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Two Notes on Banda Islands
班達島,行記兩則
June 13th, 2019Type: Art Production
Author: 吳思嶔, 陳佳鈴 (translator) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 群島資料庫Nusantara Archive
Note: The author Wu Sih-Chin and artist Liu Yu took an eighteen-day whirlwind trip around Maluku Islands, during which they visited Banda Islands by riding the Pelni ferries with the locals. On this trip, they gain news insights about the Spice Islands – also known for being “the most heavenly” islands–through the nutmeg fruit and its unique lacy covering–aril–around the kernel. These new insights revolve around the islands’ unique social and geographic characteristics and its heart-wrenching colonial past, echoing the work of naturalist G. E. Rumphius, which inspired Liu Yu’s new work "Caecus creatures" in group show Letter . Callus . Post-war curated by Chen Hsiang-Wen. In the meantime, an octopus unique to the volcanic islands crawls into the author’s words, providing a non-human perspective, ending on a tale that involved convergent evolution.
Liu Yu, "Caecus creaturae", video, 2019; image courtesy of artist

It was the first ferry from Ambon to Banda Islands after the New Year’s Vacation. The ferry is a large ship called Pelni. Its main function is to maintain the cargo logistics amongst the islands in the archipelago. Even though the Pelni ferries do take on passengers, there is no limit on the number of passengers abroad, no cabin designation, no seat assignments, and no safety regulations. I am guessing there are no life jackets either. The journey we took on it was twelve-hour long, including an eight-hour overnight voyage, as well as time spent waiting for cargos to load and unload.

The purpose of our eighteen-day trip to Indonesia’s Maluku Islands is to get footage for Liu Yu latest video work. One of the filming locations was on Banda Islands, where the uncomfortable ship was headed. Both the cabins and the decks were packed with passengers. People were asleep, nestled between packages, luggage, and piles of clothes. There were vendors all over the place, and people were constantly going up and down the ship, passing along coffees, carrying instant noodles cups, throwing and catching bottled water, or exchanging Indonesian cash bundled like toilet paper rolls. There was also a copious amount of trash that got blown into the Pacific Ocean. Finally, we arrived on Banda with this ship that was endlessly carrying out transactions and spewing out trash.

 

Nutmeg

On the main islands named Bandanaira, which has 18,000 residents, there are: three villages; an airport with just one 900-meter runway; a port that welcomed ferries twice a week; Dutch colonial villa; two forts built by Europeans; fish markets; Chinese cemeteries that have existed for a few hundred years; a mosque that is under construction; cannon barrel discarded by the side of the road; bats as big as eagles; houses built with coral stones and grass; almond trees with massive buttress roots; and nutmeg fruits laid out to dry everywhere.

Residents of the island are very friendly to the foreign visitors. Banda Islands are often ranked as the “the most heaven-like” islands by travel magazines. As a tourist, besides the perk of cheap goods and services, it is easy to enjoy the foods and culture. The hotels provide all kinds of itineraries to choose from, with activities such as snorkeling, island hopping, and visiting spice farms. One could also simply take a stroll down the street and be approached by local residents on scooters who offer a customized itinerary. Simply jump on the back of the scooters. They can take you in and around all the villages, circumference the island; they would introduce their friends and families to you, and share their knowledge and friendship. At the end, you get to decide how much to pay them.

Nutmeg fruit and flower by A. Peter, Botanische Wandtafeln, 1853-1937

Liu Yu’s project is about the work of 17th century naturalist Georg Eberhard Rumphius, who came to Indonesia with the Dutch East India Company. His research and journal entries are closely associated with the colonial history of Banda Islands and the role nutmeg played in it.(註1) I was not very familiar with the spice before. The only association I could make is seeing nutmeg on the label of spice bottles in the grocery store. I brought some dried nutmeg fruits back to Taiwan to gift to friends, and they all asked: “What is nutmeg?” Unbeknown to me, there is nutmeg native to Taiwan as well, on Lanyu Island (“Orchid Island”).(註2) Nutmeg is a small evergreen tree that grows in tropical regions. The part that is most commonly used for food and spice is the fruit. The nutmeg fruit is rich in oil. The Tao people of Lanyu use it as dyeing agent, which makes dyes more evenly distributed and the color more stable. The meat of the fruit tastes very sour. It has a unique flavor that I have never encountered in Taiwan.

