The Moluccas (Maluka) are better known as the Spice Islands. Spread out over a large area between Sulawesi, New Guinea and the Philippines, they are the islands that Columbus was looking for and were visited by Chinese, Indian and Arab mariners, who traded there, before Europeans arrived. It has been said that The Moluccas are named after mollusks (sea shells) but that is not true. The name derives from an indigenous word "Molo'uku" that has been mentioned in the 14th century Majapahit eulogy 'Nagarakretagama' and it's said to mean "the head of a bull" or "the head of something large." Before this finding, the most commonly accepted etymology of the name Maluku was the name the Arab traders gave to the islands "Jazirat Al-Mulukh" which means 'Islands of kings' in Arabic. South Moluccan people are known as Orang Maluku (Tenggara). North Moluccans are known as Orang Maluku (Utara).

The Moluccas accounts for 3.9 percent of Indonesia's area but only 1 percent of the population (about two million people) The region lies on a very volatile volcanic belt where there have been over 70 major eruptions in the last 400 years. The islands are also known for their unique wildlife. The remaining forest contains 31 species of lorikeets and parrots. There are also some cockatoos and birds of paradise as well Australian-style marsupials like cuscus and bandicoots.

The Moluccan region cover 850,000 square kilometers, of which 90 percent is water and 10 percent of islands (1027 of the them by one count). The region is divided into two provinces: 1) predominately Muslim North Maluku Province, which stretches from Morotai to Sula, with the capital in Ternate, and 2) Maluku Province, which is roughly evenly divided between Muslims and Christians and encompasses the whole area from Buri to Seram to Wetar.

The largest islands are Halmahera and Seram. They are sparsely populated, The highest concentrations of people are on Ambon and Ternate. The islands were once largely covered with rain forest but logging and cash crop plantations have resulted in the loss of many of these forests. Some of the islands were once covered by clove and nutmeg plantations. But now many former plantations are worked by subsistence farmers who grow yams and cassava. Banda has only 600 acres of nutmeg trees left. Coffee and fruit are important cash crops. Fishing is an important industry.

Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas

The 2 million or so people in the Moluccas are divided roughly equally between Christians (which include Indonesians and Chinese) and Muslims. Until the beginning of 1999 the two groups lived in relative harmony with one another.

Christianity has a 500 year history in the Moluccas and dates back to when Europeans involved in the spice trade began arriving on the islands. Most the Christians are descendants of people who have lived in the Moluccas since Dutch colonial times. Christianity took hold here because so many Christian Europeans arrived here to make money from the spice trade.

Some Muslims are descendants of people who embraced Islam before the arrival of the Dutch. Many are descendants of Muslims from elsewhere in Indonesia that came to the Moluccas. Although it's true that people from other Indonesian islands brought their religion with them, Arab traders introduced Islam to the early inhabitants of the Moluccas. Many people are settlers or relatives of settlers who arrived relatively recently from other islands in Indonesia. A few are descendants of offspring of indigenous Malays and black slaves brought to work on the plantations by the Dutch.

History of Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas

The Christians have traditionally had close ties with the Dutch. After the decline of the spice industry they became especially close with the Dutch. They were among the most loyal and trusted and best-educated Indonesians, making up a large share of the Dutch colonial army. They were favored over the Muslims for positions in the colonial government and were the larger of the two groups in terms of population.

After Indonesia became independent, the roles of Christians and Muslims were reversed and Muslims were favored over Christians for good jobs and other privileges. Muslims set up prosperous businesses while Christians were relegated to farming and fishing.

The Christians originally formed a majority on the Moluccas but their dominance was diluted in the 1960s and 70s when the Suharto government encouraged Muslims from other islands to move there. By 2000, the population was about 55 percent Muslim and 45 percent Christian. Even so Christians and Muslims lived in relative harmony. Intermarriage was even common in some places. But all that changed in 1997 and 1998 when the Indonesian economy collapsed and Suharto resigned and buried resentments and animosities came to the surface. Muslims and Christian were involved in a number of disputes over land and intervillage fighting was common, with resulting casualties and burning of property.

Moluccan Independence Movement

After the end of World War II, many Christians remained loyal to the Dutch and fought on their side against Indonesia nationalists. After Indonesia achieved independence, the Christians wanted to make the Moluccas independent of Indonesia because they worried they wouldn’t fare very well in a nation that was 90 percent Muslims.

In Maluka, Dutch loyalists tried to establish an independent republic. In the 1950, the Republic of South Moluccas (RMS) was declared in Ambon. Within a few months Indonesian troops retook Bury and Seram but resistance endured in Ambon until the leader of the movement fled to the jungles of Seram, where the group held out until the mid 1960s.

