What's the Story Behind the Spice Islands?

Tuesday, 15. March 2016

What's the Story Behind the Spice Islands?

You may have heard the name before, but if you look for the Spice Islands on a map, you'll be hard pressed to find them. Today, these islands are no longer known as "The Spice Islands", but how did they get that nickname in the first place

The islands that were formerly called the Spice Islands are now called the Moluccas. They are made up of an Indonesian archipelago that comprises a total land mass of 75,000 square kilometers. The capital city of the region and archipelago is a city called Ambon. Today 2.1 million people live on the islands.

The Moluccas have been inhabited for tens of thousands of years. Spice trade was encouraged by the native people for a very long time before the first Europeans set foot on the islands.

In the 16th century, the Moluccas were nicknamed the "Spice Islands". This was due to the large number of aromatic plants that grew on this archipelago. Subsequently, the islands were an important strategic base for the highly profitable spice trade.

Nutmeg and cloves largely drove the spice trade. These two widely-used spices were originally only native to this group of islands. Since spices were once worth their weight in gold, control of the Moluccas was synonymous with extreme wealth.

The fight to take control of this "spice monopoly" flared up between Europeans until it became a major issue in 1512. Let's start at the beginning though. After Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India, it wasn't long before other expeditions made their way further east and discovered the Spice Islands. 

The Portuguese established several based on the Spice Islands in 1512 . Soon a bidding war ensued between the British, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese for control of these islands. After many clashes, the Dutch emerged victorious in 1663. The Dutch East India Company was then in control of the spice monopoly. They were the only ones who could deliver nutmeg or cloves and also had control over the price. This monopoly was only challenged in 1769 when a Frenchman smuggled young nutmeg tree seedlings out of the Spice Islands and succeeded in cultivating them in Mauritius. 

One interesting detail to note: the Spice Islands were also reason for the first circumnavigation of the world. The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan wanted to find the first western route to the Spice Islands for the glory of Spain. Magellan's crew sailed around the globe, going first around the tip of  South America and then on to the Philippines and the southern coast of Africa before finally heading back to Spain. Magellan himself died on the journey in armed conflicts with natives. The value that spices had then could be quantified with these facts: of the five ships that launched with Magellan, only one returned to Spain three years later. It was loaded with 26 tons of spices. After deducting the cost of the lost ships, etc. a net profit of 500 gold ducats still remained.