the Waiwerang jetty, it was surprising at first, and then very comforting, to see how ordinary and well-used and scrubbed it was, and how careful and conscientious the driver seemed to be.

“The motorboat,” the bupati had said,” my motorboat will be there for you at Waiwerang and will bring you quickly back to Larantuka.” And thus it turned out, beyond all reasonable hope. When starting the boat the boat driver contrived an extended, balletic pose, pulling the start cord vigorously with his right arm while his left leg stretched out to grasp, between limber big and first toes, the rubber priming bulb on the gasoline line, squeezing it rhythmically to squirt petrol into the carburetor below, while the cord rotated the flywheel above.

The motor sputtered and then roared, as though over-stimulated by the dual stroking it had received. Soon the wind in our faces quickened, the clouds darkened. Half the height of the tall, jungle-covered mountains on Flores, miles away to the west across the water, were now obscured. By the time we had passed the end of Adonara the wind was whistling and the full strength of the ‘slot’, the fast current which runs down between the two islands, had caught us.

For centuries this rush of water had worked on the side of the Black Topasses, the mixed race inhabitants and defenders of Larantuka who had settled on and ruled these islands over the years. Tall Portuguese and Dutch brigantines had manoeuvred in line abreast through these broad waters, had run brilliant, broadside passages across the channel, and enfiladed the northern peninsula. The Black Topasses replied with cannons from the hills of Adonara and batteries along the Flores foreshore, and calculated the speed of the ‘slot’ rushing through the narrow passage to their advantage. The big ships could never be sure of their aim and Larantuka was never taken.

That late afternoon, the spray spat on us round the edges of the flapping cover , and the boat edged slower and slower against the wind and the wave. The dark clouds squeezed down even further upon the slim space left above us. The town, by now with a few lights showing, seemed ever so far away, and we breathed and felt the reasons for its enduring victory. We passed the line of the peninsula not long after dark and tied up at the jetty in blackness.

The journey back, in the fast official motorboat, had taken two hours and fifteen minutes. The journey out, on the slow public ferry, had taken one hour and a half.

As though primed by some precise, electronic device, or a communication from the kami, the spirits who inhabit the hills and mountains throughout Indonesia, sharp at five o’clock next morning the Angelus bell from the church just down the road tolled its limping notes, and the choir of dogs struck up. The humid air was already warm, and carried the tones of the bell in heavy waves so that they seemed to strike physically against the tympanum of the ear and the surfaces of the face, exposed above the off-white sheet.

I had become used to picking out individual voices among the dogs. The one that barked a steady staccato, consonant with the bell. The one that pitched a high falsetto in leaping spectral discords. Another that yapped a rapid enraged chatter, like a lost and angered soul trying, with some success, to drown out the holy bells. This morning I listened, for the last time, a little more attentively.

The four-wheel drive arrived exactly at six. There were waves and goodbyes from the people of the hotel, already going about their business. Soon after we were at the small airstrip, and, with Indonesian randomness, the flight left exactly on time. We were heading north to Ternate, in Maluku, the Moluccas, the Spice Islands.

There were some Hollanders aboard. Dutch technical and cultural missions were working in the area on, by all accounts, innocent and productive purposes. But Subrowo chose to take another, more Indonesian view. “The Dutch, Mr Donell,” Subrowo said, “think long term”, and shook his head from side to side and drew on his kretek, and breathed vast significance into his words. The Javanese Sadoran raised his eyebrows, and gave an enigmatic Javanese smile which yet implied that his colleague, who was part-Sumatran, and therefore likely to be brash, was, in his, Sadoran’s opinion, being indiscreet. But the breath of politics was not allowed to frost the glass for long.

“But Mr Donell”, Subrowo went on,” I am thinking long term too, I am thinking about the susis. In Ternate I will have a susi. I have spoken to my friend here at the bureau, and he said in there are good susis, yes, he said not too expensive, he said there are widows. Mr Donell, I will have a widow, I do not like these young susi chickens, pfff-it is all over in a few minutes, I am Casanova, Mr Donell, I can tell you about many women,” he laughed wolfishly, and shook his head, and puffed his smoke,”yes, I am Casanova, but I am slow-motion Casanova. I like to take my time. Widows are good, but not too old. In Ternate I will have a not old widow.”

