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Indonesia History - Moluccas - Spice Islands

The Spice Islands are the easternmost division of the Malay Archipelago, comprising most of the islands between Celebes and New Guinea west and east, and between Timor and the Philippines south and north. Originally the term Molucos was applied by the Portuguese only to the small islands (Ternate, Tidor, &c.) west of Jilolo, which are now known as the Little Moluccas; but it was gradually extended to Jilolo itself, to Bum, Ceram, and all the spice-growing islands of the eastern seas, which physically fall into the two groups of the Northein Moluccas, disposed in the direction from north to south, and the Southern Moluccas, running mainly west and east.

The northern group, which is surrounded on all sides by deep waters, ranging from 500 to 2000 fathoms, lies between the Molucca and .Jilolo passages west and east, and comprises Morotai (Morty) and Kau (Kiao) in the north, Jilolo, Ternate, Tidor, and other islets in the centre, Batchian (Batjan), Tawali, Mandioli, and Great and Little Obi (Oby) in the south, with a total area of nearly 10,000 sq. m., of which Jilolo has 7000, Morotai 1100, and Batchian 850.

Little is known as to the origin of the name "Moluccas." Some say these islands are called Moluccas, from the word Moluc, signifying' head, and referrmg to their situation at the head entrance of the Archipelago of St. Lazarus. The Portuguese called these islands the Maluco Islands, believing Maluco to be the name of their king as well. As in Arabic—the language of Islam, which had reached the Moluccas—the word for king is melek (plural muluk), and as each island had a king, old writers spoke of the Moluccas as "the Islands of the Kings."

The Moluccas, or Spice Islands, constitute an archipelago between Celebes and New Guinea, and were conjectured to contain a population of about 350,000 as of 1885; they have an area of over 42,000 square miles. The islands are divided into the Great and Little Moluccas. The former include Gilolo, Ceram, Amboyna, Banda, Buru, Morty, and the latter Ternate, Motir, Matchiar, Batchisn, and Tidor.

The Chinese accidentally landed in the middle age and discovered the clove and the nutmeg; whereupon a taste for the same was diffused over India, and thence extended to Persia and to Europe. The Arabians, who then engrossed the commerce of the world, came hither in numbers, followed by the Portuguese.

The Southern Moluccas, being "spice islands" par excellence, were one of the most fruitful conquests of Portugal in the sixteenth century; and one of her possessions which Holland sought by all means in her power to wrest from the Portuguese at the end of the seventeenth century. She succeeded, and gained a source of wealth that appeared inexhaustible. For more than a century the spices of the Southern Moluccas yielded her a profit of 300 percent.

This archipelago was discovered by the Portuguese about 1511, and held by them secretly until the arrival of the Spaniards, who claimed the islands till 1529, when the Emperor Charles V. yielded them to John III of Portugal for a large sum of money. The Portuguese strengthened their stranglehold on the spice trade during the sixteenth century, when they found the central locus of the spices to be these islands. Holland conquered the Moluccas in 1607, and has held them ever since, except in 1796, and again from 1810 to 1816, when they were subject to the English, passing again, however, to the Netherlanders under the treaty of Paris.

When the Portuguese first arrived in the archipelago, they found, no doubt to their surprise, a thriving colony of Arabs already established there, the prevailing religion being Mohamedanism, mingled, however, with paganism. This seems further to establish the fact that the Arabs, who conquered Java in 1478, spread themselves throughout the whole archipelago.

The inhabitants appear to have been rather severely dealt with, both by the Portuguese and the Netherlanders, who discouraged the free cultivation of the land and the establishment of manufactures, as well as all attempts on the part of the natives to trade on their own account with other nations, or to interfere in any way with the extremely valuable yield which the produce of the spice plantations, especially cloves, proved to be to the European markets.

It is interesting to note here that cloves first appear in history between AD 175 and 180, being mentioned in a law passed in the reign of the Emperor Aurelian as an article of commerce from India to Alexandria, via the Red Sea, then the chief highway of Eastern trade. They did not, however, come by a very direct route, as their first stage was to the Malay peninsula where they passed into the hands of the Telingas, who carried them to Calicut, at that time the capital of the ancient kingdom of Malabar. Thence they were transported to the western shores of India, and shipped across the Arabian Sea and the Red Sea to Suez, eventually reaching Cairo.

