Saparua Island: Love and Rupture in the Moluccas

Sunset Saparua

How do you win someone over after you’ve plundered his livelihood, strangled his religion, denigrated his race, and murdered his children?

Strangely enough, this thought kept popping into my mind as the naked fishermen ran back and forth on their skiff, whooping and hollering and hauling in lines.

“Um, I’m not sure this is an ideal spot to watch the sunset,” I interrupted my wife’s sunset photography.  “I don’t think they’re going to put on any clothes.”

“Yeah, maybe we should find another pier,” she agreed.

Welcome to Day 1 on Saparua Island – home to a gorgeous tropical backdrop, some enthusiastically nudist fishers, and one of the most puzzling conundrums of Indonesia’s history I’ve yet to come across.


Just an hour ago I had strolled through the former house of one of Indonesia’s most storied national heroes.  Thomas Matullesy – better known as Pattimura – led an armed revolt against the Dutch occupiers exactly two hundred years ago.  Under Kapitan Pattimura’s lead, the Saparuan militia overran the fort, slaughtered the soldiers, beat back the reinforcements, and declared independence for their native Moluccas archipelago.  By way of a brief illustration of how hated the Dutch were at that time, all the troops insisted on slaughtering not only the prisoners they took, but also the wife, children, and governess of the newly arrived (and newly killed) commander.




In short: No love nor mercy for any Dutch blood, only a rupture of humanity’s compassion and ethics.

Pattimura, much as he reviled the Dutch, would not consent to the wanton killing of noncombatants—thus earning him the moniker Pattimura—soft heart. It also earned him a prominent spot on Indonesia’s 1000-Rupiah bill.

Two hundred years later, his house is a museum.  Well, sort of.  His descendants still live there: a girl of twenty years with an infant in her lap and another already rounding out her belly to nearly full term.  Chickens are in the back yard. A couple of bedrooms with tidy little cots and a simple kitchen—utensils on the floor in the absence of any countertops—round out the non-tour portion of the home.

The museum wing features a well-swept foyer with a half-dozen paintings and plaques of Pattimura himself.  In the next room is the single museum display: a glass case with  Pattimura’s threadbare clothes and his rusty old sword.  We took pictures with the case, but they were dark.  The lights were off. The sky outside was dusky.

Pattimura's Clothes
Pattimura’s gear: sarong and swords

No one explained anything to us.

In the next room, the hero’s progeny nursed her infant.

My role in this gritty little drama comes two centuries after the opening salvos were fired, and a few decades after the revolution against the revolution was born—and promptly died.  Indeed, my role opens at midnight in Jakarta’s airport, a thousand miles away.  And I’m passed out across a bank of airport chairs, unable to stay awake another thirty minutes till boarding time.

It was term break, and I’d been over-working and under-sleeping again, and even before that last bell on that last Friday slammed shut the freezer door to my intellect for the next ten days, I was obsessed with the Moluccas’ reefs again.  Enough of this colonial bologna—I just need a week with a hammock and a snorkel mask and some of Indonesia’s finest home-grown coral.  What could be a better destination than the Moluccas?

Island Boating
Good ferry connections between Ambon and the Lease islands

Less than ten hours later, that relax-and-enjoy-the-show mentality was blown out of the water.

Which is a fitting cliché, since Andy and I were actually on the water at the time.  Jakarta to Ambon flight? Check!  Taxi from the Ambon airport (Pattimura International, by the way) to Tulehu harbor? Check! Tulehu ferry toward Haria, port of Saparua Island?  In progress!

It was there, in that over-crowded, under-ventilated, full-of-fried-bananas ferry, that we met the biggest Dutch family I’ve ever known.  You wouldn’t know they were Dutch, though – not from their jet-black locks and dark-tanned skin and penchant for chain-smoking clove cigarettes.  Moluccan-Dutch.  Parents moved to Holland at the tender age of two.  Met and married others like them.  Raised a few generations.  Now bringing the whole lot of cousins and nephews and grannies and the kitchen sink back for a visit to the home islands – Saparua and next door Haruku.

These two tiny islands combine for something like the square mileage of Rhode Island, and float lazily off the eastern flank of Ambon Island—that stalwart Dutch stronghold of yore, that capital of the Moluccas’ splatter of islets in Indonesia’s shimmering east.

