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Banda, the loud echo

of a massacre

Ad Geerdink

How far does the echo of a historical event reach?

Far, as is evident in the case of the genocide on Banda. 400 years later, the horrific and disruptive events on the nutmeg islands still occupy the ‘hearts and minds’ of people; on Banda, in Indonesia and the Netherlands. Not only do they evoke attention and interest, but emotion too.

Today maybe even more than ever before. The memory of the events in 1621 has been kept alive for four centuries and has been passed on from generation to generation, in various forms and with a constantly renewed view on the story.

songs of travel

The memory of the far-reaching and disruptive events on the Banda Islands in 1621 is nowhere as interwoven with its own cultural identity, as it is in the Banda-Eli and Elat community. Other than the name might imply, these communities do not live on one of the Banda islands, but on the island of Kei-Besar, which is situated at 500 kilometres to the southeast of Banda. Just before the violent actions of the VOC a group of Bandanese, among whom Raja (King) Waer and his brother, decided to flee to Kei and start a new life there.

The Bandanese on Kei, the Banda Asli, (Asli is the Indonesian word for original) have been honouring their culture for the past 400 years. They speak their own language, tur wandan (Bandanese) and have a flourishing oral tradition in which the memory of their ancestors and the Bandanese diaspora are kept alive. Just like the language, this tradition strongly contributes to the feeling of their own identity and autonomy.

This is reflected, among other things, in the onotani. These are songs that are sung by important women in the community, sometimes to accompany dance. The onotani are also called ‘songs of travel’. The songs commemorate the heroic travels of a specific ancestor, whose arrival on Kei and whose choice for this island – due to the great similarities with Banda – formed the foundation for the community. Ever recurring themes in the onotani are travel, landing or arriving somewhere, but also missing family. Finnish linguist Timo Kaartinen researched this rich oral tradition. The translation of the next song is his.

i fa culita:
ombak safur-safur-safuro
ma kuliling sakuntar alami
ma kulilingo sakuntar alamiyo
anin pancaruba mongonanding kito sie
i fancaruba anin kayo betang anyur ke u
fancarupa anin kayo mbetan anyur ke lau
i fa tusingga ila polo kur tutuno ima i
i la polo kur tutuno i mangi

that is the story:
waves break in surf-surf-surf
let us circumambulate the world
let us circumambulate the world
gusting wind faces our people
that gust of wind, log of wood drifting in the sea
gust of wind, log of wood drifting in the sea
there we land on the island Kur up there
there, island of Kur up in the sky

If there is an ongoing Bandanese cultural tradition going on anywhere, then it is on Kei. The Banda-Asli are committed to this. In 2017 they protested vehemently against the screening of the Indonesian documentary The dark trail of Banda, because only the current inhabitants of the Banda Islands are heard and the existence of their community and traditions is completely ignored. Because of the protest the screening was cancelled on Ambon. In the book Banda, de genocide van Jan Pietersz Coen (‘Banda, the genocide of Jan Pietersz Coen) (2021), historian Marjolein van Pagee focusses on the Bandanese community on Kei, that has been carrying the scar of the genocide in 1621 for 400 years already and is keeping the memory about it alive.

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Women of the Kei Islands sing the ‘songs of travel’, de onotani (photos Timo Kaartinen)

small Indonesia

On the Banda Islands it is very difficult not to be reminded of the Dutch domination that lasted  more than 300 years. Rudy Kousbroek called the islands ‘the Pompeï of the Far East’. In a certain sense they are a ‘colonial open-air museum’. You can still find the remnants of forts from the VOC era on virtually all the islands. There VOC Fort Belgica still towers high above the small town of the same name and the lower situated, older Fort Nassau. Nearby this fort, dating from 1609, a century-old cannon has been lying in the grass, for who knows how long, as a silent witness to the time that VOC justice came out of the barrel of this weapon. The streets in Neira are dominated by the grand perkeniers’ residences with their verandas and columns.  Practically without exception, these were built in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the perkeniers were living a luxury lifestyle, despite sky-high debts. The recently restored Old Church and Istana Mini, the former government building, complement the picture. Almost casually, there is a bust of King William III in the side garden of the vacant building.

