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and a new society - Rochelle van Maanen and Fridus Steijlen

Parts of the Banda Islands had been rebuilt more than once after a seaquake or earthquake. However, the tsunami of violence in 1621 must have caused a far greater decimation. More of less the total population had gone: killed, deported or fled. Particularly on the island of Lontor most of the villages and buildings had been destroyed. The majority of the nutmeg trees, that had been the reason for the violence, were unscathed.  Obviously, the trees and the soil in which they stood had to be prepared for new harvests, but the trees were still standing

In order to no longer be dependent on ‘unreliable’ nutmeg tree growers, the VOC had devised a plan for organised repopulation and exploitation of the Banda Islands. The idea of ‘planting a new population’ to grow products wasn’t new.  Jan Pieterszoon Coen had suggested this earlier and it had already been implemented on the island of Ay in 1616, after the island had been conquered. The available land was divided into plantations, also called gardens and with a nice word ‘perken’. On these perken managers, called perkeniers, were appointed who had been recruited from the European and Indo-European population of the archipelago; mainly former VOC employees. In total 68 perken of equal size were created. In addition to the 31 perken on Ay, 33 were created on Lontor and 3 on Banda Neira, where the VOC had its headquarters. In 1628 all the perken had been laid out. From that time some parts of perken were added to adjacent perken, or these were split up, for example when a perkenier died and the land was divided among his sons.

slave labour and economy

The perkeniers were obligated to sell the nutmeg and mace they harvested to the VOC for a price that had been determined by the VOC. Of course, they did not have to carry out the dirty and heavy work themselves. The VOC allocated 25 enslaved persons per perk to the perkenier. They were called perk slaves and remained the  ‘property’ of the VOC. Perkeniers could also ‘buy’ perk slaves for domestic work or other private work. These enslaved persons came from other Moluccan islands, but also from Sri Lanka, India, Malaysia and the Cape Colony. Prisoners from a.o. Java and Makassar were added to this group. On Ay there were already enslaved people from the island of Siau, north of Menado. Because maintenance of the nutmeg tree turned out to require specialised knowledge after all, a few deported Bandanese were returned to Banda as perk slaves by the VOC and were forced to help.

The perkeniers did not have much economic freedom. They were obligated to sell the spices to the VOC and with those proceeds they could purchase goods in the local VOC shop. So, the VOC made money from this once again. For food, such as rice, the Bandanese had always been partly dependent already on trade with other islands.  The same applied to the ‘new inhabitants’ of the Banda Islands. Sago for the enslaved came from the island of Seram, and the rice for the perkeniers and the VOC officials and VOC soldiers from Java. The bizarre thing was that the new inhabitants of Banda had to trade a.o. with Bandanese who had fled and who had settled in South Seram or on the Kei Islands. Just like the Bandanese who had been driven out, the new inhabitants of Banda also started trading with Chinese and Arabic traders.

That was not just about trade that the VOC had agreed to. The perkeniers also smuggled nutmeg and mace. That which had taken down the Bandanese – selling spices to others against the will of the VOC – was what the perkeniers, who had been appointed by the VOC itself, did as well. Besides the spices, the perkeniers also became involved in smuggling and trading rice, fabrics, birds’ nests et cetera.  For that purpose, they also used the enslaved to man the boats. This despite the directive from the VOC that they were only allowed to work on the perken.

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Nutmeg and mace (foto Lookman Ali)

a new society

After the depopulation of Banda, a new society had to be established while there was a large group of people who still felt connected to Banda, but no longer lived there. A considerable number of the Bandanese had fled and were living in diaspora. The Bandanese refugees had made use of their extensive trading network to settle elsewhere. As we saw already, a group had settled on South Seram, for example. A few hundred refugees had also ended up on the Kei Islands though, that were situated 500 kilometres further to the southeast. They even founded a village there that referred to the islands of origin in name: Banda Eli. The Bandanese stayed active in the regional trade and also held on to their language and culture.

On Banda itself a totally new society came into being. First of all, there were the perkeniers.
Although they had been appointed by the VOC as a type of liege lords, it did not take long for them to regard themselves owners of the perken.  Furthermore, there were VOC officials and soldiers based on Banda Neira. And a large proportion of the population consisted of unfree people, the enslaved, who were regarded either as property of het VOC, or of perkeniers or VOC officials.

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Map of the isles, after PJ Beetjes (coll. Nationaal Archief)


After a number of years, the so-called ‘vrijburgers’ (free citizens) also settled on Banda, with traders but fortune hunters too. The demand for workers was actually strong, despite the many enslaved who were ‘provided’ by the VOC.  Diseases and natural disasters took their toll.

