The Spice Islands

by Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno)
Orignally published in the February 2003, A.S. XXXVII issue of the Dragonflyre, a publication of the Barony of Vatavia.

During the Renaissance there was no more exotic and thrilling name then the Spice Islands. The source of the most precious of substances, they combined the allure of adventure and wealth. It was sufficient to launch the Age of Exploration. Yet for all that, the islands themselves are often overlooked. This is their history.

The Spice Islands are more formally known as the Molucaan or Maluku Islands a native name whose meaning is unclear, though one mid 16th century observer gives it as “the head of a bull”. They are largely a set of volcanic islands situated just west of New Guinea and south of the Philippines. Thus they midway between the Asian and Australian land masses, and everything about them reflect that. From plants and animals to human races and languages, they are an admixture of those found on those two continents.

The spice clove is native only to the northern islands of Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian, and Bacan, while nutmeg and mace were to be found on the southern islands of Banda. It was off these small islands, each roughly forty square miles of active volcanic mountain, that large fortunes came — for the Europeans.

Clove was the principal spice from the region that everyone lusted after, though nutmeg and mace were not insignificant. Clove was exported as early as 1700 BC, the date of a find at a Syrian site. During the T’ang dynasty of China in the second century BC, the emperor ordered his courtiers to have clove in their mouth when they conversed with him. Tenth century commerce records from Cairo and Alexandria have occasional clove and nutmeg entries. A fourteenth century Chinese geographer recorded that in the 1340’s, the Chinese regularly stopped at the Malukus for cloves. Yet despite these long lasting and extensive trading routes, little is known about the islands themselves till just prior to 1500.

The Malukans were illiterate, thus only oral histories exist for events prior to the coming of the Europeans in 1512. And these histories are largely creation stories for various aspects of Malukan culture. There are Javanese records for the kingdom of Majapahit that imply that the islands were under their domination during the fourteenth century. And for the events after 1512, what we known comes mostly from various European writers with all their inherent bases. Not unlike what we know of the Celts comes via the eyes of the Romans.

The general lifestyle of the Malukans was roughly similar to that of the rest of Oceania, though there was significant influence from the Malay Peninsula from the spice trade. The principal food was fish and flour made from the trunk of the sago palm. Supplementing this were various fruits, game and some domestic animals such pigs and goats. Construction was done with bamboo and rattan with palm leaves as thatch. Travel was mostly done by boats, known as kora-koras. These were double out-rigger usually sized to carry fifty to seventy men, though larger ones could carry over two hundred. They were coastal sailors, island hopping rather then striking out over the open sea. One interesting quirk of the islands was that they were predominately split between the sultanates of Ternate and Tidore, two islands just over a mile apart.

The Portuguese arrived at Maluku shortly after they conquered the Malay kingdom of Melaka which previously controlled trading throughout the region. They did not establish a permanent presence until 1523 in response to the presence of the Magellan expedition two years earlier. The purpose of that expedition was to find a route to the Spice Islands within the Spanish sphere of influence and hopefully prove that they were within that sphere as defined by the Treaty of Tordesillas. While the Spanish made several attempts to gain the Malukus during the 16th century, they all met with bad luck.

For the next fifty years the Portuguese controlled the spice trade. But their disdain for the natives led them to make a series of arrogant and arbitrary acts which increasingly alienated the Malukuans. Finally under the leader Babullah, the Malukuan had enough, and in 1570 began pushing out the Portuguese, and succeeded after five years. Their independence lasted till 1606 when a large Spanish expedition from the Philippines overwhelmed them.

In the decades just prior to 1500, Muslim missionaries had converted the island leaders to Islam. But it goes no further then that when the Portuguese arrived, with the bulk of the population still following their older animistic native beliefs. Franciscan friars were the first Christian missionaries in the islands. Most of the natives converted more as a means of gaining Portuguese support then a change in belief, and as a result most of this effort was undone in 1535 as local political fortunes reversed. A second effort was mounted by Francis Xavier, one of the founders of the Jesuits, in 1546. While initially more successful, this effort also floundered in 1570 as part of the backlash against the Portuguese presence. After this the Islamic presence was too strongly planted to be overturned, though conversion to Christianity for political advantage continued for the next several centuries.

While the beginning of the seventeenth century saw the successful return of the Spanish, their dominion was immediately contested by the Dutch in the form of their commercial venture the Dutch East India Company. Strangely, the Spanish never considered holding the islands a high priority, and by 1666 withdrew from the area. About this time, clove trees started to be planted on the island of Ambon in the southern Malukus. Shortly thereafter, to reduce supply and gain better control of the trade, the Dutch began a systematic effort to destroy all the clove trees in the rest of the Malukus. By 1680 they had mostly succeeded.

A successful native uprising and the Napoleonic wars damaged Dutch control of the area. And the successful smuggling of clove seeds caused the collapse of the Dutch monopoly by the mid 19th century. Yet the Spice Islands have one more role to play in history. As the Dutch economic empire fell to ruin, a biologist named Alfred Wallace wandered the islands. He wrote a letter to another naturalist about his observations and his ideas of what they meant. The letter provoked that naturalist to finally publish his book “The Origins of Species”. And yet again, the Spice Islands re-ordered the world.



Andaya, Leonard Y. The World of Maluka: Eastern Indonesia in the Early Modern Period. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1993

Reid. Anthony. Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680. Vol.I: The Lands below the Winds. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988.

Tarling, Nicholas, ed. The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia: Vol. 1: From Early Times to c. 1800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.


Copyright © 1997 - present His Lordship Friar Thomas Bacon (David Moreno). All rights reserved.

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