Nutmeg on a tree
At the time the first European explorers arrived in Indonesia, the archipelago was a fragmented amalgamation of kingdoms, sultanates and principalities, the most powerful of which had grown rich from trade and maintained power with strong naval forces.

The period between the mid-fifteenth century and the end of the eighteenth century was a time of turbulence and profound change for the archipelago. Java lost much of its commanding position as new states, some great and some small, also raced to acquire wealth and exercise power. Urban populations grew rapidly, and with them the influence of expanding commercial elites. New technologies, for example in weaponry and ship design, changed the face of trade. And Islam extended its reach at the same time as a wide variety of influences diversified and secularized culture. It was also a time in which Europeans began to play a direct role in the archipelago’s affairs, although they did not rule it, and Chinese merchants and laborers became more important. All of this took place in the context of a commercial boom that greatly expanded prosperity but also greatly heightened competition and exposed Indonesia directly to the swift and often dangerous currents of what might justifiably be called the “first globalization”. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Over the course of the seventeenth century, indigenous and outside powers engaged in a multifaceted struggle for control of maritime trade. Rapidly rising profits from this trade fueled the growth of ambitious states, the most important of which were Aceh (northern Sumatra), Banten (western Java), Makassar (southern Sulawesi), and Mataram (central and eastern Java). The most important outside power was the Dutch- run United East Indies Company (VOC). Each of the indigenous states experienced a slightly different trajectory during this period, but the essential contest was between a pattern of heavily state-controlled trade on the one hand and, on the other, a still tentatively oligarchical pattern, in which the so-called “orang kaya” or merchant elite, and often allied religious and traditional elites, played significant political and economic roles. *

Spices and the Opening Up of Indonesia

The early modern age of commerce in Indonesia was initially fueled by the buying and selling of Indonesian spices, the production of which was limited and the sources often remote. Nutmeg (and mace) come from the nut of the tree “Myristica fragrans”, which, until the late eighteenth century, grew almost exclusively on six tiny islands in the Banda Archipelago, some 300 kilometers west of the Papua coast. Cloves are the dried flower buds of the tree “Syzygium aromaticum”, the cultivation of which until the mid-seventeenth century was largely limited to a handful of small islands off the west coast of Halmahera in the Maluku Islands. [Source: Library of Congress *]

These spices had long been distributed in modest quantities via the trade networks of the archipelago. After about 1450, however, demand and the ability to pay for them climbed rapidly in both China and Europe. In the century between the 1390s and the 1490s, for example, European imports of cloves rose nearly 1,000 percent, and of nutmeg nearly 2,000 percent, and continued to rise for the next 120 years. Another product, black pepper “(Piper nigrum”), was grown more easily and widely (on Java, Sumatra, and Kalimantan), but it too became an object of steeply rising worldwide demand. These changing global market conditions lay at the bottom of fundamental developments, not only in systems of supply and distribution but in virtually all aspects of life in the archipelago. *

Cloves were the most valuable early spice. They originated from the islands of Ternate, Tidore and Bacan in the Mollucca group in Indonesia. Before the birth of Christ, visitors to the Han Dynasty court in China were only permitted to address the emperor if their breath has been sweetened with “odoriferous pistols” — -Javanese cloves. Because of limited geographical range cloves didn’t make their way to Europe until around the A.D. 11the century. They were introduced by Arab traders who controlled the trade of many spices to Europe.

During the Middle Ages, Chinese, Arab and Malay traders purchased nutmeg in what is now Indonesia and Southeast Asia and carried it in boats to the Persian Gulf or by camel and pack animal on the Silk Road. From the Gulf the spices made their way to Constantinople and Damascus and eventually Europe.

For a long time the spice trade was controlled by north Moloccan sultanates, name Ternate, founded in 1257, and Tidore, founded in 1109. Both were based on small islands and often fought among themselves. Their most valuable crop was cloves. Protecting their kingdoms were fleets of kora-kora , war canoes manned by over 100 rowers. The sultans relied on Malay, Arab and Javanese merchants to distribute their goods.