Island Ferry
Thinking of the home islands.

By now Haruku island was gliding by outside—tall palms waving languidly over rocky outcrops, the jungle buzzing behind.  Our new friends sighed.  This was it—the home island.  Aunties were here who hadn’t seen their family in decades.  Cousins were here setting foot in the Indonesia motherland for the first time.

The lead couple of the group—a shaved-head dude in a soccer jersey and flip flops, and a tiger mom with a fancy camera rig snagging photos of everything—filled us in a little.  Following World War II, when the Dutch decided not to give up their colonies without a fight, the Moluccas archipelago decided, inexplicably to me, to fight with, not against, the Dutch.

They actually shed their blood against freedom this time.  They wanted the Dutch.

I staggered back to the rim of the boat.  I thought I might spill over into the cool, placid sea. Worse fates exist, I suppose – it’d be a short swim over to the lush shores of Haruku and a life as a castaway. I could live on coconuts, I could fish (naked, perhaps) in the sea.  I could weave rattan mats overhead and crouch beside a fire at night (more to keep mosquitoes at bay than for warmth, of course). I could plan the next great American novel.  I could —

Consider exactly how you win someone over after you’ve plundered his livelihood, strangled his religion, denigrated his race, and murdered his children.


Saparua Villages
Finding our way through the back alleys

Because that’s exactly what happened here on Saparua.  In the span of thirteen decades, a monumental shift had occurred in these islands and these armies.  Once they were bloodthirsty enough to slaughter children and women; later they spilled their life’s hot blood in the cause of keeping those same colonists around.

Why?  What had changed?

And how do you explain the intermarried families in tearful embraces on the docks of Saparua? How do you account for the Nederland orange soccer jerseys flitting on the backs of the motorcycle drivers?  How do you explain the eager-eyed questions I kept fending off in the marketplace: Mister dari mana?  Belanda?  Where are you from, Mister?  Holland?

And when the skin-and-bones grandma with gapped and betel-stained teeth sold my wife a few good chunks of smoked cakalang—yellow-fin tuna—she grinned and quizzed Andy which family she belonged to in town.  Andy stared, more than a little confounded, till I whispered to her, “she thinks you’re Moluccan-Dutch, that you’re here visiting the old homestead.”

Smoked Fish
Smoked fish and a big smile

Andy grinned and paid for the cakalang—roughly two bucks for a fish tasty enough to pickle a chef with envy.

“I guess that says a lot about your Indonesian – and your tan,” I told her as we strolled away through the rainbow garments and blasting music of the rest of the market.

We shared an angkot with the family from the boat up to our hotel—an aging dive lodge on the north shore of Saparua – and just about the only guesthouse mentioned in the definitive guidebook Lonely Planet.  They filled us in with more history along the way:

Moluccans fought alongside the Dutch not merely for friendship, but also for a promised free Maluku after the strife would end.  Notably, even after the eventual success of the Java-led independence movement of Indonesia, the Maluku province declared its own independence from them – and fought a doomed battle to free themselves from the newly free Indonesia.

Many of the soldiers—the contemptuous Anjing Belanda (Dutch dogs)—were repatriated to the Netherlands.  The repatriation, of course, was probably a colonial nod to their aid, and a humanitarian effort to keep blood being shed in reprisal. After all, the moniker “dog” around these parts is nothing like a fighting bulldog mascot. It’ pretty much the lowest term available to plaster on someone.

Boarding Time
On the docks

There was going to be bad blood in these islands.

We rounded another lush turn and swung into yet another idyllic street.  It featured a narrow road fringed by brightly-painted houses and tidy yards, chicken coops, and outhouses.

“Saparua really is a nice place,” our new friend told us.  “It’s very clean.  Usually the Kepala Desa, the village chief, organizes cleaning times for the community to come together and pick up.  The people help each other make repairs.  It’s very good—much cleaner than the rest of Indonesia.”

Comparisons between the Moluccas and the “rest of Indonesia” were not infrequent.  Earlier at the port, the Mrs. of the family had enjoyed contrasting the fabrics of the Moluccas with their Javanese counterparts.  On the boat, the gentleman had lamented the time he’d spent in the “dirty” Javanese city of Surabaya.  This Moluccan diaspora was loyal alright, but that patriotism was less for Indonesia—from whom they are still more than a little marginalized—and more for their own tiny archipelago-within-an-archipelago.

