These days, nutmeg is an unexceptional spice for the English, grated into mulled wine or eggnog when the weather turns cold. In the middle ages, however, it was believed to be a panacea for everything from the common cold to the plague. But it was as hard to come by as it was desirable; in Elizabethan times, nutmeg was worth more than its weight in gold. This unassuming seed together with another spice-rack staple, clove, drove the likes of Ferdinand Magellan and Francis Drake to circumnavigate the globe. Because back then, nutmeg only grew in the fertile volcanic soils of the Banda Islands, and cloves on just a few islands to the north. Control of these far-flung specks meant control of the most lucrative trade in the world.
It turns out that Run is not quite as deserted as it first seemed; it’s Friday, and all the men are at the mosque. After prayers, they spill out wearing sarongs and peci caps and neatly pressed white shirts. Burhan, a jovial young man who runs the Nailaka Homestay, takes us under his wing, leading us through a marketplace smoky with barbecuing fish and clove cigarettes and up to his little nutmeg plantation. In the 17th century, Run was positively overgrown with nutmeg trees. It was also the only island controlled by the British at a time when the notorious VOC—the Dutch East India Company—had all but monopolized the East Indies spice trade. Novelist Giles Milton describes how this came about in his rip-roaring popular history Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which tells the tale of Nathaniel Courthope, a merchant seaman from Kent who made Run his bolt-hole against the Dutch. Courthope built a fortified trading post here, defending it against all odds for more than four years until he was killed in an ambush. The British got the last laugh, though; in 1667, at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War, the Dutch agreed to a land swap that gave them formal control over Run in exchange for a small island on the east coast of North America. That island’s name was Manhattan.
There’s little else to be seen on Run, save for the ruins of a fort Courthope built there. But Banda Neira, 20 kilometers or so to the east, is a different story. An 18th-century lithograph of the island and its surrounds depicts a volcano with smoke billowing theatrically from its crater, a fortress presiding over a shoulder of rock, and little houses huddled on the shoreline. The scene today is almost as dramatic. Gunung Api (literally, “fire mountain”) hasn’t erupted for hundreds of years, but its steep flanks are no less impressive for the absence of sulfurous smoke; and Fort Belgica, a massive stone pentagon with circular towers built by the Dutch in 1611, is still largely intact. Banda Neira and its larger neighbor Banda Besar protect a glassy lagoon dotted with fishing boats. From a distance, the waterfront of its only town, also called Banda Neira, has an oddly Mediterranean look, with squat palms and the whitewashed colonnades of the Hotel Maulana.
On closer inspection, the town is a little run- down. But everywhere there are reminders of the colonial past, for Banda Neira was, until the end of the 18th century, the administrative capital of the VOC’s global trade in nutmeg. Bronze cannons, broad avenues, an imposing 19th-century church, and the elegantly dilapidated governor’s residence all cast an air of forlorn and incongruous grandeur. You sense that even in its heyday, the place must have had a melancholy feel. This suspicion is confirmed when I venture inside the governor’s residence. On one of the windows, you can just make out the letters of a suicide note scratched there 200 years ago by a homesick col-onist. Ari tells me he hanged himself from a chandelier.