The Malay Archipelago, by Alfred Russel Wallace

Chapter 19

Banda.

(DECEMBER 1857, MAY 1859, APRIL 1861.)

THE Dutch mail steamer in which I travelled from Macassar to Banda and Amboyna was a roomy and comfortable vessel, although it would only go six miles an hour in the finest weather. As there were but three passengers besides myself, we had abundance of room, and I was able to enjoy a voyage more than I had ever done before. The arrangements are somewhat different from those on board English or Indian steamers. There are no cabin servants, as every cabin passenger invariably brings his own, and the ship’s stewards attend only to the saloon and the eating department. At six A.M. a cup of tea or coffee is provided for those who like it. At seven to eight there is a light breakfast of tea, eggs, sardines, etc. At ten, Madeira, Gin and bitters are brought on deck as a whet for the substantial eleven o’clock breakfast, which differs from a dinner only in the absence of soup. Cups of tea and coffee are brought around at three P.M.; bitters, etc. again at five, a good dinner with beer and claret at half-past six, concluded by tea and coffee at eight. Between whiles, beer and sodawater are supplied when called for, so there is no lack of little gastronomical excitements to while away the tedium of a sea voyage.

Our first stopping place was Coupang, at the west end of the large island of Timor. We then coasted along that island for several hundred miles, having always a view of hilly ranges covered with scanty vegetation, rising ridge behind ridge to the height of six or seven thousand feet. Turning off towards Banda we passed Pulo–Cambing, Wetter, and Roma, all of which are desolate and barren volcanic islands, almost as uninviting as Aden, and offering a strange contrast to the usual verdure and luxuriance of the Archipelago. In two days more we reached the volcanic group of Banda, covered with an unusually dense and brilliant green vegetation, indicating that we had passed beyond the range of the hot dry winds from the plains of Central Australia. Banda is a lovely little spot, its three islands enclosing a secure harbour from whence no outlet is visible, and with water so transparent, that living corals and even the minutest objects are plainly seen on the volcanic sand at a depth of seven or eight fathoms. The ever smoking volcano rears its bare cone on one side, while the two larger islands are clothed with vegetation to the summit of the hills.

Going on shore, I walked up a pretty path which leads to the highest point of the island on which the town is situated, where there is a telegraph station and a magnificent view. Below lies the little town, with its neat red-tiled white houses and the thatched cottages of the natives, bounded on one side by the old Portuguese fort. Beyond, about half a mile distant, lies the larger island in the shape of a horseshoe, formed of a range of abrupt hills covered with fine forest and nutmeg gardens; while close opposite the town is the volcano, forming a nearly perfect cone, the lower part only covered with a light green bushy vegetation. On its north side the outline is more uneven, and there is a slight hollow or chasm about one-fifth of the way down, from which constantly issue two columns of smoke, as well as a good deal from the rugged surface around and from some spots nearer the summit. A white efflorescence, probably sulphur, is thickly spread over the upper part of the mountain, marked by the narrow black vertical lines of water gullies. The smoke unites as it rises, and forms a dense cloud, which in calm, damp weather spreads out into a wide canopy hiding the top of the mountain. At night and early morning, it often rises up straight and leaves the whole outline clear.

It is only when actually gazing on an active volcano that one can fully realize its awfulness and grandeur. Whence comes that inexhaustible fire whose dense and sulphurous smoke forever issues from this bare and desolate peak? Whence the mighty forces that produced that peak, and still from time to time exhibit themselves in the earthquakes that always occur in the vicinity of volcanic vents? The knowledge from childhood of the fact that volcanoes and earthquakes exist, has taken away somewhat of the strange and exceptional character that really belongs to them. The inhabitant of most parts of northern Europe sees in the earth the emblem of stability and repose. His whole life-experience, and that of all his age and generation, teaches him that the earth is solid and firm, that its massive rocks may contain water in abundance, but never fire; and these essential characteristics of the earth are manifest in every mountain his country contains. A volcano is a fact opposed to all this mass of experience, a fact of so awful a character that, if it were the rule instead of the exception, it would make the earth uninhabitable a fact so strange and unaccountable that we may be sure it would not be believed on any human testimony, if presented to us now for the first time, as a natural phenomenon happening in a distant country.

The summit of the small island is composed of a highly crystalline basalt; lower down I found a hard, stratified slatey sandstone, while on the beach are huge blocks of lava, and scattered masses of white coralline limestone. The larger island has coral rock to a height of three or four hundred feet, while above is lava and basalt. It seems probable, therefore, that this little group of four islands is the fragment of a larger district which was perhaps once connected with Ceram, but which was separated and broken up by the same forces which formed the volcanic cone. When I visited the larger island on another occasion, I saw a considerable tract covered with large forest trees — dead, but still standing. This was a record of the last great earthquake only two years ago, when the sea broke in over this part of the island and so flooded it as to destroy the vegetation on all the lowlands. Almost every year there is an earthquake here, and at intervals of a few years, very severe ones which throw down houses and carry ships out of the harbour bodily into the streets.

Notwithstanding the losses incurred by these terrific visitations, and the small size and isolated position of these little islands, they have been and still are of considerable value to the Dutch Government, as the chief nutmeg-garden in the world. Almost the whole surface is planted with nutmegs, grown under the shade of lofty Kanary trees (Kanarium commune). The light volcanic soil, the shade, and the excessive moisture of these islands, where it rains more or less every month in the year, seem exactly to suit the nutmeg-tree, which requires no manure and scarcely any attention. All the year round flowers and ripe fruit are to be found, and none of those diseases occur which under a forced and unnatural system of cultivation have ruined the nutmeg planters of Singapore and Penang.

