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.

Early European Explorers and the Spice Islands

European countries could not grow spices. Spices had to pass complicated route to reach Europe, thus causing them to be very expensive. Europeans concluded it'd be much cheaper to come to the source of the spices. In 1511, the Portuguese built their first fort in the area on the island of Ternate, and cornered the clove trade. The Dutch, who arrived in 1599, mounted the first serious threat to Pourtuguese control of Maluku’s treasures. Armed conflicts broke out, taking a heavy toll from the island populations as well as the rival European powers. When the Dutch finally emerged as victors they enforced their trade monopoly with an iron fist. Whole villages were razed to the ground and thousands of islanders died, especially on the island of Banda. The British briefly occupied Maluku during the Napoleonic Wars, but Dutch rule was restored in 1814 and it wasn’t until 1863 that the compulsory cultivation of spices was abolished in the province.

Early maps of Indonesia showed the archipelago as the place "Where Dragons and Leviathans be." In 1510, a Bolognese traveler named Ludovico di Varthema returned to Italy after a six year trip in the East. He published an account of his journey that drew considerable attention. Among other things he was the first to European to describe nutmeg trees growing in the Banda Islands in what used to be called the Spice Islands and what are now called the Moluccas. They were the only places in the world that nutmeg grew.

The Spice Islands that Columbus was looking for were the Moluccas. After Magellan was killed in the Philippines his crew loaded up with spices in the Moluccas for the journey home. At that time nutmeg and cloves were worth more than gold. "When the cloves sprout," wrote Pigafoote, "they are white; when ripe, red; and when dried, black...Nowhere in the world do good gloves grow except on five mountains of those five islands."

Sir Francis Drake visited the islands of Indonesia and turned an offer of cheap and valuable cloves because his ship was so full of stolen Spanish goods. When he returned his trans-global voyage one of the items he brought back that caused the biggest stir was a mermaid from Sumatra that looked an awful lot alike the upper half of a monkey glued to the tail of a fish.

Portuguese and the Spice Trade

The Portuguese arrived in Indonesia in 1510. 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.

In 1511, 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. They also loaded their hold with nutmeg and mace and sent them to Seville and made a fortune. The Portuguese restricted production of spice such as nutmeg and cloves to the islands of Banda and Ambonto 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.

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 piece trade before the Age of Discovery was peaceful and profitable to large number of people until the Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish and English tried by pass 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 mane to make to their to their destination in the far east they were often robbed of their cargos by Asian and European pirates.

Dutch in Indonesia

The Dutch began making moves on Indonesia once they mastered the “wild navigators," the route westward to the Orient via Cape Horn. The Dutch began making moves on in present-day Indonesia after the Spanish Armada was defeated by the English in 1588. Much of the Dutch activity was chartered as the United East India Company (later the Dutch East India Company), a government-run monopoly created from competing merchant companies that were encouraged by the Dutch government to unify in 1601.

The first expedition---four Dutch ships led Cornelius de Houman--- in 1595-97 was both a disaster and a success. One ship was sunk and half the crew and a Javanese prince were lost. The three remaining ships made it back to Holland with cargo holds filled with spices and earned huge profits for those that had invested in the expedition. Ultimately with bigger ships, more powerful guns and better financial backing than their European rivals, Dutch were able to gain control of the East Indies.

With exception of two brief periods of English rule during the turn of the 19th century, Indonesia was under Dutch rule from 1627 to 1942. During that time Indonesia was know variously as the Dutch East Indies, Dutch East India, the Netherlands Indies, the Malay Archipelago, Malaysia, or the East Indies.

The Dutch were interested primarily in commerce and plantation agriculture and making money. The exploited commodities such as spices, teak, coffee and tea and ruled in such a way as to make a maximum profit. Their strategy was to monopolize trade, fix prices and exploit the local population as a labor force. They did relatively little to develop and modernize Indonesia and were largely unsuccessful spreading Christianity.

Dutch and the Spice Trade

The Dutch established a monopoly on the spice trade from the Moluccas . They gained control over the clove trade through an alliance with the sultan of Ternate in the Moluccas in 1607. Dutch occupation of the Bandas from 1609 to 1623 gave them control of the nutmeg trade. Dutch control of the region was fully realized when Melaku was captured from the Portuguese in 1641.

On the Banda Island, the Dutch tried to trade knives, woolen clothes and other things that the Banda islander didn't need. The Dutch demanded that they be given a monopoly and found a few complaint chiefs that signed “contracts” promising them their desired monopoly. In the meantime the English had arrived in the area and they and the Dutch tried to battle and outmaneuver one another for control of the islands.

The Dutch could be quite ruthless when it suited their purposes. In the Bandas, one governor-general beheaded and quartered 44 local chiefs and displayed the remains in 1621 at a fort after Dutch “negotiators” were killed in a dispute over the placement of a fort on sacred site.

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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