Christians with ties to the Dutch colonial administration battled with Indonesian troops in an effort to secede but their effort failed. Out of fear or reprisals from the Indonesian government, a group of 12,000 diehard Christian nationalists were removed from the Moluccas by the Dutch and placed in a converted concentration camp in Holland with what they thought was a promise that they would be returned to an independent Moluccas. That never happened and their offspring still remain in Holland, feeling betrayed and resisting all attempts to be re-assimilated.

In 2007, a group of people entered an area where Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono was presiding over a government ceremony during the 14th National Family Day event in Ambon, Maluku and performed a traditional dance called the cakalele and waved flags of the separatist South Maluku Republic (RMS). The incident was a major embarrassment to Yudhoyono’s government. A year later a court sentenced the leader of RMS to life. The RMS first emerged in the 1950s soon after Indonesia won its independence from Dutch colonial rule. The group, which was mostly Christian but had some Muslim members, was defeated militarily and its leadership fled to the Netherlands, where it briefly had a government-in-exile. It was largely forgotten until Maluku erupted in Muslim-Christian violence in 1999 that killed some 9,000 people. [Source: Jakarta Post]

Moluccan Terrorists in the Netherlands

In December 1975, a group of Moluccans terrorist seized a train with 24 hostages for 12 days in an incident called the "Murder on the Milk Train." In the end the Moluccans didn't get an independent homeland which is mainly what they were after but they did get a museum and increased pensions for aging Moluccan veterans.*

Time reported: Early last Tuesday morning, six men carrying machine guns, a pistol and a hunting rifle boarded a four-car electric "milk train" at the Dutch town of Assen. Shortly after it left Beilen, ten miles away, the terrorists stopped the train and seized the passengers as hostages. As police and Dutch soldiers ringed the captive train, another group of terrorists struck in Amsterdam, forcing their way into the Indonesian consulate and taking 41 more hostages, including 16 children. By week's end the terrorists had murdered three people aboard the train, and four more had been wounded in the raid on the consulate. [Source: Time, December 15, 1975 /]

“The perpetrators of last week's outrage—as well as their cause—were little known outside The Netherlands. The terrorists were Indonesians from the South Molucca islands in the Pacific Ocean, and they were demanding that the Dutch help them gain independence from the Jakarta regime. The kidnapings, and the subsequent cold-blooded murders, virtually paralyzed The Netherlands. While the Cabinet met in emergency sessions, television and radio stations suspended normal programming in favor of solemn music and news bulletins. /

“Third Day. The Moluccans aboard the captured train warned Dutch authorities that they would kill their passenger-hostages unless a plane was provided to take them to an undisclosed destination. To prove that they meant what they said, the terrorists first threw the body of the locomotive's engineer, who apparently had been killed when the train was seized, onto the tracks. Later, the body of a passenger was tossed out. After nightfall, 14 of the 50-odd hostages managed to run to safety from the rear of the train. The kidnapers stood firm. On the third day of the siege, after a fruitless round of negotiations, another passenger, wearing a yellow shirt and a red tie, was brought to a door of the train. He was shot fatally in the neck and flung onto the railroad bed. Soldiers standing a few hundred yards away openly wept at the cruel sight. /

“Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, four people were injured—one of them by terrorist gunfire—when they escaped from a third-floor window at the Indonesian consulate. With police sharpshooters ringing the building, mediators negotiated the release of twelve children, but Dutch authorities refused to discuss the Moluccans' demands until all the children were freed. Justice Minister Andreas van Agt also declared that none of the terrorists would be given safe passage out of the country. At week's end it was clear that the Dutch were determined to play a waiting game with both groups of terrorists, in the hope of wearing down their resistance. /

“The twin acts of violence were not the first signs of South Moluccan anger. Just before a 1970 visit to The Netherlands by Indonesia's President Suharto, they attacked the Indonesian embassy in The Hague, killing a Dutch policeman. Last week's kidnapings came two days before the Dutch Appeals Court was to rule on prison sentences handed 16 South Moluccans who were implicated in a plot last April to kidnap Queen Juliana and other members of the Royal Family. They planned to storm the palace at Soestdijk after ramming the gates with an armored car. /

“The Moluccan headache is a heritage of the old days of empire. A chain of islands at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, the Moluccas were once known as the Spice Islands, for their prized crops of cloves, nutmeg and mace. When The Netherlands gave up its East Indies colonies in 1949, a faction of Moluccans, mainly from the island of Amboina, fought against being absorbed into the Indonesian Republic. After Jakarta crushed an attempt to set up a South Moluccan Republic, some 12,000 islanders were allowed to settle in The Netherlands. At the time, the Dutch held out hope for the eventual creation of a Moluccan state, but the government has long since abandoned the goal as unrealistic. The exiled islanders have not. Their numbers swollen by Dutch-born children, Moluccans in Holland today number around 35,000. The cause persists, even though some of the young Moluccan rebels have never seen the islands they kidnap and kill for.” /

In May and June 1977, 13 Moluccan separatists attacked a train and four of their accomplices took students and teachers at a school hostage. The separatists took 61 adults and 106 children as hostages and demanded the release of 21 Moluccan radicals in Dutch jails. The hostage crisis lasted three weeks and ended with a sunrise attack by Dutch marines with smoke bombs and submachine guns that left six terrorists and two hostages dead.

