New! Author Webpage
New! Author Webpage
In the Moluccas, when the clove trees are in blossom,
They are treated like pregnant women.
No noise may be made near them,
No one may approach them with his hat on,
All must uncover in their presence.
These precautions are observed lest the tree should be alarmed
And bear no fruit, or should drop its fruit too soon,
Like the untimely delivery of a woman who has been frightened in her pregnancy.
James Frazer, The Golden Bough 1890
Sitting in the dim and dusty libraries of the world doing the historical research necessary for this book, I would dream of the fabled Spice Islands. Images of a palm fringed tropical islands backed by a towering volcanoes filled my imagination, I saw myself arriving on their sandy shores from a tall sailing ship, like the explorers, adventurers and traders that had gone before me. As I started writing this story of the Moluccas and the Spice Islands I realised that it would be impossible for me to finish until I had reached its destination.
My boat was the Bintang Laut, a Bugis Phinisi that had left the port of Ambon in Eastern Indonesia four days earlier, heading north towards the island of Ternate with a cargo of goods and myself the only passenger. The Bugis Phinisi is a classical looking two masted schooner of all wood construction, usually built in the island of Sulawesi using traditional methods and a design that has lasted centuries. In their heyday, several thousand of these vessels connected all the islands in the Indonesian Archipelago. Even today, they carry a significant portion of the inter-island trade in what is still the largest fleet of sailing traders in the world, although now fitted with a diesel engines as well as sail. In the capital city of Jakarta, a visitor to the harbour of Sunda Kelapa will find dozens of Bugis Pinisi lined up along the quay, loading and unloading their traditional cargoes such as rice, copra, sago and spices as well as television sets, motorcycles and mobile phones. This work is still done by human labour, with shirtless and barefoot labourers carrying sacks and boxes down the narrow gangplanks to waiting handcarts and battered trucks.
The best accommodation on the Bintang Laut was a straw mat on deck, away from the fetid smells of bilge water, engine oil and humanity below. Meals were simple: squatting on our haunches, the crew and I ate a regular diet of rice and fresh or salted fish with some vegetables and chilli paste. I was pleased to have brought some extra rations to vary the menu.
‘Captain Sam’ with his long lank hair and wispy beard, only needed a gold earring and a buccaneers hat to get a part in a Hollywood movie. A man of few words he communicated with the crew by gestures and brief commands. The crew were hard-working, lean, and blackened by the sun. I could sense that they were at one with the vessel and their years at sea had given them an innate sense of what had to be done in any given situation. When they were not busy with their shipboard duties, we amused ourselves by trawling for fish or smoking kretek, the pungent clove-flavoured cigarettes smoked throughout Indonesia, all the time carrying on a friendly banter in a mixture of Bahasa Indonesia and fractured English.
Awake since before dawn, my body felt stiff from a wakeful night dozing to the rhythmic splash and hiss of the bow wave slapping against the boat, accompanied by the creaking of the wooden hull, the straining of ropes and the rattle of pots and pans in the galley. I welcomed the morning sun as it revealed a sea like glass stretching away to the horizon and warmed my stiffened joints. To the north was our first view of Bacan, the biggest and tallest of all the Spice Islands with its cloud-wrapped peak rising 2110 meters out of the sea.
We sailed through the strait separating Bacan from the southern arm of the island of Halmahera and headed for the main port of Sayoang, on the east coast. Here I had a chance to explore the tiny port and recover my land legs while the crew helped unload goods for the local stores. Leaving Bacan later that evening, we sailed north, passing several small tree-covered islands with the dim outline of the coast of Halmahera in the background.
Sometime during the night, the Bintang Laut crossed the Equator and the first pink light of dawn revealed two more volcanic islands in the distance, which the nautical chart confirmed were Makian and Moti. We were sailing along the narrow Patinti Strait between the large island of Halmahera and a chain of offshore volcanic peaks rising directly out of the sea. Makian was once the most prolific producer of cloves in all the Spice Islands, and sailors have described how, with the wind in their faces they could smell its sweet, spicy fragrance from far out at sea.
This journey is one of the most beautiful sea voyages in all of Indonesia and to make it even more spectacular we were accompanied by a school of dolphins welcoming the Bintang Laut by diving out of the crystal clear waters beside our vessel. The wind had picked up, and by mid-morning these islands were receding in our wake and the twin islands of Ternate and Tidore were in view, with wisps of cloud starting to build up around their volcanic peaks.
The ‘Ring of Fire’ is the name given to the belt of 400 active volcanoes that circle the Pacific Ocean. More than 155 of these volcanoes are in Indonesia, making it the most tectonically active region on the earth. The cataclysmic explosion of the Krakatoa volcano in 1883 echoed around the world, the huge tsunami wave generated by a submarine earthquake off North Sumatera in 2004 devastated Banda Aceh and engulfed coastal villages as far away as Thailand and Sri Lanka, and every year there are new earthquakes and new volcanic eruptions.