The cost of such a transit so increased the original price, that before the doubling of the Cape of Good Hope cloves fetched in England as much as thirty shillings a pound. Although such a favorite condiment throughout the civilised world, the natives of the Moluccas never ate cloves in any form, and there was no reason to suppose they ever did.

When the trade was conducted by the natives, it even sold in Java at an average of fourteen dollars per pecul. When the article arrived by a difficult and hazardous land carriage to the Caspian Sea, it cost ninety-one dollars; at Aleppo, 141 dollars; and in England, 237 dollars. Since the close monopoly of the Dutch, i.e., 1623, the price paid for cloves to the Dutch on the spot, had been eight times the price paid by them to the cultivator. When brought directly to England they were sold at an advance of 1258 percent, on the natural export price.

The main settlements of the Netherlanders were at Amboyna and Ternate, which latter residency has jurisdiction over the Netherlandish portion of New Guinea, the chiefs of the other islands being more or less tributary to these residencies. It is to the southerly or Amboyna group of the Moluccas that the Netherlanders some quarter of a century after they occupied these islands and obtained the monopoly of their spices, found it advantageous to transplant the spice trees.

By their agreement in 1638 with the then ruler of Ternate and the petty rulers of the other islands, it was stipulated that in consideration of an annual sum all the spice trees on the islands not in the direct occupancy of the Netherlands should be rooted up and that no more should be planted. To insure the fulfilment of this agreement, three strong fortresses were erected in Ternate and nine others in other islands, while to prevent smuggling, the Governor of Amboyna made a progress through the Archipelago every year with from twenty to fifty ships.

As the spice trees sprang up in the prohibited districts they were destroyed every year as far as possible, but being the indigenous growth of the islands, nature declined to obey the edicts of the States-General in the same way as the natives, and very considerable smuggling went on until the trade was thrown, open in 1824.

Amboina, besides being the principal emporium of the Spice Islands, was also the island in which the clove tree is most plentiful, the nutmeg tree growing principally in Banda. When the Dutch took over control of the Moluccas in the seventeenth century, they eradicated the clove trees from all the islands except Amboina (and a few adjacent islands) in order to enforce the spice’s scarcity, keeping prices high. The other productions of the Moluccas, which are distributed over the islands, were sago, cocoas, sugar, coffee, bread fruit, tropical fruits in abundance, iron, ebony, teak, with the yield of many other rare and valuable trees. Everything, however, except fruit, is very dear. The island is, generally speaking, healthy, and is capable of raising many tropical products which are not now cultivated, the policy of the Netherlanders being to restrict the cultivation to cloves alone. About a million pounds weight of this spice were believed to be annually exported in the late 19th Century.

Banda was the principal home of the nutmeg tree, and gives its name to the group of islands lying east of Celebes. All these islands are thickly wooded with fine plantations of nutmegs, cocoanuts, and bananas. Entirely cut off from the civilised world, the islands, which are described as exceedingly lovely, are even destitute of the means of subsistence for their own inhabitants, as nature, which has lavishly bestowed upon them natural groves of spices, has denied them articles of immediate necessity. It is estimated that Banda alone could produce enough nutmegs and mace for the supply of the whole world, so favorable is the soil for the nutmeg tree, and so profuse is the yield.

The historical significance of these islands cannot be overstated. Largely because of the compusive attraction of spice, European ships risked sailing into unknown waters, as the Portuguese sailed down and around Africa, then circled the globe (Magellan’s crossing of the Pacific), and “found” a New World when Columbus crossed the Atlantic.

Spain and Portugal, at the height of their prosperity, held complete command of the southern seas, and of the known highways to the Indies, east and west, to the exclusion of the other maritime nations of Europe, however anxious they were to share their good fortune and to prosecute trade with the new realms. It was for this reason that the thoughts of the northern maritime nations were turned to the possibility of opening up a new and independent trade route to the Indies and the Spice Islands, either by what was called the north-east passage, round Norway and along the coast of Siberia, or the north-west passage, between Greenland and the north coast of America.

Gradually, spices were cultivated in other places of the world, including Brazil, the West Indies, and Zanzibar, making the commodities more widely available and greatly reducing their prices.

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Page last modified: 18-04-2012 19:22:44 ZULU