The Rise & Fall of the Spice Islands by Debra Wallace

A dark history with an unexpected twist


Today nutmeg conjures up thoughts of pumpkin pie and eggnog, but four centuries ago it was at the heart of early sea exploration and a dark and bloody history with an unexpected twist.  (For the record, nutmeg is from the fruit of the Myristica fragrans tree with mace the red coating around the seed.)

Two years ago I traveled through the Banda Islands, the “Spice Islands”, in eastern Indonesia.  I visited fishing villages, small ports, the remains of forts and nutmeg plantations and gained a glimpse of colonization, the beginnings of globalization and a surprising real estate deal.

As early as the Middle Ages Arab sailors traded nutmeg.  Nutmeg could only be found in this small group of islands. Eventually nutmeg made its way to Europe where it was valued for its medicinal effect as it was believed to be the cure for several ailments and preventative for the black plague, which had recently ravaged the continent.  It was exotic and potent enough to cause hallucinations. 

Nutmeg was a status symbol, a sign of wealth, and the spice of the upper class. The price skyrocketed and the Arab traders were careful not to divulge the location of the “Spice Islands.”  It wasn’t until the early 16th century that these islands were discovered by Europe with the Portuguese first to arrive followed by the Spanish, English and Dutch. There was fierce competition to control the trade and horrific atrocities were committed among themselves and especially against the local people.   

Three hundred and fifty years ago today, July 31, 1667, the Dutch and British signed the Treaty of Breda ending these “Spice Wars”.  The treaty included an interesting twist. The British gave up control of the island of Run, giving the Dutch a monopoly over nutmeg and, in exchange, for Run, the Dutch traded the island of New Amsterdam, today New York City. 

The Banda Islands continued to be the sole source of nutmeg under the Dutch VOC (Dutch West India Company) until the early 19th century when nutmeg trees were smuggled out.  With this Run’s importance slipped away. 

The Banda Islands are now under consideration as a UNESCO historical site and we all know what happened to New York City.


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Return to Tana Toraja by Debra Wallace

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After twenty years I returned to one of Indonesia's most beautiful places in the highlands of South Sulawesi, Tana Toraja.  Though now deeply Christian animist beliefs remain and are most visible in customs surrounding death. 

Traffic grinds to a halt in an unexpected place far from town.  Trucks, packed with family and friends bring water buffalo and pigs, as "gifts" to honor the deceased, jam the road.

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"Whose pig is this?' is repeated over the loudspeaker as large groups of people enter the funeral grounds.  In response, guests identify themselves, their village and the number of "gifts" they have brought.  This includes an elaborate system of recording the "gifts, as they become debts to the family of the deceased.  

Funeral ceremonies take place weeks, months or even years after a death. This gives the family time to raise the money needed to cover funeral expenses. The richer and more powerful the individual, the more expensive the funeral.  A large part of these expenses includes purchasing water buffalo and pigs. A particularly prized pink and black buffalo can cost the family up to two thousand dollars.

As I enter the funeral grounds I spot the location where the water buffalo and pigs are being sacrificed. Torajans believe these animals help carry the soul to the afterlife. A large group of people form a circle solemnly chanting. School groups perform in a more celebratory tone.

Finally, the deceased is buried in either a cave carved by hand into a rocky mountain or in a wooden casket hung on the underside of a cliff.  Wooden effigies keep watch over the burial site.

Although Tana Toraja is most well known for these spectacular burial rites the surrounding landscape is stunning. Productive and expansive rice fields edged by jagged mountains produce three crops each year instead of the more typical two providing the resources for their elaborate customs.

Clusters of traditional Torajan houses with their dramatic boat shaped roofs are found throughout the region.  These roofs plus the red, black, yellow and white carved motifs is a striking image against the lush landscape.

In recent years global markets have created international recognition for Torajan coffee that flourishes in the cooler climate of these highlands.  Well worth a try if you come across some.

After twenty years traditional culture remains strong. I hope it doesn’t take me as long to return next time. 