Violence In the Moluccas

Between late 1998 and 2002 some 5,000 people to 10,000 were killed in violence between Christians and Muslims in the historically peaceful Molucca islands. Some 500,000 people were forced to flee their homes.

People died in fires, mob attacks and clashes between rival gangs. Some of the dead were mutilated. Many were killed with homemade weapons, There were reports of men having their penises loped off and placed in their mouthes. It is widely believed that many of the incidents were deliberately incited by false rumors and carried by ordinary people riled up by gang leaders for political ends.

Building were set on fire with Molotov cocktails thrown by youths and with flaming arrows fired from mosque and churches. Entire Muslim and Christian villages were destroyed. Often the only thing that could stop the fighting were heavy rain storms. Much of the violence went on outside public and press scrutiny.

Christians initially had the upper hand. Most of the dead were Muslims in the early months of the clashes. Tables were turned in favor of the Muslims when they received help from Muslim fighters that came from Java and other places in Indonesia. Many belonged to Laskar Jihad.

See Christians


The Ambonese live on the island of Ambon and other islands in the Central Moluccas. The are also known as the Alifuru (interior of Ceram), Ambonese, Central Moluccans, the Moluccans, Orang Ambon and South Moluccans (exiles in the Netherlands). Maybe a million people live in the Central Moluccas. The population is pretty equally divided among Muslims and Christians. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Ambonese are very ethnically mixed. The Moluccas are near the traditional dividing line between Melanesian and Indonesians peoples and all sorts—Malays, Hindus, Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, other Asians—came to the islands for their spices. Genetic material and cultural traits from all these people have been left behind to varying degrees. ~

They strongest links to Melanesia are found among the Alifuru (Nua-ulu) in the interior of Seram (Ceram). While it's true that the people from Seram (Nusa Ina) have strong links to Melanesia, there are many other groups from other islands that are also predominantly Melanesian especially the Kei Islands and the Aru islands, but just Maluku Tenggara in general is very Melanesian. These people were headhunters until they were pacified by the Dutch before World War I and have a secret men’s society, the only such society in Indonesia and something normally associated with Melanesian cultures. In the days, severed heads were said to part of their marriage and coming of age ceremonies. Much of their old ways have been lost since they converted to Christianity. The culture of the Pasisir people who live in the coastal areas has been influenced much more by outsiders. ~

Ambonese Life

There are some single religion villages in the Central Moluccas but most are mixed. Most villages and towns have 200 to 600 people with separate Muslim and Christian communities organized around churches and mosques. Most people live in concrete houses with plaster walls and metal roofs. Some still live in traditional houses with dirts floors, thatch roofs and walls made from the stems of sago palm leaves. Many houses have palms and fruit- and nut-bearing trees that provide food and shade. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Most people are farmers, fishermen or plantation workers. Yams, cassava and taro are grown in family gardens, Sago is grown in swampy areas. Relatively little rice is grown. Cloves and nutmeg are the major cash crops, followed by copra. These are most produced mostly on plantations. See Spices. ~

Ambonese like to sing and dance. Traditional dances like the “cakalele” (war dance) are still performed as are European dances that date back to the Dutch and even Portuguese periods that have long been forgotten in their home countries. Singing is an important element of festivals and social occasions, especially among Christians who do a lot choir singing in their churches. Many musical groups and pop stars in Indonesia are of Christian-Ambonese origin. ~

Muslim and Christian Ambonese

The Muslims and Christians in the Central Moluccas are surprisingly similar culturally. Their ideas about kinship and clan ties are similar, namely that villages or districts are made of several patrilineal clans led by a headman and clan descent is traced to a common ancestor. Marriage customs are also similar. Most are monogamous and in the past were arranged but today are largely love matches that follow two patterns: 1) formal request by the groom’s family, with the payment of a bride price; and 2) elopement. The latter is often preferred because it is way to avoid parental approval and the cost of a formal wedding. Divorce is rare among both Christians and Muslims. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Ambonese Christians and Muslims have incorporated elements of ancestor worship and each other’s religions into their faiths and excluded members of other ethnic groups from their churches and mosques in an efforts to ensure ethnic harmony of the islands. Contrary to this effort has been efforts by conservatives in each faith to purify their religion and get rid of non-Christian and non-Muslim elements from the respective faiths.

