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  • June 22, 2015

The Spice Trade’s Forgotten Island

There’s just something about an isolated island that captures my imagination. Last year, it was the mysterious military base turned science project, Ascension Island; this time it’s a little postcolonial island in the Banda Sea called Run (also known as Rhun or Pulo Run). Without the work of Indonesian photographer Muhammad Fadli, I would never have known its story.

Picture of man with luggage
Baeng, a resident of Run, upon arriving from Bandanaira, the commercial center of the Banda archipelago

You see, the island of Run was once an important trade lynchpin in the 17th century because of its valuable nutmeg production. Surprising fact: In 1667 the Treaty of Breda determined that the English would cede control of Run island to the Dutch in return for Manhattan—yes, that Manhattan.

After a four-hour flight, an eight-hour voyage on a passenger liner, and a rickety boat ride, Fadli arrived on the remote island to capture its isolation. I corresponded with him over email and asked about his experiences photographing this all but abandoned outpost in the middle of the Banda Sea.

Picture of island village
The village of Run at dawn. This island of a thousand people has no phone coverage or cars. Electricity from a private provider only runs for a few hours at night.

JANNA DOTSCHKAL: How did you first hear about Run island? Why did you want to photograph it?

MUHAMMAD FADLI: I am a big fan of history and I read a lot of it, regardless [of] the genre. Several years ago, I stumbled across a short magazine article written by a famous Indonesian author. He wrote a brief passage about the swapping of Run for Manhattan. I haven’t let it go since then. Run is an important part of my larger ongoing project about the Banda archipelago, a group of ten tiny islands in the middle of [the] Banda Sea.

Picture of old television
An old television in a local house. Although electricity only runs for a few hours during the evening, almost every home in Run has a television, complete with a satellite connection.

JANNA: Tell me more about the history of Run. Why is it important?

MUHAMMAD: It was the setting of some of the earliest European ventures in Asia and played a central role in the economic history of the world. It was all because of nutmeg, [considered] the most precious of all spices—once worth its weight in gold—which was almost exclusively grown in the Banda.

Picture of man standing on a beach
Djamal Sabono, a fisherman and nutmeg farmer, stands on one of Run’s beaches.

Finding the Banda and the rest of the Spice Islands was the main motivation behind Europe’s age of exploration. The Dutch succeeded in controlling most parts of the Banda, while the English laid their claim on Run, which was considered one of their first colonies overseas.

And then the tale about Run’s swapping with Manhattan. This is a key point that can probably help people connect with the story. Everyone knows Manhattan but not Run, even though they share one history.

Picture of man sleeping on floor
A man sleeps on a floor mat during the day in Run.

JANNA: What’s it like to live on the island now?

MUHAMMAD: Life in Run is pretty simple. There’s no mobile phone signal or cars, and electricity only runs for a few hours in the evening. Coming from Jakarta, it was quite difficult for me to adjust at first. I had a hard time sleeping at night because it was all too silent. There was a strange feeling of isolation too.

Picture of clothes on grass
Clothes laid out to dry on the grass

JANNA: How did you want to capture the mood on the island?

MUHAMMAD: I love making portraits and landscapes. I chose to photograph Run like this because I was dealing with the past—which is now essentially nothingness. So I needed to focus on all its subtleties, whether it’s a landscape, details, or people. It’s mostly just wandering around and hoping to find something valuable. In Run, I spent more time photographing the people because they are part of the history. I think the story would fall apart if I didn’t collaborate with them.

Picture of wedding couple
A newlywed couple in Run. The groom comes from the island of Ambon but decided to hold the wedding in Run.

JANNA: Did you have any interesting or unusual experiences on the island?

MUHAMMAD: When I asked how to get to the nutmeg farm in the forest, most people were hesitant to answer. It turned out that just a few weeks earlier, a farmer was found dead and dismembered in the forest. People said it was a supernatural phenomenon, making the argument that no predators inhabit the island. In Indonesia, the biggest Muslim country in the world, Islam is still intertwined with local beliefs. Especially in remote places, people still believe ancestors’ spirits are everywhere. Run is one of those places.

Picture of pacific island in the distance
The island of Run, as seen from an approaching boat

In the end I managed to go to the farms, but for the sake of my safety the villagers insisted that I be accompanied by a local. Ridiculously enough, they sent a ten-year-old boy to go with me.

Picture of man holding fish
Lapase shows off his catch of the day, a nearly 21-pound yellowfin tuna.

JANNA: What do you hope to show people with this project?

MUHAMMAD: I want to show how the history of global trade shaped people’s fate and how it might not be as glorious as we’ve heard. The spice trade brought fortunes for the seafaring Europeans, but it acted like a curse for the islanders. Once [nutmeg] lost its value, they were all forgotten. It is a kind of reflection on what is still so common, even today. While history clearly provides us certain lessons, we only can learn them if we are aware of it. I’m not hoping for some sort of sudden change to happen because of my photographs. As long as I can make people aware of the story, that’s enough for me.


