• Spice Islands – Part One

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    SPICE ISLANDS – PART ONE

    Adrian Arrington sat on the living room floor, shaking some nutmeg into his hot chocolate. He began separating the faded papers and mementos from his father’s trunks. As the oldest son it was his duty to go through and classify what was there. His father had died a month ago and it was a task he did not look forward to. Some of the yellowed papers looked as if they had been written many, many years ago. There were ledgers with columns of figures, and notations written in Dutch. At the bottom of the third trunk he found journals written by planters from the Dutch East Indies. As he looked through, he found one that was written by his great grandfather, Jon. The title was Spice Islands and it was sealed with red wax. It appeared never to have been opened. He broke the seal, turned the cover and began to read as pieces of parchment fell out.

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    Adrian’s family had a 210-plus year history in Indonesia – primarily in the Banda Islands. In fact they still owned a thirty-acre piece on Lontar, the largest of the islands. It was a matter of pride that every generation since Jon’s had produced a first-born son to carry on the name of Arrington. As he started through the pages Adrian thought about his family’s history in the Spice Islands and especially what nutmeg had meant to his ancestors.
    Only about one person in a thousand had the faintest idea where the Spice Islands were located, although most were familiar with the phrase. In a household spice cabinet, you’d probably find a container of a finely ground (almost like fine sand) nutmeg. Maybe to be used as a topping on whipped cream or on a cup of eggnog or maybe shaken on a pumpkin pie. Probably didn’t give it a thought. Nutmeg cost about $1 per oz, a sum quickly forgotten. There were many other uses for the spice such as in curries, perfumes and pharmaceuticals – as a painkiller ingredient.

    Adrian reviewed in his mind what he knew about growing and harvesting nutmeg. The nutmeg tree doesn’t bloom until its sixth year. Full maturity takes twenty years – and some trees are still producing at one hundred.

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    The bloom turns into a beige fruit –which either dries up or is made into jam or crystalline candy. What is left is the red mantle. which is ground into mace, another spice, used in baking and sauces. The stone underneath is turned over and over for three months to dry, then cracked and the deep brown center ground into a pepper like substance – Nutmeg – one of the world’s most desired spices, and until the 1900’s produced only in one place – The Spice Islands. The islands are within a few miles of one another – real name, the Banda Islands – are hard to find on a map. They about 1200 miles east of Java and 400 miles southwest of New Guinea – 300 miles north of Canberra, Australia – sitting as mountaintops in the Banda Sea, a fifteen thousand foot ocean trench. These islands are bunched in among the other large and small islands of the Malaysian/Indonesian Archipelagos. Eight million nutmeg trees grow on the islands along with cinnamon and cloves.

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    The first written appearance of nutmeg was in the 700’s when St. Theodore had his monks flavor their Pease Porridge with it. Arab traders brought it to Venice where it gained the reputation of warding off the plague. But the traders would never divulge where the nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon came from. And it remained a secret until 1511, when the Portuguese conquered the Malacca Area and discovered the Banda Islands. But they couldn’t gain a permanent foothold and eventually surrendered full control over Lontar and other islands to the Dutch.

    The control of Indonesia eventually solidified under the ownership and governance of the Dutch East Indies Company – Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, VOL– which controlled much of Malaysia and Indonesia. Their reign plus the eventual governance by Holland lasted over 400 years. Like the British East India Company, VOL was formed as a legal consortium of individual traders, shipbuilders and Investors. They had their own armies, ships, outposts and cities, all of which they ruled with an iron hand. India was under the control of the British East India Company for 101 years – until 1858 when the British Crown (The Raj) took over. Pretty much the same thing happened in Indonesia. The largest Dutch holding was Java and its capital of Batavia (present day Jakarta). The company put persoivers (planters) into all areas of their empire including thirty-four of them on Lontar, each plantation containing about seventy-five hundred nutmeg trees.
    The Dutch finally gained complete control of all the islands by trading one of their possessions in the Americas for a very small but profitable island call Rhun Ali in the Banda’s. The American island that they traded to the British was New Amsterdam (Manhattan), probably one of the worst mistakes the Dutch ever made.

