We sailed out of the Arafura Sea, through the Timor Sea and into the Savu Sea. Soon we'd be in the Flores Sea and then the Banda Sea – home of the Banda, or Spice Islands, a cluster of 11 lush islands in eastern Indonesia. In the early days of sail exploration, these seas were known by Arabic traders as the Seven Seas, those enchanting waters on the other side of the world where spice was in the wind. To sail them meant you had sailed as far from staid, grey Europe as you could. According to the old sea charts, you'd reached the mystical ‘land of dragons’.
We sailed to a place where history meets legend
For the record, there are more than seven seas; it’s more like 100. But these waters did feel different. It wasn’t just the clove-scented breeze, the long, slow swells, or the high-bowed fishing boats that swooped close to look at us. We’d sailed to a place where history meets legend, a place where traditional ships still sail past live volcanoes to a forgotten island that once changed the world.
From our vantage at anchor, we watched colourful sailing canoes glide by on the water as competing calls of three muezzin summoned people to prayer in the mosques on shore. Two fishermen paddled up in a small wooden dugout and said good morning while handing us bananas. After the niceties (what are our names, where are we from, where have we been and where are we going?), their eyes turned to our boat’s details. My husband Evan did his best to explain how our 12m catamaran was built and what materials we used. But most of their answers were found by studying the shape of the hull.
You may also be interested in:
• The island that forever changed science
• The town that split the world in two
• Is this famous US accent dying?
Perhaps it’s similar to the way an architect or builder approaches a new building; looking for details that explain how people adapt structures to a location’s weather, landscape and culture. Sailors and fisherman build our vessels to suit a place, and we have a language all our own.
In Indonesia, where the ocean has long been the highway between the more than 17,000 islands, boats offer a myriad of clues about the seas and the people. The dugouts are obvious – they’re limited by the size of trees and never travel far from home. Long, narrow-hulled fishing boats are perfect for launching from a beach, and cut through the swell nicely.
But it’s the big schooners, called phinisi in Indonesian, that tell the most intriguing story. Like most of the boats we’d seen, much of the construction is traditional: hand-carved beams; wooden dowels instead of nails; and seams caulked with cotton. But the twist is that these two-masted ships borrowed both design details (originally part cargo ship, part warship) and the source of their name from Dutch pinnaces, vessels that first found their way to the Banda Sea in the spring of 1599.
The Dutch, along with the Portuguese, English and Spanish, had been in a ferocious race to find the elusive Spice Islands and gain control of the spice trade. There were fortunes to be made in cloves and nutmeg, and everyone was eager to knock out the middleman – the Asian and Arab traders who kept the islands’ location a secret.
When the Dutch finally found the islands, they protected their investment by forming the Dutch East India Company (VOC). With a horrific brutality that included slaying much of the local Bandanese population, they gained control of the plantations of evergreen nutmeg trees; the spice they produced not only flavoured food but was thought to cure illness including the bubonic plague.
At the time, nutmeg only grew in the Banda Islands. A combination of the region’s isolation and the finicky nature of the nutmeg tree kept the price astronomical. Nutmeg will only grow in specific conditions: fertile, well-drained soil in a tropical climate that gets lots of rain. Even then the trees only fruit after seven to nine years, and the labour-intensive process of harvesting requires workers to handpick each fruit and remove the outer covering, before carefully peeling off the mace (a delicate, saffron-coloured spice), drying the seed and cracking off the hard shell.
A 350th anniversary celebration
Head to Run Island from 11 October–11 November 2017 to celebrate its exchange with Manhattan Island. The Banda Festival marks the 350th anniversary of the Breda Treaty and the trade that changed the world.
The festival will feature cultural performances as well as a spice and culinary festival, traditional music events, puppet theatre performances and an ancient map exhibition. Rumour has it that the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, will even make an appearance.
With the local population subdued and enslaved as workers, the VOC monopoly of the spice trade was now hampered by just one thing. In 1616, the English had managed to gain control of a Banda Island called Run; a speck of island less than 2 miles long and just more than half a mile wide. It was here the English claimed their first colony and formed the English East India Company, and in doing so launched the British Empire.
The English East India Company was only able to defend Run against the Dutch for four years – but they didn’t give up their claim. In 1664, in retaliation, four English frigates were sent across the Atlantic Ocean to seize a Dutch holding called New Amsterdam. The seat of the colonial Dutch government at southern tip of Manhattan Island had a population of 2,000 people, but they quickly capitulated. In 1677, the two countries came to an agreement; both had refused to give up their claims on each other’s islands, so they made a trade. The Dutch gained control of Run and the English got New Amsterdam – a new colony they renamed New York.
These days, the Bandanese have regained control of their 11 islands and their nutmeg. Not many signs of the Dutch or English remain, other than the ruins from the VOC’s forts, the architectural style of the homes and the shape of the phinisi schooners that carry liveaboard divers around the islands. Ships like these were once Indonesia’s main form of transportation, carrying spices and cargo. Later they gained notoriety when the crews turned to piracy, using their skills to plunder European ships. These days, many of the traditional phinisi are outfitted with comfortable cabins and offer multiday voyages throughout Indonesia.
We came across our first phinisi schooner when it sailed into our isolated bay off Alor Island. Anchored beside us, it looked like it had travelled out of the region’s turbulent past – except for the passengers gearing up for a dive. Not long after the schooner’s guests dove into the water, we followed.
Swimming along a steep drop off, I admired the colour and diversity of the hard coral. Then a school of jacks caught my eye. Soon I was enthralled, in turn, by a turtle, Napoleon wrasse and a black tipped shark. I spent a while staring down a lobster before coming across the kind of traditional bamboo fish trap that wouldn’t have been out of place in an archaeological museum. When we surfaced to a view of fishermen in dugout canoes bobbing alongside the ancient-looking schooner, I thought it was our boat that had sailed through time.
That evening, as I watched the schooner bobbing in the swell at the base of a jungle-covered volcano, I wondered briefly what the world would have looked like if the English hadn’t traded Run for New York. But as the stars grew impossibly bright in the sky, I realised that perhaps it didn’t matter – in that moment, the world was as it should be.
Places That Changed the World is a BBC Travel series looking into how a destination has made a significant impact on the entire planet.
Join over three million BBC Travel fans by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter and Instagram.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday