The exquisite islands of Banda, dominated by the stately volcano of Goenoeng Api (the mountain of fire), form the climax of the enchanting Moluccas. Contour and colour reach their utmost grace and softest refinement in this ideal spot, a priceless jewel resting on the heart of the Malay Archipelago.
The mists of dawn have scarcely lifted their gossamer veils from the dreaming sea, when the pinnacled rocks of Rum and Aye, the outposts of the Banda group, pierce the swathing vapours. The creamy cliffs of Swangi (the Ghost Island), traditionally haunted by the spirits of the departed, show their spectral outlines on the northern horizon, and the sun-flushed "wings of the morning" span the sapphire arch of heaven as we enter the sheltered gulf of the Zonnegat, fringed by luxuriant woods clothing a mountain side, and brushing the water with a green fringe of trailing branches. Gliding between Cape Lantaka and two isolated crags, the steamer enters a glassy lake, encircled by sylvan heights, with the menacing cone of the Goenoeng Api rising sheer from the water's edge. A white town climbs in irregular tiers up the shelving terraces of a fairy island, the central hill crowned by the crenellated battlements of a grey citadel. The largest ship can anchor close to shore, for the rugged boundaries of Banda descend by steep gradients into the crystalline depths. Chinese and Arab campongs border European streets of concrete houses, long and low, with flat roofs and external galleries.
The southern shore of Banda Neira faces the forest-clad heights of Great Banda, clothed from base to summit with nutmeg trees, shadowed by huge kanaris, their interlacing canopies protecting the precious spice plantations from the sun. A slender rowing boat, known as a belang, makes a brilliant point of colour on the blue strait between the sister islands. Red and yellow flags and pennants flutter above the green deck; the clash of gongs and cymbals echoes across the water, and a weird chant accompanies the rhythmic plash of the short oars, as the brown rowers toss them high in air, and bring them down with a sharp splash. A splendid avenue of kanari-trees extends along the shore, the usual Dutch church symbolises the uncompromising grimness of Calvinistic creed, and the crumbling fort of Orange-Nassau, the scene of many stirring incidents in the island past, adjoins the beautiful thatched bungalow of the Resident, the broad eaves emerging from depths of richest foliage. A subterranean passage connects the deserted stronghold on the shore with Fort Belgica, the citadel now used as barracks, but formerly for the preservation of the nutmegs from the fierce raids of foreign powers, when the new-born passion for spices intoxicated the mind of the world, and kindled the fires of war between East and West. The lofty peak of the Goenoeng Api still smoulders, although the main crater is supposed to be extinct. The lower slopes, where not planted with vegetables by enterprising invaders from the island of Boeton, abound with delicate ferns and rare orchids, for the fertility of the volcanic soil, rich in metallic ingredients, creates a luxuriant growth. Sulphureous vapours rise continually from a plateau beneath the summit, where tumbled boulders of blackened lava lie sunken in deep layers of volcanic ash. Banda Neira evidently rose from the sea in some long-past eruption of the larger island, now the long ridge of a ruined crater which collapsed in a fierce outburst, and threw off the fragments of rock which compose the outer group. A curious fatalism characterises the inhabitants of volcanic districts, and the incalculable value of Banda in the middle ages outweighed all risks of eruption and earthquake. The history of island colonisation by Portugal, Spain, and Holland, forms a continuous record of battle, loot, and persecution, in which the native population was decimated, and even now the inhabitants would be quite insufficient to cultivate and gather the "golden fruit," without the aid of innumerable emigrants from Java. Hard measures were dealt out in order to maintain the monopoly of spices, and the injury to the native races, by destroying the nutmeg trees of the other islands, crippled the trade which had found a natural outlet in Asia. All the nutmegs were sent to Europe, but one-fifth of the yearly produce was diverted by smuggling into forbidden channels, though severe punishment was inflicted upon offenders. Economic administration was unknown in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the holocaust of spices burnt in the market-place of Amsterdam, and the extermination of the nutmeg trees in Moluccan islands, sent a thrill of horror through the European world, which placed such an exaggerated value on the possession of spices that the wars waged to secure them breathe the romantic fanaticism of a wild crusade. Monopoly and slavery were at length definitely abolished, and in 1873 the Dutch Government, realising the necessity