I began writing this chapter in early March of 2020, at just the time when a microscopic entity, the newest coronavirus, was quickly becoming the largest, most threatening, and most inescapable presence on the planet. As cars and people vanished from the streets of Brooklyn, where I live, a peculiar sense of dislocation set in. Reading the notes I had made on my visit to the Banda Islands in November 2016, I sometimes had the eerie sense of having returned incorporeally to the archipelago.
On that visit I had stayed in a hotel built by a man called Des Alwi, who had once been known as the Raja of the Bandas… An author and diplomat, he had established a foundation dedicated to the preservation of the islands’ heritage. Apart from restoring many crumbling colonial buildings, the foundation had also printed a few books and pamphlets, among them an introduction to the history of the islands written by a friend of Des Alwi’s, an American historian called Willard A Hanna. It was in this book, titled Indonesian Banda: Colonialism and Its Aftermath in the Nutmeg Islands, that I first read about the lamp that fell in Selamon on the night of April 21, 1621.
The detail was mentioned only in passing, but it haunted me. Why had such a simple, everyday mishap caused so much panic amongst Sonck’s contingent of Dutch soldiers?
During the stillness of those Brooklyn nights, when the silence was broken only by the sirens of speeding ambulances, it was possible to imagine that a sudden and unexpected sound might remind everyone of the invisible nonhuman presences that surround us, intervening in everyday life in ways that completely transform the meaning of ordinary events.
Not far from my house is one of Brooklyn’s largest hospitals. At that time Covid-19 was claiming so many lives that the bodies of the dead were being stacked outside, in refrigerated trucks. When I stepped out of my house I could sense fear seething in the streets around me, and this induced a sense of kinship with the terrorstruck villagers of Selamon, as they lay huddled in their homes, wondering if the fall of the lamp was a portent of worse things to come.
I wanted to know more about the fall of that lamp. But how?… Few indeed are the scholars who have written about the Bandas, so the events of 1621 are shrouded in obscurity… Where then had Hanna found this detail? As I combed through his book, it became clear that his main source was a monograph called De Vestiging van het Nederlandsche Gezag over de Banda- Eilanden (1599– 1621) (The Establishment of Dutch Rule Over the Banda Islands). The author’s name was JA Van der Chijs, and the book was published in Batavia ( Jakarta) in 1886.
At this point in New York City’s lockdown I, like many others, was in a somewhat dazed, fugue- like state. In the preceding months, propelled by the spiraling acceleration of the Before-Covid Time, I had been travelling constantly. The sudden cessation of movement had created a sensation of breathlessness, as though a speeding car had been brought to a screeching halt on an expressway.
My wife, Debbie, who is known to her readers as Deborah Baker, was away in Charlottesville, Virginia, researching a book and spending time with her family. Earlier in the year, in January 2020, the same month in which we had celebrated our thirtieth anniversary, she had lost her ninety-year- old mother, Barbara. The loss had sent her eighty-nine-year-old father into a downward spiral, so she needed to be in Virginia for a while. I had meant to follow but changed my mind when infection rates in New York suddenly began to soar; the risk of carrying the contagion with me made it seem irresponsible to venture out of the city. Nor, in that disorienting moment, did I feel much inclined to leave the familiarity of Brooklyn, where my son and daughter also live. So it happened that an uncanny conjunction of circumstances ensured that I was on my own, spending even longer hours in my study than I usually do.
If it were not for the strangeness of that locked-down time, I don’t think I would have done what I did next: I searched the internet for a pdf of Van der Chijs’s book — and to my surprise one turned up!… there it was in front of me, a treasure trove of secrets, and all I could do was stare at it, as though it were a rune- stone or petroglyph.
One day, while waiting for New York’s daily 7pm ritual of thanking the city’s first responders by clapping, cheering, and (in my case) banging pots, I started to scroll randomly through the text of Van der Chijs’s book. Soon enough I came to some familiar names and words — the word “lamp,” I discovered, has the same meaning in Dutch and English. On an impulse I typed a Dutch sentence into a widely used online translation app — and somewhat to my surprise, it produced a string of words that made sense: “About midnight from the 21st to the 22nd of April , a lamp fell in the bale-bale, where Sonck slept with his counselors, an insignificant event [but] enough to cause panic among the Europeans, who were always and everywhere seeing treason.”
After that it was impossible to stop. I forgot about the potbanging ritual and instead began to feed Dutch sentences into the app, one after another — and there were just enough glimmers of sense behind the often-garbled results to draw me deeper and deeper into the text.
…So, with more and more ambulances shrieking past the window of my study, in what had once been the Dutch village of Breukelen, I began to type entire pages into the app, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. Soon it was as if two nonhuman entities, the internet and the coronavirus, both operating at a planetary scale, had come together to create a ghostly portal to transport me, through the spirit of a long- dead Dutchman, to the Banda Islands on the night of April 21, 1621.
What possible bearing could the story of something as cheap and insignificant as the nutmeg have on the twenty- first century? …The modern era, it is often asserted, has freed humanity from the Earth, and propelled it into a new age of progress in which human-made goods take precedence over natural products.
The trouble is that none of the above is true.
We are today even more dependent on botanical matter than we were three hundred years (or five hundred, or even five millennia) ago, and not just for our food. Most contemporary humans are completely dependent on energy that comes from long-buried carbon — and what are coal, oil, and natural gas except fossilized forms of botanical matter?…
If we put aside the myth-making of modernity, in which humans are triumphantly free of material dependence on the planet, and acknowledge the reality of our ever-increasing servitude to the products of the Earth, then the story of the Bandanese no longer seems so distant from our present predicament. To the contrary, the continuities between the two are so pressing and powerful that it could even be said that the fate of the Banda Islands might be read as a template for the present, if only we knew how to tell that story.