Late 16th-century map of Java, including Bantam. (courtesy of Wattis Fine Art, Hong Kong)
  • Late 16th-century map of Java, including Bantam. (courtesy of Wattis Fine Art, Hong Kong)
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In 1603, at a place Europeans then called Bantam, an English fleet trading for spices left behind a few merchants to organize the pepper trade for the arrival of the next voyage – two years later.

These expatriated merchants were known as “factors,” a term still used 250 years later in Canton, China. They were completely on their own. Instead of the walled villas with swimming pools and verdant gardens their privileged progeny now enjoy, these original expatriates built primitive wooden structures on the edge of a tidal mud flat. Only two survived to see the next ship.

The factors competed for trade against Indians, Chinese, Arabs, Japanese, Portuguese and the ubiquitous Dutch. Cutthroat competition was a literal tactic, as were “fire sales” induced by flaming arrows shot into wooden warehouses.

They were plagued with malaria, amebic dysentery and other tropical diseases. Even if they survived their assignment, they were in almost as much peril on the return voyage from scurvy, piracy and shipwreck. Yet despite the dangers, isolation and drudgery of life in a hostile swamp, these men and their successors managed to plant the seeds of the Asian expatriate tradition that flourishes today in the red light districts of Jakarta, Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong.

They quickly discovered the consolations of drinking arrack, overeating and local women. Within a few voyages, the Calvinist captains of the Dutch East India Company were outraged by the rampant “hoares” and drunkards to be found everywhere in Bantam. One English captain threatened to immediately repatriate incorrigible drunks in disgrace – a move that would have decimated the labor pool. Some of them took local wives and refused to return. Their masters back in London constantly accused them of “country trade” (trading for their own account), the 17th century equivalent of voucher fraud.

Admit it. You gotta love these guys. They came with nothing and created a Lifestyle. With this sense of reverence, I decided to visit Banten on a Sunday between meetings in Jakarta.

I didn’t go to sightsee. My guidebook had warned me that the only sights are a mosque, a fort and some crumbling walls. I didn’t care. I was a pilgrim. I wanted to stand on the same mud, sweat under the same sun and be bitten by the same bugs as those ancient expats. I was also hoping some descendants of those “hoares” might still be around to share a few arracks, but sadly, not even a warm Bintang beer is on offer in this conservative Islamic enclave.

The Bantam those factors knew is difficult to imagine today. Today’s backwater fishing village was then the capital of a sultanate. It was as large as contemporary Amsterdam. Now, Banten is easy to reach from Jakarta, but once there, orientation is a little tricky. If you don’t hire a guide, you’ll spend a long time seeing not much but a narrow street choked with rows of stalls selling religious pictures, shell jewelry, stuffed animals, dried fruit and warm soft drinks.

If you arrive on a Sunday, the confusion is increased by activity at the mosque (Mesjid Agung). Thousands come to pray, picnic and queue up to squeeze into the stairwell of a 300-year-old Chinese-style minaret for the best views of the…um… mud flats.

The mosque on a Sunday is a Southeast Asia sensory assault. Blind beggars line the narrow paths of the compound calling for alms. Food is sold and consumed and spilled from dozens of pushcarts. Sanitation aromas ascend from the open drains that crisscross the walk paths.

Near the mosque, Banten’s museum offers relief from the chaos and the heat. Its small collection of ceramics, jewelry, weapons and Hindu carvings are interesting enough. But more importantly, the museum is where I finally found a “guide” who knew the way to the fort, but whose English was limited to “Mister, I money.”

The Dutch built Speelwijk Fort. Its well-kept graveyard recalls the lives of those who didn’t repatriate. The fort’s interior courtyard is graced by massive tropical hardwoods, and on the day I was there, by children flying kites against the cobalt sky. One watchtower partially remains. Beneath the watchtower lies a tunnel with small skylights. I thought it might have served as a prison for captured English factors, but “Mister, I money” was not a sufficient exchange of ideas to confirm this.

The fort originally guarded the harbor, but centuries of silting have put the harbor about a kilometer away. Karangantu Harbor was the center of the maritime spice trade in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is the reason the first English factors were left here. Bantam’s local merchants had been importing spices from the Moluccas and waiting to rip off the Europeans when they sailed in to buy them. The Dutch soon tired of price negotiations and simply torched and blockaded the town before they killed the local merchants. The English decided to join, not beat, the locals, and left their factors to accumulate spices at the lower prices prevailing after the European ships sailed home.

Today, the harbor’s narrow channel must be continually dredged to admit the small boats that now bring hardwoods from Sumatra, rather than nutmeg, pepper, cloves and mace from farther east.

The only visible similarity to the early times is the condition of the shore itself. At low tide, it is a flat gray ooze of a beach that will suck a pair of Nikes right off your feet. It seethes with millions of burrowing crab mites and slithering mud-colored slime slugs. Its airborne insects are so big they could be refueled. It hasn’t changed in four hundred years.

To those first English expats this soggy shore was their home, their office, the way in and the way out of their foreign assignment. They lived here. They debased themselves; and they died here.

And as I sat down on that oozy beach digging out my Nikes, I thought about those men and their legacy, and I could only say: “An arrack to them.”

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