The Jakarta Post
This is what's left of the building I lived in when I was 9 years old harvesting nutmeg for the Dutch,' says Kajiri, a slender 75 year old farmer, pointing to a cluster of stones that were once the foundation of a plantation dormitory on Pulau Run in Indonesia's Banda islands.
The crumbling fragments of the wall are covered with vines and only become visible when Kajiri cuts away the overgrowth with a sharp blade. As the farmer works, childhood memories return to him. Uncovering the stones helps him to uncover the past.
Kajiri remembers sometimes collecting over 10 thousand nutmegs a day. 'The Dutch gave us one and a half rupiah for every thousand nutmegs we picked, so on a good day I could earn Rp 15. It was enough to buy food back then. At night we all watched the wayang shadow plays put on by the Javanese contract workers who also slept in the building.'
Now Kajiri owns over 300 nutmeg trees in the hilltop forests of Run. 'I still get up at five in the morning to take care of the trees,' he says, 'but now I do it for myself, not because someone else tells me I have to.'
Kajiri's memories of the Dutch colonial era are vivid, but when asked about the history of his island before the 20th century he has no answers. 'That was before I was born and no one is left alive who remembers those things.'
Most residents of Run give similar responses to questions about their island's past. Sumantia Mohamed, a teacher in the local madrasah school said that only about a third of her students knew about the historic 1667 agreement that resulted in the Dutch trading Manhattan to the English in exchange for Run. 'When I tell them about it they are surprised,' she says. 'Some of them don't believe it could be possible.'
Uncovering the stones that reveal Run's significant role in world history is the goal of Balinese artist Made Wianta. He has been working for years on a project that will commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Treaty of Breda in which the English and Dutch agreed to trade Manhattan for Run.
The perspectives of farmers like Kajiri and other residents of Run will be incorporated into the project, which will include a book, an art installation, and theatrical performances.
'I began to focus on the Spice Islands and Run to remind people that our country has made important contributions to global culture for centuries. These tiny islands and the spices they produced changed the history of the world. If Indonesians are worried about national pride, all we have to do is look at the past and see that we have a lot to be proud of. But if we look at the past only through the lens of politics we can get stuck in arguments that will never be resolved. Maybe by looking at the past through the prism of art, we can understand history in a new way and create a future we will also be able to feel proud of,' Wianta said.
One of Wianta's installations is constructed from dozens of motorcycle rear-view mirrors. Each one is fitted with a photograph from either Manhattan or Run, encouraging spectators to look backward to past connections between the two islands by presenting contemporary images of them side by side. Graffiti. Children playing. Trash receptacles. Boats. The surprising juxtapositions in Wianta's photographs for the installation and for a forthcoming book suggest that Manhattan and Run have a lot in common in spite of the disparities that exist between them.
Although few residents of Run know the historical details that link their home to the financial capital of the world, many have heard fractured accounts of the relationship, passed from neighbor to neighbor like folklore. Some believe that a long time ago the people of Manhattan came to Run to find nutmeg and liked the island so much that they never went home.
Arwin, a fisherman who once rowed in a race on a boat named Manhattan knows that there is some connection between the places but is not sure what it is. 'We have a road here in Run called Jalan Manhattan,' he noted. 'Is there a road in Manhattan named after Run? If not, I invite the people of Manhattan to build one and come to Run to tell us about it. I love Manhattan.'
Building a road called 'Run' in Manhattan is the kind of response Wianta would be happy to have his project generate. 'I want people to think about art as a mirror for looking at the past that shows us how to create a new world for the present.'
One of Wianta's inspirations for the Run project is an ancient stone near the Balinese temple where his father was the caretaker. Like the stones of Kajiri's childhood dormitory the sacred rock in Bali is nearly hidden by vegetation but remains an important relic of the island's history. It is said to have belonged to the 10th century hero Kebo Iwo. Wianta wrote a poem about the rock ending with words that could be applied to the elemental connection between the residents of Run and Manhattan, 'Still we grow new shoots/Born upon the stone.'
' Photos JP/Ron Jenkins
Ron Jenkins, a professor at Wesleyan University and resident of Manhattan in New York, is collaborating with Made Wianta on the project to commemorate the historic connections between Run and Manhattan.
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