The Spice Islands, Indonesia: A Quick Guide

Indonesia’s Treasure Trove: How People Live on the Spice Islands

The ancient explorers set out on their travels not only out of sheer curiosity but also with a more practical approach: they searched for land on which spices grew. Once upon a time, the nutmeg grown in the territory of Indonesia aroused the interest of advanced states and even caused many conflicts. Today, the locals grow them directly in their vegetable gardens, making jam out of the expensive spice.

Nutmeg Archipelago

The Banda Archipelago is home to approximately 15,000 people. They are all located on seven small islets, but about half of that number live on Banda Neira. It is clear that this island is considered the main island in the archipelago. All these islands are scattered across the Banda Sea, in the middle of which patches of land are barely visible from a bird’s eye view. The whole world knows this archipelago as the home of spices.

The islets of the archipelago are scattered across the sea. Photo: David Stanley/

Islands of the archipelago are scattered across the sea. Photo: David Stanley/

Up until the 19th century, the islands were the only territories where nutmeg grew. It is known that the indigenous inhabitants of the archipelago have long traded in the main spice, which they were the only ones rich in. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the product was secretly shipped to Venice, after which it was sold at fabulous prices. Sometime later the Portuguese came to the land and began to actively buy back the spices from the locals, and later resell them. The value of the product in Europe exceeded the purchase price by hundreds of times.

Much later, the Dutch arrived on the islands, whose presence still echoes with sadness in the hearts of the local population. The newcomers wanted a foothold on these islands and a monopoly on the spice trade that the natives did not support. The Dutch later decided to turn the islands into a colony, wiping out almost the entire native population. Those who survived were sent as slaves to other lands, and slaves were brought in as laborers. After a while, the Dutch realized that they did not know how to grow nutmeg, after which the Bandanesians were returned to their homeland. We wrote more about the history of nutmeg in another article .

The fruit of the nutmeg tree. Photo: aga2rk/

The fruit of the nutmeg tree. Photo: aga2rk/

Blessed lives.

After the country gained independence, the plantations were given to a state-owned company, which soon went bankrupt. To this day, all the plantations are officially state-owned, but even some locals are perplexed as to who can use them. Some mention the corruption that thrives on these lands.

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Today, many residents prefer to work for themselves. They grow their own nutmeg trees, then process the nuts and sell them. The locals say that this activity is not difficult, and that in order to sell a kilo of produce it is necessary to harvest about 300 fruits. The locals get around 350 rubles for this kilo, if translated to our money. If we remember Russian prices for this spice, it becomes clear that the middlemen still get more money from the product than the producers.

Those who take the ferry to the island are inevitably greeted by local vendors. Photo: David Stanley/

Those who take the ferry to the island are inevitably greeted by local traders. Photo: David Stanley/

People on the islands are quite poor, most do not have Internet or cell phone service. On the island of Run only recently appeared electricity, which is supplied by a generator, but to enjoy this gift of civilization to the full extent that the locals can not, as it is supplied only from 18:00 to 23:30. There is no hospital on this island either, so they are treated with herbs. However, the locals are not eager to leave their homeland. They believe their islands have a special status, as they were the first to be above water after the Flood. The inhabitants consider the land as blessed, and the same is their destiny.

You can also find out how the Black Brothers islands, which belong to Russia, look like.

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Molukkskie ostrova Ostrova pryanostej

“The seafarers and traders called not only the Moluccas Islands, but the very spice islands, because of which the first expeditions of the Great Geographical Discoveries era were equipped and the interests of the European powers crossed. The locals are in no hurry to leave these small, fertile islands of volcanic origin, despite frequent volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and the occasional eruption of conflicts on national-religious grounds.


The history of the spice trade is the story of a bitter struggle for dominion over the Spice Islands. In this struggle, adversaries from all over the world, from the Arabs and Chinese in antiquity to the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English and French in modern times, came together.

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Archaeological excavations show that people inhabited these islands about 32 thousand years ago and already 10-15 thousand years ago the local population was engaged in exchange trade. Later the Spice Islands were discovered by Chinese and Arab traders.