    The owners of these plantations and the Dutch East India Company became wealthy – the retail price of nutmeg reaching as high as four hundred times the production cost. Decade after decade the plantations plugged along, sending spices in huge amounts back to Holland, England and the rest of Europe. Some of the planters returned to their native Netherlands, but some liked life in the islands so well that they never returned. Between 1602 and 1796 VOL send over a million Dutch Citizens to Indonesia to become planters, administrators, military officers and builders – it really was an empire that they ruled – composed of almost sixty million people.
    The VOL company occasionally paid its non-voting shareholders as high as 40% per annum. The yearly payment averaged 15% per year for over 100 years. Then others began smuggling Nutmeg trees to India, Grenada in the Caribbean, and Ceylon. Until the Japanese came in 1941 the Dutch continued their presence and control of the islands– 200 years as a complete monopoly on world nutmeg production. Huge mansions were built with imported marble. A large club was constructed on Lontar with lawns for tennis and a fully stocked bar. There were the usual interesting events that took place over the years – adultery, murder, theft, political intrigue, disease, death, half-caste children by the hundreds – all administrated by a Dutch or VOL Ruler. All but around a thousand original Banda natives were sent to Batavia and other Dutch holdings as slaves. Only a few were ever able to return.

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    In the early part of the 20th century, production and prices were still high for the spice. World War I came along and disrupted transportation, and when the plantations returned to normal there was less success due to competition with other production around the world.

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    On Lontar, the largest island, (which later was renamed Bandu Besta) there was a further consolidation of the plantations during the early 1800’s. William Arrington, Adrian’s great, great, great grandfather, an Englishman, had the largest plantation on all of the islands – combining what were three of the best contiguous properties – he had under his control 23,000 trees, and also did substantial trading in cloves, cinnamon, pepper and other spices. The trees produced about one hundred and thirty-seven thousand pounds of pure nutmeg in a normal year.

    How did an Englishman end up with this property in the middle of a Dutch Empire? Well, he had a pressing reason (gambling debts) to leave England and lose himself in the far east. He ended up on Lontar where he got a job on the Naaktgeboren plantation. The Naaktgeboren’s had a daughter Gerta whom he promptly married. Seventeen interesting and productive years went by, then William was killed, a dispute over a half cast child that may or may not have been his. In her journal, his wife wrote she was sure it was William’s.
    Gerta died within the year and left the estate to her son David Arrington. David and his wife produced two children, Jon and Greta. Greta was frail and eventually died of yellow fever around her eighth birthday. Jon was robust but never lost his baby fat. His completion was florid with small eyes in a round face. He had a good constitution, and a mind of his own. Most of what was contained in the journal was about Jon’s life in Indonesia – there were also many slips of paper that explained his feelings and actions that he had taken.

    He lived on the Banda islands until he was eight, almost turning into a native himself since there were very few white children his age – his close friends were all natives. His parents tried to keep him away from his pals, but he easily eluded them. His yellow hair and blue eyes were the only things that distinguished him from his friends as his skin darkened under the tropical sun. He spoke the local dialect fluently as well as Dutch and English. He knew the islands and was completely familiar with every inch of Lontar. His parents also took him all over the Indonesian Archipelago including the islands of Java, Borneo, Sumatra and Timor. They even made one journey to Darwin in Northern Australia.

    There was one place on the island that he and his friends valued above all others – a small lake about a mile from the Planter’s Club. It was a quarter of mile wide and a half-mile long, fed by a stream that came off the volcano – rain came each year during the Monsoon from December though May to replenish the aquifer. The lake drained somewhere into the volcanic rock on the its bottom, which in some places was very deep. There were parts of the lake below the volcanic cliffs where its foundation had not been seen or touched – too deep. The seashore was only about a mile and a half away and it was easy to determine where the lake’s fresh water came up from the sharp black rocks on the ocean bottom to mix with the salt water. Where the two met there was always a blurry divider and the coral would not grow in the fresh water.