It shouldn’t be so surprising, I guess: Java and Moluccas have entirely different languages, different cultures, different music, different religions.  You might as well expect a Louisiana Cajun and a Californian yucci to buddy up over a pollical chat as you might expect these islanders to hit it off, given their history.

All of this, of course, was terrific fuel to ponder over while playing castaway on a forgotten Haruku beach – or to keep me distracted that sunset while Andy pranced back and forth on the jetty searching for a better angle to capture the Holland-orange hues seeping up from the western horizon.  A handful of boys had paused their swimming to climb up and watch us.  They gawked at the tiny marvel of a GoPro, and lobbed a few phrases of English and Dutch my way.

“I am fine.  Dank je.”  They blurted, and then erupted in laughter and splashed back into the water.

Jump On In
Splash on in — Saparua’s children definitely enjoy the sea.

Mahu Lodge itself is something of any aging beauty—the dive shop features tacky keychains from Java’s Borobudur or generic beach T-shirts from Bali.  Rooms are perpetually damp and feature the same bathroom tiles from its founding two generations ago.  The pool – a necessity to keep dive-certified status – is in sore need of deep cleaning, and the faucets in the bathrooms are crusty with calcium and rust.

Everything has seen its better days.  But this was one of the few old places to survive the tourist-abandonment of the Moluccas following the late-90’s riots.

Behind the check-in counter, a grainy photo features the founding gentleman with a handful of European tourists.  They squint and smile at the camera, half-dressed in dive equipment.  Their wetsuits are pink—nearly fluorescent.  The year was 1983, and those were some of the first guests in the original house.

Night had set it, the dozens of Dutch pilgrims had hours ago filed out the front gate, arms full of flour and oil and tea and sugar, to begin the visits.  First, the relatives here on Sapurua.  His side, her side, the aunties, the grannies, the night rife with laughter and stories, a brilliant moment of bliss when all seems right in the world.

Saparua Treats
Moluccan meal, fresh from thee market

Meanwhile, back at the lodge, our wanderings and comments on the photo had conjured up the soft-spoken manager of the house.  A mid-thirties young man whose lanky limbs and shy eyes made him seem much more like a young man than a thriving man.

“That is my grandfather with his first guests,” he told us when he saw our gaze at the picture.  “It was 1983, and many Europeans would come to dive on Saparua.”

“For the reefs, or for the pink pants?”

He smiled.  “The pants are property of the lodge.  Guests rented them.  It was 1983.”  He shrugged as if 1983 were synonymous with pink pants, as if no one would seem to think a neon wetsuit eccentric.  “Or look at this one,” he offered, taking down a tattered family portrait from a wall with peeling paint.  “This is Granddad and Grandma with their children.  This one,” he pointed to a mischievous face standing at their side, “is my father.”

And so the portraits began to come off the wall, and Johannes’ story fleshed out.  He’d been raised a city boy – over in Jakarta, and while his grandfather prospered in Saparua with the dive lodge, he was studying finance at a nice school.  Of course Johannes and his father would return intermittently to help with the family business, but that didn’t last much longer than 1998.

Molana Snorkel
Scoping out the corals around Saparua

“It was crazy,” he told us with a strange smile on his face.  “So much shooting.  We would hear loud shots in the night.  But not here.  Saparua was still OK.  But Ambon was very dangerous.  My grandfather wanted to keep his family safe.”  I suppose that was a wise move; with the religious riots flaming across Ambon, no divers, no Dutchmen, no nobody was knocking on the dive lodge door.

It would take more than pink pants to bring them back.

Money for studies dried up, and with that, Johannes withered as well.  He dropped out of classes and watched his friends and colleagues move on to success and prosperity and family.

He moved back to Saparua – grandfather’s command.  “He didn’t want to lose the lodge,” Johannes narrated, “so he told me to come back and build the family business.  He needed Dad and me to be here.  So Johannes gave up the idea of study, and started trying to figure out how to bring tourists back when the blood on the ground wasn’t yet cold.

