spices up

Maluku Islands

The Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccas, Moluccan Islands, the Spice Islands or simply Maluku) are an archipelago in Indonesia, and part of the larger Malay Archipelago. They are located on the Australian Plate, lying east of Sulawesi (Celebes), west of New Guinea, and north of Timor. The islands were also historically known as the "Spice Islands" by the Chinese and Europeans, but this term has also been applied to other islands.

Most of the islands are mountainous, some with active volcanoes, and enjoy a wet climate. The vegetation of the small and narrow islands, encompassed by the sea, is very luxuriant; including rainforests, sago, rice, and the famous spices--nutmeg, cloves and mace, among others. Though originally Melanesian, many island populations, especially in the Banda Islands, were killed in the 17th century. A second influx of Austronesian immigrants began in the early twentieth century under the Dutch and continued in the Indonesian era.

Politically, the Maluku Islands formed a single province from 1950 until 1999. In 1999 the North Maluku (Maluku Utara) and Halmahera Tengah (Central Halmahera) regency were split off as a separate province, so the islands are now divided between two provinces, Maluku and North Maluku. Between 1999 and 2002 they were known for religious conflicts between Muslims and Christians but have been peaceful in the past years.


The Maluku Islands are often described by tourist literature as having 999 islands; they are 90% sea with 77,990 km2 of land, and 776,500 km2 of sea.

North Maluku Province

Maluku Province


The name Maluku is thought to have been derived from the Arab trader's term for the region, Jazirat al-Muluk ('the land of many kings').


Early history

The earliest archaeologicall evidence of human occupation of the region is about thirty-two thousand years old, but evidence of even older settlements in Australia may mean that Maluku had earlier visitors. Evidence of increasingly long-distance trading relationships and of more frequent occupation of many islands, begins about ten to fifteen thousand years later. Onyx beads and segments of silver plate used as currency on the Indian subcontinent around 200BC have been unearthed on some of the islands. In addition, local dialects employ derivations of the Malay word then in use for 'silver', in contrast to the term used in wider Melanesian society, which has etymological roots in Chinese, a consequence of the regional trade with China that developed in the 500s and 600s.

Maluku was a cosmopolitan society where spice traders from across the region took residence in settlements, or in nearby enclaves, including Arab and Chinese traders who visited or lived in the region.

The Portuguese

Apart from some relative inconsequential cultural influences, the most significant lasting effects of the Portuguese presence was the disruption and disorganisation of Asian trade, and in eastern Indonesia—including Maluku—the planting of Christianity. The Portuguese had conquered Malacca in the early sixteenth century and their lasting influence was most strongly felt in Maluku and other parts of eastern Indonesia. Following the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in August 1511, Afonso de Albuquerque learned the route to the Banda Islands and other 'Spice Islands', and sent an exploratory expedition of three vessels under the command of António de Abreu, Simão Afonso Bisigudo and Francisco Serrão. On the way to return, Francisco Serrão was shipwrecked at Hitu island (northern Ambon) in 1512. There he established ties with the local ruler who was impressed with his martial skills. The rulers of the competing island states of Ternate and Tidore also sought Portuguese assistance and the Portuguese were welcomed in the area as buyers of food and spices during a lull in the spice trade due to a temporary disruption to Javanese and Malay sailings to the area following the 1511 conflicts in Malacca. The Asian trade soon revived and the Portuguese were never able to dominate the trade.

Allying himself with Ternate, Serrão constructed a fortress on the island and served as the head of a mercenary band of Portuguese warriors under the service of one of two feuding powerful sultans who controlled the spice trade. Such an outpost far from Europe generally only attracted the most desperate and avaricious, such that the feeble attempts at Christianisation, strained relations with Ternate's Muslim ruler. Serrão urged Ferdinand Magellan to join him in Maluku, and gave the explorer information about the Spice Islands. Both Serrão and Magellan, however, perished before they could meet one another. In 1535 King Tabariji was deposed and sent to Goa by the Portuguese. He converted to Christianity and changed his name to Dom Manuel. After being declared innocent of the charges against him he was sent back to reassume his throne, but he died en route in Malacca in 1545. He had, however, bequeathed the island of Ambon to his Portuguese godfather Jordão de Freitas. Following the murder of Sultan Hairun at the hands of the Portuguese, the Ternateans expelled the Portuguese in 1575 after a five-year siege.