This prospect cheered Subrowo. He had been glum for several days during our longer-than-expected visit to Larantuka, perhaps from the uncertainty of the waiting, but now he chatted while Sadoran sorted out our schedule for the remaining part of our mission, telling me stories of his beddings, of their great variety, of his discriminating taste, and of his plans for Ternate.

We flew north up the coast into Maluku, over still, blue waters, and dark hills stripped of trees by deforestation, and black beaches. While the days was still young the plane banked into the descent towards the smoking, volcanic peak of the island of Ternate, and its twin, Tidore, set in the shining sea like two dark-pearl lobes cast in the navy onyx of the sea, a few miles from the yellow beaches of Halmahera island to the east.

These two small islands have been the trading posts of many empires for centuries. The Arabs were here, long before any Europeans sailed this way, probably from the fourth or fifth centuries, prosecuting a great trade between Arabia and India and China. The Sultans of Ternate descended from Arabs on the male side and were mothered by local women. The palace of the last of the Sultans still stands above the eastern foreshore, a large, handsome building now painted cream, with big brass defending cannons pointing out towards the sea and Halmahera. The first ruler of all Ternate which covered a very large area is said to have been one Mashur Malano in the middle of the thirteenth century, and he had eighteen non-Islamic descendants until 1466, when King Marhum was converted to Islam by a wandering scholar from Java.

This was the beginning of the three centuries of Ternate’s glory. Its writ ran to nearby Halmahera, to Tidore and Bacan, to the islands to the south, west as far as Sulawesi, and east to what is now Irian Jaya, West Papua. It was upon this past hegemony of the Sultan of Ternate, extending so far east, that the new Republic of Indonesia built its claim to the western part of Papua New Guinea.

Ternate and Tidore had been famous for centuries for their spices-cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Asia had vast palaces, large administrations, great fleets, rich cultures and subtle, complex cuisines. Europe was a collection of weak and warring states. Many a powerful warlord in China or Japan disposed of more troops than the contemporary King of Spain, Philip II, the most glorious of his line, the pre-eminent ruler in Europe.

The European fleets were adventurous, but small. The merchant class was just emerging. The culture of the Church of Rome provided the tallest beacons of high art. But the arts of cooking were those of the peasant, and more often than not, even the exalted ate rank meat. Spices were needed to relieve the taste of these unfavored morsels, to perfume the tables of the new bourgeoisie.

On the twenty-first of October, 1579, Francis Drake left Mindanao in the “Golden Hind”, on the last half of his voyage around the world. A few days later he made landfall at Ternate, anchoring off the north of the island. Large war canoes rowed out to meet him and Drake noted that he was greeted by a ‘Moorish gentleman with a chain which seemed of gold about his neck, and some keys hanging to a small silver chain. These were his insignia of office and Drake soon found that they were but baubles compared to the trappings of the man whose chamberlain he was.

“The king,” Sir Francis said of his meeting later with the Sultan himself,”had a very rich canopy with embossings of gold borne over him, and was guarded with twelve lances. From the waist to the ground was all cloth of gold, and that was very rich; in the attire of his head were finely wreathed diverse rings of plaited gold, of an inch or more in breadth which made a fair and princely show, somewhat resembling a crown in form; about his neck he had a chain of perfect gold, the links very great and one gold dubloon; on his left hand was a diamond, an emerald, a ruby and a turquoise; on his right hand, in one ring, a big and perfect turquoise, and, in another ring, many diamonds of a smaller size.”

This was the redoubtable Baabullah who had extended the island’s influence throughout those remote archipelagoes, and was reckoned to be as powerful and wealthy as the greatest of any sultans in Indonesia and its environs. The “Hind” was rowed to its place at the anchorage by four big canoes manned by island oarsmen, warriors and officials. There was much palaver, but Drake did not find easy bargains, he did not risk going ashore, nor did the Sultan come aboard. For each of their parts, Drake and Baabullah had reason to be cautious.