He dove like an addict, hunting out the haunts of the turtles, chasing down the dugongs, reading up on hammerhead, getting ready to wow whoever would grace the door of the lodge.  But more often than not, the three generations of men sat around quiet tables in the café and waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Molana Reefs
Molana’s coral gardens — not too shabby

Apparently there were enough savings around to keep the dive lodge afloat.  When tourists trickled back in, the Mahu Dive Lodge was the only one still in business, and therefore got the official nod of Lonely Planet, the king-maker travel book in all these outlying islands.

“That helped,” Johannes nodded.  “But even today, the divers here aren’t so many.  Every time I go back to Jakarta, I see my friends with a car and a business and their families.  And I start to think that I’ve fallen behind, you know?”  His head was down a little, and he glanced at us from the top of his eyes.

“But look,” Andy said, “you’re here at the beach.  The air is clean, and you can go diving whenever you want.  It’s a life that anyone in Jakarta would want.  And business might pick up later. Do you have a girlfriend? A special someone?”

He shrugged.

He didn’t say it, but it was obvious: without an income, how would he marry?  Who cares about dugongs and hammerheads when you have no prospects for the future? Turtles are pretty, but they make lousy life partners.

Cloudy Island Day
Scenic Lease

So he waits.  He keeps a tidy lodge, but can’t afford to renovate.  His aged father putters around the grounds, looking in on the gardeners, making a phone call or two about ferry tickets or day-trips.  And they wait.  More guesthouses are opening in Haria, near the Saparua harbor.  One or two is testing the tourist waters on nearby Nusalaut, or Molana.  AirBnB will soon arrive.

Their sole status in the Lonely Planet ledger won’t last long—even in a realm of the archipelago that is still largely offline, that paragraph in the guidebook can’t keep their prosperity forever.

Johannes carefully hung the portraits of the family back on the walls.

His grandfather’s eyes watch Johannes’s frustrations, see him daydream of what-might-have-been, watch the effect of his mandate on his grandson.  For an American, sometimes it’s hard to realize the power of family in the East, just how loyal and how unquestioning a son will follow his father, and a grandson acquiesce to a paternal order. Here on Saparua, that lesson was sinking in.

Thriving Beach Scene
Molana’s crowds took a day off for the clouds.

The next day we woke to a rainy dawn and hopped on the ojeks Johannes had arranged—motorcycle taxis make a lively wake-up call in a chilled morning fog.  An hour’s ride across the tidy island, a half-hour chopping across a troubled sea, and we’d land on fabled Molana.  Not the Disney princess – this Molana is a realm of white sand and rainbow coral, a forested speck of wonder parked just off Saparua’s southern shore.  It boasts some of the finest diving in the Lease (lay-AH-say) islands, and a simple panorama glance from its front steps will yield a constellation of green peaks slung across an impossibly blue stretch of Moluccan sea.

It’s a great place.

For a sunny day.

For us, we shivered and stuffed the camera in the dry bag.  We bounced and suffered across the chops of sea-splashes.  The pilot, a wiry, sea-weathered, cigarette-and-fried-rice-afficionado, peered through the tiny windshield past the fiberglass peak of the hull.  Obstructing his view was his ten-year-old son, perched atop the bouncing bow like a whaling lookout of old.  The waves jolted and shuddered us across the bay—until the ten-year-old bounced clean off the bow and into that sea.  The pilot shook his head languidly, apologized, and circled around; the boy beamed brilliantly as we snapped a few pictures of him expertly treading water in the choppy sea completely unfazed.  Reveling in a little attention, he swam toward us and climbed aboard.

Molana itself is something of a jewel of the Lease archipelago.  Day-trip visitors drop anchor at its shores from as far away as Ambon city itself.  A sunny Sunday is likely to the find the white sands littered with Pop-Mie munching denizens of all the surrounding Moluccan islands, their music blasting and the good times rolling.

Beaches in Lease
Clouds clearing for a beach stroll

Of course, a rainy morning is a different story.  We dragged our snorkel gear, our photo gear, and our lunch ashore to wait out the rain in the shade of the lone hotel’s abandoned deck.