of Free Trade, sanctioned the independence of the nutmeg planters. The far-seeing views of Sir Stamford Raffles during the second brief English occupation of the Moluccas, from 1810 to 1816, were disregarded in England (knowing little, and caring less, about the remote Spice Islands), though his counsels were eventually adopted by the Dutch Government as the only means of ensuring an increased profit. A high-prowed native boat, known as an orembai, plies across the narrow strait which separates the islands of Banda Neira and Banda Lonthar, or Great Banda. The long range of hills covered with a dense forest of the precious nutmeg trees, attains an ideal of sylvan scenery surpassing even the glorious palm-woods of Java. These may be described in terms of comparative accuracy, and their beauty painted in realistic language, but none can translate into words the irresistible charm and glamour of the nutmeg aisles, the exquisite foliage and contours of the spice-bearing trees, the wealth of delicate blossom and peach-like fruit, and the flickering emerald light from hues shading through the whole gamut of colour, from the tender verdure of spring to the glossy darkness of winter evergreen. Colossal kanari-trees, veritable monarchs of the forest, tower over the nutmegs, and form an unbroken roof of interlacing boughs, for the nutmeg, needing shelter to bring the fruit to perfection, is not suffered to attain a height of more than seventy feet. The columnar trunks of the majestic kanaris wreathe their huge girth with lace-like fern and broad-leaved epiphytal plants, and the symmetrical beauty of the conical nutmeg-trees in these forest aisles suggests a vast sanctuary of Nature, enshrining the mystic presence of Divinity. Here, as amid the shades of unfallen Eden, we can imagine a trysting-place of God and man in the perennial "cool of the day," which breathes through the green twilight of these solemn groves, redolent with the incense from myriad sprays of creamy blossom and ripened nuts in shells of pink-flushed amber, for flower and fruit deck the "gold-bearing tree" without intermission, and every day produces a fresh harvest of nutmegs. The brown kernel of the opening fruit, contained in a network of scarlet mace, falls to the ground in twenty-four hours, and unremitting care is needed in gathering and handling the nutmegs with the gaai-gaai, a long stick ending with a prong, to break off the ripe fruit into the woven basket accurately poised beneath the wooden fork. Only the female trees yield the precious crop, and the highest point of production, attained at the twentieth year, continues undiminished through four subsequent decades, after which the strength of the average tree declines, although it often lives for a century. The cooing of the nutmeg pigeon, which feeds on the abundant fruit, echoes through the shadowy glades with soothing monotony. Yellow canaries flit through the vivid green of the pointed foliage, and the scarlet crests of parrots glow through the dark canopies of the giant kanari-trees. The voices of children at play, the distant songs of the nutmeg-gatherers, the plash of the waves on the coral reef, and the scented breeze whispering in the green crowns of a million trees, blend in harmonious concord to fill the sylvan temple of tropical Nature with mysterious music. At wide intervals the white houses of the planters gleam amid the drooping boughs, the prevailing green of the spacious woods relieved by the rosy purple of Bougainvillea mantling a pillared verandah, or by great vases of crimson and yellow flowers, bordering broad flights of stone steps. Life on a great nutmeg plantation retains patriarchal character and archaic charm; the multitude of dependents calls forth, in the present day at any rate, much of kindly solicitude, and though the unvarying sameness of existence sometimes proves the serpent which destroys the peace of the idyllic Eden in young and eager hearts, the ramifications of the large family party, gathered under one roof, mitigate the monotony of daily tasks, and supply the necessary mental friction. Work in the nutmeg-woods begin at 5 a.m., when a pealing bell summons the labourers to each plantation for their different duties of gathering the nuts, drying the mace, or sorting and liming the fruit. The beautiful forest constitutes the world of the nutmeg-gatherer, both for labour and recreation. In these dusky avenues youth and maiden tell each other Love's eternal story, wandering away into the dreamland shadows, vocal with sweeter melody than that of bird or breeze. The musical call of the nutmeg-pigeon serves as a danger-signal, uttered by sympathising friends, when love must yield to life's stern realities in the person of the overseer. An ardent courtship often contributes to the rapid filling of the nutmeg-basket in the hand of a rustic beauty, whose admirers strive to secure for her the premium awarded for special diligence, and a judicious official learns