May 22, 1609

Ruins of Fort Nassau on Banda Naira, built by the Dutch East India Company in 1609.

Ruins of Fort Nassau on Banda Naira, built by the Dutch East India Company in 1609.

On this date, fed up with their treatment at the hands of the Dutch, the people of Banda in the “East Indies” ambushed some Dutch soldiers, killing their leader, Admiral Pieter Verhoeven (Peter Verhoef). This was witnessed by a certain Jan Pieterzoon Coen, then a young lieutenant, who escaped.

By 1621, Coen had been appointed the Governor General of the United Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or VOC), and he set out to destroy resistance in the islands of Banda. On 8 May 1621, he ordered the brutal murder of 44 local leaders, called Orang Kaya.

VOC lieutenant Nicolas van Waert — whose own men could not fight the order and some of whom were killed when refusing to comply — expressed the general revulsion towards Coen’s methods:

Six Japanese soldiers were also ordered inside, and with their sharp swords they beheaded and quartered the eight chief orang kaya and then beheaded and quartered the thirty-six others. This execution was awful to see. The orang kaya died silently without uttering any sound except that one of them, speaking in the Dutch tongue, said, ‘Sirs, have you no mercy?’ But indeed nothing availed.

(…)

All that happened was so dreadful as to leave us stunned. The heads and quarters of those who had been executed were impaled upon bamboos and so displayed. Thus did it happen: God knows who is right. All of us, as professing Christians, were filled with dismay at the way this affair was brought to a conclusion, and we took no pleasure in such dealings.

Another VOC officer wrote that “things are carried on in such a criminal and murderous way that the blood of the poor people cries to heaven for revenge.”

The Palace inhabited by Governor J.P.Coen was built in 1611 by the Dutch East India Company.

The Palace inhabited by Governor J.P.Coen was built in 1611 by the Dutch East India Company.

Then, Coen orchestrated the massacre of virtually every single member of Banda’s male population over 18 years of age, reducing the total population of 15,000 to less than 1,000, the remainder consisting of mostly young girls and older women. The year 1621 is therefore etched into the minds of the Bandanese people to this day.

The Banda Archipelago is a small cluster of six idyllic emerald islets and scattered rocky outcrops, covering about 40 square miles and located in the middle of the Banda Sea of Indonesia. The Banda group consists of the islands of Banda Naira, Pulau Lonthor, Pulau Ai, Pulau Run, Gunung Api, Pulau Rozengrain, as well as tiny Pulau Hatta. The islands are the native home of the stately Myristica fragrans tree from which two spices, nutmeg and mace, are gathered. It was because of this that Banda became known as the original Spice Islands.

Banda’s nutmegs have been traded to Europe as far back as the second century B.C.E. by land and sea routes to China and were among the precious cargoes carried by camels along the Silk Road to the West. Nutmeg and other East Indian spices were brought to Europe by the crusaders. In medieval times, it was believed nutmeg could ward off the plague, so nutmeg became very popular and its price skyrocketed.

In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Turks, thus blocking the overland trade route for Christian Europe, and necessitating a sea route to the source of these spices. This launched the European Age of Exploration and Discovery. Vasco da Gama, Magellan, and other famous early explorers rounded the Cape of Good Hope in search of a sea route to the spiceries and greatly expanded European knowledge of the known world.

The Dutch massacre of forty-four Orang Kaya at Fort Nassau on 8 May 1621.

The Dutch massacre of forty-four Orang Kaya at Fort Nassau on 8 May 1621.

The Portuguese were among the earliest European arrivals in Southeast Asia. Alfonso de Albuquerque conquered Mallaca and immediately dispatched a squadron of three small ships to the fabled spiceries with the help and guidance of a local Malay pilot. Their search for the original source of the spices led them to the Banda Islands by early 1512. After friendly trading, the ships returned to Lisbon having realized more than one thousand percent profit. The Dutch arrived in 1599, almost 100 years after the Portuguese, who would then be displaced.

The nutmeg trade was a highly profitable one with spices selling for 300 times the purchase price in Banda. This amply justified the expense and risk in shipping them to Europe. The allure of such profits saw an increasing number of Dutch expeditions; investors soon saw that in trade with the East Indies, competition would eat into all their profits. Thus they united to form the VOC, which received a charter from the Netherlands on 31 December 1602 granting it a 21-year monopoly over the Asian trade.

The United Dutch East India Company is often considered to have been the first multinational corporation in the world and it was the first company to issue stock. It was also arguably the first megacorporation, possessing quasi-governmental powers, including the ability to build forts, maintain armies, wage war, imprison and execute convicts, negotiate treaties with indigenous rulers, coin money, and establish colonies.

On May 23, 1602, Dutch captain Wolfert Harmenszoon persuaded some of Banda Naira’s chiefs to sign a treaty (known as “The Eternal Compact“), in Dutch — a language they couldn’t read — granting the Dutch East India Company a monopoly in the nutmeg trade. Some, but not all, of the Orang Kaya signed the agreement, fearing to offend the merchants and invite violent reprisals if they refused. But since there was no real benefit in reserving all their spice for the Dutch, they did not abide by the agreement — if, indeed, they had ever considered doing so. The Dutch would later use this document to justify Dutch troops being brought in to defend their monopoly and to apply it to all of the nutmeg trade on all the Banda Islands, not just to the region controlled by the signatories.

References:

  • Stephen R. Brown. Merchant Kings: When Companies Ruled the World, 1600-1900 (Canada: Douglas & McIntyre, 2009).
  • Giles Milton. Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (Sceptre, 1999).
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