No one lives here – apparently Molana has no source of fresh water fit to sustain anyone.  So as far as living as a castaway, Molana’s charm is skin-deep.  After that, it’s dehydration and mosquitoes.  Or, if you’re packing plenty of cash, you can arrange for a half-dozen workers from Saparua to pack out a few days’ supplies, clean up the premises, and give you an over-priced stay on a fantastically beautiful beach with a top-notch reef. Just don’t be surprised if you find a weekend crowd sharing your getaway beach.

Later that afternoon, when the clouds pulled apart like frazzled cotton balls, and when the honey sun soaked through to the sea, and when the dark gray waves soothed to translucent blues, and when we shucked the shelter of the porch for the glory of the coral, we started to see why.

Reefs sprout thicker than moss and mushrooms on a fallen pine, and in more colors than a sack of Skittles.  Fish dart within and without a thousand crevasses and caves, in shadows and flickers of sunlight, and the cuttlefish lurk warily around the premises, waiting for the dusk hunting to begin.

Reef Fish

Molana More Reefs
More of Molana’s underwater charm

Even if Mahu Lodge was having trouble keeping the guests trickling in, the trappings surrounding it were as legendary as ever.  Even if Moluccans never truly achieved the dream of real independence, looking at the natural beauty of the place, it was easy to understand the burning loyalty, the longing for home, the heartbeat of the island that keeps the scattered masses coming back.

But surely it takes more than sunshine and beaches to make a patriot.  And surely it takes much more than that to re-mold that patriot into a bulldog for the colonizer—even if a promise of eventual freedom is worked into the mix.  What strange potion was in the water sparked the Saparua about-face?

Back on Saparua that evening, we gathered  a couple more smiling, polite, honest, and easy-to-please motorbike drivers for a trip back.  More tiny villages, more tidy villagers, more orderly little abodes, more enormous sound systems crowding out the doors of the huts.

Children of the Pier
Children gathering for another sunset swim

Oh, I didn’t mention that yet?

I should.  It’s true. Moluccans blast their music.  They may be as musical as the exotic songbirds their islands are famed for.  Maybe more so. In the markets, the thumping bass and the glaring blare drown out all haggling.  Across the humid breezes come wafting the chords of the neighbor’s playlist.  Even in the dusk, without a mosque in sight, the local church will blast some praise and worship for a final “reminder to say their prayers,” as Johannes put it—but we all know it’s really just another excuse to crank up the volume.

Amps are profuse, woofers ubiquitous.  The image of an aged matron sweeping her tiny porch, scarcely enough room for a stool and a tea table, but chock full of stereo equipment fit for a metalhead or a night club owner, is quaint, but not uncommon.

The contrast in uncalled for—the humble island in humble finances somehow garnering up the funds to invest in the family sound system.  Zipping along on the back of my motorcycle taxi, I imagined the source of these sound systems: Dutch cousins.  It didn’t take much more to conjure the conversation—islander relatives requesting remittances from Holland to buy more amps and speakers, amps and speakers.

But it’s not merely the music, but the type of music, that makes this story unique – it’s not the thrasher metal you might expect from hardcore tattoo-and-piercing crowd, nor the bass-thumping dangdut we’re plagued with in Jakarta.  No, Moluccans prefer ballads.  Sugared voices croon duets over keyboard chords and light, steady drumbeats.  They sing of love, of course.  They sing in lilting, soft harmonies that crescendo in shameless displays of vocal powerhouses.  They sing to violins in the backgrounds, or perhaps subdued guitars.  They sing songs built for karaoke, I suppose.  And they play it at volumes heralding doomsday.

Molana Lodging
Molana’s empty lodgings — book well in advance if you’re interested. Or just make the day trip from Haria.

And it comes as no surprise to learn that, often as not, it’s not a heartbreak tale of wayward girls or faithless boys, but it’s love for their native Moluccas, of the famed beaches of their homesick islands, of the coasts and the blue and fleeting moments with the family.

Because for many, it’s been a long, long time between visits.

It’s the true-love song of loyalty untainted by miles and generations abroad. It’s a yearning for a speck of homeland that only a diaspora can fathom. It speaks—er, uh, sings—of an unwavering faith that keeps this people committed to their tiny islands no matter the cultures and the kilometers keeping them apart.

Which only served to remind me of my original thinking—given a people so loving and so committed, what on earth had caused them to turn and side with the arch-fiend colonizers?

