Spice Islands

(Moluccas, Maluka)

Spice Islands is a former name for the Moluccas, a collection of islands between Celebes and New Guinea in the Malay Archipelago, situated where the South Pacific Ocean and Indian Ocean meet. They encompass some 32,307 square miles, 90 percent of which is ocean. The Moluccas (or Maluka) are currently a province in the eastern portion of the Republic of Indonesia. The largest island is Halmahera, and the province’s capital is the city of Ambon on the island of Ambon. Other significant islands in the group are Ternate, Ceram, Buru, and Tidore. Because they were formed by volcanic activity, the Moluccas are mountainous. The climate is humid, and the soil fertile. The cloves, nutmeg, mace, and pepper produced by the islanders, and their central role in the SPICE TRADE, gave rise to the name Spice Islands. For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the Spice Islands were visited by Chinese from the east and Arab Muslims from the west; traveling by ship, both peoples were attracted by the islands’ agricultural goods. To protect their profits, the Arab traders who sold these commodities to Europe kept secret their location. The desire of European merchants to circumvent these Arab traders was a major motivating factor in what became the EUROPEAN AGE OF EXPLORATION, beginning in the 15th century.

The probable first European visitor to the Moluccas was Italian LUDOVICO DI VARTHEMA in 1505. The Portuguese, who had already begun trading in India with VASCO DA GAMA’s voyage of 1497–99, were anxious to get to the source of these precious spices. In 1511, Portuguese mariner and trader FRANCISCO SERRANO, after accompanying AFONSO DE ALBUQUERQUE in the conquest of the Malayan port of Malacca on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula, investigated the Spice Islands. After being appointed viceroy of Ternate, he established a Portuguese trading post there in 1513. A Spanish expedition originally headed by Portuguese mariner FERDINAND MAGELLAN reached the Spice Islands across the Pacific from the east in 1521 during the first CIRCUMNAVIGATION OF THE WORLD. Portuguese domination of the Spice Islands was henceforth challenged by the Spanish, who asserted that the islands were located in their half of the world according to Alexander VI’s papal bull of 1493. The dispute was resolved with the Treaty of Saragossa of 1529, in which the Spanish emperor, more interested in developing Spain’s possessions in the Americas, agreed to drop the claim in exchange for a cash payment from Portugal.

For most of the 16th century, Portugal held a tight monopoly on exports from the Spice Islands to Europe. In October 1579, SIR FRANCIS DRAKE made the first English voyage to the region and reached a trade agreement with the sultan of Ternate, beginning an intermittent English presence in the region. In 1595, CORNELIUS HOUTMAN was recruited by a group of Dutch merchants to open trade with the Spice Islands. Although not profitable, the expedition was successful in its defiance of the Portuguese. In April 1602, the newly chartered DUTCH EAST INDIA COMPANY sent its first fleet of ships to the islands. By the mid-1600s, through naval actions and privateering, the Dutch had gained control of the island group. Conflict with England was resolved by an agreement between the two countries to divide up their interests. England expanded its trading activities in India, and the Dutch maintained their presence in the Spice Islands.

The population of the Moluccas is ethnically diverse, including Malay, Papuan, and Javanese peoples. The native population has intermarried with Europeans over the centuries, especially the Portuguese and Dutch. About 60 percent of the people are Muslim; the rest, mostly Christian. Agriculture is still central to the economy; food crops include cassava, taro, yams, and sweet potatoes. The sago palm provides starch as a dietary staple as well as wood for building. Spices are no longer the main export products, but rather coconut, coffee, and wood products.

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