Apart from previous imbroglios the Sultan had had with Europeans he was at the time of Drake’s visit still enraged at the activities of a spy, a Portuguese masquerading as a Chinese, sent by the Governor of the Spanish Philippines. For his part, Drake struck trouble because he would not pay the percentage added to his transactions as a royal fee to help Baabullah maintain Ternate, and himself particularly, in the style to which he had become accustomed.

But in the end a deal was done and on November the ninth the “Golden Hind” sailed off with six tons of cloves, paid for with silks and linens which they had taken from the ships they had captured months previously off the South American coast. Three tons were jettisoned when the ship went on a reef shortly after, west of Sulawesi.

The remaining spices were among the most valuable cargoes from Drake’s voyage when he berthed at home in September 1580. and sold up his stock. It fetched six hundred thousand sterling pounds, he bought Buckland Abbey with the proceeds and was knighted by Elizabeth on the deck of the “Hind”. The return to the shareholders in the voyage was rated at a modest 4700 per centum. He had been away almost three years, the first Englishman to circumnavigate the world, and the first commander of any nation to complete a whole circumnavigation. He had attacked the Portuguese near Cape Verde, sacked towns and looted treasure ships off the west of South America, traded in the Moluccas and made his way safely back. Along the way he executed rivals, and excommunicated chaplains. He was, a contemporary Spaniard said, “of medium stature, blond, rather heavy than slender, merry, careful. He commands and governs imperiously. Sharp, ruthless, well-spoken, inclined to liberality and to ambition, boastful, not very cruel.”

The complete purposes of his voyage are still obscure. Were they, as the public believed, to establish trading bases among the fabled riches of the Pacific and the Moluccas? Or were they to raid the bases, to singe more hairs of the royal Spaniard’s beard in the west of South America, as his Queen hoped. No one really knows, but the call at the Spice Islands and the sampling of its great wealth was part of a careful purpose, though the results could not be calculated.

As John Maynard Keynes, the English economist who worked his own revolution in the international markets of the twentieth century, said in the ‘Treatise on Money”: “The booty brought back by Drake may fairly be considered the fountain and origin of British foreign investment. Elizabeth paid off out of the proceeds the whole of her foreign debt and invested a part of the balance (about forty two thousand pounds sterling) in the Levant Company; largely out of the profits of the Levant Company was formed the East India Company, the profits of which during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the main foundation of England’s foreign connection.”

The political and commercial strands of mercantilism were inextricably tangles here near th beginning of merchant trading capitalism-the beginning, that is, of what we now know as globalization. The great voyages of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries yielded huge profits; fueled great exchanges; criss-crossed trades in spices, calicoes, silks, dyes, manufactures, precious metals; enticed traders and administrators and soldiers to cross oceans, subdue colonies, build empires, die in the sun. Here, at Ternate, on its black sand beaches, beneath the smoking cone of the volcano, in the dappled cool aromas of the spice groves, was a place where international capitalism, multinational businesses and arms races began.

We stayed for three days at Ternate. The small Chinese hotel had just three rooms and a covered patio which looked over Ternate’s main street to the sea, past the shops on the other side, past the canoes and perahus and motorboats always crossing the calm waters, and beyond, through a smoky haze, to the grey blue outlines of the large island of Halmahera. Behind the hotel, through the big window beside which we would all eat an early breakfast or have tea and cakes in the afternoon, there was a jumble of rusted, iron-roofed houses and compounds and humpies, gradually running into, and being overtaken by, the jungle.

Above the jungles and the tall trees the towering volcano steeply rose. There were usually wisps of smoke breathing from it with flat layers of clouds above; or the blankets of clouds dropped and covered the mountain, cutting off half its height, leaving the fuming cone mysteriously obscured. And always there was the feeling that here was a magic mountain with a life and being of its own, and that witches and trolls and kami would at any moment appear from it.

