Sugar, Spice, Blood: How a tiny Indonesian island played a pivotal part in the making of Manhattan

By Aisha Powell, Heather Schroering and Stephanie Tangkilisan

Vendors at the Indonesian Street Food Festival sell their food to hundreds of eager festival goers. | ©Stephanie Tangkilisan

Intoxicating aromas of garlic, lemongrass and ginger filled 68th street between 5th and Madison avenues, while hundreds of fest goers at the Indonesian Street Festival on Aug. 26, celebrated this year’s theme the Spice Islands. During a game of trivia, a student repeatedly fired off answers into the crowd until one stumped him. What’s Run Island?

Ask New Yorkers! Do they know that Manhattan was traded for the Spice Islands?

The remote island was one of several in the Indonesian archipelago that captivated spice traders for nutmegs, cloves and other exotic goods for hundreds of years. Though tiny, Run Island played a huge role in the Treaty of Breda, a peace treaty between England and the Dutch Republic that’s directly connected to New York City.

To commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Treaty of Breda, this year’s Indonesian Street Festival shed light on the little known history of trading the Spice Islands for Manhattan.

While the crowd saw a colorful celebration of traditional Indonesian cuisine and dance on Saturday, the bloody battle over nutmeg that led up to the Treaty of Breda is not lost on Indonesian Consulate General Abdul Jailani.

Consulate General Jailani on the impact of nutmeg on Indonesia and on the Festival’s theme

“The impact of the nutmeg on the two islands for Indonesia makes them destitute, makes them poorer,” he said. “The Europeans came…to Indonesia only for spices. At the time, [there’s] nothing more marketable than nutmeg.”

The bloody history of the Spice Island

In the 1600s, the tiny Banda Islands in Indonesia were the world’s sole source of nutmeg, according to food historian Michael Krondl. A luxury good, Krondl compares the modern day iPhone to nutmeg, a highly sought after status symbol for the wealthy, used for cooking and medicinal purposes.

Though small time players in the spice trade overall, the Dutch were eager to monopolize the nutmeg trade, Krondl said.

“The way they did this was by committing a horrific act of genocide mainly by forcing the local islanders to sell only to them,” he said. “And when the islanders started smuggling…the Dutch decided the final solution would be to kill or deport the entire population of the Banda Islands.”

A colonial map of Run Islands. | ©Stephanie Tangkilisan

In 1621, using Japanese mercenaries and a “combination of bribery and butchery,” Krondl said the Dutch hunted the 15,000 islanders, capturing and murdering them and selling the survivors, about 1,000, into slavery.

The events were so bloody, soldiers wrote home about it.

“The heads and quarters of those who had been executed were impaled upon bamboos and so displayed,” reads an excerpt from a Dutch lieutenant’s letter in Krondl’s 2007 book “The Taste of Conquest: The Rise and Fall of the Three Great Cities of Spice.” “Thus did it happen, God knows who is right. All of us as professed Christians were filled with dismay at the way this affair was brought to conclusion and we took no pleasure in such dealings.”

England’s Version of the Treaty of Breda. | ©Stephanie Tangkilisan

The Dutch were still missing one piece in their monopoly, the small island of Run and they had designs on a new line of trade, sugar cane. In 1667, the Dutch went to the English to offer a trade as part of the Treaty of Breda, New Amsterdam (lower Manhattan) for Run Island and British-ruled Suriname, a Caribbean territory rich with sugar cane.

In New Amsterdam, the English got to keep their “crappy little fort at the bottom of Manhattan that’s only source of income to speak of was beaver pelts,” Krondl said. But acquiring what’s now Manhattan meant the British could continue to colonize in new world without the Dutch in the way.

Run Island Today

Today, remains of Banda’s colonial past remains with old Dutch forts standing across the archipelago. Krithika Varagur, an Indonesian-based American journalist, went to Run Island in July 2017. According to Varagur, the remote island of about 500 people only has access to electricity for 5 hours a day.

There is no internet on the island, and few people who know about the trade between Manhattan and Run could only imagine what Manhattan is like today. Yet in other ways, many of Run’s millennials are no different than the millennials of New York. Plenty have Facebook accounts, which they access whenever they take a ferry to Banda and use the many internet cafes there.

A journey to Run Islands with Varagur and a word from Fefe Anggono, festival organizer.

These modern conveniences and many others are in stark contrast with Manhattan. Run’s population is 500 to Manhattan’s 1.6 million. With one pier, there is only one way to enter and exit the Run Island compared to Manhattan’s numerous ports and airports. In the middle of the night, Run goes dark. New York has glittering skyscrapers that are lit up 24/7.

“Manhattan is the city never sleeps, and Run sleeps all the time,” Varagur said. “People take naps on the porch, the dogs sleep in the middle of the street. It’s like night and day, it’s at the fringes of the modern world.”

The energy at the Indonesian Street Festival lived up to Manhattan standards. Hundreds lined up to eat Indonesian food from the dozens of stalls, and traditional Indonesian performances including dances from Bali and Java to Papua lasted all day.

The crowd sings “Indonesia Raya”, the Indonesian national anthem, to start the festival.

The festival closed with a performance from Indonesian popstar Glenn Fredly, whose from eastern Indonesia, where Run Island is. Fredly gave a shoutout to Indonesians from his region, ending his performance with “Rame-Rame/Timur” a song urging people to go to East Indonesia.