Markus Vink, who researched Dutch slavery, wrote that 375 persons died in Banda Neira town in 1638. In 1678, 376 died in the whole region and even 777 persons died in 1693, among whom many of the enslaved. As a result, the labour market was under pressure.  According to Vink, almost 1,900 enslaved persons were working on the perken in 1694, while 2,500 were needed.

Vincent Loth, who was doing PhD research into the perken and perkeniers, describes that there was also room for new institutions like the church in the new Bandanese society. That goes with a settling colony, which  Banda became because of the perken and through the ‘planting’ of a new population of colonists. Of course, the religion was Dutch Calvinism, which was the religion of the VOC. Enslaved persons were allowed to keep their original religion, but preferably had to be christened. If colonists wanted to marry enslaved females, then the women had to be baptised at least.

colonial Madurodam

The number of Europeans on Banda grew steadily. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, immediately after the VOC went bankrupt, 300 Europeans were living on the islands. Fifty years later, in 1855, there were 500. Remco Raben and Ulbe Bosma who write about ‘the old East-Indian world’, provide a good overview of Bandanese society. At the top there were the slave owners, the perkeniers and some officials and traders. Below them, their impoverished relations, ‘a mixed class of citizens, among whom the unfree’. At the bottom of this hierarchy there were non-European traders, mainly Chinese and Arabs. A social structure that very much resembled how the rest of the Dutch East Indies was developing. The Europeans at the top, beneath that the Indo-Europeans, the foreign Orientals and the ‘native’ population at the bottom. Banda was a kind of colonial Madurodam, but then a miniature version, with just a handful of native inhabitants, namely those who had forcibly returned because of their necessary expertise.

The Bandanese population is said to be a mixed population. Nowadays we would say multi-ethnic. We can see clearly what that looked like in the 1850s in a table, drawn up by Dr. Bleeker. He visited Banda in 1855 and wrote about it in the Tijdschrift voor Nederlands Indië. (Journal of the Dutch East Indies)

Bleeker’s overview refers to the situation in 1852:


Banda Neira Lontor Ay
Europeans and Mestizos 340 96 10
Native Christians 514 103 99
Muslims 614 204 18
Timorese and Tanimbarese 170 36 2
Galelorese and Tobellorese 0 24 9
Chinese 143 1 0
Free native labourers 73 705 164
Perk serfs 174 864 144
Private slaves 513 158 16
Deportees 660 253 67
Total 3201 2504 529
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‘Perk’ on Banda, drawing by QMR VerHuell (coll. Maritiem Museum Rotterdam)

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Enslaved woman, Roosje, nutmeg picker. Drawing by QMR VerHuell (coll Maritiem Museum Rotterdam)

many peoples

In Het verloren volk (The lost people) Joop van den Berg included the list with comments.  It strikes him that Europeans and Mestizos are mentioned together and Van den Berg wonders whether this is because Bleeker was not able to make a proper distinction between perkeniers with Dutch names who did not speak Dutch well and that group that he referred to as ‘Mestizos’.

In any case it indicates that the distinction between these groups in Bandanese society was less firm. The ‘workforce’, the last 4 categories, shows us various forms of unfreedom: perk serfs, private slaves and deportees. Furthermore, the ratio between men and woman of the ‘unfree’’ was three to one. Perk serfs were the original VOC slaves, the private slaves, the private enslaved and the deportees were the native Bandanese sent by the government, who were subjected to forced labour. The fact that the Chinese are mentioned separately is of course due to the fact that they were traders. However, why ethnic groups like Tanimbarese and Tobellorese are mentioned separately, isn’t quite clear.

When we look at the distribution across the islands, we see a pattern. Most of the perk serfs are on Lontor and on Ay. That is also where most of the perken or plantations were situated. Most of the private slaves were on Banda Neira. These are the enslaved who did not work on the plantations, but in and around the house. With its largest, free population, Banda Neira was clearly the seat of the VOC officials and later of the colonial government, that it also had the most convicts/forced labourers (deportees). A larger group of small businessmen (Chinese) and Arab traders (Muslims) also lived on Banda Neira. And the highest number of free native labourers could be found on the islands with the most perken: Lontor and Ay. The plantations, the perken, had been having a bad time, economically speaking, but in the 1850s things seemed to pick up again. According to Raben and Bosma, this was due to that fact that some new owners of the perken had arrived who really made a tremendous effort. One of them came from outside the VOC: Heinrich Melchior Brandes, who was a German. The second came from Banda itself: Pieter Cornelis Lans, a perkenier name that can still be found in the Netherlands today. They relaunched the perken. Bosma and Raben even speak about a ‘renaissance of the perkenier aristocracy’.