Along the half-paved and rutted main street a honking babble of motor-bikes, bemos (motor driven rickshaws), small vans, trucks ran from very early morning until after midnight. The bemos and small buses were garishly painted. Several dozen tired and scruffy ponies drawing small covered carts clip-clopped reluctantly along the broken pavement and in and out of puddle holes constantly replenished by the daily falls of rain. From before dawn each day the heat was a stew, relieved only for a while in the afternoon by an intermittent, heavy, plopping rain, which brought bare-chested boys yelling and splashing water on pedestrians sheltering and steaming under the eaves of shops.

There were not many motor vehicles on Ternate, but most of the bemos seemed to spend the day, and much of the night, turning backwards and forwards along these few hundred meters of narrow promenade, flanked by two -story shop houses filled with shoddy collections of good from China, Japan and Singapore, with only an occasional hardware store or vehicle repairer or cobbler giving evidence of solid local industry. Further south this main street ran along the water on one side, with official buildings and the bupati’s offices on the other, and then it ended in the rutted yard of the old port littered with piles of broken cargo, its concrete berths always filled with steel ships, aluminum motorboats and wooden perahus. About a kilometer across the water the volcanic cone of Tidore rose up in almost a mirror image of Ternate. Ruins of old stone forts dotted the jungle on the hills, looking out over the narrow passage where once they poured fire on advancing men-o-war.

The office of the bupati of Ternate was very large and well-equipped, as if to make up in its own dimensions for the smallness and the poverty of the community which it administered. It was a gesture, perhaps, towards a glorious past long gone, and a promise of a future not yet in sight. The usual big map of the region spread right across one wall, and from floor to ceiling. It was finely modeled and sculpted in relief, and painted with great precision. The shape of that town would be just so, one thought, and the curve in that road would be just exactly right, there by those three coconut trees and the fish jumping out of the blue sea, painted with such care and love. There were many tables of figures pinned on the walls, and some officials were putting colored graphs in preparation for a seminar that afternoon on education.

The bupati was direct. He came, apparently, from Sumatra, and he and Subrowo had immediately struck up a joking acquaintance. “The problems of Ternate”, he said, with an almost Gallic shrug, and a lift of his peaked cap, and an understanding, sardonic smile,” is that we are a long way from Jakarta and the money, it has many friends and is offered many homes,” and he drew on his Benson and Hedges, “ it drops off for visits along the way.”

“But now”, he said, “ there is a new objective for Ternate and my district,” and he squared his shoulders, and pointed towards the map,”and you will see, you will see when you go to Halmahera, the big trees, and the many coconuts, and the big land-yes, this district will have a big picture in the future, here in the outer islands.”

We were bound for Halmahera, but it took two days for the bupati’s motorboat to turn up, and here there were no excuses. It had broken down, and there were no spare parts, and we would have to wait, and that was that, as if Ternate’s isolation had been a sufficient explanation for centuries. And when it did arrive, on the third morning, it came only to depart again. It was needed for duty of a higher, undisclosed priority and we would have to take one of the narrow, low, sleek, wooden craft , like Filipino bancas, which speed backwards and forwards between the islands and the coasts. The early breezes of the monsoon were blowing, and young boys, wagging it, or too small for school, were flying their kites from the wharves and in the empty streets on the edge of town. Pink and blue and red and green, big ones, small ones, shaped like birds, or fish, or dragons or ghosts, they were skilfully played in the fitful zephyrs. They are called layang layang in Indonesian. It is an onomatopoeic word: the kites zip up and down, in and out, over and under, again and again, gradually climbing up, until they are many hundreds of feet in the air, frail, coloured membranes testing themselves, tethered in the air beside the smoking mass of the volcano towering beyond.

We didn’t stay long on Halmahera. It was steaming hot. The thin, poor villagers seemed overcome with the heat, reluctant to move from the shade. There were indeed some rich soils and spreading palm groves, but little else. There was no flowering of wealth here, even less so than on Ternate itself. We were shown tall stands of trees, some mean school buildings, a rutted road, a few narrow clearings for new crops, the village head made a brief speech, we were handed green coconuts to drink, and asked to pay for them. Here was the only place we were not freely given local produce in abundance. Over the centuries the peoples of these villages had seen many come and many go, quickly, with their promises and their spoils, and only they had stayed on. We, too, would soon go. Subrowo’s head was shaking more than usual when we boarded the boat and his kretek belched smoke more furiously, and Sadoran’s lips formed a thin, tense smile. The tree of global capitalism, watered from here, had left barren and unfertilized the soil from which its fruits had sprung.

