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

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

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

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.

Websites and Resources: Different Spices ; Spice Plants ; Spice Farming ; History of Spice Trade ; History Spices, Spices Indian Trade Zone ; Encyclopedia of Spices ; McCormik Spice Encyclopedia ; Wikipedia article on Spices Wikipedia ; Wikipedia article on the Spice Trade Wikipedia ; Book: Spice by Jack Turner (Knopf, 2004)

Early European Explorers and the Spice Islands

location of the Moluccas
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

Ferdinand Magellan
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

Magellan's ship
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

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Spice Islands people
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

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Cinnamon in Sumatra
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.


Cloves are the dried, unopened flower buds of the cenkeh , or clove tree, an evergreen tree related to myrtle. Grown primarily in Indonesia, Zanzibar and the West Indies, cloves are about a half inch long with a knob at one end with unopened pedals. The word "cloves" is derived from the French word for nail, chou , a reference to the cloves shape.

Strongly aromatic and sweetly pungent, cloves are used as a flavoring and scent for mulled wines, chewing gum, perfumes, toothpaste and Indonesian cigarettes. The oil of cloves, derived by distillation with water, has antiseptic properties and is an ingredient in soaps, ointments and drugs. Synthetic vanilla is made from eugenol an ingredient of clove oil. Cloves are a key ingredient in Worcestershire sauce. In the past they were prescribed as cure for toothache, bad breath and a low sex drive.

Cloves originated from Ternate, Tidore and Bacan, Indonesian islands in the Moluccas. They were mentioned by the Chinese in 400 B.C. During the Han dynasty Chinese were permitted to address their emperor only once their breath has been sweetened with “odoriferous pistols”---a reference to cloves.

Cloves were delivered to the Romans by Arab traders and prized as a medicament in medieval times. The Dutch cultivated cloves trees on the Molucca Island of Ambon and had a monopoly on the trade until the French introduced them to Zanzibar and the neighboring Pemba.

Top Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Indonesia, 127687 , 80929; 2) Madagascar, 15777 , 10000; 3) United Republic of Tanzania, 15619 , 9900; 4) Sri Lanka, 6295 , 3990; 5) Comoros, 5522 , 3500; 6) Kenya, 1577 , 1000; 7) China, 1301 , 825; 8) Malaysia, 315 , 200; 9) Grenada, 31 , 20;

Clove Agriculture and Processing

clove flowers in a tree
Cloves grow best is cool, moist air like that found in the hills not far from the sea in southern Java, Sulawesi. Seram and Ambon in the Moluccas in Indonesia. Clove trees reach heights of up to 45 feet. The leaves are shiny, dark green and very fragrant. Small red flowers grow in clusters of three at the end of the branches.

Cloves need rain fall of at least 60 inches and a dry season for harvesting and curing. The bulbs are first pale in color, and then turn green. They are harvested by hand when they are bright red, before the buds open. They are dried on palm mats and are dark brown when they dry.

Indonesia is the world's largest producers of cloves. Nearly all the cloves produced there are purchased domestically to produce kreteks (clove cigarettes). They are also cultivated in Brazil, the West Indies, Mauritius, Madagascar, India, Sri Lanka, Zanzibar and Pemba in Tanzania and Malaysia.

Before 1990, most farmers in Indonesia sold their cloves to local cooperatives that helped dry and store the cloves and sold them to mostly to cigarette makers. Clove farmers did so well they bought refrigerators and televisions as status symbols even though hey had no electricity.


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Nutmeg tree
Nutmeg is the bright red and black kernel (seed) of a yellow, edible, apricot-like fruit from the nutmeg tree, a large evergreen, native to the Moluccas (the Spice Islands in Indonesia). The "filmy" red membrane of fruit that coats the nut is the source of mace, another spice which has a flavor quite different from nutmeg. The nutmeg kernel is an unreal-looking red color that looks hand painted.

Nutmeg itself is poisonous. Only a small amount of it should be eaten. The flavor and fragrance comes from myristica, a mild, poisonous narcotic. Other chemicals are similar to those found in the rave drug ecstacy. Nutmeg has historically been a hypnotic agent. Some people take it to get high. Large amounts can induce hallucinations, epileptic-style seizures and even death.