The modern name “Moluccan Islands” comes from the Arabic “al-Malik” (royal).

In ancient times, the spice trade was risky but extremely lucrative: spices were worth their weight in gold, sometimes even in the literal sense of the word. Arab merchants brought them to Europe mostly from India and the Moluccan Islands, which were called the Spice Islands for this reason. One of the main reasons pushing the Portuguese and Spaniards to make the Great Geographical Discoveries in the 15th and 17th centuries was the desire to find an alternative to the Asian way of transporting precious goods, when the Turks blocked part of the Great Silk Road. It was in search of a western route to the Moluccas Islands that Fernand Magellan’s flotilla (1480-1521), which made it the first-ever circumnavigation of the globe (1519-1522), set out in search of the way.

The first Europeans who sailed to the islands in 1512 to establish the spice trade without intermediaries were the Portuguese in the expedition of the navigator António de Abreu. The port city of Ambon on the island of the same name became the local bridgehead for colonization. The Portuguese were succeeded by the Spaniards, and in 1596 the Dutch first entered the islands. It is interesting to note that in Europe, the Netherlands was still fighting the Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) for the recognition of its independence from Spain, while on the islands the Dutch East India Company had already monopolized the spice trade. The main rival in the struggle for spices became the British East India Company: this was the cause of three Anglo-Dutch wars in the 17th century.

In 1800, after the nationalization of the Dutch East India Company, the colony of the Dutch East Indies was formed. During the Napoleonic Wars, the territory of Holland itself was conquered by France and all of its colonies automatically became French. In 1811-1816 the islands were occupied by Britain, but in 1824 they were returned under the Anglo-Dutch treaty in exchange for Dutch colonial possessions in India.

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Even after the fall in world prices for spices, conflicts in the Moluccas did not cease. The 500-year period of colonial dependence, as well as the specifics of life on hundreds of isolated islands, all paved the way for future national and religious conflicts.

In 1942, Japan invaded the islands. After the capitulation and withdrawal of Japanese troops in August 1945, the Republic of Indonesia was proclaimed, but the Kingdom of the Netherlands surrendered sovereignty only in 1949, after the War of Independence.

The Moluccas Islands, with roughly equal numbers of Christians and Muslims, remained a single province of Indonesia until 1999, all attempts at secession were brutally suppressed. The 1997 economic crisis and the subsequent collapse of the dictatorial regime of General Suharto (1921-2008) led to the weakening of the central government and the army, which caused ethnic and religious strife in the country. In 1999 2004, as a result of bloody conflicts in the Moluccan Islands, thousands of residents were killed, half a million became refugees, and the province was divided into the Muslim North Maluku (the capital Sophie on Halmahera Island) and Maluku (the capital city of Ambon was divided into Muslim and Christian parts).

In recent years, tensions between the two religious island communities have subsided.

The Moluccas, the Greater and Lesser Sunda Islands form the Sunda Archipelago. The Moluccas are small, mountainous, volcanic islands, geologically very young, only 1 to 15 million years old. Here, in the collision zone between the Halmaher and the Moluccan plates, they are seismically active: in the last 500 years, over 70 strongest volcanic eruptions and earthquakes have been registered. In coastal areas with favorable conditions, tropical forests are replaced by plantations of sago and coconut palms, clove tree, nutmeg and pepper. The climate is defined by the dry and wet monsoon seasons.


The bamboo gila is an ancient Moluccan ritual act filled with magic: several people must hold the bamboo, which spins frantically “at the mercy of spirits” awakened by a shaman through the power of spices.

The indigenous population of the islands are Melanesians (Alphurs). A large part of them was exterminated during the Spice Wars in the 17th century. Later the islands were settled by Europeans, mainly the Portuguese and the Dutch. After the independence of Indonesia, immigration from the neighboring islands of New Guinea, Sulawesi, Java, and others began in earnest. Today there are about 350 ethnic groups on the Moluccas Islands.