Ternate and Tidore

Ternate and Tidore islands were the home of powerful rival Muslim sultanates in pre-European times. Their influence at one time extended to the Philippines, Sulawesi and New Guinea. They were the two most powerful of the four kingdoms that controlled the clove trade until the arrival of Europeans in the 16th century. They held their own in battles against the Portugese and Spanish in the 1500s, but were eventually defeated by the Dutch and came under colonial rule.

The Ternatan and Tidorese of two small islands in the North Moluccas: Ternate and Tidore. Also known as Orang Ternate, Orang Tidore, Suku Ternate and Suku Tidore, they distinguish themselves from the islanders around them by the use of the Ternatan and Tidorese languages and their link to historical kingdoms. The Ternatan and Tidorese are closely linked culturally but neither likes to be confused with the other.

Since early in the last millennium, the small islands of Ternate and Tidore in the Moluccas were the only source for cloves in the world. Indian, Arab, Chinese and Javanese merchants used to call on these islands to carry home this precious cargo which sold at exorbitant prices in Europe and the Orient. Cloves, together with nutmeg and mace from the Banda islands were used to flavor and preserve food, as medicines and even as aphrodisiacs. But after the Crusades, the trade route to the Far East was blocked for the Europeans, so the Portuguese, Spaniards, British and the Dutch were determined to discover for themselves the fabled Spice islands.

Vasco da Gama was the first to sail around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa to reach India. Then, from India, the Portuguese finally found the route to the Moluccas in 1521, and arrived in the spice islands of Ternate and Tidore and the Banda islands, then the only source for nutmeg and mace. To get there, the Portuguese seafarers traveled 14,000 kilometers - nearly 9,000 miles “ crossing uncharted seas, and overcoming storms, high swells and tropical monsoons.

At the time, there was already a thriving sultanate (kingdom) on Ternate. But with the arrival of the Spaniards, the Dutch and the British, the fight began among the European powers for the monopoly of the spice trade, which was finally wrested by the Dutch. Towards the end of the 16th century, Dutch governor general Jan Pieterszoon Coen replanted cloves to Ambon where the Dutch were in control, then brutally wiped out all the clove plants on Ternate and Tidore, These actions, known as the hongi expeditions, instantly doused the domination of the sultanates of Ternate and Tidore and decimated the main income of the islands’ population. From that time onwards, Ternate and Tidore became forgotten pages in history.


By the 15th century the predominate power in Indonesia was Malacca (Melaka), the trading kingdom based on the Malay peninsula. The Melaka kingdom controlled the strategic shipping lanes of the Malacca Straits and important commercial ports on northern Java. By the 16th century Melaka was the supreme power in Southeast Asia and Indonesia.

Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD wrote in the Encyclopedia of Islamic History: Around the year 1390, a prince from Java, Parameswara, was forced to flee his homeland. Landing on the west coast of Malaya with a loyal following of about a thousand young men, the prince lived off piracy for almost ten years. At that time, Siam (modern Thailand) was the imperial power in the area. Parameswara drove out the Siamese and established the town of Malacca in 1403. The name Malacca derives from the Arabic word Malakut-meaning market place. The Arabs had maintained a trading colony there since the 8th century.

“Once settled, the prince encouraged peaceful trade. The fame and fortune of the trading post grew until it attracted international attention. The Muslims dominated the trade in the Indian Ocean. Arabic had become the lingua franca of traders in this region. Islam was gaining a following in the islands of Indonesia. Across the Straits from Malacca, the powerful Muslim kingdom of Acheh was emerging. Local folklore has it that around the year 1405, Prince Parameswara fell in love with a princess from the court of Pasai, accepted Islam, married her and changed his name to Sultan Iskander Shah.