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Schoolposter on nutmeg picking on Banda, 19th century


Perkenier aristocracy’ does sound very fancy and posh. It also sounds as if the perkeniers had replaced the former orang kaya, who had been murdered by Coen. But weren’t they just managers of the VOC and weren’t perken just plantations? The simplest answer to both questions is: yes. But there is more. Banda was one of the first locations in the colonised East Indian archipelago where colonisation by means of settlements had been implemented  with plantations and new inhabitants, or colonists. The terms ‘perk’ and ‘perkeniers’ associated with this represented nothing else than that first colonisation. This despite the nice sounding terminology.

Actually, perkeniers weren’t always described as aristocracy. Quite the contrary. Above, we already saw that the perkeniers were basically VOC managers. They had to maintain the perken and sell the harvest to the VOC for a fixed price. Who bore the consequences in case of any crop failures? The perkeniers, not the VOC.  The perkeniers weren’t the owners of the perken, certainly not in the beginning. It wasn’t until after the VOC went bankrupt that they really became owners.

The literature regularly mentioned the perkeniers negatively. Des Alwi, who was born in an originally Arab family on Banda himself, wrote a book about the history of the Moluccas (Sejarah Maluku), that includes a chapter about the perken and perkeniers – whom he calls nutmeg farmers. About the first perkeniers he writes that the first group consisted of VOC employees, with a high proportion of vagabonds and other socially ill-adapted people. According to Des Alwi, they were villains and exploiters, and certainly not paragons of ‘good’ colonists.

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Des Alwi

new arrivals

Later others arrived. According to Des Alwi some of the newcomers in the first hundred years were ‘brave, hardworking and capable of enduring all kinds of hardships’.  In contract to the ‘hired perkeniers of the first generation’, who weren’t promising at all.

Over time new perk owners came and the population of perkeniers changed.  Yet the criticism about the perkeniers resounded for a long time. For example, Englishman Crawfurd, who published a three-volume series about the East Indian archipelago in 1820, wrote negatively about the first group of perkeniers as well, and even about their descendants. According to him, the Dutch had made a deal with ‘disabled European soldiers and other adventurers from their own country in order to control the nutmeg cultivation, whose descendants are a lazy, ignorant, useless and lost class of people, the current owners, now.’

However, around the time of Crawfurd’s publication some of the perken must have already ended up in the hands of new owners. Due to inheritance, but also because there were perkeniers who had to sell their perken due to debts. That is how also Chinese and Arabs became owners of perken at that time.

nutmeg and privatisation

Apparently having the nutmeg cultivation on Banda completely under control, did not mean that the VOC also had the trade under control right away.  Historian Femme Gaastra, who writes about the history of the VOC, gives a nice glimpse into how the trade took place. He describes that the VOC wasn’t really able to control the prices of the nutmegs until around 1680, by making agreements about a maximum selling price. Prices that were too high were merely an incentive for smugglers. The VOC could only do this by having enough nutmeg in store, so that when prices were too high, they could threaten to sell more nuts. A trade mechanism that is also used by oil-producing countries today, to keep the price of oil under control.

In the course of the eighteenth century, the VOC lost its monopoly on the cultivation of and trade in nutmeg, because the French managed to successfully cultivate nutmeg. Pierre Poivre, the administrator of the West Indies islands Isle de France (currently Mauritius) and Ile Bourbon (currently Réunion) managed to smuggle seedlings out of the Moluccas.

After two failed attempts, the first successful harvest took place on Mauritius in 1778. In de 1790s successful harvests followed on Réunion, Zanzibar, Madagascar and the Seychelles.
It was in that same period that the VOC headed towards bankruptcy. In 1795 the Dutch State, initially as Batavian Republic, took over the inventory and debts of the VOC. As a result, the perken, that had been given on loan by the VOC at the start, came into possession of the state.
Perken that had been passed into private ownership to perkeniers, were initially expropriated. But before long, property deeds were issued again. That also happened between 1811 and 1816 during the time when the English were temporarily in control, after which the Dutch got back the colony from the English. Starting in 1845 it was allowed to use the perken as collateral for loans, an opportunity that was frequently seized. That led to quite a few perkeniers getting into huge debt. If they were not able to settle their debts because of poor harvests, the perken could fall into the hands of the lenders.

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Map of the Banda Islands by P. Baron Melvill van Carnbee, 1854 (coll. Rijksmuseum)

free market?

