Aqua Expeditions

Q&A With Aqua Expeditions Expert Ian Burnet

3 years ago Culture, Indonesia

One of the ways Aqua Expeditions offers a truly immersive experience into our extraordinary destinations is by inviting an expert on the region. In the first of our series of expert-hosted 2022 departures onboard our Indonesia cruises, we have partnered with one of the greatest experts about the history of the Spice Islands in East Indonesia. Armed with more than 30 years of extensive travel, research, and immersion in the region, Ian Burnet’s expertise is beautifully reflected in his writings about the Indonesian Archipelago. The Australian author is first and foremost a geologist and geophysicist from the University of Melbourne, and has written multiple books surrounding the Indonesian archipelago including East IndiesArchipelagoWhere Australia Collides with Asia, and The Tasman Map.


Burnet came across the story of the Ternate and Tidore islands and realized that their effect on the world had to be told. After ten years of researching and writing the narrative of the Spice Islands, he published the critically acclaimed book Spice Islands, telling of the history, romance, and adventure of the spice trade, which spans more than an incredible 2000 years.



Tell us about your background and how your expertise in geology and geophysics informs your passion for the rich history and culture of East Indonesia?

My career in geology and geophysics came from my love of landscape and my wish to find a career that kept me in the great outdoors. The volcanic islands of Eastern Indonesia form a remarkable landscape which along with their tropical vegetation and unique spice trees make them endlessly fascinating.  So as a young 24-year old geologist conducting some of the first offshore exploration programs in Indonesia, this was the perfect start to a lifetime of exploration.


Your writing profession kicked off fairly late in your career, what personally compelled you to write about the region and its hidden history?

I was looking for a research project to fill my time when I retired, and from when I was working in Indonesia I knew something about the remarkable history of the Spice Islands. The idea of how traders from all over the world five hundred years ago were desperate to discover the almost mythical origin of spice – worth its weight in gold, yet how easily these islands were forgotten by time in the 19th century. This was incredible to me and really grabbed my attention.



The region’s fascinating past is retold in your book Spice Islands, similarly, we chart a journey following adventurers, merchants, and naturalists through our expeditions. How do you sift through so much information and research to find an ‘untold story’ to focus on and write about?

I was lucky enough to be working in London when I started this research and had access to all the documents in the British Library. The year 2002 was also the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and so there were a series of events in the Netherlands that I was able to attend and gather material from. Fortunately, I really enjoy research but the idea of writing a book was still quite remote at that point. It took ten years of research and writing in my spare time until Spice Islands was published, with the latter six years spent rewriting, pitching, getting rejected, rewriting, and repeating the same process over again. It truly was a labor of love.



Not many know that the region’s past is quite a violent one but also one that was economically, intellectually, and politically significant i.e. the birth of the global spice trade. How come so much of it has been forgotten by history?

When you think about it, the adventures of the first spice trade explorers and the battle for its supremacy by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English forces was no small thing. This was the only place on earth where cloves, nutmeg, and mace grew, so there were wars and plenty of bloodshed.  Once these spices were grown outside of the Spice Islands, they were able to be traded without limited exportation.  However, it is probably because these islands were and still are very remote and difficult to get to that very few people, even Indonesians, found their way to rediscover these islands.


What is the most unusual fact about the Spice Islands that you have come across in your research and interactions with its inhabitants?

It is hard to believe that the Dutch East India Company (VOC) would have conducted the Banda Massacre which resulted in the death or exile of most of the inhabitants. Because the Bandanese resisted selling spices solely to the Dutch, the VOC decided to conquer the islands by force with the help of the Japanese, seeing 2,800 natives killed, yet another 1,700 enslaved, and the remaining 1,000 exiled.


You have now written five books on the East Indonesian archipelago as well as organize sailing voyages there, so you are considered an expert, but what were your impressions about visiting this remote region for the first time in 1968?

The first impression I got was that the islands were so distant and remote from anything I was familiar with. Mine was also the only foreign face that I saw in the streets. The year was 2004, and it was only a few years removed from the communal violence that raged across Maluku and the Spice Islands between 1999 to 2002, stemming from ethnopolitical conflict along religious lines. The recent atrocities, apart from the difficulty of getting there, also explained why there were very few visitors.



You are quite entrenched in Indonesia, having lived in Bali and married to an Indonesian. What amazes you most about the country?

I am still amazed at the incredible diversity that can be found in the thousands of islands that make up Indonesia, which is the largest archipelago nation in the world. This diversity includes geography, ethnicity, language, religion as well as the history and cultural attributes of all the different people who live there. The variety in Indonesia is endlessly interesting to me.


What can a first-time visitor expect from the Banda islands and what do you think they will enjoy the most about their discovery?

For me, the most interesting thing is that little has changed in Banda since the Dutch left 70 years ago. The remaining Dutch buildings, the local villages, and the way of life are almost like being in a time capsule. Because so little appears to have changed, you can still imagine that you are literally following in naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace’s footsteps who landed in 1858 on what was now considered a backwater after the Dutch and English were through with it. It was actually on the island of Ternate that Wallace happened on his theory of evolution, completely independent from Charles Darwin because he was suffering from malaria and asked himself “Why do some die and some live?”


What is on your must-visit list when you are in the Spice Islands?

I would definitely recommend visiting the town of Banda Neira and Fort Belgica, the nutmeg plantations on Banda Besar, the island of Rhun to learn about the Manhattan exchange. Other attractions include the various Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch forts on the islands of Ternate and Tidore as well as the islands’ clove plantations. There, the locals will show you a large towering tree that they claim is the oldest in the world, and will also point out the spot where Wallace is thought to have resided during his travels.



Your journey will begin in the old port city of Ambon, after which Aqua Blu will sail across the Banda Sea. Explore the Dutch-built Fort Belgica in Banda Neira, learn about the historically important Pulau Run – which was swapped for present-day Manhattan, experience a kora kora war canoe race, and visit the world’s oldest nutmeg plantation. Of course, there are plenty of opportunities to discover underwater marvels with great wall, reef, lava flow coral gardens and marine arch exploration dives, as well as dugong, sea snakes, hammerhead shark and other wildlife sightings. Follow in the footsteps of old-world explorers and book your Aqua Blu Spice Islands adventure here.