Moluccas (Maluka) are better known as the Spice Islands. 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 Maluku Islands were a single province from Indonesian independence until 1999 when they were split into North Maluku and Maluku. North Maluku province includes Ternate (the former site of the provincial capital), Tidore, Bacan and Halmahera (the largest of the Maluku Islands).

The Moluccas accounts for 3.9 percent of Indonesia's area but only 1 percent of the population (about 1.8 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.

Most of the people who go these islands today go to enjoy the excellent diving and snorkeling and climbing active volcanos. The area is not very developed for tourism. Few people speak English; the pace and service is very slow; and transportation—namely planes and boats—can be a problem. Schedules are hard to come and not always adhered to.

The main gateway into Maluku is through the provincial capital Ambon, which is served by regular flights to most parts of the archipelago. Air and sea transportation connect the islands with 79 seaports and 25 airports. Roads on many of the islands provide access to the more remote places of interest. Tourism Office: Dinas Kebudayaan dan Pariwisata Prov. Maluku, Jl. Jend. Sudirman, Batu Merah, Kota Ambon, Tel. (62-911) 312300, fax: (62-911) 352471

Land and People of the Moluccas

The Moluccan region cover 850,000 square kilometers, of which 90 percent is water and 10 percent of islands. By one count one there are 1027 islands. 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. Fish and other sea products are Maluku’s major sources of revenue, but nickel, oil, manganese and various kinds of timber also contribute to the province’s wealth.

Due to its history, the people here are very mixed. Malay, Indian, Arab, Chinese, Portuguese, Bugis and Javanese are all present. Tribal communities of Ua-ulu mostly don’t wear their traditional clothes anymore. Ua-ulu men can be distinguished with red headscarves that they wear. It is said they were once headhunters. Seafood is widely consumed. Try grilled or baked fish and Nasi ikan (rice and fish meal).

History of the Moluccas

During the age of exploration and the colonial period that followed, the Portuguese, British French, Spanish and Dutch fought for control of them, with the Dutch winning out in the end. Among the first Europeans to arrive on the Spice Islands were the Portuguese, who landed in 1512. Magellan's crew visited the Moluccas after Magellan was killed and loaded on spices to take back to Europe.

The Dutch arrived in 1599. The Dutch established a monopoly on the spice tarde from the Molluccas and made vast profits selling nutmeg, mace, cloves and other spices. In the late 18th century, a French missionary smuggled nutmeg seedlings out of the Dutch East Indies and they were replanted in Madagascar, Mauritius and Zanzibar. The Dutch spice monopoly was broken and the Molluccas were largely forgotten. After the collapse of the Suharto government in the late 1990s there was violence between Muslim and Christians that left socres tehd ead. Muslims and Christian has traditionally gotten along the trouble was stired up by johadist from outsde the Moluccas.

Spices and Ternate and Tidore

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 *]

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.

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. *

Sultans on Ternate and Tidore That Controlled the Spice Trade

The kings in places like Ternate, Tidore and Bacan controlled much of the spice trade and possessed Kora-kora, powerful fleets, equipped with war canoes that roamed the seas of Sulawesi and Papua in their golden days. The kings were wealthy from spices, especially cloves. Cloves and spices were very expensive they helped preserve food at a time when there no refrigerators and were used as medicines.

.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.

Nutmeg takes very little effort to grow. Life was good and easy the islanders that raised it. They had do little but watch the nutmeg grow, collect it from trees and take out the nuts and trade them for food, cloth and all the things they needed with Chinese, Malay, Arab and Bugi spice traders. The was competition between Muslims and Chinese over control of the Indonesian spice trade.

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.

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.


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 ben 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. ~

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.

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.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Indonesia Tourism website ( ), Indonesia government websites, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Japan News, Yomiuri Shimbun, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Updated in December 2020

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