In the Ambonese belief system ancestors are called upon for blessings and invited to villages ceremonies and incorporated into concepts of salvation and the afterlife. There are also Christian and Islamic devils and spirits that cause illness and bring misfortune. At funerals there are often non-Christian and non-Muslim rituals to pacify the spirit of the deceased. Spirits and evil forces are linked with concepts of disease and health although generally Ambonese Western-style doctors before traditional healers.

Ternatan and Tidorese

The Ternatan and Tidorese live on 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.

There about 50,000 Ternatan and 100,000 Tidorese. About half of each live on their home islands. Most are subsistence farmers or fishermen. Only a few people are involved in commercial fishing. Staple foods include cassava, maize, bananas and taro. They are often eaten with dried and salted, smoke-dried or fresh fish. People rarely eat vegetables or meat. Most trade and commerce is handled by Chinese.

The Ternatan and Tidorese have a traditional of prearranged and child marriages to protect and enhance family status. Marriages offend end in divorce. Boys are generally spoiled and regarded as the pride of the family. They are often allowed to laze around and indulge themselves while girls are put to work. Most of their religious practice fall in line with proscribed tenets of Islam.

Ternatan and Tidorese History

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 Portuguese were able to establish themselves in Ternate. They tried without success to establish a clove monopoly but the Dutch were successful in achieving this goal. They restricted the cultivation of cloves to Ambon in the central Moluccas and a few islands near there. The cultivation of cloves in any other place was strictly forbidden. In return for their cooperation the sultans of Ternate and Tidore were provided with an annual allowance. The monopoly was maintained under this system until the 19th century.

Under Dutch protection Ternate and Tidore remained semi-autonomous states into Indonesian independence in1949. The Indonesian government pursued a policy of integration and abolished the sultanate, which now exists only in stories.


The Tobelorese live on the northern peninsula of Halmahera island, which is north of the Moluccas and east of Sulawesi. Also known as the Orang Tobelo, Suku Tobelo, they speak a Papuan language and are subsistence farmers that raise rice, maize, cassava, bananas and vegetables and catch fish, There are about 20,000 of them, nearly all Christians.


In the southeastern part of Maluku Province lived more than 60,000 residents of the Tanimbar archipelago in the early 1990s. They resided in villages ranging in size from 150 to 2,500 inhabitants, but most villages numbered from 300 to 1,000. Nearly all residents spoke one of four related, but mutually unintelligible, languages. Because of an extended dry season, the forests were much less luxuriant than in some of the more northerly Maluku Islands, and the effects of over-intensive swidden cultivation of rice, cassava, and other root crops were visible in the interior. Many Tanimbarese also engaged in reef and deep-sea fishing and wild boar hunting. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Unlike the Weyewa, Toraja, or Dayak, the Tanimbarese do not maintain an opposition between their native culture and an officially recognized Christian culture. Following a Dutch military expedition in 1912, Catholic and Protestant missionaries converted all residents of their archipelago by the 1920s. However, the Tanimbarese tradition is preserved through intervillage and interhousehold marriage alliances. Tanimbarese orient themselves socially toward their villages and their houses. The unity of the village is represented as a stone boat. In ceremonial settings, such as indigenous dance, the rankings and statuses within the village are spoken of as a seating arrangement within this symbolic boat. Intervillage and interhouse rivalry, no longer expressed through headhunting and warfare, continue to be represented through complex ritual exchanges of valuables, marriage alliances, and competitive relations between the Catholic and Protestant churches (one or the other of which counts each Tanimbarese as a member). *

Tanimbarese are affiliated with rahan (houses) that are important corporate units, responsible for making offerings to the ancestors, whose skulls were traditionally placed inside. Rahan are also responsible for the maintenance and distribution of heirloom property consisting of valuables and forest estates. Since Tanimbarese recognize a system of patrilineal descent, when a child is born they customarily ask: "Stranger or house master"? Since a male is destined to "sit" or "stay" in the house of his father, he is a "master of his house." If the baby is a girl, the child is destined to move between houses, and thus is a "stranger." The question of which house the girl moves to, and what obligations and rights will go along with the move, is one of the most important questions in Tanimbarese society. There are certain "pathways" of marriage that young women from certain houses are expected to follow, particularly if these interclan alliances have lasted more than three generations. Only if certain valuables are properly received by her natal family, however, is a young woman fully incorporated into her husband's home. Otherwise, her children are regarded as a branch of her brother's lineage. *

The Tanimbarese traditionally engaged in both a local system of ceremonial exchange and, for centuries, in a broader Indonesian commerce in which they traded copra, trepang, tortoise shell, and shark fins for gold, elephant tusks, textiles, and other valuables. In the twentieth century, however, Tanimbarese began to exchange their local products for more prosaic items such as tobacco, coffee, sugar, metal cooking pots, needles, clothing, and other domestic-use items. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chinese merchants thoroughly dominated this trade and consequently gained great influence in the local village economy. *

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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 and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated December 2020

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