Few cultivated plants are more beautiful than nutmeg-trees. They are handsomely shaped and glossy-leaved, growing to the height of twenty or thirty feet, and bearing small yellowish flowers. The fruit is the size and colour of a peach, but rather oval. It is of a tough fleshy consistence, but when ripe splits open, and shows the dark-brown nut within, covered with the crimson mace, and is then a most beautiful object. Within the thin, hard shell of the nut is the seed, which is the nutmeg of commerce. The nuts are eaten by the large pigeons of Banda, which digest the mace, but cast up the nut with its seed uninjured.

The nutmeg trade has hitherto been a strict monopoly of the Dutch Government; but since leaving the country I believe that this monopoly has been partially or wholly discontinued, a proceeding which appears exceedingly injudicious and quite unnecessary. There are cases in which monopolies are perfectly justifiable, and I believe this to be one of them. A small country like Holland cannot afford to keep distant and expensive colonies at a loss; and having possession of a very small island where a valuable product, not a necessity of life, can be obtained at little cost, it is almost the duty of the state to monopolise it. No injury is done thereby to anyone, but a great benefit is conferred upon the whole population of Holland and its dependencies, since the produce of the state monopolies saves them from the weight of a heavy taxation. Had the Government not kept the nutmeg trade of Banda in its own hands, it is probable that the whole of the islands would long ago have become the property of one or more large capitalists. The monopoly would have been almost the same, since no known spot on the globe can produce nutmegs so cheaply as Banda, but the profits of the monopoly world have gone to a few individuals instead of to the nation.

As an illustration of how a state monopoly may become a state duty, let us suppose that no gold existed in Australia, but that it had been found in immense quantities by one of our ships in some small and barren island. In this case it would plainly become the duty of the state to keep and work the mines for the public benefit, since by doing so, the gain would be fairly divided among the whole population by decrease of taxation; whereas by leaving it open to free trade while merely keeping the government of the island; we should certainly produce enormous evils during the first struggle for the precious metal, and should ultimately subside into the monopoly of some wealthy individual or great company, whose enormous revenue would not equally benefit the community. The nutmegs of Banda and the tin of Banca are to some extent parallel cases to this supposititious one, and I believe the Dutch Government will act most unwisely if they give up their monopoly.

Even the destruction of the nutmeg and clove trees in many islands, in order to restrict their cultivation to one or two where the monopoly could be easily guarded, usually made the theme of so much virtuous indignation against the Dutch, may be defended on similar principles, and is certainly not nearly so bad as many monopolies we ourselves have until very recently maintained. Nutmegs and cloves arc not necessaries of life; they are not even used as spices by the natives of the Moluccas, and no one was materially or permanently injured by the destruction of the trees, since there are a hundred other products that can be grown in the same islands, equally valuable and far more beneficial in a social point of view. It is a case exactly parallel to our prohibition of the growth of tobacco in England, for fiscal purposes, and is, morally and economically, neither better nor worse. The salt monopoly which we so long maintained in India was in much worse. As long as we keep up a system of excise and customs on articles of daily use, which requires an elaborate array of officers and coastguards to carry into effect, and which creates a number of purely legal crimes, it is the height of absurdity for us to affect indignation at the conduct of the Dutch, who carried out a much more justifiable, less hurtful, and more profitable system in their Eastern possessions.

I challenge objectors to point out any physical or moral evils that have actually resulted from the action of the Dutch Government in this matter; whereas such evils are the admitted results of every one of our monopolies and restrictions. The conditions of the two experiments are totally different. The true “political economy” of a higher race, when governing a lower race, has never yet been worked out. The application of our “political economy” to such cases invariably results in the extinction or degradation of the lower race; whence, we may consider it probable that one of the necessary conditions of its truth is the approximate mental and social unity of the society in which it is applied. I shall again refer to this subject in my chapter on Ternate, one of the most celebrated of the old spice-islands.

The natives of Banda are very much mixed, and it is probable that at least three-fourths of the population are mongrels, in various degrees of Malay, Papuan, Arab, Portuguese, and Dutch. The first two form the bases of the larger portion, and the dark skins, pronounced features, and more or less frizzly hair of the Papuans preponderates. There seems little doubt that the aborigines of Banda were Papuans, and a portion of them still exists in the Ke islands, where they emigrated when the Portuguese first took possession of their native island. It is such people as these that are often looked upon as transitional forms between two very distinct races, like the Malays and Papuans, whereas they are only examples of intermixture.

The animal productions of Banda, though very few, are interesting. The islands have perhaps no truly indigenous Mammalia but bats. The deer of the Moluccas and the pig have probably been introduced. A species of Cuscus or Eastern opossum is also found at Banda, and this may be truly indigenous in the sense of not having been introduced by man. Of birds, during my three visits of one or two days each, I collected eight kinds, and the Dutch collectors have added a few others. The most remarkable is a fine and very handsome fruit-pigeon, Carpophaga concinna, which feeds upon the nutmegs, or rather on the mace, and whose loud booming note is to be continually heard. This bird is found in the Ke and Matabello islands as well as Banda, but not in Ceram or any of the larger islands, which are inhabited by allied but very distinct species. A beautiful small fruit-dove, Ptilonopus diadematus, is also peculiar to Banda.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30