From its outward appearance, nutmeg looks like any other tropical fruit. Only when the fruit is cut open, is its peculiar characteristic revealed. Between the meat and the kernel of the fruit, there is a layer of reddish, flame-shaped, lacy covering–like a mask wrapping around the kernel. It is called an “aril,” unique to species of the genus Myristica. Once dried, the aril is used to make the spice “mace”, which has a more delicate taste than the seed.

What surprises me the most is that the design on these flame-shaped masks formally resemble visual symbols I see in Indonesia. There is a visual language based on vibrant colors, soft lines, and something in-between order and disarray. Whenever I arrive at a country new to me, I only start to feel connected to the local culture when I can locate the “natural object” that resembled prevalent cultural symbols. For me, the aril makes up the design foundation in Banda, connecting to its weather, volcano, sense of time, faith, scent, and islander personality. Or rather, the aril is some sort of design or spiritual formula that gives rise to this cultural system. People who arrive on this island thereafter use this formula to construct today’s Banda; the formula assimilates both people who settled here early on, as well as immigrants who later brought in other cultural entities.

Banda archipelago is composed of ten islands scattered in the Banda Sea, and it is 140 kilometers wide. The iconic volcano, Gunung Api, marks its center, protruding out of the ocean as a small round island. This volcano is like a giant that is soaking in the water, only showing its eyes and nose, with the rest of its body submerged under the water. The tip of the mountain visible above the water surface is 640 meters in height. Living creatures cover the giant from heat to toe. Its upper body is covered by tropical broadleaf tress and its lower body is an expanse of coral reefs and sea creatures. Gunung Api attracts tons of scuba divers every year. In an area north of it undersea, coral reefs grow extremely rapidly. Local residents say that it takes only two or three years for a coral reef the size of a dining table to come to being. No one to date can explain this phenomenon. You often hear that it is something that even science cannot explain; though, I don’t find that this makes it a mystery.

 

Banda Neira, Banda Islands, 1724~1726

Volcano, Octopus, and Mother

Perhaps, few have memory of Gunung Api’s secrets. Anyone interested in indigenous cultures or anthropology, upon seeing a volcano that erects out of the Southern Pacific Sea, would assume that there is a legend associated with it. This volcano blatantly checks all the boxes for being seen as “almighty”, not to mention that it is a living entity. However, we did not get much reaction asking around for stories or legends about this volcano. We only received some intriguing facts. One is that the locals do not refer to this volcano as Gunung Api. They call it “Lewerani”. The other is that this volcano is female (the suffix -ani refers to the feminine).

Whenever we ask people why the volcano is gendered, no one can answer the question (granted, we only asked a limited number of people). Why would there be such a rupture in memory? What I immediately think of is the massacre during Dutch colonial period. The history of Banda Islands is extremely complex. In the history of marine trade, it was famously known as the Spiced Islands – being a main source of cloves and nutmeg, I will not go into the history here as there is a lot of information on the internet and I would not be able to cover all the complexities in one short essay. The massacre took place between 1609 and 1621. The impetus was that the Dutch East India Company wanted monopoly of Banda Island’s nutmeg industry. The company first executed forty-four tribal chiefs (orang kaja) on the account of islanders’ violation of certain treaties. In subsequent years, the killings continued. Before the massacre, there was an estimate of 13,000 to 15,000 people on the island—most of them were Malays and Javanese, others were Arabs, Turks, and Chinese. However, only about 1,000 people survived, who were later sent to the company’s headquarter in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) to be slave labor.

After all the original residents were cleared out, the Dutch imported slave labor form Java and Sulawesi, in order to control the management of the nutmeg production. This seems to be a common practice during the Age of Sail. Banda Islands is the third place I have been where the indigenous people were completely wiped out by the Europeans—the others are Tasmania in Australia and Little Liuchiu in Taiwan. In 2014, I was hiking in a national park in Tasmania, and one of the mountains has an exposed rock summit, shaped very much like Dabajian Mountain in Taiwan. In that moment, a sense of identification with Taiwanese mountain culture was evoked in me. I thought to myself that perhaps that place in Tasmania similarly is a cultural origin of a tribe. However, I recalled later that the indigenous people of Tasmania have all been killed. Who would remember what that mountain belongs to? Perhaps, this is just my own speculation around why there is a memory rupture with regards to the volcano in Banda. However, regardless of if these mountains have Austronesian languages names, or Europeans names, the same construct of humans projecting onto natural entities is at work. Sometimes, I even appreciate the ingenious ways “sacred trees” in Taiwan’s Yilan are named after Confucius, Yue Fei, and Emperor Taizing of Tang.

