March 23, 2017 10:00 am JST
Tea Leaves

Remember Asia's Manhattan that never was

A remote Indonesian island stands as a warning against protectionism

WILLIAM MELLOR

The waterfront mosque on the island of Run (Photo by William Mellor)

Exactly 350 years ago this coming July 31, two of the great maritime powers of the day, England and Holland, struck what turned out to be possibly the world's most one-sided deal. 

Under the 1667 Treaty of Breda, the Dutch acquired sovereignty over perhaps the most coveted piece of real estate on earth -- a tiny Indonesian spice island named Run that would give them a global monopoly on the trade in nutmeg, which was then more valuable than gold. In exchange, the English got a small island on the opposite side of the world. Its name: Manhattan.

Today, Manhattan is the beating heart of New York and the financial capital of the world: home to Wall Street, the United Nations and Trump Tower. Run, by contrast, lost its economic importance with its monopoly on nutmeg, a commodity that in any event would plunge in value.

Consequently, Run lies forgotten on the remote perimeter of Southeast Asia, 2,500km and two time zones east of Jakarta. To get there, I took a flight to Ambon, capital of the far-flung island province once called the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, and now known as Maluku.

From Ambon, an eight-hour overnight trip in a rusting ferry brought me to Banda Neira, the main township of the outlying Banda archipelago. Run is the most distant island in the Banda group; completing the final leg requires crossing the volcano-studded Banda Sea in an open boat.

With a population of just 2,000, Run has no cars, no bank and no internet. Among the few clues to its former glory are two grand street names. A coastal pathway is called Jalan (Street) Eldorado. A dirt track leading into the interior is Jalan Manhattan.

In a year in which Asia will commemorate two major events -- the 20th anniversary on June 30 of Britain's handover of Hong Kong to China, and the beginning two days later of the Asian financial crisis -- few are likely to remember the 350th anniversary of the Run-Manhattan swap. 

Yet, a trip to Run is well worth the effort -- not only for the stunning scenery, the magical snorkeling and the scent of nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon hanging heavy on the breeze. In a world obsessed with the protectionism vs. free markets debate, the island is a case study of what can happen when economies set up barriers to avoid adapting to change.

In the 17th century, Run became such priceless real estate because doctors judged that nutmeg, which then grew nowhere else, could cure bubonic plague. By the 19th century, the Dutch colonial power had lost its monopoly, after the British transplanted nutmeg trees to their own colonies. And, of course, views about the medicinal value of nutmeg changed. 

These days, the spice's most dramatic claim to fame is that it is supposedly one of the secret ingredients of Coca-Cola.

On a more positive note, Run is a reminder of the vast, largely untapped consumer market on the 17,500 islands that make up the world's fourth most populous nation. 

For instance, few of Indonesia's 250 million people have bank accounts. The nearest bank branch to Run is in Banda Neira, which gets its cash by sea from Ambon. That is why Bank Rakyat Indonesia, one of the country's biggest banks by assets, is making innovative efforts to expand its reach by converting boats into floating ATMs. In 2016, it even launched a communications satellite to bridge Indonesia's digital divide.

Finally, the story of Run needs to be more widely told because of its role in the history of New York. "If Holland hadn't swapped Manhattan for Run, we would all be speaking Dutch," said Ronald Jenkins, a professor of theater at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, who has written a play about the Run-Manhattan deal called "Islands: The Treaty that Changed the World."

Based on an original idea by Indonesian artist Made Wianta, and set to traditional music, "Islands" will premiere at Wesleyan on April 21, prior to a performance at the Indonesian consulate in New York two days later. The Asian premiere will be in Bali, Indonesia, on Aug. 15.

Jenkins, 64, an Indonesia expert who has visited Run three times, said the play is his most ambitious theatrical project. More ambitious still is his hope that the world's financial capital will give Run the historical recognition it deserves.

If the islanders call a dirt track Jalan Manhattan, he reckons the least New York could do is to rename one of its thoroughfares Run Street.

William Mellor is a Hong Kong-based writer.

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