In the 1850s the economic situation of many perken was not rosy. According to J. Pino in the Koloniaal Tijdschrift (Colonial Journal), no less than 16 of the 23 perken were incurring losses.

There were various causes for this. For example, because there were too many co-owners, but also because of disasters, like an earthquake and seaquake in 1852 and a big fire in 1853. To assist the perkeniers, they could take out loans with favourable repayment terms and Banda was declared a free port. That meant tax relief,  only the spices were exempt. That didn’t exactly help the Bandanese economy, because the state still had the monopoly on the purchase of nutmeg.

A discussion had started though to abolish the monopoly and to change to a free market.  In 1864 the possibility was opened up for perkeniers to ask for exemption and to be allowed to trade on the free market. Very hesitantly they took the step to do that and in 1873 the monopoly was lifted permanently. Right at the time that strong competition developed from Granada, Singapore and Penang. Between 1872 and 1908 the price of nutmeg decreased from 2,.03 guilders to 28 cents per pound. Lifting the monopoly did not in fact mean that the state suffered losses on Banda.  Instead of getting the profit from the trading itself, the government ensured it was continuing to profit from it through taxes.

After lifting the state monopoly on the purchase of the Bandanese nutmeg, the trade to Europe was first taken over by the Dutch East Indian Commercial Bank and subsequently by the Bandasche Perkeniers and Handelsvereeniging (Bandanese Perkeniers and Trade association).

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Nutmeg, in a photo album by C. Dietrich, c. 1880 (coll. Rijksmuseum)

abolition of slavery and forced labour

The transition to the free market came at a special time. It was just after slavery had been abolished in the Dutch East Indies, and therefore on Banda too, in 1860. As we have already seen, the perken economy relied heavily on forced labour, both by people who were there as punishment and the enslaved. And we saw that the enslaved were also used for other work. Over time more ‘voluntary’ workers had also come to work on Banda. That wasn’t only necessary because of the high mortality among the enslaved, which we wrote about already. Also, because enslaved people fled Banda. For instance, Vincent Loth writes about enslaved Bandanese who had managed to escape to Seram with the help of Bandanese who escaped earlier, quite soon after 1621. According to slavery researcher Markus Vink there haven’t been any major uprisings by enslaved people on Banda, because the number of people per perk was too low.

Nevertheless, there had most certainly been resistance. Piet Hagen, who wrote about (Koloniale oorlogen in Indonesië (colonial wars in Indonesia) mentions two examples. A conspiracy by the enslaved was discovered on Banda Neira in 1710. The goal was to kill all the Europeans and to leave the islands with stolen ships. Thirteen of the leaders were caught and condemned to banishment and forced labour, a somewhat bizarre punishment when you consider they had already been carrying out forced labour. A second uprising took place during the night of February 14th-15th, 1743 on a VOC ship that was at anchor off Banda. In Sulawesi 44 shackled, enslaved persons had been brought onboard. Close to Banda some of them managed to free themselves. What has become of them, the story does not say.

At the time of the abolition of slavery there were at least 1,100 enslaved persons on the Banda Islands. In the book Het verloren volk (The lost people) Van Den Berg describes what happened on January 1st, 1860.  The Resident addressed 1,100 perk serfs. He told them they were free, but that they were eligible with immediate effect for a contract with high pay and good fringe benefits (accommodation rice, salt and clothing). Only 73 of them accepted a contract. With the departure of the perk serfs most of the enslaved, who had been working in the households, left as well.

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Banda Islands, Jannes Theodorus Bik, 1821 (coll. Rijksmuseum)