The Portuguese first landed in Ambon in 1513, but it became the new centre for Portuguese activities in Maluku following their expulsion from Ternate. European power in the region was weak and Ternate became an expanding, fiercely Islamic and anti-Portuguese state under the rule of Sultan Baab Ullah (r. 1570 - 1583) and his son Sultan Said. The Portuguese in Ambon, however, were regularly attacked from native Muslims on the island's northern coast, in particular Hitu, which had trading and religious links with major port cities on Java's north coast. Indeed, the Portuguese never managed to control the local trade in spices, and failed in attempts to establish their authority over the Banda Islands, the nearby centre of nutmeg production.

Spaniards took control of Ternate and Tidore. Missionary and Catholic Saint, Francis Xavier worked in Maluku in 1546–1547 among the people's of Ambon, Ternate and Morotai (or Moro), and laid the foundations for a permanent mission there. Following his departure from Maluku, others carried on his work and by the 1560s there were 10,000 Catholics in the area, mostly on Ambon, and by the 1590s there were 50,000 to 60,000, although most of the region surrounding Ambon remained Muslim.

Following Portuguese missionary work, there have been large Christian communities in eastern Indonesia through to contemporary times, which has contributed to a sense of shared interest with Europeans, particularly among the Ambonese. Other influences include a large number of Indonesian words derived from Portuguese which alongside Malay was the lingua franca up until the early nineteenth century. Contemporary Indonesian words such as pesta ('party'), sabun ('soap'), bendera ('flag'), meja ('table'), Minggu ('Sunday'), all derive from Portuguese. Many family names in Maluku are derived from Portuguese including De lima, Waas, da Costa, Dias, de Fretas, Gonsalves, Mendosa, Rodrigues, and da Silva. Also of part-Portuguese origin is the romantic keroncong ballads sung to a guitar.

The Dutch

The Dutch arrived in 1599 and reported native discontent with Portuguese attempts to monopolise their traditional trade. After the Ambonese helped the Dutch to construct a fort at Hitu Larna, the Portuguese begun a campaign of retribution against which the Ambonese invited Dutch aid. After 1605 Frederik Houtman became the first Dutch governor of Ambon.

The Dutch East India Company was a company with three obstacles in its way: the Portuguese, controlling the aboriginal populations, and the British. Again smuggling would be the only alternative to a European monopoly. Among other events of the 17th century, the Bandanese attempted independent trade with the British, the East-India Company's response was to decimate the native population of the Banda Islands sending the survivors fleeing to other islands and installing slave labour.

Though other races re-settled the Banda Islands, the rest of Maluku remained uneasy under foreign control and even after the Portuguese had a new trading station at Macassar there were native revolts in 1636 and 1646. Under company control northern Maluka was administered by the Dutch residency of Ternate, and the southern by "Amboyna" (Ambon).

During the Japanese occupation in World War II, the Moluccans fled to the mountains but began a campaign of resistance also known as the South Moluccan Brigade. After the war's end the island's political leaders had successful discussions with the Netherlands about independence. Complicated by Indonesian demands, the Round Table Conference Agreements were signed in 1949 transferring Maluku to Indonesia with mechanisms for the islands to choose or opt out of the new Indonesia. The Agreements granted Moluccans the right to determine their ultimate sovereignty.

Since Indonesian independence

With the declaration of a single republic of Indonesia in 1950 to replace the federal state, the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan, RMS) attempted to secede. This movement was led by Chris Soumokil (former Supreme Prosecutor of the Eastern Indonesia state) and supported by the Moluccan members of the Netherlands special troops. This movement was defeated by the Indonesian army after 17 years of bloody struggle and by special agreement with the Netherlands the troops were transferred to the Netherlands. The commencement of Indonesian transmigration of (mainly) Javanese populations to the outer islands (including Maluku) during the 1960s is thought to have aggravated independence and issues of religious / ethnic politics. There has been occasional ethnic and nationalist violence on the islands.