On the way back we dozed on the planked roof of the banca’s low cabin, moving fast across the still, almost leaden, ultramarine sea. We walked home to the hotel as dusk closed in, past the donkey carts and their bells, and the fishing perahus returning with the day’s catch.

That evening, Subrowo found his widow. After the evening meal of soup, deep-fried fish and vegetables, and small bananas, Sadoran and I went for jalan jalan, the evening promenade along the streets, picking our way around the potholes and past the grubby shops. Subrowo stayed behind in silent mystery. When we got back to the hotel about eleven o’clock Subrowo was still sitting on the covered patio, listlessly watching the TV. Sadoran vanished to bed, but I stayed and opened a bottle of beer for each of us. “She hasn’t come,” Subrowo said, “my widow”, and shook his head and blew his smoke in his compulsive way, and again, and again, as though in morose disbelief at the faithlessness of all women. “The boy have arranged it for me”, he went on,” and the bureau man at the port told me he knew the family, she is about thirty, and it is a good family, her husband worked in the customs.”

I lamented her absence, and he shook his head quickly again, and lit another kretek, and we worked our way through that bottle, and another, amusing each other sadly with tales of women and wine. “Perhaps she knows I am slow-motion Casanova and she is giving me slow foreplay,” he said, with his wolfish grin and quick shake again of the head. “You will stay and meet her, Mr Donell,” he said several times, but I thought he was whistling in the wind and at one o’clock I went to bed. We had to be up early again to catch the plane. But before my head had touched the pillow there were voices outside. One of them was soft and female, and they went on quietly talking.

We were awakened at six o’clock and when I appeared shortly afterwards Subrowo was already there, spruce and showered and good humored. I wondered how slow they had been, but he said nothing, and was amiability itself. Sadoran had arranged the luggage briskly and, as usual, had collected the tickets and remade our arrangements yet again. “We are not going to Ambon, I have a new message from Jakarta, we are going to Manado, but we go straight through, we have big meeting in Jakarta with the Minister there tomorrow. Jakarta wants your report.”

During our journey we had identified several feeder roads as investment priorities, three small and two medium sized ports, a new fast ferry-boat, and some community programs. It would make a good sized package for the aid agency. So we were off.

I thought Subrowo would be disappointed at missing out on Manado, but he appeared from within his cloud of smoke, shook his head calmly, and said “Mr Donell, next time, Mr Donell, I think next time we must do field survey among Manado susis, the advancement and welfare of the susis is important part of Pola, yes Mr Donell, we will put it in the Pola. It will be part of the Big Picture. This time Ternate, Mr Donell, next time Manado.”

The aircraft departed exactly on schedule. No hitches, no coughs, no delays, the engines ran sweetly and we lifted off without a flutter of the wings. The sun was not long up, and its rays struck across the silver sand and the beaches below, across the jungle and the dark lava flows, and through thin wisps of smoke rising from the tip of the volcano which this morning was completely clear of cloud. It was a brilliant beginning to the day.

In the town it was already hot and steamy, there were cries and hubbub and bustle, and the smoke from cooking fires drifted slowly, vertically, upwards. In a narrow street of low tin hovels, a few hundred meters back from the ocean, where Drake had moored the “Hind”, and the springs of capitalism had flowed, a boy was flying his layang layang. It dipped and tucked, and did back spins and front spins, and a long run of tumbles going lower and lower, almost to the roof tops, only to shoot upwards again, zipping to the right, slipping to the left, up and up, a small red disc straining playfully against its thin string, above the town, beside the mottled green slopes and smoldering blackness of the volcano. As we straightened on our course due west across the north side of the island, it was the last thing I saw.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s