Muhammad Fadli is part of the Arka Project, a photography collective based in Indonesia.

There are 64 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Cikgu Borhan
    May 31, 2016

    I am from Malaysia.It was an excellent article. I am in fact writing about the spice trade and also about Run. I am sharing your photos to let the world know how the plunderers had turned this island into, Thank you for such a beautiful article and photos.

  2. pak peter
    February 19, 2016

    Not only the Dutch killed the local population, 16 years ago all the Christians had to flee the Banda islands after many had been killed, they are still unable to return.

  3. Sylvia Silooy
    July 11, 2015

    Thank you so much for making these beautiful pictures! I hope to visit this island once.

    Our great great great grandmother came from this island Run where she was the daughter of a tribal chief and laid birth of a child from the son of the King of Banda a few centuries ago.
    But see what has been up to with the mass murder of the population there and that because of the nutmeg. So Hitler was not the only one the Dutch in the VOC did something alike.
    Municipalities in the Netherlands that want to keep the name J.P. Coen as street name know that they honor a mass murderer!
    This is what is left of the island after the war and Netherlands did not put money into this island to make sure that the residents were provided with the normal basic needs. What a mentality!!!!

  4. rozita
    July 7, 2015

    thank you for your lovely photos and the showcase of this forgotten island. not every island has to be tourist picks’ “white sandy beach”.

  5. kay
    July 7, 2015

    i want to see more of the island

  6. Olga
    July 2, 2015

    so beautiful.

  7. Renee
    July 1, 2015

    I’d take Run back in a heartbeat! Looks like a beautiful island!

  8. Felipe Restrepo.
    June 30, 2015

    Great story and History! Thanks!!!

  9. Dave Terry
    June 30, 2015

    “I’ll take Manhattan”

    ……….and Staten Island too

  10. Barbara Necker
    June 29, 2015

    I’ll take Manhattan . . . but Run sounds pretty interesting too

  11. Subhash
    June 29, 2015

    Was it not originally Manhattan was traded by Native American to Europeans in first place?

  12. SuprDav
    June 29, 2015

    Can we reverse the trade??

  13. Georgia Estes
    June 29, 2015

    My ancestor Wolphert Van Kouwenhoven and his wife Neeltje were the first “whites” to purchase land from the local natives on Manhattan Island. Its interesting to know more about the history of that place.

  14. jose
    June 29, 2015

    Great story with photos. Today, in Wall Street you can lose all your possessions and there will be no beautiful island in return.

  15. Christine Marks
    June 29, 2015

    Thank you Janna and Muhammad for this well-written and beautifully photographed article about this wonderful Indonesian Island. It evoked many emotions in me, incredibly humbling. Thank you both for highlighting the amazing and important work the Arka Project are doing in Indonesia. Simply stunning. Namaste’.

  16. Ika Indrawati
    June 29, 2015

    Beautiful photos and insightful story!

  17. Elizabeth
    June 29, 2015

    Awesome article! First time I’ve heard about Run. Wish we could go back to the times when life was so rustic, so simply lived – when we could do without a phone, etc. We survived then! I keep wondering how many more undiscovered places exist.

  18. Ivy Aralia Nizar
    June 28, 2015

    indeed it’s true.. we learn something new every single day.. what a great history, never knew about this and I’m indonesian! Looking forward to more stories from your work

  19. ismawan
    June 28, 2015

    Manhattan is Manhattan and Run is Run. But great story and photos, thank you.

  20. Jimmy
    June 28, 2015

    Wonderful piece of work. Is there a hotel on Run island?

  21. Ron Lilley
    June 28, 2015

    Kathy asks about poisonous insects and snakes. There are a few sea snakes, (which won’t bother you, although the diving is fantastic!), there are giant orb web spiders and the occasional python, but these are not a threat either. Run and the rest of the Banda islands are fabulous, steeped in history, and a welcome change from the other, more crowded and noisy tourist destinations!

  22. Patricia Grand
    June 28, 2015

    Soothing, a peacefulness we seldom experience…I live outside a small city where we lack streetlighting and I love the unpolluted night sky. Imaging the views from Sun. They are blessed!

  23. Gazza
    June 28, 2015

    No mobile phone signal, no cars and quiet nights. I think the residents of Run got the best part of the deal.

  24. Mikki Staab
    June 28, 2015

    Wonderful photographs! Article reminds me of why I love National Geographic so much!

  25. emrys
    June 28, 2015

    I never the story about Run or Nutmeg.
    wonderful pictures

  26. Douglas Radcliffe
    June 28, 2015

    A wonderful article….the sounds of silence in pictures.

  27. Kathy Bankston
    June 28, 2015

    I wonder about poisonous insects, snakes. Are there any?

  28. Larry Hamilton
    June 28, 2015

    Really interesting article and super images. Uncovering the hidden past helps us understand the present! Thanks!