Even the composition of the island population is a legacy from the colonial past.  Although everyone considers themselves Bandanese, only a few can say that he or she is originally from one of the islands. These are the descendants of the few Bandanese who were given permission by the VOC to return there after the depopulation, because their knowledge of nutmeg cultivation proved indispensable. They were forced to help the perkeniers, the new and inexperienced tenants of the nutmeg plantations. Hardly any descendants of these immigrants originating from Europe can be found on Banda anymore nowadays. Many plantation owners already left the islands in the interbellum, when the nutmeg trade went downhill. The nationalisation of the nutmeg plantations after Indonesia’s independence, did the rest.  Nowadays there is just one perkenier family active in the nutmeg production on Banda, and that is the Van den Broeke family.

The majority of the 15,000 Bandanese has one of more ancestors who were enslaved by the VOC and who were shipped to the islands, or who worked as contract labourer on the nutmeg plantations after the abolition of slavery in 1860. They originated from all over the archipelago.  Mohammed Hatta, the later vice-president of the Republic of Indonesia, who had been interned on Banda Neira for a long time, called the islands ‘Small Indonesia”. The Bandanese cherish this diversity, just like they treasure the traditions and rituals that unite them.

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Kora-kora, photo by Lookman Alibaba Ang

The washing or sanctifying of the well

The Banda Islands have their own oral tradition, in which the ceritas, legendary stories about ancestors and the origin of Banda, hold an important place. For centuries these have been passed on from generation to generation. The stories keep the memory of an illustrious past alive, just like the annual Kora-Kora festival does. This is a race with traditional canoes which is held between de various villages on the islands that has many rituals and ceremonies.

At one time the narrow, long kora-kora were superfast warships, sometimes equipped with a small cannon, with which the warriors from Banda fought against the Dutch and other enemies. The race honours this tradition of the warriors.

The cleaning or washing of the well, Cuci Parigi, may well be the most important ritual on Banda that takes place on Banda Besar, near the village of Lontor, once every ten years.

At 300 metres and halfway up some stairs that has 472 steps, there are two wells. The most important one, Parigi Pusaka, may be hundreds of years old and is considered a sacred place by the Bandanese. The story of the well is linked to the arrival of Islam on Banda. According to history some important Islamic scholars from the Middle East had been searching for water on the island in order to be able to carry out their wudu, the ritual of washing, performed by Muslims before praying, when a cat suddenly jumped out of the bushes right at the spot where the well turned out to be.  During the ritual, where the whole population of the islands is present or is participating, the water is scooped out of the four-metre-deep well by 99 young men, accompanied by music and dance and the reciting of stories. Subsequently, they are patted dry with a gigantic white ‘elephant cloth’. It is said that with this ritual the persecution of the Islamic Lontorese is commemorated. In any event, it is a ritual that has great religious and spiritual meaning for the Bandanese.  The well is also called ‘Coen’s well’ though, because the governor-general is supposed to have had the bodies of 30 Bandanese traitors dumped in this well. That is said to also be the reason why the water from the well is not used as drinking water, but is used solely for washing.

There is also a second well, that recalls Coen, that plays a role in the remembrance culture of the Bandanese. This well is located on Banda Neira, not far from Fort Nassau. According to history the Bandanese village leaders who had been executed by Japanese VOC mercenaries on the 8th of May, 1621 are said to have cleansed themselves with water in a ritual from the well before their execution.

In 2003 a monument was designed around the well, Parigi Rante, that strongly draws attention to the genocide on Banda. A plaque commemorates what took place on the islands in 1621 and mentions the names of the 40 orang kaya who were killed as well as the names of their villages. A second plaque mentions the names of Indonesians who were exiled to Banda by the Dutch authorities in the 19th and 20th century, among whom two prominent figures of the Indonesian independence movement – Mohammed Hatta and Sutan Syahrir – who were detained on Neira from 1935 to 1942. Not only does that make the monument a ‘Mahnmal’ (memorial) in honour of the victims of colonialism, but also a ‘Denkmal’ (monument), that recalls the resistance against it.

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Mohammed Hatta

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Sutan Syahrir

a shared past

The initiator of the monument is Des Alwi (1927-2010), former diplomat, businessman, historian and author, but above all advocate for the Banda Islands. Des Alwi, direct descendant of one of the traditional orang kaya, was the most prominent figure on Banda for decades. He used his good contacts in Jakarta and elsewhere in the world to revitalize the economy on Banda. He saw the biggest opportunity in tourism. With its unspoilt nature and beautiful underwater world, the nutmeg production and the associated, rich island history and the still present colonial heritage as the most important trump cards. As a true ambassador of the islands, he endeavoured to get this heritage restored.