on occasion to be conveniently deaf to the feigned voice of the manoek faloer. If the chivalrous zeal of the brown lover is apt to overleap frontiers, and to fill the baskets of one plantation with the produce of the other, the ethics of Banda demonstrate the identity of human nature when swayed by the passion which, according to circumstances, wrecks Troy or raids a nutmeg orchard. A story is told of a planter who, in consequence of engaging a bevy of attractive maidens for the year's work, was rewarded by a phenomenal harvest of nutmegs, though the adjacent estates were barren of fruit. Evening shadows darken apace in the woodland world, and work ceases at three in the afternoon, when the store of gathered fruit is brought to the pagger, where drying and liming sheds surround the central warehouse. The nutmeg-pickers sort the ripe nuts in an open gallery before taking them to the drying-shed, where they are spread on a platform of split bamboo, twelve feet above a smouldering fire. The process continues for six weeks, the nuts being repeatedly turned until they begin to rattle. Only a slow method of drying prevents the escape of the essential oil, necessary to the flavour of the fruit, which must afterwards be dipped in slaked lime to preserve it from insects. The coral-like mace contains a rich supply of aromatic balm, and when loosened from the nutmeg can be dried in the sun. The delicate scarlet branches, spread on wickerwork frames in open spaces of the woods, contrast vividly with the shaded verdure of the beautiful trees. The mace, trodden flat for facility in packing, resembles a dainty growth of finest seaweed, and in the 16th century shared popularity with the nutmeg which produced it. Even in the present day a pewter spice box is an indispensable present on that sixth anniversary of a Dutch marriage still known as "the pewter wedding," and a nutmeg-box, with a grater, remains as a favourite bridal gift, the fashion originating when the passion for spices first pervaded mediæval Europe. Trade, as well as Science, wrote many chapters of romantic adventure in the long history of the world's social development, and modern thought but dimly realises the magnetic spell of the days when the veil was first lifted between East and West, and the wonders of untrodden shores disclosed to the pioneer. Heine, in his Lieder, chants of the mystic nutmeg-tree as the ideal growth of the tropical forest, for every stage of life and growth reveals some fresh beauty in delicate bloom, glistening foliage, and fruit of roseate gold. The spreading boughs, with their perfect contour and emerald depths of light and shadow, suggest a typical picture of that unfading Tree of Life in the midst of the earthly Paradise, round which the passing ages weave innumerable dreams, while faith transplants it to a fairer Garden than that of Eden. Where the winding woodland roads lead along the shore, colossal screw-palms and silver-flowered Barringtonias border the rocks, the sparkling azure of the sea visible through the fantastic boughs, and the eternal song of the surf vibrating through the still air with mysterious undertones. The brown campong of Banda Lonthar stands at the foot of the mossy steps which lead to the summit of the wooded range, and command a superb view of the island group. A further flight of stairs descends to the outside coast or Achterval, but wherever we go, to quote the words of a modern traveller, "we may imagine ourselves transported to the holy groves whereof ancient poets sing." From the rich carpet of velvety moss and plumy fern to the green vault of the leafy roof, the eye for once seems "satisfied with seeing," for no hint of imperfection breaks the fairy spell of enchantment in this poetic nutmeg-forest. Among serpentine kanari roots, which stream across the mossy turf as though poured out in liquid form and then petrified, we come across brown babies sleeping in the shade, and cradled softly in the tender lap of earth, while the mother, crooning a low song, pursues her work among the rustling leaves. Terrace after terrace, the green aisles mount to the summit of the great ridge, and the ruined forts on each wooded promontory recall the long-past days when the "fruit of gold" demanded the increasing vigilance of military power to defeat the onslaught of merchantman or privateer, willing to run every risk in order to capture a cargo of spices, and secure fabulous gains by appeasing the frantic thirst of Europe for the novel luxury of the aromatic spoils. The mediæval craze has died away, and the pungent spices of the Orient have taken a permanent position of reasonable proportion in the culinary art of modern times, but the glamour of the past, like the amber haze of a tropical sunset, still environs the poetic tree in the island home where, amid evergreen foliage and waxen flowers, the famous "fruit of gold" still opens each coral-lined censer to exhale a wealth of undying fragrance on the balmy air.