With nutmeg now selling FOB Europe at fantastical markups northward of 30,000 percent, the European spice hunters, and the merchant princes who backed them, were only too happy to make their money the old-fashioned way, which is to say through murder and theft. After outmaneuvering both Portugal and Spain, Holland seized the Bandas in 1621, and set about "pacifying" the native population. According to one historical account, the Dutch briskly killed or displaced 14,400 of the 15,000 Bandanese islanders.1 Less successful in uprooting the well-armed British, who had managed to grab the harp-shaped island of Run, the most prolific natural nutmeg factory of them all, the methodical Hollanders eventually struck a deal. Under the Treaty of Breda, signed in 1667, the English gave up their stake in the Bandas in return for New Amsterdam, a larger but comparatively unpromising Dutch trading post on the same chilly northern island where I now happened to liveManhattan.
"We can actually go there?" I asked Norman when hed first told me about the remotely magical Bandas and then managed to persuade me he wasnt pulling my leg. We were sitting in the elegant lobby of the Regent Hotel in Jakarta at the time, having coffee at the base of its grand staircase, as Norman fixed an appraising Javanese eye on our curvaceous waitress, who sashayed among the tables in her tight-fitting sarong. But he was excited about the Bandas, too.
"Yes, Boss," he said, his nostrils flaring as if already processing the sweet scent of island spices. "Thats where well see the real old-time Indonesia!"
I was smitten. From that relaxed and cozy vantage point, the thought of visiting a sun-splashed backwater whose jungles had grown up around one of historys great geographical ironies struck me as wildly seductive. Looking back on it now, I guess I should have been more alert to the fact that Norman had never actually set foot in the Bandas, either. But though like most journalistic hacks (and here I exclude the increasingly chirpy anchors who play journalists on TV) I am a deep and terrible skeptic, I trusted Norman to the highest degree possible. First, he was impressively overqualified for the work he was doing with me. Hed graduated from a job as a photographer for Tempo magazine, Indonesias top newsweekly, to run his own successful photo studio in Jakarta. Tall for an Indonesian, with a long, angular nose, high cheekbones, and a head of wavy black hair, hed even played the romantic lead in a film, by a rising young Indonesian director, about young love at bay amid the spooky ruins of court life in the old Javanese capital of Surakarta.
When the same Asian economic crisis that drove former President Suharto from office also forced Norman, like many of Indonesias bright and ambitious young people, to scramble for ways of earning hard currency, hed hired himself out as a local fixer for visiting foreign photographers and film crews. And there was nobody better at it than Norman. Having studied in the United States, he was a veritable multitasking, globalized, digitized marvel, who was incessantly juggling dueling Palm Pilots, lining up interviews on one of two cell phones, sometimes both, and was intimately plugged into the steady flow of gossip on which Indonesias capital thrived. In addition, Norman had a grasp of loyalty rare in young men in todays world.
From Allahs Torch by Tracy Dahlby. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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