The jigsaw puzzle of continental and oceanic plates that make up the earth’s surface are in constant motion. Driven by the circulation of molten rock within the earth’s core and moving only centimetres per year, the earth literally quakes as these plates collide and grind past each other. When they collide, the heavier oceanic plates sink under the lighter continental plates, subducting marine sediments deep into the interior of the earth. Here, these subducted rocks become superheated and the resultant steam, gas and molten lava can erupt explosively at the earth’s surface.
The great arc of the Indonesian Archipelago starts north of the island of Sumatra and curves south and east until it reaches the northern part of the Australian continent. This arc of islands is defined by a string of active volcanoes, in Sumatra, Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores, that erupt as the Indian Ocean plate is subducted under the Asian continental plate. Further east, the island arc is pushed to the north by the Australian continent, which has been relentlessly marching northward since it separated from Antarctica 45 million years ago. The continuing collision of the Australian continent and the Pacific Ocean plate has thrust the Papuan mountains up to a height of 5000 metres above sea level, where a tropical glacier still exists only four degrees south of the equator. The huge Pacific Ocean plate is moving westward pushing the island arc back on itself and rafting segments of Papua hundreds of kilometres towards the west.
Eastern Indonesia represents a unique part of the Earth’s surface because it is here that four of the earth’s great tectonic plates - the Indian Ocean, the Asian Continent, the Australian Continent and the Pacific Ocean are in collision with each other.
Three million years ago in the Moluccan Sea, these powerful forces fused together volcanic island arcs, seafloor sediments and coral reefs to create new land, forming the four-fingered island of Halmahera. A subduction zone then formed along the western side of Halmahera, causing the volcanoes that lay before me to erupt out of the sea and spreading a thick layer of volcanic ash across the adjacent islands.
We know that Nature abhors a vacuum, and the rich volcanic soils of these newly emergent islands were quickly populated by coconut trees grown from coconuts washed up on these shores, by plants whose seeds blew with the winds, by birds and butterflies able to fly from island to island, and by animals and insects drifting on floating trees and branches. Tropical temperatures and monsoonal rains provided the environment for a diversity of plant, bird and animal species to thrive and evolve in unique ways. The profusion of islands allowed for a separation in the evolution of different species and became an ideal natural laboratory for scientific study. The British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace spent five years trekking through the tropical forests of the Moluccas, collecting and studying the birds, butterflies, insects and animal life of eastern Indonesia. He made Ternate his headquarters and it was a letter he wrote to Charles Darwin in 1858, elegantly arguing his own theory of the evolution of species by natural selection, that precipitated the publication by Darwin of his landmark book ‘On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection’, before Wallace’s return to England.
Luxuriant tropical vegetation similar to that of the rest of the archipelago now covers these islands. However a botanical miracle occurred when two new species of plant life developed. Did God throw a few seeds left over from the Creation into this tropical hothouse? For the Moluccas, or Maluku, are famous for two trees that grew only in this part of the world and the spices they produce - cloves and nutmeg.
The clove tree is indigenous to only five small volcanic islands off the west coast of Halmahera, namely Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Machian and Bacan. The nutmeg tree is indigenous to the equally small and even more remote islands of Banda, Lontar, Ai and Run, which lie 700 kilometres away in the Banda Sea. The exact location of these islands was long shrouded in myth and mystery, and together they became known as the Spice Islands.
In 1741 the Dutch naturalist Georgus Rumphius described the clove tree as the most beautiful, the most elegant and the most precious of all known trees. Like most under-story trees, it is unable to regenerate under the full tropical sun and its seed is only viable for a short period, which may explain why its worldwide distribution was limited to these few tiny islands.
A member of the Myrtle family, the clove tree grows to a height of ten metres and is covered with glossy and powerfully aromatic leaves, but it is the flower bud that is valued. The clove buds grow in clusters and change colour as they mature, from green through yellow to pink and finally a deep russet red. In order to retain the maximum amount of their aromatic oil, the buds are harvested before they flower, then spread out on mats to dry. The buds harden and blacken as the heat of the tropical sun seals in their fragrant oil. As the clove bud and stem dries, it takes on the characteristic nail like appearance that gives the spice its name, which is derived from the Latin word clavus for nail. Cloves are called cravo in Portuguese, clavo in Spanish, clou de girofle in French, chiodo di garofano in Italian, and the Dutch term is kruidnagel, or ‘spice nail’. The Indonesian word is cengkeh, derived from the word ‘zhen ka’, which in the Fujian dialect of southeast China means ‘scented nail’. In Sanskrit cloves are called katuka-phala meaning strong scented plant; this became the Arabic word karanful, which then became caryophyllon in Greek.
