Island group (pop., 2005 est.: 2,059,200), eastern Indonesia, lying between Celebes (Sulawesi) and New Guinea. The Moluccas comprise three large islands (Halmahera, Ceram, and Buru) and many smaller ones. Their combined area is about 30,066 sq mi (77,870 sq km). They constitute the Indonesian provinces of Maluku and North Maluku; the provincial capitals are, respectively, Ambon and Ternate. The population is ethnically diverse, including Malays and Papuans and people of Dutch, Portuguese, and Javanese descent. Known as the “Spice Islands,” the Moluccas were part of the Asian spice trade before being discovered by the Portuguese in 1511, and they were fought over by the Spanish, English, and Dutch, eventually coming under the Dutch. Occupied by the Japanese during World War II, the islands were afterward incorporated into the state of East Indonesia and then into the Republic of Indonesia in 1949.
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Spice Islands most commonly refer to the Maluku Islands (formerly the Moluccas), which lie on the equator, between Sulawesi (Celebes) and New Guinea in what is now Indonesia, and often specifically to the small volcanic Banda Islands, once the only source of mace and nutmeg.
The term has also been used less commonly in reference to other islands known for their spice production, notably the Zanzibar Archipelago off East Africa consisting of Unguja, Mafia and Pemba. These islands were formerly the independent state of Zanzibar but now form a semi-autonomous part of Tanzania.
The native Bandanese people traded spices with other Asian nations, such as China, since at least the time of the Roman Empire. With the rise of Islam, the trade became dominated by Muslim traders. One ancient Arabic source appears to know the location of the islands, describing them as fifteen days' sail East from the 'island of Jaba' - presumably Java — but direct evidence of Islam in the archipelago occurs only in the late 1300s, as China's interest in regional maritime dominance waned. With Arabic traders came not just Islam, but a new technique of social organization, the sultanate, which replaced local councils of rich men (orang kaya) on the more important islands, and proved more effective in dealing with outsiders. (See Ternate & Tidore).
By trading with Muslim merchants, Venice came to monopolise the spice trade in Europe between 1200 and 1500, through its dominance over Mediterranean seaways to ports such as Alexandria, after traditional overland connections were disrupted by Mongols and Turks. The financial incentive to discover an alternative to Venice's monopoly control of this lucrative business was perhaps the single most important factor precipitating Europe's Age of Exploration. Portugal took an early lead charting the route around the southern tip of Africa, securing various bases en route, even accidentally discovering the coast of Brazil in the search for favourable Southerly currents. Portugal's eventual success and the establishment of its own absolutist monopoly provoked the other maritime powers in Europe—Spain (see Ferdinand Magellan), France, England and the Netherlands—to challenge and overcome the Portuguese position.
Because of the high value that the spices had in Europe and the large incomes that it produced, the Dutch and British were soon involved in conflicts to try to gain a monopoly over the region. The fighting for control over these small islands became very intense with the Dutch even giving the island of Manhattan to the British in exchange for a small island that gave the Dutch full control over the Banda archipelago. The Bandanese people lost the most in the fighting with most of the people being either slaughtered or enslaved by the Dutch. Over 6,000 were killed during the Spice Wars.
The goal of reaching the Spice Islands, eventually to be enveloped by the Dutch East Indies empire, led to the accidental discovery of the West Indies, and lit the fuse of centuries of rivalry between European maritime powers for control of lucrative global markets and resources. The tattered mystique of the Spice Islands finally died when France and Britain successfully smuggled seeds and plants to their own dominions on Mauritius, Grenada and elsewhere, making spices a more commonplace and affordable commodity.