By the end of the 16th century, a new sea power had emerged on Sulawesi: the twin principalities of Makassar and Gowa, which had been settled by Malay traders and whose commercial realm spread well beyond the region. In 1607, the explorer Torres met Makassar Muslims on New Guinea.

The first mention of the Makassar is around 1400. At that time there were a number of Makassar principalities, each of which was said to have been founded by a princess or prince who descended from heavenly beings. Islam arrived in 1605.

The Makassar state of Gowa became the most powerful state in Indonesia, outmuscling its rivals the Bugis of southeastern Sulawesi and exerting control over much of what is now eastern Indonesia in the 16th and 17th century. Early European explorers to the region encountered Makassar fleets trading as far east as New Guinea and as far south as Australia. The Makassar were among the first outsiders to have contact with Australian Aborigines, introducing metal tools, pottery and tobacco to them. Gowa endured until it was defeated by Dutch and Bugi forces in 1669.

The Makassar live in southwestern Sulawesi. Also known as the Macassarese, Makassaren, Makassarese, Mangkasaren, they once ruled a powerful maritime kingdom and have traditionally been rivals and cultural cousins of the Bugis. The have traditionally occupied an area of southern peninsula of Sulawesi south of the area occupied by the Bugis. Their name for themselves is “Tu Mangkasara,” meaning “people who behave frankly.” They number about 2 million, with many living outside of Sulawesi. The Makassarese, have their own language and shared an ancient written language with the Bugis. As is true with the Bugis the have been staunchly Islamic and independent minded and the rhythm of their agricultural and maritime life is influenced by the monsoon seasons.

The Dutch East India Company viewed Gowa as a threat to its spice monopoly. It allied itself with a Bugi prince to fight them. After a year of fighting the sultan of Gowa was forced to sign the Treaty of Bungaya in 1668 that greatly reduced Gowa’s power and gave the Dutch control of sea lanes and the sources of spices that it wanted.

After that the Makassar periodically rebelled and were not brought under Dutch control until 1906 when Dutch forces conquered the interior of their homeland and killed the king of Gowa. Colonialism was only made possible by the incorporation of Makassarese nobles into the colonial system. Even today Makassar nobles occupy many positions of authority in the Indonesian government.

Mataram Kingdom

In the early seventeenth century, the most powerful state in Central Java was Mataram, whose rulers cultivated friendly relations with the Pasisir states, especially Gresik, and tolerated the establishment of Islamic schools and communities in the countryside. Tolerance may have been motivated by the rulers' desire to use the schools to control village populations. Muslim groups in the interior were often mutually antagonistic, however, and sometimes experienced official persecution. The greatest of Mataram's rulers, Sultan Agung (reigned 1613-46), warred against various Javanese states and defeated as many as he could. Without shedding the Hindu-Buddhist or Javanese animist attributes of kingship, he sought and received permission from Mecca to assume the Islamic title of sultan in 1641. *

The Mataram Kingdom rose in the 16th century on Java and enduring through the early colonial period until the 18th century. First the Portuguese and then Dutch dominated trade during this period. The Dutch East India Company weakened and ultimately took control of the Mataram Kingdom by dividing it into vassal states around 1750. It later came under the control of Dutch colonial government.

In the Mataram Kingdom, peasants were ruled by a landed nobility or gentry loyal to the king. The king alloted land to some family members. The port towns were ruled by princes even though trade there was dominated Chinese, Malays and Indians. This pattern endured through the colonial period.

In addition to the peasantry there were two main clases: prijaji, descendants of precolonial administrative gentry, who served as bureaucrats; and a class of nobles that could trace their ancestry to rulers of the Mataram Kingdom.

Bali Hindu Kingdom

The oldest writing found in Bali are stone inscriptions that date to the 9th century. By that time rice was being extensively grow under the “subak” system. From what can be ascertained from archeological, literary and oral evidence, the indigenous people of Bali came into increasing contact with people from Java around the A.D. 5th century and were influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist religions found there but also by the language and political traditions associated with them. It is not known whether people that introduced these traditions were Indians or Javanese or both.