  29. Mark Wenner
    June 28, 2015

    Nice story. Missing a photo of nutmeg, the spice that is at the heart of its historical significance.

  30. Shirley Smith
    June 28, 2015

    I was born a stone’s throw from Manhattan, so this is part of my history, too. Thank you for presenting it so well.

  31. Feyzan
    June 28, 2015

    Islands are mysterious and its people are adept at remaining self-sufficient physically and emotionally. I enjoyed viewing the photos and the info provided. Especially the link to Manhattan was quite interesting. Who would have known?

  32. md.moyeed hussain
    June 28, 2015

    a nutmeg farm photo too would have been great.

  33. David Terry
    June 28, 2015

    Thank you for yet another peek at a world we would NEVER see or even know about, except for N.G.

  34. Richard Scholl
    June 28, 2015
  35. sanmit
    June 28, 2015

    fascinating. as a fan of history, this story & the accompanying pics are excellent – well done!

  36. SANDY OESTREICH
    June 28, 2015

    Just another story of capitalism’s cannibalism. Sad for the inhabitants in some ways. Wish we’d had some comments from more folks there.

  37. William Stenger
    June 28, 2015

    I most like your comment near the end of the story, “While history clearly provides us certain lessons, we only can learn them if we are aware of it”, so true. Thank you for making me aware of this place and it’s connection to Manhattan, 100 miles north of me. How nice to live in a place with no cell phones!

  38. Daniel Morao
    June 28, 2015

    Interesting article but I would like to see a photo of the nutmeg farm the picture of the town it was really nice

  39. michael
    June 28, 2015

    interesting story beautiful photos

  40. Millicent
    June 28, 2015

    Great article! It both amazed me and saddened me! So much connecting history that we’re unaware of. Thank you!

  41. Susan
    June 28, 2015

    I have been to Run and did an historical walking tour and learned of the exchange. While recently in Kindle Ireland on a walking tour, they talked about the spice trade “creating” this town. No matter how remote, it is amazing how interconnected our world is.

  42. sally
    June 28, 2015

    I wish the article was longer.

  43. jet
    June 28, 2015

    Not enough detail on nutmeg farming, logistics (harvest, storage, transport, market, sale).

  44. Maggie
    June 28, 2015

    VERY interesting! Loved learning the history of this remote island! Please share more pictures and stories!

  45. Kevin
    June 28, 2015

    I’m going to Manhattan soon and now I want to also visit this beautiful island, just to make the connection complete.

  46. Donna
    June 28, 2015

    Sensitive photographs and a very thoughtful message. I would like more details of the trade.

  47. Marilou Spash
    June 28, 2015

    What an insightful article with great photographs. Love the connection with Manhattan!

  48. James Luce
    June 28, 2015

    Not sure why Mr. Fahli describes being forgotten by the Europeans as a “curse”. They all seemed perfectly content and healthy to me. Certainly all the people in the Middle East wish that they’d been forgotten by the West.

  49. Anne
    June 25, 2015

    I’ve recently read ‘Nathaniel’s Nutmeg’, a terrific book about Run Island, the spice trade, and the strife between England and the Netherlands. I was wondering what the island is like now, so thanks for the article!

  50. Anisul Islam
    June 25, 2015

    Both images and article looks great to me. I like these photographs very much. Continue publishing article.

  51. Ashwati
    June 24, 2015

    This is a great story! I’d love to go on an exploration to a remote island some day! Wonderful pictures.

  52. Dini
    June 24, 2015

    Great photos, great story, thanks!

  53. Zulfika Kusharsanto
    June 24, 2015

    Nice pictures and article! I always wonder how life in remote island is and this article has showed me well

  54. Yusni Sinaga
    June 24, 2015

    interesting. thank you..

  55. Cynthia Rawlins
    June 24, 2015

    Fantastic Photos, story and awareness

  56. Luigi Monaco
    June 23, 2015

    Wonderfull pictures. Really like the colours. What camera are you using?

  57. Jean
    June 23, 2015

    Thank you for the concern about the isolated area. Every country has that sort of place, so hope you could discover more.

  58. Madhu
    June 23, 2015

    Really appreciate your work! This story has connected me to this unexplored island and I hope it will connect many more too!!

  59. jone
    June 23, 2015

    Thanks.I’m researching and writing a book origin of Pacific Islanders, this story sweetens it up as in 1000BC, the spice trade then from Egypt to Indonesia and ancestors knew the sea route well.Thank you.

  60. Yunaidi Joepoet
    June 22, 2015

    Strong images!

  61. David E Litchfield
    June 22, 2015

    perhaps this article will open Run to tourists – which may be good or bad, but would certainly change it.

  62. Claudio
    June 22, 2015

    Nice story, nice photos!

  63. Joan Tanaka
    June 22, 2015

    Thank you for this! This place is now on my list to visit!

  64. Daniel
    June 22, 2015

    Great reportage, thanks!

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