Enjoy the images I've selected in my gallery.  

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Boti Tribe of West Timor, Indonesia by Debra Wallace

Visiting Boti is going back in time. We traveled 45 kilometers from the nearest town, not a place you would know.  When the going was good we reached 20 kilometers per hour. This was easier than the last time I visited Boti with a walk across a dry riverbed and up a steep hill into the village.

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Hokkaido in Winter by Debra Wallace

Hokkaido, the northern most island of Japan is home to striking landscapes, some of the world’s largest eagles and Japan’s iconic Red-Crowned Crane. I recently spent nine days there on a wildlife photo tour led by Martin Bailey and a wonderful group of photographers.  I was prepared for Hokkaido’s harsh winter weather with lots of layers. I was looking forward to photographing during snowfall and the challenges of capturing wildlife. 

Red-Crowned Cranes at Otowa Bridge

Red-Crowned Cranes at Otowa Bridge

Cranes are familiar from Japanese prints. These stately birds stand more than 5 feet (taller than me) with a wingspan of about 8 feet.  The cranes sleep along a riverbed protected from their predators. If morning temperatures are just right a type of frost (hoarfrost) creates a unique photographic opportunity. At the crane center I never tired of watching the crane’s courting dances and mating calls. Finally it started snowing and this provided a wonderful opportunity to photograph the cranes. A small group of deer was an added bonus.  The images captured in the snow are among my favorites.  

Akan Internatonal Crane Center

Akan Internatonal Crane Center

Another highlight was Rausu a fishing village on the east coast of Hokkaido. In winter there are large numbers of Steller’s Sea Eagles and White-tailed Eagles that rest on the sea ice that drifts down from Siberia. Once a circling eagle spots a fish he dives down to grab his catch. With wingspans of about 8 feet this is an impressive sight. I really enjoyed the excitement of photographing birds in flight.  

Steller's Seal Eagle

Steller's Seal Eagle

You can see additional images at Latest Work / Hokkaido

Japanese Snow Monkeys by Debra Wallace

Jigokudani, home of the world-famous snow monkeys, is a three to four hour drive from Tokyo and close to the quaint town of Nagano. These Japanese Macaques are known as snow monkeys because they live in an area covered with snow several months of the year.  To keep warm they huddle together and enjoy the hot springs common in Japan.  They spend endless hours   grooming one another. They're incredible creatures to watch, their hands and facial expressions so human like. Because they’re indifferent to visitors it’s possible to spend hours in their company, observing and photographing. You can see additional images of snow monkeys in my Japan-Snow Monkeys gallery

Clicking on this image will take you to the Japan-Snow Monkeys gallery.

Clicking on this image will take you to the Japan-Snow Monkeys gallery.

Calendar Contest by Debra Wallace

The Indonesian Heritage Society publishes a calendar every year.  The theme for the 2016 Calendar is Street Life Urban and Rural.  Two of my images were selected.  

High Hopes  This  first image was taken in Jakarta, Indonesia on October 20, 2014 - Inauguration Day - during the first ever inaugural street parade.  The high hopes for Indonesia's new president, Joko Widodo called "Jokowi", was evident by the enthusiasm and determinaton on people's faces. 

Clicking on this image will take you to the Indonesia - Banten gallery.

Clicking on this image will take you to the Indonesia - Banten gallery.

Morning Walk This second image was taken in the western part of the island of Java in an Outer Baduy village .  The Baduy people have limited contact with the outside world.  In the early morning this woman came across a bamboo bridge on her way to a neighboring village with rice barns bordering her path.  You can see additional images of the Baduy area in the Indonesia - Banten gallery

Welcome by Debra Wallace

Welcome to the soft launch of my website.  I welcome your comments.  

Off to Flores for a harvest celebration and overland travel.  Check out the gallery on Flores-Waerebo for a preview of more to come. 

Goal for 2015  -  INSTAGRAM at DEBRA.S.WALLACE