FORGOTTEN ISLAND Muhammad Fadli


Straddling in the middle of the deep Indonesian Banda Sea, the island of Rhun is a place that define isolation. It appears like an anti-thesis of our modern world: it is not easy to reach, and there is no phone signal nor cars. It is also too small to be visible on most map, or if it does, it is probably an exaggeration or clue for its past importance. Looking from a high point towards the seaside settlement in the island, it resembles nothing more than a sleepy fishing village.

Rhun was busier few centuries ago, and much more important too. Together with few other islands in the Banda archipelago, it was among the place the seafaring European most sought after. The reason was the nutmeg that used to be almost exclusively grow in the Banda. It was useful in preserving food in the world without refrigerator and believed to contain the power for curing various illnesses, making it once worth its weight in gold. Along with other spices, it drove the European to navigate the uncharted territories in the east, fueling the Age of Discovery. It was Portuguese that arrived first in the Banda in the early 16th century for the spice trade, but later the Dutch came taking control for the most part of the archipelago shadowed by English that laid their claims on Rhun.

Rhun is considered as one of the earliest English colony overseas. According to historian John Keay in his book titled The Honourable Company, Rhun is comparable in its significance in the history of the British Empire as Runnymede is to British constitutional history. But in fact things never went really well for the English in Rhun as the Dutch fought for the full monopoly in Banda. Following some bloodshed and truce, Rhun was formally handed through the treaty of Breda in 1667 by the English to the Dutch in exchange for New Amsterdam, or popularly known as Manhattan, making the Dutch monopoly completed in the Banda and the Spice Islands. The Dutch monopoly on nutmeg and mace was only ended by the transfer of nutmeg trees to Ceylon, Grenada, and other British colonies in the early 19th century, leading to the decline of the Dutch supremacy in the spice trade. Thus at the same time, Rhun and also the rest of Banda, has slipped into obscurity.

Today, there is very little evidence of Rhun’s glorious past left in the island. Nutmeg still grows in Rhun and somehow it still serves as a local currency as people can trade it for clothing or boat engine. But it is never a lucrative business like it once was. Coming into Rhun is also a real nuisance since the only way to arrive and depart from the island served by a small wooden passenger vessel. And it is not unusual for the boat to halt its services once the sea get a little too rough, which happens often in the Banda. Long after its past importance, Rhun has really grown into a place that the world forgot.

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