Very early on in his life, Ian Burnet knew
he was destined for a life of adventure. Growing up in a small isolated country
town in his native Australia instilled in him an obsessive ambition to get out
of town a fast as possible. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree
in Geology and Geophysics from the University of Melbourne in 1966, he resolved
to see the rest of the world, starting work as a geologist on some of the first
off shore oil field explorations in Indonesia.
Along the way, the young man became
intrigued with the fascinating history of this maddeningly complex country. In
2011, Ian published Spice Islands , a
history of the archipelago’s spice trade. Following up on his successful first
book, he wrote East Indies, which
will be published in September 2013. Ian presently organizes sailing voyages to
Maluku, the original spice islands of Dutch colonial history. He shared his
story with Tempo contributor, Bill Dalton.
was your first visit to Indonesia?
In 1968, just after the events described in
the book The Year of Living Dangerously
took place. The first off shore oil exploration contracts had just been awarded
to foreign companies, and as a young 24-year-old geologist, I came here to work
for an American seismic exploration company. I spent more than 12 years living
in Indonesia and another 10 years travelling back and forth during my career as
a geologist. I now spend about 3-4 months a year here, researching and writing.
As long as the stories keep coming, I will continue writing about this incredible
and mystifying country.
did you start writing?
Not until 2006, when I first started work
on the manuscript for Spice Islands.
Most of the first draft was written when my wife and I were living in Bali. Spice Islands was also the first piece
of writing I ever published. Although the book has been well received, it was a
labor of love and I don’t make my living from it. Fortunately, I have a
retirement income. Otherwise I would be a ‘starving artist’.
is your book Spice Islands all about?
The book tells of the disproportionate
effect that the tiny and largely forgotten islands of Ternate and Tidore in
northern Moluccas have had on world history. These islands were the only place
on the planet in the 16th and 17th centuries where cloves grew, and where the
global spice trade began. On reaching Europe, these simple flower buds were
literally worth their weight in gold. It was the Portuguese and Spanish who
competed to reach the Spice Islands that drove what is known as ‘The Age of
Discovery’ and the first circumnavigation of our planet. We all know about the
great explorers Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan, but we don’t
know how they are linked together in their quest to reach the Spice Islands,
and profit from the fabulous riches of the spice trade.
did you get the idea of writing a book on the subject?
Kids going to school in Australia in the
1950s learnt nothing about Asian history. When I knew I was coming to work in
Indonesia, I read all that I could find on Indonesian history and the ruthless
Dutch East Indies Company. But it was a real surprise when I arrived here to
learn that the Portuguese and the Spanish had been in Indonesia for 100 years
before the Dutch! More than 30 years later, I realised that no one had written
a complete history of the spice trade from an Indonesian perspective. This was
an ‘untold story’ that had to be told.
did you do the historical research?
Fortunately, the inspiration for the book
came in 2001 when I was living and working in London, so I had access to all
the excellent research materials in the British Library. Subsequently, I spent
a lot of time in the National Libraries of Indonesia, Singapore and Australia.
did you find the wonderful historic maps in your books?
They say that a picture is worth 1,000
words, but a historic map is worth 10,000 words. I took great pleasure in
collecting all the images that go with both books, in particular the historic
maps and paintings. The most memorable book talk I have given was at the State
Library of NSW when, in conjunction with the presentation, my hosts had on
display original copies of three of the historic maps in the book, plus an
original copy of Linschotens’ magnificent Itinerario.
your field research was there any time that you were in danger?
The mass killings occurred in Ambon,
Halmahera, Tidore and Ternate in 1999, 2000 and 2001 respectively. I realized
that I could not complete the book without travelling to the Spice Islands, and
was planning a trip in 2005. I asked the Indonesian travel agent if he had
heard of any unrest,he said no and that it had all been quiet for a couple of
years. The next day we read of a bomb exploding in a market in Ambon. So my
trip was delayed until 2006. As it turned out, there were no problems.
was your vivid recollection of that trip?
Visiting the Sultan’s Palace in Ternate and
meeting the sultan’s sister, Ibu Rini. A marvelous woman! She showed me around
the museum in the palace, pointing out the most arresting Indonesian,
Portuguese and Dutch historical artifacts. When the Japanese invaded Indonesia,
the Dutch evacuated the sultan and his family to Australia. As a young child
she went to school in Brisbane. Ibu Rini showed me a photograph of the family
standing outside their house in Brisbane. So there’s a real Australian
advice to a beginning writer?
I am inspired to write stories that I would
be interested in reading myself. I think that if you were not self-motivated,
it would be very difficult to actually finish a book that contains so much
research. My advice would be to first find an ‘untold story’ that you are
really excited about. Secondly, it is really all about doing a lot of deep
research to dig out unknown facts. Thirdly, although I am writing about factual
history, I am trying to tell an adventure story, which will hopefully motivate
the reader to turn the next page.
us about the sailing voyages you organize to the Spice Islands?
With the publication of the book, there was
great interest in the Spice Islands, but most foreigners were unsure how to
travel there. Together with a company called SeaTrekBali, our voyages allow
guests to explore the islands from Ambon to Banda to Ternate for 12 days on a
traditional Indonesian built Bugis pinisi boat.We filled the vessel in 2012,
and we expect to do the same again this October.
is your next book about?
Indies follows the old trade routes and the
historic port cities across the East Indies and the Orient. Beginning in
Malacca, which was one of the world’s largest trading ports in the 16th
century, it tells the story of the 200-year struggle between the Portuguese
Crown, the Dutch East Indies Company and the English East India Company for
trade supremacy in the Eastern Seas. The story takes us to the ports of Banten,
Ternate, Banda, Ambon, Solor, Johor, Tanjung Pinang, Penang, Macassar and
Bencoolen (Bengkulu—Ed). The book documents the founding of the historic port
city of Batavia and concludes with the founding of the modern port cities of
Singapore and Hong Kong.
out of curiosity, do you personally like spices in your food?
Yes! My favorite Indonesian food has always
been fiery nasi padang. I cook what my wife calls ‘survival food’ without many
spices, but I have recently become an expert at making a really delicious
Indonesian nutmeg cake!
East Indies is available in Asia at Periplus
East Indies is available in Australia at Dymocks, Abbeys and Kinokuniya
also on order from your favorite bookshop and all the usual online retailers