A fascinating period of history set amidst
breath-taking tropical landscapes
Astride the Equator and on the far eastern edge of Asia, a line of jungle-clad volcano’s rears steeply out of azure seas, lava blackened peaks often smoking with anger….. Hiri, Ternate, Maitara, Tidore, Mare, Moti, Makian. From these lands across history’s pages came cloves.
A few days’ sail to the south-east are the Banda’s, a scattering of ancient and active volcano’s amid reef-fringed turquoise waters. From here came nutmeg and mace, two precious parts of the same rare nut.
In between these two remote and mysterious archipelagos’ lies Ambon, a deep, safe harbour, focal point of the region. These three localities combine to form the Spice Islands, once part of the Dutch East Indies, today the Indonesian provinces of Maluku and Maluku Utara.
History owes much to these secluded lands. The Age of Discovery, where European navigators mapped the world from 1500 “discovering” the lands of the America’s and the Indian and Pacific Oceans, kicked off with a desire to find the “Spiceries”. Dias was seeking them when he was first to round Africa and enter the Indian Ocean in 1488. Columbus was looking for these “Indies” when he bumped into the America’s in 1492.
And the great circumference of the Earth was first closed in 1522 when survivors of Magellan’s Spanish expedition, crossing the broad Pacific from the America’s, ran into a lone Portuguese trader at Ternate – 127 degrees East of Greenwich – who had arrived there in the long haul around Africa, from the west.
The Iberians –and the Malays, Arabs and Chinese who had traded with the Spice Islands for centuries before their arrival – were all chasing spices; nutmeg and cloves, found only on these secluded islands. From the Roman era these spices were used for freshening breath, for flavouring and preserving bland food, and for medicinal purposes. Nutmeg was even reputed as a defence against the plague, which devastated Europe in medieval times.
The profits involved in the trade were immense for those who could cut out the multitude of middlemen that ferried the aromatic cargo’s from eastern Asia to China, the Middle East and Europe. The Portuguese, combining this desire for profit with their advanced nautical experience and technology, were the first to put the Spice Islands on the map, in 1512. They built the first of the Spice Islands Forts in 1522, to keep the Spaniards out, and soon the lure of spice trading saw forts – and conflict – multiply across the region, built by Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and the local Sultanates.
Today, the thunder of the guns has long been silenced. The galleons and the traders have passed into history. Even the spices themselves are mostly gone. But amidst the towering volcano’s and turquoise waters of the picturesque islands, centuries-old crumbling battlements and earthquake-shattered ramparts draped with creepers and shaded by coconut palms remain as a testament to the endeavours of long forgotten pioneers who crossed the oceans chasing down the elusive Islands of Spice.
Welcome to the world of Spice Islands Forts……