Maybe Roos and Tom could answer that one for us.  We shared a car across the neighboring island on our way back to Jakarta.  Roos is tall and tan and laughs a great deal.  Her long black braids spoke clearly of Moluccan traces.  Tom, meanwhile, could hardly appear more stereotypically Dutch: fair to a fault, blonde to the tips of his thinning crown, and an innocent grin tugging at his cheeks.  Just cue the wooden shoes.

Dreamy Afternoon
Peaceful moment to think the place over

They were honeymooning in Roos’s native Moluccas, but rather unintentionally.

“We had a wedding,” he told us.

“But we’re not married,” she butted in.

“No no, nothing legal back home!” he insisted.

“What happens in Mollucas…”

“But the wedding here was a blast.  Except that now all my new (sort of) in-laws keep asking me for a babi.  Apparently the groom is supposed to give the bride’s family a pig at the wedding.” They both laughed.

Andy and I stared.

Here’s what happened.  Roos’s family tree sprouts from a microscopic speck of volcano cresting above the Banda Sea.  It’s called Serua, and unless you’re a diver obsessed with hammerhead shark migrations, you surely haven’t heard of it. Heck, even Roos had never been.  So this year, Roos and her parents and brothers and cousins and kin all packed up to head back to the homestead.  And they invited, like polite Dutch do, Roos’s live-in boyfriend Tom.

The trip was going great until they landed on Serua.  There, the kepala desa (village chief) was shocked to find these two living in sin and wouldn’t have it in his village.  They’d have to tie the knot and live as man and wife.

Island Transport
Heading back home from Molana

A word of explanation: While Indonesia may be the most populous Muslim country on the planet, there are pockets of stalwart Christians holding fast to their principles. And for all the spices the Dutch milked from the Moluccan archipelago, for all the bloodshed and hatred that came with that, they left a string of very tough steeples in their wake.  That’s right, some good old-fashioned Reformed-theology Moluccan Christians still preach the Gospel—flavored with its generous side-dish of Calvinism—across the tropical paradises.

And apparently the chieftain of the Serua settlement was of this persuasion. And the Dutch, ironically enough, had in the intervening centuries backslidden to the point of now getting their moral discipline from the islanders they had converted generations before.

Roos and Tom didn’t want to sour their Seruan reception, and it was a great excuse for a party—babi included—so they all agreed.  Let’s whip up a wedding.  Now, who can we find that could bring the sound system?  Hmmm…

Ironic role-switching aside, though, the religious affiliation with the Christian colonizers was yet another sticking point in the Moluccas’ integration into the Muslim-majority, Java-led independence movement. Ethnic distrust? It’s more than a little likely—especially since it persists today: the Christian-Muslim divide was the impetus between those bloody late-nineties riots that took Johannes out of Jakarta and transplanted him back in Saparua. Or, looking at the situation from a less-cynical perspective, perhaps the shared worship was enough to engender forgiveness and forge common ground with the Dutch, who had long since reigned in their hard-handed approach to the spice trade (though racial segregation was another matter, of course).

In this sense, the Moluccan rebellion-against-the-rebellion, the roll of the dice to fight now with the Dutch, may just make a little sense. Caught in a bind, which would they rather have, a known devil of the Dutch that they’d sort of come to terms with, with whom they at least share religion and trade and some sort of complicated understanding?  Or a new conquest from Java—a fledgling government seeking to unify the diverse islands of Indonesia into a Muslim-led democracy that Java, and Java alone, sat—and still sits—in the driver seat of.

Splash Sunset

We helped Roos and Tom bid their farewells to their family on the way to the port.  One-lane asphalt roads lay at right angles through well-trimmed yards bursting with flower beds and papaya trees. Quaint little houses spilled forth matrons onto porches, and portly men with hardy handshakes and well-shined motorbikes.  Not many spoke English.  Fewer spoke Dutch.  We tried our best Indonesian translations at them on behalf of Roos and Tom and helped send well-wishes back across the waves.

Aunties longed for news of babies soon. Kisses planted themselves onto teary cheeks.  We tried to keep up, but couldn’t.  We weren’t needed.  No translations are necessary, it seems, when one is saying goodbyes to family—when everyone knows good and well but will never speak it—that this moment may never be seen again in this life.

