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Why the Banda Islands Were Once More Valuable Than Manhattan

BANDA NEIRA, Indonesia — New York City has long been a center of global commerce, making it is easy to forget that 350 years ago the balance of economic power was very different and weighted toward a clutch of islands in what is now Indonesia.

The Banda Islands were once at the heart of the world’s biggest and most important trade — in spices. A part of what was historically known as the Spice Islands and now Indonesia, they consist of 10 tiny specks in the vast Banda Sea and have a population of just 15,000.

On July 31, 1667, an extraordinary deal was struck: England officially swapped two of the small islands for a swampy Dutch colony once known as New Amsterdam — now New York. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Banda Islands, better known as the Spice Islands are 10 tiny specks in the Banda Sea.
The Banda Islands, better known as the Spice Islands are 10 tiny specks in the Banda Sea. Ian Williams / for NBC News

Back then, the Banda Islands had a monopoly on nutmeg. It was the only place it grew, and the spice was worth more by weight than gold. The Dutch — European pioneers in the business of colonization — wanted total control, and were willing to give up what was then a North American backwater to achieve it.

While the experience of the now isolated and impoverished Bandanese at the hands of European colonialists can be seen as a condemnation of international trade and globalization, the locals are determined to use the anniversary of the historic swap to draw renewed attention to the lush island's complex history and its pristine natural resources.

Manhattan Transfer

The islands can be reached by two flights a week, both on tiny 12-seat aircraft, touching down on a short and bumpy airstrip in the shadow of a brooding volcano — and only if the weather permits and the aircraft is available.

They are still littered with the remains of Dutch forts, a legacy of the bitter colonial scrap over rich natural resources. A road, Jalan Manhattan, snakes up the hill of Run, one of the islands ceded to the Dutch. Locals refer to the 17th century deal as the “Manhattan Transfer.”

“New York may be a center of finance, but the Banda Islands are the capital of mega-marine biodiversity. It’s a special environment,” said Tanya Alwi, the matriarch of the leading family on the islands.

Image: Banda Api volcano
Banda Api volcano looms over a harbor in the Banda Islands. Ian Williams / for NBC News

Her father, Des Alwi, who died in 2010, was known as the islands' king, the principal among their seven traditional leaders or "orang kayas."

In New York today, you would be hard-pressed to find many people aware of the islands or the deal that changed the course of their city’s history. Alwi is determined to change that.

She is using the anniversary to mount a series of exhibitions on the Treaty of Breda, which marked an end of the second Anglo-Dutch War and ceded control of New Amsterdam to the English. What is now Manhattan had been seized already by the British a few years prior to the treaty — it just codified what was already a reality on the ground at the time.

A giant sculpture of a nutmeg shell has been commissioned from a Balinese artist and is looking for a Manhattan home. Ronald Jenkins, a theater professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, has written a play on the area entitled “Islands: The Lost History of the Treaty That Changed the World.”

And New Jersey's Rutgers University is helping navigate a UNESCO World Heritage application for the islands.

Image: A map shows the location of the Banda Islands
A map shows the location of the Banda Islands Google Maps

World's finest nutmeg

The spice trade began in the Middle East more than 4,000 years ago, with Chinese, Arab and Malay traders bringing spices to Europe mostly by camel along the old Silk Road. They kept the origins of the valuable spice a secret — prompting European navigators to set out in search of it. Christopher Columbus was trying to find a route to the Spice Islands when he discovered the Americas instead.

Spices, including nutmeg, peppercorn, clove and cinnamon, were prized by European aristocracy as a seasoning, though they’d later also be used to disguise rancid food and for medication.

The Portuguese won the race to find the fabled Banda Islands in 1512, leading Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch colonialists to fight over the coveted land. The losers were the Bandanese themselves. The Dutch massacred traditional leaders, killed and expelled thousands of others, and replaced them with slaves and convicts.

Image: Nutmeg dries in a street in the Banda Islands
Nutmeg dries in a street in the Banda Islands. Ian Williams / for NBC News

The massacre is illustrated in gory detail in paintings in a tiny museum in Banda Neira, the main town.

Banda nutmeg is still regarded as the finest in the world, but the spice is now grown in several other countries. And the trade in Indonesia is controlled by powerful traders from elsewhere in the country. The U.S. is the biggest importer of spices, including nutmeg, and customized spice mixes have become fashionable among celebrity Manhattan chefs and top-end restaurants — the haunts of New York’s own aristocracy.

“We really have to take back control of our own nutmeg, create our own brand,” said Alwi.

Pristine underwater environment

Today, the Bandas' most prized asset is their underwater environment, including the world’s fastest growing and most resilient reef. It sprung to life on the lava flow from a 1988 volcanic eruption and both delights and puzzles marine biologists.

“I’ve seen nothing like it. It’s really quite unique,” said Mareike Huhn, scientific coordinator for Luminocean, a conservation group, who has been studying Banda’s reefs for five years.

The Banda Islands once attracted celebrity visitors, including Mick Jagger, and Princess Diana, whose portrait hangs in the lobby of a weathered waterfront hotel. But the tourist business was abruptly shut down at the turn of the century by violence on neighboring Ambon, which spilled onto the islands.

Boats are now the most reliable way to get there, the fastest taking six hours from Ambon. But like the flights, they too can be unpredictable.

Image: A canon remains in the old 17th century Fort Belgica in Banda Neira
A canon remains in the old 17th century Fort Belgica in Banda Neira. Ian Williams / for NBC News

There are plans to expand the airport, which holds the promise of development. But Alwi and Huhn are afraid an uncontrolled influx of tourists — a feature of modern globalization — could damage the Banda Islands most valuable asset: the environment. A group of Russian spear-fishing tourists were recently run out of town. And illegal Chinese shark finning is threatening a seasonal gathering of hammerheads.

“We have to have a conservation plan,” Alwi said.

Not for the first time, the tiny Banda Islands are trying to navigate the difficult seas of globalization — looking for development without destroying what is special about the islands, and hoping for a little help from Manhattan, that other and much richer island for which they were traded three and half centuries ago.