Des Alwi’s masterplan for Banda appeared to become a success. Tourism did increase in the nineties, until religious riots literally made his dream go up in smoke. In 1999, tensions between Muslims and Christians on Ambon spilled over to Banda Neira, where the Christian community, in particular, suffered. People died, a great number of members of the perkenier family Van den Broeke were murdered and several buildings went up in flames, among which the Old Church. Des Alwi, himself a Muslim, was able to personally prevent things from getting worse, but he had to deal with the fact that after the riots practically the whole Christian community left the island and that tourists too were beginning to stay away from the islands.

His initiative to erect the Parigi Rante monument is perhaps partly inspired by the wish to unite the Bandanese, by making them aware and proud of a collectively shared past.

blood stain

In the Netherlands the memory of the genocide on Banda has primarily been a matter for historians and other academics who were involved with the history of the VOC and/or Dutch colonialism for a long time.

Moreover, from the start already, critical reports were written about the actions of the VOC on Banda. Pieter van Dam, the secretary of the VOC’s governing body, Heeren XVII, who recorded the history of the company in 1700, found Jan Pietersz Coen’s actions towards the Bandanese unnecessarily harsh. But his report about this remained secret. Because in the chronicles about the VOC in the 17th and 18th century the rule was no criticism, but glorification of the actions of the Dutch. The writers showed no interest or understanding for the position and motives of the Bandanese. Nor did François Valentijn (1666-1627), author of Old and New East India (Oud en Nieuw Oost-Indiën) (1724), who worked on Banda as a minister for almost a year. In his extensive description of the islands, he systematically calls the Bandanese ‘treacherous’ and the perkeniers ‘audacious’.

Where most early chroniclers did not question the legitimacy and proportionality of Coen’s and the VOC’s actions on Banda, state archivist J.K.J. de Jonge did do that in 1873 in his fourteen-part series De Opkomst van het Nederlandsch Gezag in Oost-Indië (The rise of Dutch Authority in the East Indies).

He stated that directors of the VOC and Coen had not hesitated to depopulate the Banda Islands completely, in order to secure the monopoly on nutmeg. In doing so they had  ‘eigen naam en dien der  Natie, in dat gedeelte van den Archipel met een schier onuitwischbare bloedvlek beklad.’ (‘tarnished their own name and that of het Dutch Nation, in that part of the Archipelago with a sheer indelible blood stain’). Having become curious about the background of this ‘blood stain’, A. van der Chijs, who worked as an official in Batavia, published his own research regarding Banda in 1886. His De vestiging van het Nederlandsch Gezag over de Banda-eilanden (The establishment of Dutch authority over the Banda Islands) is the first comprehensive description of the events on the islands in the period between 1599 and 1621. Van der Chijs has nothing good to say about the actions of Coen and the VOC, that he describes as a ‘ruwe, met alle recht en billijkheid strijdende’ manier van optreden’ (‘rough ‘course of action’ that is at odds with all justice and fairness’). In his book he also takes into account the position of the Bandanese, who in his view aren’t treacherous, but are only defending their own interests. He calls the execution of the 40 orang kaya gerechtelijke moord’ (judicial assassination). About Coen he says: ‘Ware voor Coen niet reeds een standbeeld opgerigt, ik betwijfel of zulks nog zoude verrijzen. Aan zijnen naam kleeft bloed.’ (‘If a statue had not been erected for Coen already, I doubt whether it would still be erected. Blood sticks to his name’).  The statue that Van der Chijs is referring to is the monument erected for Coen in Batavia in 1867.

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The statue of JP Coen on the Roode Steen in Hoorn (foto Jessy Visser)