In the A.D. 11th century, Airlangga, the son of a Balinese king and a Javanese queen, united Bali with an eastern Javanese kingdom. At the age of 16 Airlangga fled to the forests of western Java when his uncle lost the throne and later reclaimed the throne and became one of Java’s rulers. For three centuries Bali was mostly at least semi-independent and intermittently ruled by the Java-based Majapahit kingdom, which was conquered by Muslim forces in 1527. When the Majapahit Empire fell many Javanese princes and officials and intellectuals fled eastward to Bali.

For three centuries Bali endured as a Hindu kingdom while the rest of Indonesia became by Islamicized or Christianized. Periodically Bali was dominated by other kingdoms. It in turn influenced other islands, namely Lombok, and enslaved some of its own people. In the 16th century, a ship full of Dutchmen accidently landed on Bali and fell so deeply in love with the place they stayed for two years, and when it was time to leave some refused to go. Bali at that time was regarded to be at its peak. The king of the island had 200 wives, traveled around in a chariot pulled by two white buffalo and had at his disposal a retinue of 40 dwarves.


The Acehnese had their first sultan in the 16th century. He ruled over a sultanate established around a harbor and challenged the sultanate of Melaka for control of trade in the region. To mark a trade agreement with England in 1585 the sultanate sent the following message to Queen Elizabeth : “I am the mighty rulerof the regions below the wind, who holds sway over the land of Aceh and over the land of Sumatra an over all the lands tributaries of Aceh, which stretch from the sunrise to the sunset.” By the 17th century Aceh was a reasonably large sultanate, with 800-man galleys, cavalries with Persian horses, elephant corps and conscripted soldiers. It controlled much of Sumatra, the Malacca Straits and parts of the Malay Peninsula and from that point was involved in a number of conflicts and intrigues with the Portuguese, Dutch and English. *

Aceh arose in the middle of the sixteenth century, partly as an effort to control dissension among northern Sumatran and Malay polities and partly to control the Malay trade, which had dispersed after 1511. (Although Aceh’s rulers were often serious about promoting Islam, their major military efforts were over commercial rather than religious affairs, and were directed against Muslim as well as Christian rivals.). [Source: Library of Congress *]

Aceh reached its apogee under Sultan Iskandar Muda (r. 1607–36). He pursued an aggressive military policy against neighboring powers, including Portuguese Melaka; he presided over a centralized and increasingly authoritarian state; he exercised arbitrary power, including attempting to establish royal monopolies, over the trading activities and even the private property of the “orang kaya”. He invested in huge, heavily armed seagoing ships—one, called “Terror of the Universe”, was more than 90 meters long and carried more than 700 men—of new design to compete with European and Chinese vessels. The sultan also practiced an assertive foreign policy, playing European and Asian powers against each other.

The ruthlessness of Iskandar Muda’s regime made many enemies, however, and nearly caused a civil war. Its economic gains, rather than bringing about a permanent transformation of the political and economic structure of Aceh, proved ephemeral. The “orang kaya” reasserted themselves and sought ways to restrict royal power. Until the end of the seventeenth century, for example, they successfully sponsored a succession of female rulers, perhaps because they considered women to be either more moderate or more easily manipulated than men. *

But in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, both their influence and that of the court declined as that of hereditary district chiefs (“uleëbalang”) and Muslim leaders rose. The Acehnese state thus lost its imperial authority and much of its political coherence. Nevertheless—and unlike most of its contemporary regional states—Aceh remained an important local power and continued to be an economic force to be reckoned with, for example producing more than half the world’s pepper supply as late as about 1820. Aceh did not hesitate to ally itself with Dutch forces in an attack on Portuguese Melaka in 1641, but in subsequent years it alone among the great nascent states of the early modern archipelago managed to avoid entanglement with the VOC, retaining its independence until the late nineteenth century. *

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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