labour and law

So, in 1860 the enslaved voted with their feet (they chose to leave). And that concludes the ‘nice and easy’ life of the enslaved that was described earlier in the newspaper de Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant (NRC). Based on a report by a chief official in the Moluccas, J.B.J. Van Doren wrote in the newspaper of December 19th,1853: ‘Het werk ook nagaande, dat door de perkslaven wordt verrigt, mag niet zwaar worden genoemd: (‘The work, also considering that it is carried out by perk slaves, cannot be called heavy.’) Het bestaat alleen, om de wel belommerde perken schoon te houden, dezelve te doorkruisen, de afgevallen noten op te rapen en de rijp gewordenen te plukken. Deze te huis gebragt zijnde, moet de foelie daarvan worden afgenomen en tot het droogen  afgezonderd.’ (…) (‘It consists only of keeping the well-shaded perken clean, crossing the same, picking up the fallen nuts and picking the ones that have ripened. Once they have been brought to the house, the mace must be taken off and laid out to dry in a separate place.’ (…)) ‘Alle deze werkzaamheden gaan met zoo weinig moeite gepaard, dat zelfs kinderen dezelve kunnen verrigten, en wel verre dat een perkslaaf of banneling zich over zijnen arbeid zoude kunnen beklagen, zal hij moeten erkennen, dat dezelve minder en ligter is, dan van eenigen anderen handlanger of werkman.’ ( ‘All this work involves so little effort, that even children could carry out the same, and far from that a perk slave or deportee should complain about his work, he should recognize, that the same is even less and lighter than that of any other accomplice or workman.’) In a follow-up article in the newspaper of January 4th, 1854 he wrote that: ‘De slaven en bannelingen, vrouwen en kinderen, gezamenlijk op gezette tijden in de schoone lommerrijke notenmuskaat-bosschen hun werk gaan verrigten, hetwelk aangenaam en geenzins zwaar is’. (‘The slaves and deportees, women and children, carry out their work together at fixed times in the beautiful well-shade nutmeg tree groves, which is pleasant and by no means heavy’.) It sounds like a phrase from a holiday brochure.

With the abolition of slavery, forced labour did not end on Banda. New workers were recruited through native and Arabic procurers. The working conditions were anything but pleasant. If the workers made a mistake, they were punished. And in 1884 a Coolie Ordinance was put in place especially for Banda, that would apply to the whole of the Moluccas 4 years later.  That ordinance gave the ‘employer’ almost total control over the worker through so-called poenale sancties (penal sanctions). That meant the perkenier could act as policeman and judge to the workers and could condemn them for laziness, running away, absence, insults and everything that he didn’t like.

In 1911 a revision of the coolie ordinance was promised and employers were allowed to come to agreements with workmen ’niet behorende tot de inheemse bevolking van de afdeling waarin de onderneming gelegen is’ (‘not belonging to the native population of the division where the undertaking is located’). Of course, that was of little use on Banda, because since J.P. Coen’s actions in 1621 there was hardly anyone of the native population left on Banda.

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Photo’s by C. Dietrich, c. 1880, (coll. Rijksmuseum)

twentieth century

In the twentieth century the Banda Islands slowly fade from view. The perken become increasingly unprofitable, partly due to high taxes levied by the government on spices.  To the considerable annoyance of the Bandasche Perkeniers en Handelsvereeniging (Bandanese Perkeniers and Trade association) plans are formed to downgrade Banda to an administrative unit. In its 1905 annual report the association is angered by the plans of a government commissioner to ‘strip’ Banda in connection with cutbacks.

‘In economic and political terms’ this would be ‘draconian’.  Banda, as a division with its own assistant resident, would end and as a sub-division it would be put under the authority of an auditor. That meant the loss of an assistant resident, a customs officer, nine clerks, a prosecutor and an assistant prosecutor, nineteen policemen and the complete army garrison on Banda, with a lieutenant-commander and thirty soldiers.  The new auditor would only get two clerks and the police only nineteen armed men. The association writes: “We are astonished by these wild plans to humiliate and degrade Banda to such an extent. Our Banda, that, despite its decline due to the particularly low nut prices, until this day was and still is the only place in the Moluccas where all the Government spending for Management, Garrison, etc. is always amply covered annually by all kinds of taxes levied there. And so much so even, that until this very day Banda still deposits a hefty positive balance for the Country’s treasury every year’. It was to no avail; Banda became a sub-division.

The Banda Islands remained a place for deportees for the Dutch East Indies government. In 1935 Mohammad Hatta and Soetan Sjahrir arrived on Banda as political deportees, where a few other political deportees were already in exile. Together with Soekarno, Hatta will declare Indonesian independence in 1945 and become vice-president. In 1945 Sjahrir becomes the first prime minister of Indonesia. Hatta and Sjahrir are in close contact with the local population on Banda en even take a few children under their wings. Among them is Des Alwi, historian and later a diplomat, who remains ‘ambassador’ of Banda until he passes away in 2010. In his book Friends and Enemies, he describes Banda as a melting pot. What started once in 1621 with a depopulation has become a new, mixed Bandanese population, according to him: ‘Dutchmen, Portuguese, Arabs, Chinese and people from any other islands in the East Indian archipelago. Whether they are called Schelling, Da Costa, Van den Broeke, Barentz, Phillipus, Baadilla, Ong, Tan, Johar, Mahudimall, they were considered Bandanese if they followed Bandanese customs and spoke a Bandanese-Malayan dialect.’

With the invasion by Japan in the Dutch East Indies in 1942 the colonial perken system and Banda as a place for deportees came to an end.


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