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    The lake, (more of a very large pond really) had an almost magical feel to it. The surrounding plants were reflected in the emerald water. His father called him an amphibian because he spent so much time there. Sometimes he would sneak away late at night and just float around under the moon. He went almost every day to bathe and escape the heat, but mainly to think and plan, and to look at the sky. Natives were forbidden to go to the lake, but he snuck in his friends, especially at night. There was one special place – a very small cove that was covered with overhead trees. The lake there doubled back on itself and you had to know right where it was to find it. It was invisible from only way up on the hill.

    In 1908 his parents shipped him off to school in England at The Warwick School for Boys (founded in 914, the oldest continuous school in England).

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    He found right away that he missed his tropical island very much, especially the lake and all his friends. The cold weather and rain made him miserable. He went back for a couple of months every three years, and his father and mother came on the years he did not travel back to Lontar. The journey was very long, and it was almost time to come back to England right after he got to the island. He would extend his visit sometimes a month into the school year, but managed not to get behind.

    As he grew his weight was over proportioned to his height. At seventeen he was five foot nine inches, but weighed one hundred ninety-five pounds. His small deep-set eyes and chubby face unfortunately gave him a slight porcine expression. Not of meanness but of stupidity. He was far from that and was always in the top percentage of his classes. Took a 1st in mathematics and geography his last year. Despite his bulk he was very strong with the back of a bull, and was tagged with the nickname of “The Bear” – an all star at Rugby and Wrestling. He was kind hearted and accommodating, but occasionally lost his temper and threw his weight around.
    One unfortunate underclassman called him Piggy behind his back – but Jon heard and pummeled him- blooding his nose, blackening an eye, and loosening a couple of teeth. After the beating was over, Jon had the classmate apologize and then shake his hand. He did hold grudges, however, and you never knew when he was going to settle what he thought were insults or slights. He wasn’t a coward who struck from behind, but if he had a chance on the playing field he would savage an enemy.

    At eighteen he thought about going up to Cambridge to study philosophy, but his real love was back in Indonesia. After graduation he took The Prinz Maurits, the first ship headed to Java, then boarded a trader’s vessel at Batavia to take him to Lontar. His parents were excited to see him and he quickly integrated back into the society and rhythm of the islands. His father made him work furiously to learn everything there was to know about producing Nutmeg and Cloves and introduced him to the underlying intricacies of trading in other spices. But he still went to the pool almost every day. There was just something about it – that calmed and relaxed him. But now he went alone.
    About a year after he had been back, one of his native friends became the father of a newborn daughter. James and he had been born within a week of one another and had become lifelong friends as they grew up. The little girl had become ill and couldn’t keep any food down. Jon’s father said it wasn’t worthwhile to save a sick native girl. But Jon was convinced the doctor on Serum Island, 200 miles to the North could help. His father told him he was a bloody fool, wasting his time. But Jon hired a schooner, and then sailed James and his daughter to the big island at his own expense. As luck and persistence would have it, the doctor found that the esophagus was partially blocked and he was able to clear the throat with a quick operation. Within a week the little girl was ready to travel. James told Jon that he owed him his daughter’s life and whatever Jon asked of him, he would do, but it would only satisfy a small portion of a debt he could never repay.

    Jon just laughed. “It’s a pleasure for me to be of help to my good friend, you owe me nothing.” Over the next six months James kept pestering Jon for opportunities to do something for him. Finally one late afternoon he asked Jon to come with him. They met at the lake ready to go for a swim. James said to Jon, “Do you trust me?” “Of course,” said Jon. “How long can you hold your breath?” James asked.” “Probably two minutes.” “Then follow me into the water and hold on to the rope that joins us together – follow me exactly. I am going to show you something that only I know – that has been passed down from father to son.” An hour later they were sitting down by the ocean; Jon, very pale, had a grim expression on his face.

    End of Part One

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