Photograph by Muhammad Fadli
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A family of four sits in front of their house on Run. The mother styles her daughter's hair.
Photograph by Muhammad Fadli

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.