We quieted down, and we backed away.  Tom teared up, got hugged more.

He may not be a legal husband in Holland, but he’s bonded to this family’s heart. And it’s got more to do than merely some pigs he has to donate.

Back on the road, the car was silent.  “Thank you,” Roos finally told us, “for stopping here with us. For translating too.”

I didn’t know what to say—I should be the one thanking them for a tiny window in the Moluccan conundrum.  How do you win someone over after you’ve plundered his livelihood, strangled his religion, denigrated his race, and murdered his children?

It’s long and it’s complicated and it’s oh-so human.  History is not so clean as a simple narrative—a thousand different motives for a thousand different souls all adding up to the same sum.  Did some soldiers fight and die or exile themselves for the intense love of the island home of song?  Did some get pushed into the fray from familial and paternal loyalties rather than personal convictions?  Was it a religious war for some, preferring the Dutch theology to the imams of Jogjakarta?  Was it a matter of friendships and families—bloodlines already intermingled with the Europeans and wanting merely to preserve a status-quo sort of peace, all the more so after the horror of war years?

Castaway Island

The question and its answers are not nearly so tidy as the stable little homesteads dotting the sun-splotched island scrolling past our windows.

Saparua, that mystery in the Banda Sea, that cornerstone of the Moluccan enigma, calls me back.  I want to return and see its empty beaches, and snorkel its pristine reefs, and stroll its mom-and-pop markets once again—perhaps with earplugs next time, though.  Maybe I’ll visit Pattimura’s house again.  Maybe that baby will be speaking by then.  Maybe he’ll be smoking out front with his friends. Maybe I’ll stop in and check on Johannes’s dive lodge.

The fishermen might still be whooping into the evening, and the boys on the jetties might be replaced by their sons.

Maybe I still won’t know the answer to my question.

It’s a humbling reminder of how little we really know and understand of major movements in history—how much influence and decision and direction do we really grasp about wars and policies and governments?  And who knows in several generations just what of today’s current events will still linger on, and which will be forgotten news from bygone days?

Will future historians play psychologist for me based on demographic data and hearsay from my descendants?

We have enough on our hands to feed our families and worship God and enjoy our little corner of the globe.  We play our tiny role on the stage of human history.  And we exit.  And the plotline becomes more and more twisted and complex and frayed, but with the same themes repeated throughout: love and rupture, love and rupture.

Village Roads
The village roads are clean and tidy.


4 thoughts on “Saparua Island: Love and Rupture in the Moluccas

  1. Loved reading all about Saparua, you confirmed the stories my Saparuan grandmother told me about the island she left to follow my German grandfather (!) who was the leader of the band leading the Dutch military as they marched in the jungles of the archipelago (to North Sumatra, Aceh, often) to quell uprisings and she also warned me to never say I wanted to go to Saparua as I would pine away and die of longing unfulfilled if I didn’t go there. Always curious about Saparua I googled and read your article with tears in my eyes, when she left her island at age 16 she had her first 2 daughters in the rice paddies while following my grandfather around with the other concubines when the troops marched into the jungle, she said the island was indeed Christian and matriarchal and she had “sinned with him” and my grandfather saved her from being staked out naked on the beach as punishment and brought her on board, the year was 1899 when her older sister was born in a rice paddie. Beautiful pics and loved reading all about my, yes … exotic roots, my mother married a Frenchman, I was married to an American and live in NY and now I really very much want to go and see Saparua … Thanks again, lovely article!


    1. Thanks for sharing a glimpse of your family’s stories, Renee! There’s plenty of material there to build a novel or two. The Moluccas are indeed incredible — so much history, so much culture, so much nature… We love it. Saparua often gets a little overlooked with some of the more notable dive locations nearby, but I would love to go back and see more of it and the surrounding Lease islands. I hope you do get a chance to go one day soon! Let me know if you need any more practical tips about traveling in Indonesia.


  2. I miss your blog posts! Anyway, how are you? Hope that you and your family are social distancing and staying safe during these troubling times.



    1. Hi Christian! Yes, my family and I are safe and well. Thanks for the well wishes and thanks for missing the blog. As you can see, I haven’t been writing much in the past couple years. But maybe I’ll manage to get back into it more this summer.


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