a blot on his record

From that moment, De Jonge and Van der Chijs’ publications have undoubtedly influenced the way in which the events on Banda were perceived. From the end of the nineteenth century not a single writer could avoid the fact that something horrific had taken place on Banda. With his very strong condemnation, J.A. van der Chijs was the only one for a long time, even in the first half of the twentieth century. His book is published at a time when there is a strong nationalist sentiment in the Netherlands and in the whole of Europe. A period in which Jan Pietersz Coen was actually propagated to be a national hero and both in Batavia and in his home town Hoorn he is (literally) put on a pedestal. It is a period in which the Netherlands is waging new colonial wars to also subjugate the remaining regions in the East. In that climate, a story about the genocide on Banda, let alone a strong condemnation thereof, cannot expect a warm welcome. So, most writers dismiss the events as a blot on the record of the VOC and of Jan Pietersz Coen, but nothing more. Banda was a regrettable incident, an exception. Conservative Christians attempt to parry Van der Chijs’ criticism. In his thesis Coen on Banda (Coen op Banda) from 1943, lawyer L. Kiers defends Coen’s actions on legal grounds.  The blame does not lie with him or the VOC but with the Bandanese, who had brought the events upon themselves. Coen had acted fully according to applicable law and also the condemnation and execution of the orang kaya were beyond reproach in his view. His thesis advisor, historian and conservative colonial politician F.C Gerretson, summarized the conclusion of the research as follows: ‘De waarachtige geschiedenis van de Conqueste is niet het relaas van de vernietiging van een schuldeloos vrijheidslievend volk door een meedogenloozen geweldenaar; aan het zwaard dat Banda in ‘justum bellum’ heeft onderworpen kleeft geen onrechtmatig vergoten bloed. De tragedie van Banda is de tragedie van kwader trouw.’ (‘The true history of het Conquest is not the story of destruction of a blameless freedom-loving people by a ruthless tyrant; there’s no unlawfully shed blood on the sword that subjugated Banda in a just (morally justifiable) war (‘justum bellum ‘) The tragedy of Banda is the tragedy of bad faith.’)

black book

The image of the events on Banda as just a blot on the record of the VOC and of Jan Pietersz Coen, endures en long after the Second World War. According to historian Wim Manahutu this is partly due to the fact, that for a long time, historians and the general public still consider the VOC mainly  a trading company. There is more attention for the successes of the company than for the violence coupled with the trade expansion and with which the VOC imposed and defended its authority. This can also be seen during the celebration of the 400th anniversary of the VOC in 2002.

It is no coincidence that in that same year Ewald Vanvugt publishes his Zwartboek van Nederland overzee. Wat iedere Nederlander moet weten over de koloniale geschiedenis van Nederland. (Black book about the Netherlands overseas. What every Dutchman should know about the colonial history of the Netherlands.) In his book Vanvugt focusses explicitly on Banda and he places the event in a wider context. He argues and documents that the so-called shadow sides or black pages of the colonial past, like the massacre, weren’t side effects or exceptions, in fact the opposite. There were the cornerstones on which the overseas power was built. In his Nieuw Zwartboek van Nederland overzee (New Black Book of the Netherlands Overseas) from 2011, he is one of the first to pay attention to the slavery that was part of the plantation economy on Banda.

Partly thanks to his publications the image of Banda and Dutch colonialism in general is slowly starting to shift. It is not a question of excess or exception, but of a broader pattern. Through the research by a new generation of historians into the VOC as ruler, war machine and facilitator of large-scale slave trade, the pattern is becoming increasingly clear. Writer and researcher Reggie Baay and historian Matthias van Rossum undertake ground-breaking work regarding the latter. Also, in terms of slavery in the East, Banda proves to be no exception, but rather an announcement or foreshadowing of what will be done on an even larger scale elsewhere. ‘The special thing about Banda is that this was the island where the first plantations in the region of the Republic where located, where the enslaved were put to work’, Wim Manuhutu writes in De slavernij in Oost en West. Het Amsterdam onderzoek. (Slavery in the East and West. The Amsterdam Study.) The new historical research is enhanced by insights from anthropological, archaeological and linguistic research, that sheds a light on the original Bandanese culture. And thanks to Bandanese historians like Des Alwi and dr. Usman Thalib there is also more and more knowledge available about the Bandanese view on history.

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Reggie Baay

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Matthias van Rossum

the ‘butcher of Banda’

The story of Banda certainly isn’t one that is only known by a small group of writers and scholars in the Netherlands. From the 1990s already, the media has been paying attention regularly to the history of Banda. Moreover, in newspapers like the NRC, de Volkskrant and Trouw, the theme of ‘the last perkenier’, the account of perkenier family Van den Broeke, is remarkably often chosen as focus for articles about the subject. Editor of the VPRO programme OVT, Marnix Koolhaas, does the same in his now already historical report from 1994, in which he has VOC perkenier Wim van den Broeke guide him across the islands as part of a series about the VOC. Banda is a regularly recurring theme in the radio programme that closely monitors the developments in the historical account of the subject.