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The population is extremely unevenly distributed. The two largest islands of Halmahera and Seram are sparsely populated, the province of North Maluku is the most sparsely populated of all the regions of Indonesia. The smaller but more economically developed islands of Ambon and Ternate are much more populous.

The traditional occupations of the local population are fishing, crafts and agriculture: growing sago, coconut and banana palms, red rice, spices, tobacco, coffee and cocoa.

Tourism is one of the most important sectors of the economy of these emerald islands with unique flora and fauna. Biogeographically, all of the Moluccas Islands except the Aru Islands are in Wallesia, an isolated region located between the Sunda Shelf (part of the Asian Continental Shelf) and the Arafura Shelf (part of the Australian Continental Shelf). Many plant and animal species are found only here. In fact, clove tree and nutmeg originally grew exclusively on the Spice Islands before Europeans started growing them in other parts of the world. Rare species include nocturnal marsupials (couscous), varanas, casuars, cockatoos (white and pink are found on all major islands, black on the Aru Islands), birds of paradise (including the pennant paradise bird, endemic of the Moluccas Islands), the giant Wallace bee and many others protected by the state.

To save rare species from extinction, Manuzela National Park was established in 1997 and Aketojave-Lolobata National Park in 2004.

The relative isolation of the islands, which influenced the high specialization of fauna and flora, also contributed to the preservation of the original culture of the local population. Here, on the small islands, the belief in the existence of ancestral spirits is still alive. Animism is one of the most ancient forms of religion, with its complex system of rites and rituals.

Of particular note is the mystical ritual of bambu-gila, performed on the islands of Ternate and Ambon since ancient times. From aside it looks like this: a group of young people take hold of a 2.5-3 meter long bamboo trunk wrapped in cloth, cut down in compliance with special rituals. The shaman reads a mantra in the ancient language of Ternate, holds a torch of incense to the trunk (sometimes a piece of ginger is placed on each of the bamboo knees instead), and three times loudly exclaims “Gila!” after which the bamboo begins to rotate frantically. According to the inhabitants of Ternate, the bamboo trunk is set in motion by spirits lured there the day before by the shaman (the trunk then grows in weight dramatically), prompted to action by the mantra and spices. Either a properly recited prayer and spice smokes bring people into a trance or a lever principle works, but the spectacle is impressive. Another magical “lure for tourists” giant sacred eels of the village of Vaai 30 km from Ambon. And there are many such wonders in Indonesia.

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Thick tropical forests and clean sandy beaches, volcanic mountain ranges and picturesque bays, hot springs and coral reefs with fantastic inhabitants, exotic souvenirs and fresh tropical fruits the Moluccas Islands certainly have high tourist potential.

However, after the recent bloody riots in the Moluccas, the Indonesian authorities are faced with the task of restoring the region’s image as a “tourist paradise” and, above all, to prove that they can ensure the safety of vacationers.

The “spice wars” broke out in the Moluccas in the 17th century, when the Dutch ousted the Portuguese and imposed a limit on nutmeg and clove trees, severely punishing the natives for “unplanned” sprouts. They managed to maintain their monopoly and inflated prices for spices until a French military expedition of the governor of the Mascarene Islands in 1769 stole valuable seedlings and seeds. The French, however, did not take to the sprouts, but the English learned how to grow them in their colonies. With the advent of the new plantations, spice prices dropped.

The island of Zanzibar now supplies 90% of the cinnamon and the island of Grenada, also known as the Spice Islands, is the No. 2 exporter of nutmeg.

The most original souvenirs of the Moluccas are ship models made from dried flowers of the clove tree.

The city of Ternate (Ternate Island): Kedaton – Sultan’s palace (18th century). Gamalama volcano (with crater lake Tolire), Dutch fort Orani (17th century). Bandaneira (Banda Islands): Fort Belgica, Fort Nassau. Seram Island: the Binayas. Ambon Island: Fort Victoria, Sivalima Museum, Mount Sirimahu, Soya village (an early 19th-century Dutch church). Buru Island: Masbait and Masarete Sanctuaries.

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