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Friends and Exiles - Des Alwi

Des Alwi was nicknamed “the King of Banda”.  He earned this nickname because of the preservation and promotion work he did for the Banda Islands.  This tiny island group is part of the Maluku (Moluccas) province in eastern Indonesia.

These days the Banda islands aren’t well known. They are an obscure destination that is hard to reach by plane or by ship. There are ferries that go to Banda but the schedule is highly unpredictable. Merpati Airlines used to operate a regular flight to the main Island, Banda Neira, but these flights have now ceased.

You wouldn’t tell but the Banda islands were the setting of historic events that changed the course of world history.

During the beginning of the Age of Discovery when the Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch were setting off to explore the world, there were certain spices appearing in the European trading ports. These sought-after spices had made a long voyage before arriving at these markets. From the book “Indonesian Banda”:

These spices had long been purchased on the spot by Malay, Chinese,  and Arab regional traders, reshipped to the Persian Gulf, carried by caravan to the Mediterranean, and distributed via Constantinople, Genoa, or Venice throughout Europe, increasing in value by about a hundred percent each time they changed hands.

When the Portuguese first discovered the Banda islands in 1512 they loaded their ship full of nutmeg, mace and cloves and brought them home to Portugal. Back home in Lisbon they could sell these spices with a profit of at least a thousand percent.

This was the start of a long and often bloody history. The Dutch forcefully took control of these islands to obtain a monopoly on the nutmeg trade. Under the instructions of Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen the V.O.C. (Dutch East India Company) massacred almost the entire population of Banda. This event is surely one of the blackest pages in Dutch history.

Friends and Exiles - Des AlwiThe English also wanted a share of this trade and were continuously on the prowl in the Banda Sea. They settled at the nearby island of Run. The Dutch launched a couple of bloody attacks on this island to try to chase the English away. In 1667 the English and Dutch finally settled and agreed upon a transfer. Run was given to the Dutch in return for Suriname and an island called New Amsterdam. The latter is currently better known as Manhattan.

This book is a memoir written by a native of the Banda Islands, Des Alwi. He was closely involved in Indonesia’s struggle for independence. In this book he writes about his youth in Banda and about the underground movement in Jakarta and Surabaya during the Japanese occupation.

The Banda Islands were used by the government of the Dutch East Indies as a place of exile. Anyone who was involved with the nationalist movement was put away in a remote location of the vast archipelago. Two exiles came two Banda who had an immense impact on Des’ life. They were two young nationalist leaders called Sutan Sjahrir and Mohammad Hatta. The first was to become the prime minister of Indonesia and the latter the vice-president of Indonesia.

The exiles brought with them a large collection of books and a passion for teaching. They set up a school so that the natives where given a decent education as well.

The stories in this book paint a vivid picture of these two young intellectuals. The contrast between the two is interesting. Whereas Sjahrir is playful, outgoing and loves to joke around, Hatta is more reserved and serious.

During the outbreak of the Second World War the story moves on to Surabaya and Jakarta. In Jakarta he meets people like future president Sukarno and poet Chairil Anwar. When the pressure of the Japanese occupation becomes too big he moves back to Surabaya. There he faces another struggle when English troops invade Surabaya to seize back control of the colony for the Dutch.

This memoir makes a very interesting read about an important time in Indonesian history. I couldn’t put it down. In all honesty I have to say that any book about the Banda Islands fascinates me. After all, it is the place where my grandmother was born. So I might be a little jaded when it comes to reviewing this book.