Maluku is one of the first provinces of Indonesia, proclaimed in 1945 until 1999, when the Maluku Utara and Halmahera Tengah Regencies were split off as a separate province of North Maluku. Its capital is Ternate, on a small island to the west of the large island of Halmahera. The capital of the remaining part of Maluku province remains at Ambon.

The situation in much of Maluku became highly unpredictable when religious-nuance conflict erupted in the province in January 1999. The subsequent 18 months were characterized by fighting between largely local groups of Muslims and Christians, the destruction of thousands of houses, the displacement of approximately 500,000 people, the loss of thousands of lives, and the segregation of Muslims and Christians. The following 12 months saw periodic eruptions of violence, which appeared more targeted and premeditated, which helped keep suspicions high and people segregated (although these experiences were generally the norm). In spite of numerous negotiations and the signing of a peace agreement in February 2002, tensions on Ambon remained high until late 2002, when an increasingly stable peace led to a series of spontaneous 'mixings' between previously hostile groups.

Geology and ecology

The geology and ecology of the Maluku Islands shares much similar history, characteristics and processes with the neighbouring Nusa Tenggara region. There is a long history of geological study of these regions since Indonesian colonial times, however, the geological formation and progression is not fully understood, and theories of the island's geological evolution have changed extensively in recent decades. The Maluku Islands comprise some of the most geologically complex and active regions in the world, resulting from its position at the meeting point of four geological plates and two continental blocks.

The Maluku islands lies in Wallacea, the region between the Sunda Shelf (part of the Asia block), and the Arafura Shelf (part of the Australian block). Wallacea also encompasses Nusa Tenggara and Sulawesi, and within this region of small islands lies some of the world's deepest seas. Malukan biodiversity and its distribution is affected by various tectonic activities; most of the islands are geologically young being from 1 million to 15 million years old, and have never been attached to the larger landmasses. The Maluku islands differ from other areas in Indonesia; it contains some of the countries smallest islands, coral island reefs scattered through some of the deepest seas in the world, and no large islands such as Java or Sumatra. Flora and fauna immigration between islands is thus restricted, leading to a high rate of endemic biota evolving.

The ecology of the Maluku Islands has fascinated collectors for centuries; Alfred Wallace's famous book, The Malay Archipelago was the first significant recording of this natural history, and remains one of the most important sources on Indonesian natural history. Maluku is the source of two major historical works of natural history; George Everhard Rumpf wrote the Herbarium Amboinense and the Ambonische Rariatenkamer.

While many ecological problems affect both small islands and large landmasses, small islands suffer their particular problems. Development pressures on small islands are increasing, although their effects are not always anticipated. Although Indonesia is richly endowed with natural resources, the resources of the small islands of Maluku are limited and specialised; furthermore human resources in particular are limited.

General observations about small islands that can be applied to the Maluku Islands include:

  • a higher proportion of the landmass will be affected by volcanic activity, earthquakes, landslips, and cyclone damage;
  • Climates are more likely to be maritime influenced;
  • Catchment areas are smaller and degree of erosion higher;
  • A higher proportion of the landmass is made up of coastal areas;
  • A higher degree of environmental specialisation, including a higher proportion of endemic species in an overall depauperate community;
  • Societies may retain a strong sense of culture having developed in relative isolation;
  • Small island populations are more likely to be affected by economic migration.



  • Bellwood, Peter (1997). Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-1883-0.
  • Andaya, Leonard Y. (1993). The World of Maluku: Eastern Indonesia in the Early Modern Period. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0-8248-1490-8.
  • Donkin, R. A. (1997). Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices Up to the Arrival of Europeans. American Philosophical Society. ISBN 0-87169-248-1.
  • Monk, Kathryn A., Yance De Fretes, Gayatri Reksodiharjo-Lilley (1997). The Ecology of Nusa Tenggara and Maluku. Singapore: Periplus Press. ISBN 962-593-076-0.
  • Van Oosterzee, Penny (1997). Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0-8014-8497-9.
  • Wallace, Alfred Russel (2000; originally published 1869). The Malay Archipelago. Singapore: Periplus Press. ISBN 962-593-645-9.


External links

Search another word or see spices upon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature