Until the challenge of direct traders from Europe (first the Portuguese and Spanish at the beginning of the sixteenth century, then the Dutch, English, and others at the end of it) and renewed interest from the Chinese (after the Ming government relaxed prohibitions on private overseas trade in the mid-sixteenth century), Indonesians held virtually exclusive control of the spice trade, and decisive power in the extensive exchange of luxury and bulk goods that accompanied it. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Over a period of about 250 years, however, they gradually lost their commercial primacy and, in some cases, much of their political independence. This crucial process was far too complex to be understood simply as a struggle between East and West, or Christianity and Islam, or “modern” and “traditional” technology. Europeans not only warred vigorously among themselves, but they routinely allied themselves with local powers, many of them Muslim, and became participants in local rivalries; they also frequently found that their weaponry did not give them obvious superiority over indigenous powers, who purchased both light and heavy firearms and sometimes, as in Java well into the eighteenth century, were able to manufacture serviceable copies of European models. Europeans found their position fluctuated as a result of a multitude of factors, some of them well beyond their control. *

The Spanish and Portuguese were able to establish their large empires in Asia because they encountered virtually no resistance. The Sultans in Malaysia and Indonesia were easy to overcome. The Portuguese had superior sea power, fought ruthlessly and operated out of fortified ports. They were able to control of much of the east west trade through a network of trading ports that extended from Maluku to Malaka, Macau, Goa, the Persian Gulf, Mozambique and Angola.

Portugal and the Age of Discovery

David Zax wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “Globalization began, you might say, a bit before the turn of the 16th century, in Portugal...It was Portugal that kicked off what has come to be known as the Age of Discovery, in the mid-1400s. The westernmost country in Europe, Portugal was the first to significantly probe the Atlantic Ocean, colonizing the Azores and other nearby islands, then braving the west coast of Africa. In 1488, Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias was the first to sail around the southern tip of Africa, and in 1498 his countryman Vasco da Gama repeated the experiment, making it as far as India. Portugal would establish ports as far west as Brazil, as far east as Japan, and along the coasts of Africa, India and China.”

Portugal began expeditions in 1418. Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497 and reached India. The Portugese trading empire was established with seizure of Goa in 1510 and expanded with the capture of Malacca in1551. Portugal reached Japan in 1542. It would be a serious error to think that Portugal's global ambitions were purely benevolent, or even economic, says UCLA historian Sanjay Subrahmanyam: "The Portuguese drive was not simply to explore and trade. It was also to deploy maritime violence, which they knew they were good at, in order to tax and subvert the trade of others, and to build a political structure, whether you want to call it an empire or not, overseas."

When different cultures have encountered each other for the first time, there has often been misunderstanding, bigotry, even hostility, and the Portuguese were not alone in this regard. The Japanese called the Portuguese who landed on their shores "Southern Barbarians" (since they arrived mostly from the south)...Not long after Portuguese missionaries converted many Japanese to Christianity, Japanese military rulers began persecuting the converts, forcing them to tread on these fumi-e ("pictures to step on") to show they had renounced the barbarians' religion.

During the Age of Discovery Portugal was a tiny kingdom with less people that Tulsa Oklahoma has today. Portugal defined its borders in the 13th century, early by European standards. The Portuguese themselves were relatively open minded mix of many ethnic groups. Descendants of Celts, Iberians and Englishmen, they intermarried with Arabs, Africans and Asians. Christian, Jews and Muslims all lived in Portugal and the Muslim influence help enrich the Portuguese with knowledge of literature, exploration and geography that had been lacking in mediaeval Europe. [Source: The main source for this article is Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Why Portugal Was the First Major Seafaring Nation

One of the important factors that led to Portugal's leadership in the Age of Discovery was its geographical location. Unlike Italy, Spain and Greece, it was isolated from the Mediterranean trade routes. Instead it faced the Atlantic and Africa. "The Portuguese people, then, naturally faced outward," wrote Daniel Boorstin in The Discoverers, "away from the classic centers of European civilization, westward toward the unfathomed ocean, and southward toward a continent that for the Europeans was also unfathomed.”

The mythical first inhabitant of Portugal was Lusus, one of Bacchus's drinking buddies. The great Portuguese sea-faring epic, The Sons of Lusus, begins: "This is the story of heroes who, leaving their native Portugal behind them, opened a way to Ceylon, and further, across seas no man had ever sailed before."

Another explanation why Portuguese were pioneering explorers is that most of Europe was embroiled in battles and civil strife for much of the 15th century when the Age of Discovery was launched. Spain was fighting the Moors, the Turks were attacking Italy and Austria and France and Britain were fighting each other in the Hundred Year War. Portugal, on the other hand, was a united kingdom with relatively few internal problems and enemies. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

"The Portuguese voyages around Africa, and, it was hoped, to India," wrote Boorstein, "were based on risky speculative notions, rumors, and suggestions. Unknown lands would have to be skirted, used as supply bases for food and water en route. The journey would go where Christian geography threatened mortal dangers, far below the equator. Portuguese discoveries, then, required a progressive, systematic, step-by-step national program for advances through the unknown...The Portuguese achievement was the product of a clear purpose, which required heavy national support. Here was a grand prototype of modern exploration.” [Ibid]

Ships in the Age of Discovery

Most of the ships that plied the Mediterranean in the years before the Age of Discovery—the heavy, square-rigged barca and the larger and similarly- designed Venetian carrack— were best suited for sailing with the wind. The largest square rigged carracks carried six hundred tons or more. Portuguese navigators in the early 15th century used one or two-masted barcas. Large square-rigged, three-masted carracks first appeared in 1450 and were originally designed in Venice. Their ability to carry large loads for transoceanic voyages made them the standard for ships of trade, warfare and exploration.

Caravels were introduced in 1441. These light, shallow ships were ideal for exploring rivers, bays and coastal waters. Their lateen sails made it possible for them to beat upwind. Naos, or great ships, were used in the 16th and 17th centuries on the Lisbon-to-Goa trade route. Merle Severy wrote in National Geographic, these "broad beamed, multi-decked, high in bow and stern [were] square-rigged carracks or galleons...open ocean cargo carriers routed to sail before the wind. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

In the 17th century oak forests in Poland were cleared to supply wood for Dutch ships used in voyages to the East Indies, About 4,000 planks were needed for each ship, which lasted only one or two voyages before the wood rotted and the ship fell apart. Spaniards boiled tar to get pitch to caulk their ships. This was one of the early uses of a petroleum material.


The shipbuilders at Sangres. Portugal developed the caravel, a ship that would dominate the Age of Discovery. Influenced by Arab ships known as carvos, which had slanting, triangular "lanteen" sails, caravels could sail into the wind as well as with the wind. Caravels were small. The earliest ones displaced two tons, were 75 feet long and 25 feet wide. They had two or three lanteen sails and the small crew of 20 or 30 or so, usually slept on the deck and went below during bad weather. Columbus's Niña, Pinta and Santa María were all caravels. The Santa María was only fifth the size of the largest Venetian square-rigger of his day. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

The square-rigged barca could at best sail 67 degrees into the wind, while the lanteen-sailed caravel could sail 55 degrees. This meant that to cover an equal distance a barca would have to tack ten times while the caravel would tack six times. This meant that a caravel could reach a destination in two thirds the time of a barca and on a long voyage and shave off valuable weeks.

Also influenced by Portuguese river boats known as caravelas, the sea going caravel had a shallow draft, which made it ideal for exploring shallow waters close to shore and beaching for repairs.

The Portuguese town of Lagos became a major center of caravel building. Oak for the keels came from Alenejo and pine trees along the Portuguese coast, which were protected by law, provided wood for the hulls and resin which was used to waterproof the rigging and fill in the cracks between the beams of the hull.

Life on the Ships

The 350 or so personnel aboard large British ships included sailors, soldiers, craftsmen, cooks, stewards, coopers, smiths, swabbers, latrine cleaners and musicians (for ceremonies and to keep up morale). The job of captain was regarded as professional position. Other important mariners included the master (in charge of navigation), master carpenter, quartermaster (in charge of preparing the ship for action), coxswain and boatswain. There were various mates and deputies.

Meals were made from foods that could be prepared in advance and wouldn't spoil after months at sea. These foods included condensed soup, beer, biscuits, salted beef and pork, peas and dried cod. Vitamin-C rich lemons were introduced in the 17th century to prevent scurvy. On the use of lemons to prevent scurvy the late 17th century naval leader John Hawkins wrote: "This is a wonderful secret to the power and wisdom of God that hath hidden so great and unknown virtue on this fruit, to be a certain remedy for this infirmity."

Fighting Ships

Fighting ships included ocean-going vessels with defenses and man-of-wars built specifically to fight wars. Unlike Greek fighting galleys, which carried limited provisions, wooden man-of-wars carried stores and water to keep them going for many months. Portuguese ships that sailed around the Cape of Good Hope were able the fight with Indian rulers, months after they arrived. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books ><]

As was true with the ancient Greeks, l6th century sea battles were essentially land battles at sea. A ship tried to sink the ship of its enemy by either piecing it with a cannon ball or ramming it (the same tactics used in the siege of a castle); or the ship tried to maneuver close enough that it soldiers could leap onto the ship and conquer them as they would on a battlefield. Battles were rarely fought in bad weather because large waves made it too difficult to maneuver. They were usually fought close to shore because rival fleets had difficulty finding each other in the open sea. ><

The Spanish used galleons to transport treasures home and fight battles. Galleons used under Queen Elizabeth I, according to historian Geoffrey Parker, were "larger than a country house, carried more artillery than a fortress, took over a year to build and absorbed about 1 percent of the total budget. Also beyond the mass of technical, industrial and professional skill required to build and equip the ships, every navy required a sophisticated system of management to mold them into an effective fighting force."

Ship Cannons and Weapons

The first canons were placed on the bow. If they were fired while the ship was moving the ship slowed down slightly. If they were fired while the ship was stationary the ship was driven slightly backwards. The Ottoman Turks used galleys (rowed by paid Albanians) with forward mounted cannon in their conquest of the Mediterranean. Their main rivals, Venice, Genoa and Spain, used galleys powered by criminals and slaves. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Cannons changed the nature of sea battles. Before they were introduced naval engagements had remained essentially unchanged since ancient Greece (galleys trying to ram each other or get close enough to unload their troops). Sailing ships were not used because they were not maneuverable enough. With canons it was no longer necessary to ram a ship or get close enough to board it. All a ship had to do was get close enough to fire a canon ball in an attempt to sink an enemy ship, something a sailing ship with holes cut into its side could do. By 1650 broadside fighting ships carried 50 cannons; by the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) the largest ones carried 100. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

Cannons adapted themselves better to ships (which were essentially floating platforms) than land (where the they were difficult and time-consuming to transport). Ships were essentially load carrying vehicles, and it was no problem adapting them carry cannon and ammunition. The only problem that had be overcome was adapting the ship to absorb the cannon's recoil which was achieved by putting the cannon on wheels and strapping them to harnesses. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

On old ships, splinters sent flying by a striking cannonball often did the most damage. When the rifle was invented in 1475 shots could fire from the deck of a ship towards sailors on an enemy ship.

Portuguese Arrive in Indonesia

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to come in significant numbers to the archipelago. The golden age of Portuguese exploration and conquest in Asia began with Vasco da Gama's voyage to India in 1497-99 and continued through the first half of the sixteenth century. Faith and profit, nicely harmonized, motivated these early European explorers. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The papacy charged Portugal with converting Asia to Christianity. Equipped with superior navigational aids and sturdy ships, the Portuguese attempted to seize rich trade routes in the Indian Ocean from Muslim merchants. They established a network of forts and trading posts that at its height extended from Lisbon by way of the African coast to the Straits of Hormuz, Goa in India, Melaka, Macao on the South China coast, and Nagasaki in southwestern Japan.

The Portuguese reached the rich and expanding Melaka, on the Malay Peninsula, in 1509 and sought trading rights there. Some in Melaka’s cosmopolitan trading community wanted to accept them (perhaps as a counterweight against Sultan Mahmud’s controversial imperial policies), but others did not, heightening existing political tensions. *

When the Portuguese returned in 1511 commanded by the more demanding Alfonso de Albuquerque, they defeated Melaka militarily, soon establishing themselves in the trading ports of Banten (western Java) and Ternate (Maluku), and contacting the much reduced Majapahit kingdom at Kediri in eastern Java. These events do not, as is sometimes suggested, mark the beginning of Western colonial rule, or even European primacy, in Indonesia; that lay far in the future. Rather, the “Western intrusion” was at this stage merely one dynamic bound up, in often unpredictable ways, with many others. Thus, the final days of Majapahit, weakened by internal division, were determined by Trenggana, the half-Chinese Muslim ruler of its former vassal port Demak, who in 1527 conquered Kediri for reasons that had as much to do with economic and political rivalry (with Banten, the Portuguese, and Majapahit’s remnants) as they did with religious struggle (with both Christianity and Hindu-Buddhist ideology). *

Afonso de Albuquerque

Afonso de Albuquerque (14??-1515) was a Portuguese soldier and explorer who sailed to the Spice Islands in 1507-1511 and tried to monopolize trade in the area for Portugal. From Europe, he sailed around Africa to the Indian Ocean. He was appointed the Viceroy of India by King Emmanuel in 1509. He forcibly destroyed the Indian city of Calicut in January, 1510, and took Goa (in southern India) in March, 1510, claiming Goa for Portugal.

Afonso de Albuquerque, or Afonso the Great, was the formidable Portuguese soldier who is credited with creating the Portuguese empire after Dias and De Gama figured out how to get to the Far East. Starting in 1503, he conquered the strategic Indian ocean ports, one by one, wrestling control of lucrative spice trade away from the Muslims. His most important achievements were the 1510 capture of Goa, the river moated trading center in western India that remained a Portuguese procession until 1961, and the establishment of control over in 1511 over the Straits of Malacca, off of present-day Singapore, the route which nearly all the ships carrying silk and spices from China and the East Indies had to travel through. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Later Albuquerque captured the straits of Hormuz chocking of the Muslim trade into the Persian Gulf and sent emissaries that discovered that most of the spices originated in the Moluccan islands in the East Indies. To attain immorality Albuquerque planned to capture Jerusalem from the Arabs by digging a canal to the Nile, and starving the Egyptian Mamluks by draining the life-giving waters into the Red Sea, and seizing Mohammed's body in Medina and holding it ransom. For their part the sultans who controlled the Holy Land and the Middle East threatened to destroy Christ's tomb in Jerusalem. [Ibid]

Portuguese Establish Their Trade Empire in Asia

After de Gama returned from his second voyage the Portuguese set about building their empire in India. Their first viceroy in India destroyed the Muslim Fleet. The next viceroy, Afonso Albuquerque, gained control over the Persian Gulf in 1507, established a Portuguese trading center in Goa in 1507, captured Malacca in 1511, which opened trade routes with Siam (Thailand), the Spice Islands (in present-day Indonesia) and China.

The papacy charged Portugal with converting Asia to Christianity. Equipped with superior navigational aids and sturdy ships, the Portuguese attempted to seize rich trade routes in the Indian Ocean from Muslim merchants. They established a network of forts and trading posts that at its height extended from Lisbon by way of the African coast to the Straits of Hormuz, Goa in India, Melaka, Macao on the South China coast, and Nagasaki in southwestern Japan.

Portugese caravels with Portugal’s scarlet Cross of Christ dominated the seas and wrested control of the spice markets and East-Westtrade route from seafaring Muslim merchants. At its height the Portuguese empire included Brazil, large parts of Africa and almost all the important trading areas in China, India, southeast Asia and present-day Indonesia. [Source: Howard la Fay, National Geographic, October 1965].

Groups that financed voyages during the Age of Discovery included the Order of Christ, a wealthy religious organization that sprang up from the crusading Knights of Templar. The Portuguese king held on monopoly on pepper, perhaps the most profitable of all the spices. The two main casualties of Portuguese trade were Venice and the Muslims. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992 <>]

Merle Severy wrote in National Geographic: "After the discovers became conquerors, they learned it was more profitable to keep Muslim trade and regulate and tax it. The Portuguese took their biggest profit from inter-Asian trade—selling Arabia's stallions to waring Indian princes, carrying cotton textiles around the Bay of Bengal and Timor's sandalwood to China, and bartering China's silk for Japan's silver." European and Asian trade was not simply a one way street. The Portuguese introduced corn, tobacco, pineapple, papaya, sweet potato, cashews and other plants to Asia. <>

Violence and the Ease With Which the Portuguese Established Their Asian Empire

The Spanish and Portuguese were able to establish their large empires in Asia because they encountered virtually no resistance. The Sultans in Malaysia and Indonesia were easy to overcome, Filipinos were just tribal farmers, and the Monghols in India didn't have much of a navy. The Portuguese and Spanish established themselves by building forts and trading out of them. The Dutch later moved in and took possession of many of the Portuguese forts by force, which in turn were taken away from them by the English. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

"Portuguese galleons," historian K.N. Chaudhuri told Severy, "maximized the advantages of Europe's gunpowder revolution and artillery. With an added deck and gunports, the galleon became a floating fortress and floating warehouse." Portuguese mercenaries worked for everyone from Indian princes to the king of Siam. Their ability to use firearms often made the difference between victory and defeat. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

The Portuguese ships were armed to the hilt and their captains were not afraid to use power. "Vasco de Gama cut up the bodies of casually captured fisherman and traders," wrote Boorstin, "and sent a basketful of their hands, feats and heads to the Samurai of Calicut simply to persuade him into a quick surrender. Once in power, th Portuguese governed their India in the same spirit. When Viceroy lmeida was suspicious of a messenger who came under a safe-conduct to see him, he tore out the messenger's eyes. Viceroy Albuquerque subdued the peoples along the Arabian coast by cutting of the noses of their women and the hands of their men. Portuguese ships sailing into remote harbors for the first time would display the corpses of recent captives hanging from the yardarms to show that they meant business.” [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Alvares Cabral sailed to India in 1500 and lost 6 of 13 ships. "God gave the Portuguese a small country for a cradle, a Jesuit missionary once wrote, "but the whole world for a grave." When Cabral arrived two year after de Gama there were clashes with Muslim traders in Calicut and the Portuguese ended up establishing their capital in Cochin, a rival kingdom down the coast. [Source: Howard la Fay, National Geographic, October 1965].

Portuguese and the Spice Trade

The Portuguese came to Indonesia to monopolize the spice trade of the eastern archipelago. Nutmeg, mace, and cloves were easily worth more than their weight in gold in European markets, but the trade had hitherto been dominated by Muslims and the Mediterranean city-state of Venice. Combining trade with piracy, the Portuguese, operating from their base at Melaka, established bases in the Maluku Islands at Ternate and on the island of Ambon but were unsuccessful in gaining control of the Banda Islands, a center of nutmeg and mace production. *

In 1511, the Portuguese, in pursuit of controlling the valuable spice trade, captured the strategic commercial center of Meleka on the Malay Peninsula. This opened the way for direct passage to the islands that produced spices. The Portuguese wrested control of the spice markets and trade route from seafaring Muslim merchants.

In 1512, Portuguese explorers under Afonso de Alburqueque reached the Moluccas and claimed them for Portugal. On the way back from Banda they were shipwrecked and made their way to Ambon and were subsequently invited to Ternate, where they came in contact with the sultan that controlled the source of nutmeg and cloves. He formed an alliance with the Portuguese against his rival in Tidore and the Portuguese loaded their hold with nutmeg and mace and made their way to Seville and made a fortune. The Portuguese restricted production of spice such as nutmeg and cloves to the islands of Banda and Ambon to conserve their monopoly.

In a effort to create a clove monopoly the Portuguese struck a deal with the sultan of Ternate in which they promised to help the Ternate sultan fight his enemy, the sultan of Tidore, in return for exclusive rights to cloves produced under the sultan. The sultan had no intention of complying with the terms but was forced to. The local Muslim resented the Portugese importation of pigs and their rough justice and rebelled when one sultan was executed and his head was displayed on a pike. In the meantime the Tidore responded by forming an alliance with the Spanish.

Portugal’s Short-Lived Presence in Indonesia

Indonesian Muslim states wasted no time in trying to oust the intruders. During the sixteenth century, the sturdy Portuguese fort of A Famosa (the Famous One) at Melaka withstood repeated attacks by the forces of the sultans of Johore (the descendants of the ruler of Melaka deposed by the Portuguese), Aceh, and the Javanese north coast state of Jepara, acting singly or in concert. The Portuguese were minimally involved in Java, although there were attempts to forge alliances with the remaining Hindu-Buddhist states against the Muslims. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Portuguese goal of Christianizing Asia was largely unsuccessful. They introduced Catholicism to the area but didn’t win many converts. Saint Francis Xavier, a Spaniard who was an early member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), established a mission at Ambon in 1546 and won many converts whose lineal descendants in the early 1990s were Protestant Christians. The small enclave of Portuguese (East) Timor, which survived three centuries surrounded by Dutch colonialism only to be formally absorbed into Indonesia in 1976, was largely Roman Catholic. *

Given Portugal's small size, limited resources, and small labor pool, and its routinely brutal treatment of indigenous populations, Portugal's trading empire was short-lived, although remnants of it, like Portuguese Timor, survived into the late twentieth century. Although numerically superior Muslim forces failed to capture Melaka, they kept the intruders constantly on the defensive. Also, the dynastic union of the Portuguese and Spanish crowns in 1580 made for Portugal a new and increasingly dangerous enemy: the Dutch. *

The Portuguese suffered an embarrassing military defeat at Pulai Ternate and ultimately could not control trade in the region. Muslim-controlled Banten was the main port in the region. It attracted Arab, Persian and Indian traders and competed with and took business away from Melaka. The Portuguese remained in Indonesia until early 1700s when the Dutch move in.

Dutch Force Out the Portuguese in Indonesia

The Dutch later moved in and took possession of many of the Portuguese forts by force. Dutch trading ships were replaced by heavily armed fleets that were given orders to attack Portuguese forts. By 1605 the Dutch had defeated the Portuguese at Tidore and Ambon in the Spice Islands and outmaneuvered Spain by supporting Ternate against the Tidorese and claimed those territories for themselves.

By 1610, the Dutch had kicked out the Portuguese, who retained only the eastern half of Timor. In 1611, the United East India Company set up its capital in Jakarta (renamed Batavia by the Dutch). Jakarta was selected because its strategic location on the shipping on the Sundra and Melaka Straits. The local ruler of Jakarta gave trading rights to both the Dutch and the English. Tension arose and reached a head when the English and local Javanese laid siege to a Dutch fort. The Dutch retaliated and raised the town in 1619.

Europeans and the Spice Islands

The Portuguese were followed by Spanish, who claimed Portuguese territories when Philip II assumed the Portuguese crown in 1580. Like, the Portuguese, the Spanish established themselves by building forts and trading out of them. Later the British and Dutch fought over them and the Spanish retreated to the Philippines. The Dutch took possession of many of the Portuguese forts by force. The English took a few islands in the Moluccas in the early 1700s and later established a short-lived colony of Sumatra. They didn’t stay long and focused their attention on Malaysia.

According to some scholars the spice trade before the Age of Discovery was peaceful and profitable to a large number of people until the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and English tried to bypass the traditional trade routes and set up monopolies. The voyages to the spice islands were financed by investors that included royal families, brokers and bankers. The profits were enormous if a ship actually returned with spices because the risks were enormous. Ships were lost to storms and reefs. If the managed to make it to their destinations in the Far East they were often robbed of their cargos by Asian and European pirates on the way back.

Some of these complexities of controlling the spice trade—and maintaining a presence in Indonesia—can be glimpsed in a brief history of Ternate, Maluku, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. In 1512 seven Portuguese arrived in Ternate as the guests of Sultan Abu Lais (r. ?–1522), having been rescued by fishermen from a shipwreck of their locally built vessel (their original ship had become too unreliable to continue in service) loaded with spices purchased in Banda. The sultan sought an alliance with the Portuguese, of whom he had already heard, and was eager to exchange cloves for assistance against the rival sultanate of Tidore. [Source: Library of Congress *]

When Spanish ships arrived in Maluku in 1521, Sultan Mansur of Tidore sealed a similar agreement with them, to which the Portuguese soon responded by building a large stone fortress on Ternate. This act touched off decades of warfare among Europeans and their local allies, in which political control, economic ascendancy, and religious identity all were contested. But it also brought change in Ternate itself, for the ruler there became essentially a prisoner of the Portuguese, whose increasingly arbitrary and oppressive interference in local affairs, including spice production and harvesting, eventually turned their former allies against them. *

Under the leadership of Sultan Babullah (r. 1570–83), Islam became a powerful tool with which to create alliances and gather widespread opposition to the Portuguese. After a siege in 1575 against the Ternate fort, he ousted the Portuguese forces. Babullah allowed a limited contingent of Portuguese merchants to continue trading in Ternate, but the fort became the royal residence, and the sultanate rapidly expanded its reach to key trading ports as far away as northern and southern Sulawesi until the arrival of the Dutch touched off new and even more complex struggles. *

Image Sources:

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.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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