In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, everyone knew the name Ternate. Deckhands on Arab dhows, Portuguese navigators, Levant customs clerks, Venetian Senators, Persian caravaners, merchants in Hamburg, India and Cairo, Sultans in Syria, gunners on Dutch Indiamen, all said the name with a glint in their eye; they may not have known its exact location, but they all knew its name meant cloves, and cloves meant riches.
Ternate blasted like a lightning bolt from remote obscurity to a position of incredible wealth and global significance in the space of a hundred years, and after a brief but brutal period of importance and renown, it slowly settled back into insignificance, returning to its original obscurity, as the clove market and its monopoly faded.
Prior to the Portuguese arrival, Ternate was the pre-eminent of the four regional Sultanates, the others being Bacan (Bachian/ Bakian) to the south, Jailolo on Halmahera to the east, and Tidore, the arch rival separated by just a few hundred meters of sea.
Dominated by its very active 1700m/5600ft volcano, the tiny island – just 10km/6mi across – was able to support a few thousand people only by importing every necessity and foodstuff. Nothing grew on the island except clove trees. But it was the fruit from these trees that the world was chasing.
In 1512, the Ternateans craftily won the competition to host the newly arrived Portuguese, but this was a victory they would later regret, opening the curtains on hundreds of years of violence and conflict throughout the islands. Originally, the Sultan had seen the well-armed newcomers as powerful allies in his interminable wars against his neighbours, but he and the other Sultans soon found themselves engulfed in a prolonged series of conflicts to control the spice trade.
The Portuguese fought for several decades with the Spanish before seeing them off, but were then themselves beaten by the Sultan of Ternate, and fled to Ambon. A short time later, the Spanish who had absorbed Portugal, invaded, occupied and fortified all the main islands, with their headquarters on Ternate. The newly arrived Dutch, also keen for spices, fought a series of running battles with the Iberians over six decades until they emerged as the victors. They then spent much of the next centuries putting down rebellious Sultans and repelling interloping Europeans.
Today, Ternate with its airport is the arrival point for the northern Molucca’s, and has a fine and varied collection of Spice Islands Forts to explore.