Belgica Fort - Spice Islands
Spice Islands

The History of the Spice Islands Trade in Maluku

Jan 12, 2021 | Spice Islands

Cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves.

These humble spices that go well together in your tea were once worth their weight in gold. A large part of renaissance and colonial history — the wealth, the wars, and the fate of various people — were all shaped by the spices that now sit inconspicuously on pantry shelves worldwide.

To appreciate how significant a role they played in the 16th century, let us voyage into the epicenter of the rich, and in some cases, horrific history of the Spice Trade — the Maluku islands.

Maluku, the mythical land of spices

As Europe had recovered from the Black Plague, the Arab and the Chinese worlds were thriving with various technological and cultural advancements. Together, they became powerful middlemen in the spice trade. Europeans were well aware of the existence of the so-called Spice Islands, yet no one but the eastern merchants knew of their whereabouts.

Then came what we now refer to as the Age of Exploration. What drove brave explorers to circumnavigate the world had little to do with curiosity and the love of exploration. Many of the costly and dangerous expeditions, heavily funded by the Crown and accompanied by the best naval powers, all had one goal — finding, and seizing control of, the mythical land of spices.

Kingdoms at war: Ternate and Tidore

The Portuguese were the first to reach Ternate, a volcanic island in today’s North Maluku, Indonesia, that was home to a sultanate, who was in a bitter rivalry with Tidore, the neighboring sultanate.

After an arms deal with the Portuguese, the Ternate sultanate granted the Portuguese control over the clove-growing estates, effectively monopolizing clove trade. Of course, the Portuguese couldn’t stay in power without the rival Spanish knowing about it. In 1521, the sultan of Tidore welcomed them to trade spices for weapons.

Banda Islands in the blue desert

The Banda Islands are notably remote and small, located deep in the southern seas of Maluku. The high price of nutmeg owed to how difficult it was to reach the Banda Islands. Unlike the Ternate people, the Bandanese were not easily persuaded by Portuguese weapons, and were difficult to come to an agreement.

The Dutch had success with forming a mutual commerce relation with the Orang Kaya, leaders of the Bandanese, although not for very long. The signing of the treaty of the V.O.C. soon became known as the beginning of a bloody era in Bandanese history. The brutality continued up until two global powers, the Dutch and the English, collided to seize control over the Banda islands.

The world changed forever

Little did the world know at the time that the stage had been set for future historic events — the English exchanged Maluku’s Rhun Island for New Amsterdam, today’s New York City; Spain, by the order of the Pope, left Portugal in peace and took over the New World instead (today’s California, Mexico, and Latin America); the Dutch would later colonize much of the Indonesian archipelago, while the English left to colonize India.

All this, believe it or not, happened in the name of nutmeg and cloves. If you visit the Banda Islands today, you will find forts and ruins left by the Dutch V.O.C., and the colonial legacy that became infused in the veins of the Bandanese people. Learn what you will discover in the Spice Islands with Flagship Luxury Expeditions.

 

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