Besides there being female volcano, we learned another legend about the feminine. It is inaccurate to call it a legend, since according to Allan, it only happened a few years ago. Allan is the owner of the B&B we stayed at. Allan is a dark-skinned, stalky man who is talkative and easy-going. For some reason, he has an Italian accent when speaking in the local dialect. The B&B he operates is called “Allan Bungalow” and it is located at the foot of Gunung Api. When the volcano erupted in 1988, he was one of the few people who were stranded. He said that for about ten days during that time, you could not see the sky. The whole town was covered in white, and there was dead fish floating on the entire surface of the ocean. They were stranded in one small house and could not go outside. Every night, they could hear a weeping sound coming up from the ground, as if it was to swallow the whole island.

Octopus by Ernst Heinrich Philipp August Haeckel, 1834-1919

During our two-day stay at the B&B, we had a lot of conversations with Allan. He is quite enthusiastic about discovering the island’s history. He mentioned one bizarre incident. A few years ago, an octopus all of the sudden arrived at his neighbor’s house. The octopus came up the stone stairs by the harbor, went down an alleyway, and entered the house via the kitchen window. It just stood there, as if it was waiting for something to happen. When the family noticed the octopus, they claimed: “mom is back!” and rushed to the harbor to get a bucket of seawater. They put the octopus in the seawater and had the octopus with the bucket sitting at the dining room table. This bizarre incident attracted the attention of the whole neighborhood. Everyone came to witness this miraculous octopus mother. “The thing is, this has happened multiple times,” Allan explained,

All the families that had an octopus visit, had a mother figure pass away a few years past. So, everyone believes that the octopus is the mother incarnated. The octopus mothers all spend a few hours in the house, and left on their own, returning to the sea.

We were in utter shock when we learned this story, unable to conceive of a cosmology that would reconcile with the story. Also, we didn’t have enough time to investigate if this was true. According to Allan, it is normal amongst the islanders to see the octopus as their mother incarnated.

In a lot of traditions, it is believed that humans do not just leave when they die. Rather, their souls could return. When I was doing research about octopus, I came across an article on BBC written by American biologist Jason G. Goldman(註3). In it, he describes all kinds of unbelievable powers and mysteries of the octopus. Goldman’s research centers around what made this sea creature evolve to be so highly intelligent. His conclusion upended my imagination of the octopus on Banda Islands. Below is an excerpt from the article.

So how did this squishy sea-dwelling invertebrate evolve an intelligence that rivals the smartest among spined animals? Andrew Packard, a University of Edinburgh physiologist, thought that it was because the invertebrate cephalopods evolved in an environment in which they had to compete with fish for food, and in which they had to avoid being eaten by the same predators as the fish. Since the ancestors of fish and octopuses were eaten by the same predators, chief among them the ichthyosaurs (“the dolphins of Mesozoic seas,” says Packard), in many ways they were subject to the same selection pressures. Fossil records reveal similar migration patterns among cephalopods and fish. They first emerged in relatively shallow, coastal waters, moved into more oceanic, deeper seas, and eventually came back to recolonise the coasts.

If Packard is right, then the alien octopus’s vertebrate-like intelligence was the result of having to survive in a world dominated by vertebrates. Our own ancestors’ behaviour, in a way, unintentionally pushed cephalopods to create themselves in our own image. Or as Packard mused, “it is as if natural selection had favoured those that took the line, ‘if you cannot beat them, join them.’

Footnote
[1] Nutmeg (scientific name: Myristica fragrans), evergreen tree that could reach ten meters tall, with oval-shape leaves that measure four to eight centimeters and have waxy coating. Its fruits are round, and about the size of a plum, with a groove running down the center like a butt crack. It can be found in Southeast Asia, Australia, Southern coastal China, and the Caribbean.
[2] The nutmeg found on Lanyu Island is called Cagayan Nutmeg; it is native also to Taiwan’s Green Island and the Philippines. Currently, it can be found in old-growth forests between 50 and 300 meters above sea level in Nantou, Pingtung, Taitung, Lanyu (Orchid Island), and Green Island (Lyudao). The plant part can be used as building material, for making mortar and pestle, and for landscape gardening. The fruit can be made into dyes, and the seed and aril could be used for making spices and medicine.
[3] Jason G Goldman, "The alien brains living on earth", BBC.