In 2013 an even wider audience discovers the story of Banda, thanks to the 13-part popular television series de Gouden Eeuw (the Golden Age), in which historian and presenter Hans Goedkoop, together with historian and VOC expert Menno Witteveen, visits the islands and is almost stunned when he reports about the horrific events that took place there in 1621. The choice for the story of Banda in the series, the accompanying book and the children’s series Welkom in de Gouden Eeuw (Welcome in the Golden Age) make it clear that the story has now become a permanent feature of the Canon of the Golden Age.

Attention for Banda has not subsided since. On the contrary. The initially, mainly academic debate about how to deal with the Dutch colonial past, is being widely discussed in Dutch society in the past few years. This ‘decolonisation debate’ touches upon current themes like institutional racism, dealing with the history of slavery, the call for more inclusive historiography – in which the colonial past is not only viewed from the Dutch perspective – and for another way of looking and dealing with colonial monuments. The history of Banda plays a role in this discourse.

This is most evident in the debate about the statue of Jan Pietersz Coen in Hoorn. These past few years the increasingly louder question is whether this nineteenth century tribute to Hoorn-born founder of Batavia and founder of the Dutch colonial empire in the East, is still appropriate.

Supporters say: yes. Coen was an important historical figure who contributed greatly to the VOC’s success and with that he was at the heart of the unprecedented golden age that the Republic went through in the seventeenth century. Opponents say: no. Leaving the statue there is a sign that you approve of the violence that Coen used to establish the foothold of the VOC in the East and that you don’t really wish to distance yourself from the colonial past. They indicate that particularly Dutch people whose family history lies in the colonies feel hurt by the statue. Coen’s actions on the Banda Islands play an important role in the argumentation of the opponents of the statue. That was clearly seen and heard at a demonstration against the statue on the 19th of June 2020 in Hoorn. This was an initiative of three local organisations. The demonstrators carried protest signs with texts like ‘Coen mass murderer, stop glorification of colonialism and slavery’, ‘no monument for genocide’ and ‘genocide does not deserve a pedestal’. A number of years before, in 2011, a large number of inhabitants had also asked the city council of Hoorn already to remove the statue. Their motto at the time was also ‘no statue for a mass murderer’.

Paradoxically, the statue of Coen in Hoorn, placed in 1893 as a tribute to ‘one of the Netherlands greatest sons’, today functions mainly as an accusation against ‘the butcher of Banda’. Thus, the monument has inadvertently become one of the bearers of the memory of the genocide on Banda.

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Protest at the statue of JP Coen (photo NHNieuws)

the memory of Coen fizzles out

Other works of art too function as bearer of the colonial history of Banda. The views on Banda Neira by seventeenth century cartographer Johannes Vingbooms, that were painted around 1663 to decorate the walls of the VOC head offices in the Netherlands, are of invaluable documentary value.

The painting that was made somewhere at the end of the 1980s by an unknown artist on Banda is of a very different nature, but at least as informative. It is exhibited in the historical museum on Banda Neira, which is an initiative of Des Alwi, and it depicts the horrific execution of the 40 orang kaya at Fort Nassau, with a very high degree of historical detail. The painting is the only depiction of the events on the 8th of May 1621 and that is why it is found in virtually every publication about Banda. A copy of the painting is in the collection of the Maluki Museum in The Hague.

In the past few decades more artists have let themselves be inspired by the events on Banda. There was an exhibition of Indonesian artist Iswanto Hartoni in the New Church in Amsterdam in 2017. With his work he questions how the colonial past is dealt with and in particular the monuments referring to it. He also reflected on the genocide on Banda. Among other things with a replica of the statue of Coen, partly made out of wax, that, once it is lit like a candle, slowly disappears. That way Hartono raised the question whether the physical presence of such monuments still matters now. His answer is clear: no, it doesn’t.

Since 2018 already, the installation ‘Nutmeg and mace’ by artist Tineke Fischer can be seen in the Westfries Museum. In this multimedia art work, that can be seen in the same hall as the famous portrait of Jan Pietersz Coen, she reflects on the human price that has been paid in the fight for the monopoly of the lucrative spice trade in the East, in particular on Banda.

Juul Sadée too is captivated by the special history of the Moluccas and Banda and then particularly by the role of women in this story.  In 2019 this resulted in the art work UN CONDITIONAL, a joint project with women on Banda. UN CONDITIONAL keeps the memory alive of the historical ties between the Banda Islands and the Netherlands. A tie that is fortunately becoming increasingly reciprocal.

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Watercolor by Johannes Vingboons, View on Banda (coll. Nationaal Archief, Den Haag)