Trading New-Amsterdam for a Spice Island

Nutmegs, Dutch food history and the spirit of Indonesian nationalism

Arnoud Arps


In 2017 Indonesian director Jay Subiakto released the documentary Banda: The Dark Forgotten Trail. The documentary focuses on the importance of the ten volcanic islands located in the Banda Sea known as the Banda Islands – or Banda-, which are part of the Indonesian province Maluku. For centuries, the Banda Islands have taken a prominent place in Western colonial efforts to control the spice trade. Unable to find the location of the spice islands, the Portuguese, British, Dutch and Spanish were competing to first discover these elusive locations where invaluable spices such nutmegs originated from.

The significance of the Banda Islands stemmed from the fact that at that time, nutmeg only grew on these islands. It is for this reason that the Dutch traded their settlement New-Amsterdam (what is now a part of Manhattan) with the British for Pulau Run (one of the Banda Islands). Banda has a distinct position within the food history of the Netherlands and is inevitably linked to the darker pages of Dutch colonial history. With the documentary Banda: The Dark Forgotten Trail, however, Jay Subiakto mediates a lesser known viewpoint on Banda’s history. That is, the view from Indonesian popular culture on the Dutch and Indonesian shared history of colonialism, genocide and exploitation.

In this paper I analyse how the documentary constructs a different narrative on the history of Banda through the politics of remembering and forgetting. Rather than focusing on the negative and permeating effects of colonialism, the documentary elaborates on the importance of the spice trade for the history of Indonesia and how it helped shape the nation’s ideology. In doing so, the documentary underscores the significance of the spice trade and the Banda Islands for present-day Indonesia.

Accordingly, I argue that the documentary establishes a link between the Dutch spice trade, the formation of Indonesian nationalism and eventually the Indonesian independence. By deciding what is remembered and what is forgotten, the documentary thus negotiates a memory of Dutch colonial foodways that offers an empowering perception of the past.