Cloves were used by the ancients not just for their unique flavour and aroma, but also for their antibacterial and analgesic properties, which made them highly valued in a world without modern medicine. The fact that it takes more than 3000 flower buds to produce one kilogram of dried cloves may also explain why they are so valuable.
The nutmeg tree is also a member of the Myrtle family and its fruit is the size of a small peach. When ripe the fruit opens to reveal the seed surrounded by a red web known as mace, these are then separated and dried in the sun. The dried seed is broken to reveal the nut, which is best when freshly grated and added as flavouring to various dishes and desserts.
From earliest times, traders sailed from the Spice Islands across vast oceans in leaky boats to bring these clove buds and nutmegs to markets in East Africa, the Middle East, India and China. Loaded onto the backs of recalcitrant camels they were transported across the deserts of Egypt, Arabia and Central Asia before finally reaching the Mediterranean Sea and markets in Europe. The length of this journey halfway around the world and the profits and taxes extracted at each stage meant that when demand was highest these simple buds and seeds were said to be worth their weight in gold.
After the expansion of Islam across the Middle East in the seventh century, the spice trade was monopolised by the Muslims who were by now the sworn enemies of Christian Europe. The Pope and the Kings of Europe supported those explorers willing to sail into unknown seas in search of a direct route to the Spice Islands. The voyages of European exploration such as those made by Bartholomeu Dias, Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastian Elcano were an attempt to find a new route to the Indies and the Spice Islands, and it was these epic voyages of ‘The Age of Discovery’ that allowed mankind to put a definite shape to the continents and oceans of our planet for the first time in human history.
Like those who had ventured before me, I wanted my first sight of the Spice Islands to be from the sea, a sight I had imagined countless times over the years. Rising from sea level were the volcanoes that form the centre of these two almost symmetrical islands, their slopes covered in lush tropical forest. As we sailed closer I could see the groves of clove and nutmeg trees. Mount Kiematubu, dominates the island of Tidore, its symmetrical volcanic cone rising to a height of 1730 meters. Mount Gamalama, at a height of 1720 meters, dominates the island of Ternate, which exists under almost constant threat - the volcano has erupted more than 60 times since the start of record keeping in 1538, with the most recent eruption occurring in 1994. The sight was awesome in the true sense of the word. I felt elated at the prospect of reaching my destination, but also anxious as to what lay ahead and whether the communal fighting that had made the headlines over the last few years was now over.
After sailing through the narrow strait that separates the islands of Ternate and Tidore, the Bintang Laut tied up at the main dock in Ternate and the process of unloading and loading goods began. Now largely a forgotten part of the world, Ternate is only reached by inter-island boat or small plane and sees very few travellers or tourists. The town is the provincial capital for North Maluku and it seems as if every government department known to the sprawling Indonesian bureaucracy has an office here. Other than at these offices, most of the daily activity of the town seems to be at the port or the airport, as Ternate is a transportation hub connecting to other parts of Eastern Indonesia. such as North Sulawesi, Halmahera and Papua.
I find my hotel, which is very plain but in a nice garden setting. You couldn’t say the staff were friendly, but they are not unfriendly either, just indifferent. I ask a question at the front desk and the girl goes away to get the answer (I think) and never comes back. Perhaps it’s a language problem. Anxious to get out and explore the town before dark, I leave my luggage in the corner of the room and head off into the street without any idea of where I am going.
The people on the streets are mainly of Malay origin, but there are also Papuans, some Indonesian Chinese and some Alfurus, who seem to be a mixture of Malay and Papuan. Certainly there are no other ‘round eyes’ like myself, and I am greeted by a lot of giggles and ‘Hello Mister’s’ from the children, who describe me as being an ‘Orang Belanda’ or Dutchman. My exploration of the town inevitably leads to the seafront market. It seems that every evening half the population of Ternate meets along the waterfront, socializing, enjoying the cool sea breeze, shopping for street-side bargains and eating local delicacies being cooked on the food stalls. This is the durian season, and workers are busy unloading boatloads of this prized but pungent tropical fruit onto the waterfront and preparing to sell them to their happy customers thronging the market. The darkness of the tropical evening quickly closes in; hurricane lamps are fired up and hiss behind the vendors shouting their wares; the smell of coconut oil frying up martabak, dumplings or spring rolls permeates the air. It is time for dinner.
The extraordinary story of these forgotten islands and the clove buds and nutmegs that made them wealthy is a story of exploration, of adventure, and of our yearning for distant and exotic places. The early explorers, adventurers and traders risked fate and fortune, suffered the ravages of scurvy and tropical disease in an attempt to gain a share of and ultimately a monopoly over, these simple buds and seeds.
The history of the Spice Islands can partly be told by the decaying Sultan’s Palaces and the crumbling Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch forts which dot the islands, but perhaps we should start this story from somewhere near the beginning.
New! Author webpage at www.ianburnetbooks.com