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Essay: There but for the grace of nutmegs

Sebastian Partogi
Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Mon, May 15, 2017 | 11:11 am
Essay: There but for the grace of nutmegs

Indonesia has a plethora of spices. (Shutterstock/File)

Recently, I bought and read the history book Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History, Penguin Books, 1999) by Giles Milton.

The book came into my radar a few months ago thanks to an acquaintance. She talked about this book at a discussion forum, about the rivalry between Dutch and English colonial adventurers around the 16th to the 17th centuries and their attempts to seize control over the abundant spices growing in Run Island, Maluku, to cater to Europeans’ excessive desire for these spices, particularly nutmeg.

The power struggle between the two forces resulted in England’s defeat, forcing it to trade Run for another island, called Manhattan, today one of the boroughs of New York City.

The acquaintance, known to be an Indonesian Anglophile, continued to joke about how Manhattan would have remained a backward little place if it had remained in Dutch possession and thereby became a part of Indonesia after independence in 1945.

Then she trod on dangerous territory when she said that “perhaps some countries, like Indonesia, deserved [emphasis mine] to be colonized. Why would Indonesians be willing to be ordered around and colonized like that?” She went on to pepper her arguments with present-day situations, on how Indonesia lags behind its peers on almost every aspect, especially business and technology.

Her question haunted me for weeks. Is it true that we deserved to be colonized? I maintained a healthy skepticism, though, to keep a sense of dejection at bay. I recognized she had some kind of hardness that could easily slip into a blame-the-victim mentality. For example, if you are too timid to stand up for yourself, then you deserve to be ordered around and bullied.

This burning question and curiosity gave me the impetus to buy and read the book, as well as other sources. My hint at her blame-the-victim stance appeared to be accurate. In discussing the book, she apparently dismissed the cruelty of the Dutch imperialist, Cornelis de Houtman, when he was enraged by the inflated price of spices (due to high demand from Europe, for God’s sake) and channeled that frustration by slaughtering Indonesians and setting their houses on fire.

The book also outlines how, in the mission to beat England and gain total control of Run’s riches, he brought artillery to Indonesia. Speaking of my acquaintance’s idea of us being stupid enough to be ordered around by colonalists, I had to wonder: if an army appeared right in front of her house with artillery, would she still be able to negotiate with them?

I would bet not.

The greedy Indonesian aristocrats and kings, who chose to cooperate with the colonialists at the expense of their subjects in order to accumulate wealth for themselves and their inner circles, as outlined in the book, also rendered Indonesia vulnerable to the imperialists’ abuse and exploitation.

No people on Earth deserve to be slaughtered, massacred and exploited to death for anyone’s greed; but Indonesia’s geographical context did make it vulnerable to colonization.

What is that risk factor? Alan Beattie in his 2009 book False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World dedicates a chapter in which he answers a nagging question: why is it that resource-rich countries are prone to conflicts and poverty? The answer: because these resources actually entice other nations, particularly those with stronger and greater military power and technology, to exploit these resources through force and manipulation.

Spice-rich Indonesia was not alone: an article in the May 2017 edition of National Geographic discussed the question of why the Central African Republic, despite being “blessed” with abundant oil and mineral resources, ended up being a failed state. The exploitation of resources by colonialists is one of the root causes.

Indian scholar Ania Loomba in her 2005 book Colonialism/Postcolonialism argued that the means through which colonialists gained control over a resource-rich country, which includes divide-and-conquer, corruption as well as deliberately stunting the mentality of its conquered people, destroyed the people and the legacy of colonialism endures within the struggles of post-colonial countries’ struggle with issues relating to horizontal conflicts, corruption and mental backwardness.

Although I disagree with the idea that Indonesians are inherently mentally backward and thereby deserve to be colonized (read Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and The World Until Yesterday for further references on the colonialism and traditionalism versus modernity debates) I also disagree with the foolish jingoism displayed by certain Indonesians when dealing with the fact that our country is being left behind in many aspects, including literacy, technology and economy, etc.

Yet outlining problems without offering solutions would also be a wasteful endeavor on my part.

Historian JJ Rizal once told me in a 2015 interview that Indonesia’s troubles were partly caused by the lack of visionaries and intellectuals in our country. He mentioned how Indonesia’s founding parents (I consciously use this term to avoid gender bias), as an example, achieved independence; because they were intellectuals who read and exchanged ideas, thereby boosting their bargaining power and negotiation skills when dealing with the colonialists.

Rizal, lamented the witch-hunt of intellectuals and artists by the New Order regime during the 1965 communist purge, as well as how the totalitarian government’s mind-stunting, anti-civilization and anti-intellectual education system succeeded in turning back the clock for Indonesia, back to the backwardness created by the colonialists.

Therefore, instead of complaining about Indonesia’s “backwardness” or becoming xenophobes, it is better that we educate ourselves and pass the knowledge forward. Our own jihad (battle) is to fight against our own sloth and ignorance through intellectualism, hard work and education. Nobody is going to hand us self-respect and dignity; we have to attain them for ourselves.

P.S.: Nutmeg is a wonderful book, by the way. Highly recommended.