Tragically missing since 1945, this hand-coloured portalan chart is attributed to Pedro Reinel and gives us one of the very first glimpses of the Moluccas, appearing un-named as a series of red and blue specks on the equator, above the second 'i' of Capricornio. Undated and unsigned, it is estimated to have been first released about 1517, just five years after the first Portuguese discovered the islands, and before any other Europeans were confirmed to have made it there. Courtesy of The Munich Portolan Charts, Ivan Kupcik

Antonio Bocarro Livro das Plantas de Todas as Fortalezas 1635. Biblioteca Pública de Évora

This map by Willem Blaeu in 1636 was copied many times following its publishing in Amsterdam. Fascinatingly, it shows the layouts of the principal forts of the Moluccas, illustrating how central they were to the Spice Islands.

Insulae Moluccae. Drawn by Plancius, this stunningly presented map came out in several versions, appearing originally in Linschoten's Intinerario first published in Amsterdam in 1596. This version, from 1617, shows the main Spice Islands, including Ternate, Tidore, Bachian, Ambon and the Banda's. It is extremely rare, only about 40 copies existing today. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, NSW State Library (Safe/M2 470/1617/1)

Antonio Pigafetta provided us with the first non-Portuguese map of the Clove isles from his voyage there in 1522

A French version of a Dutch engraving by d'Winter first released in 1683 showing the Moluccas and Banda's in detail along the base. Note the two 'islands' of New Guinea.

Mapping the Spice Islands

There was a window of time of around a century from mid C13th when the expanse of the Mongol Empire allowed adventurous travellers and traders to cross through one stable – rather than many unstable – sovereign entities on the traverse between Asia and Europe. This window shut down with the rise of the Ottomans, but by this time John of Carpini, William of Rubrick, Marco Polo of Venice, Oderic of Pordenone and the questionable John Mandeville had all crossed to the East, and left accounts which were closely studied by European mapmakers. The Ptolemic concept of a closed Indian Ocean started to be challenged, hinting that a sea route to the East may be possible.

It was another Venetian trader, Nicolo de Conti who, with considerable difficulty, journeyed across the Muslim world from 1419, spending 25 years in Asia and giving us the first European account of a visit to the Spice Islands. Among other extended adventures, he claimed to have visited the islands where cloves and nutmeg were found, and at that time, they were only found in the Spice Islands. An anonymous map from 1459 based on his account includes the island of Bandam (Banda), the first of the Spice Islands shown on a European map. The Portuguese took notice, and continued their exploration down the African coast, seeking out and finding their way into the Indian Ocean in 1488.

Stylised view of the Moluccas and the main forts, by Portuguese Bocarro 1635.

Later, storming Malacca in 1511, they found local maps showing the location of the Spice Islands and local navigators who knew how to get there. An expedition was quickly dispatched to find the Spiceries – indicating how vital it was to their strategy – and during 1512, they had located the Banda’s, Ambon and the Molucca’s, finally tracking down the elusive isles that the western world had wondered over for a thousand years.

Not that they were about to share the exact locations with anyone else though. For a start they had no intention of encouraging competitors in the lucrative Spice trade.

Secondly, the 1494 Treaty of Torsedillas dividing the undiscovered world between Portugal and Spain had a flaw; no-one had seriously considered where the anti-meridian lay. Nor could C16th navigators accurately measure their longitude to define where the Spice Islands sat in terms of the anti-meridian. Portugal was concerned that the Spanish may actually have the rightful claim to the wealth of the Spiceries, so they kept any charts of these lands very secret.

As a result, it was only through bribery, espionage and “poaching” of Portuguese pilots that the cartographic world gradually became aware of the real location of these islands, and by this time, Portugal’s competitors had also found the islands. It was actually an Italian, the indomitable Pigafetta, a chronicler of Magellan’s Spanish voyage, that gives us the first coherent chart of the fabled Molucca’s, after arriving there from the across the Pacific in 1521.

It is interesting to note here, that there is still controversy about who was the first man to circumnavigate the earth.  Some argue that Magellan, who had certainly helped in the capture of Malacca in 1511, had actually already journeyed to the Spice Islands with the first Portuguese fleet in 1512. Mactan Island in the Philippines where Magellan was killed nine years later in a skirmish with local chieftain Lapu-lapu, was west of the Moluccas, so, if in fact this argument is true, then Magellan was certainly the first circumnavigator. In view of his incredible voyage of exploration, crossing the Atlantic from north to south and then the Pacific from east to west – without doubt, the most amazing piece of maritime navigation in history – perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt.

In the later 1520′s and 1530′s a number of maps came out in Europe reflecting the cartographic knowledge that had arisen from the Magellan/ Elcano voyage and subsequent Spanish expeditions which followed the same gruelling trans-Pacific route. Until the last years of the sixteenth century, the Iberian monopoly on Asian voyages would be interrupted only by the French Parmentier brothers making Sumatra in 1529. Both succumbed to disease there, but other returning survivors of the voyage providing much material for the famous Dieppe School of mapmakers in France.

Gradually, the tiny Spice Islands became a fixture on Asian and Pacific maps, even though much more prominent insular landmasses – for example, Ceylon, Sumatra, Borneo, Taiwan, Japan, New Guinea and Sulawesi – were misplaced, inaccurately detailed, or missing altogether. With Munster’s Cosmographia of 1540, we start to see the correct relationship between the Spice Islands, the Philippines and Asia. Gastaldi’s South East Asia in 1548 shows Ternate on Halmahera, but also includes “Anbon”, “Baca”, Machian, “Motil” and “Tidora”.

By the time the first Dutch and English voyages arrived in the region from 1595, everyone knew where the Spice Islands could be found, and how incredibly remote they were. Plancius’s Insulae Moluccae from 1595  is a stunning example of the status of nautical charting at that time, and an indicator of the vital importance of nutmeg and cloves – illustrated along the base of the map – throughout the wider region. Continual improvements and refinements occurred during the seventeenth century, but it is interesting that even in the late part of that century, adjacent islands such as New Guinea were still only marginally understood.

And the Spice Islands have a link with the western worlds discovery of Australia, when the VOC yacht Duyfken, departed Banda on a voyage of exploration to the south-east and provided the first known charts of the Australian coast in 1606.

Insulae Moluccae. Drawn by Plancius, this stunningly presented map came out in several versions, appearing originally in Linschoten's Intinerario first published in Amsterdam in 1596. This version, from 1617, shows the main Spice Islands, including Ternate, Tidore, Bachian, Ambon and the Banda's. It is extremely rare, only about 40 copies existing today. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, NSW State Library (Safe/M2 470/1617/1)

Insulae Moluccae. By Plancius, 1617