Some 80 percent of the word's nutmeg still comes from Indonesia. Much of the rest comes from Grenada Nutmeg grown on plantations in the Moluccas (East Indian nutmeg) is exported mostly to Asia and Europe. Nutmeg produces in Grenada (West Indian nutmeg) is exported mostly to the United States. Wild nutmeg trees still grow in the forest of Butu and other islands in the Spice Islands.

Top Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Guatemala, 40180 , 28000; 2) India, 22171 , 15450; 3) Indonesia, 12341 , 8600; 4) Nepal, 11688 , 8145; 5) Bhutan, 8323 , 5800; 6) Grenada, 4018 , 2800; 7) Lao People's Democratic Republic, 3874 , 2700; 8) United Republic of Tanzania, 1004 , 700; 9) Malaysia, 861 , 600; 10) Sri Lanka, 574 , 400; 11) Honduras, 502 , 350; 12) Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, 229 , 160; 13) Trinidad and Tobago, 222 , 155; 14) Ethiopia, 143 , 100; 15) Kenya, 71 , 50; 15) Malawi, 71 , 50; 17) Saint Lucia, 43 , 30; 17) Togo, 43 , 30; 19) Madagascar, 14 , 10; 20) Dominica, 7 , 5;

Uses of Nutmeg

Nutmeg on a tree
In the West, nutmeg it is grated and used as a flavoring in sweet, spicy dishes, fruit cakes, seafood sauces and liqueurs and is key ingredient for mulled wines and Christmas eggnog. In the Middle East, Iran and northern India it is used in delicately flavored meat dishes. The Chinese use it to preserve sausage. The Japanese put it in fish curry. The Dutch sprinkle it on mashed potatoes. Germans add it to sauerkraut.

Nutmeg is believed to be the secret ingredient in Coca Cola, which is said to be the world’s largest consumer of nutmeg. Nutmeg favored cordials consumed in Indonesia taste like Coca Cola without the fizz. Nutmeg fruit is consumed in the Moluccas despite its chemically smell.

Various medicinal and magical powers have been ascribed to nutmeg. The spice has traditionally been worn as an amulet to ward off evil spirits, broken bones and boils. Tucking in one’s armpit is said to help one make friends. A 16th century monk advised young men to rub it on their genitals to give them long-lasting potency. In some places it is used as a treatment for vomiting, diarrhea and loss of appetite.

The price in the early 2000s was around $8 and $10 a pound. Increasing demand from Eastern Europe has raised the price.

Nutmeg Tree

nutmeg parts
There are around 80 different species of nutmeg. The most common type is an evergreen that reaches a height of 40 feet and has small yellow flowers; silver-lined, dark-green, 5-inch leaves; short bushy branches that extend out from the base to the tip; and dark grey-green bark that produces a yellow juice that turns red when it oxidizes.

The fruit has a downy texture like a peach and flesh that is yellow with a slight orangish color. When the fruit is ripe it spits open, revealing the bright red casing of mace. The nutmeg itself is a kernel about he size of plum. In the old days people used to keep the kernel in their pockets with a grater which they used to shave off pieces that were added to meat or ale.

The seeds of wild nutmeg trees are dispersed with the help of a species of green pigeon that needs the seed to properly digest its food. The pigeon has the ability to unhitch its lower beak and expand its mouth to accommodate the huge nutmeg kernel which is often larger than the pigeon’s head.. Most seeds are regurgitated. Smaller ones pass through its digestive system and are expelled with fertilizer that helps it grows.

Nutmeg Cultivation and Processing

Nutmeg trees grows best in volcanic soils in slightly elevated areas near the sea in hot, humid tropical climates. They need shade trees to protect them form the hot tropical sun and grow best in dense tropical rain forests. Saplings are produced from seeds sprouted in nursery beds and transplanted to plantations. The trees take about five years to flower. Female trees are desired because they produce more fruit. When they mature the male plants are thinned out so that the nutmeg-bearing females predominate at a ratio of 10 to 1.

Nutmeg trees bloom and bear fruit the entire year. They bear fruit for 50 or so years, reaching their peak when they are 15 years old and producing steadily less and less after that until production dwindles to nothing. The fruit are ready to harvest when they are yellow in color and the air is filled with a sweet smell. A single tree can produce up to 2,000 nutmegs a year.

In the Moluccas nutmeg is picked with a pole with a knife at one end or a long lacrosse-stick-like pole with a strange "lozenge shaped woven rattan basket with a non-return valve and two fangs for hooking fruit." The fruit is collected in a rattan baskets that looks like a basketful of red muscle shells when full. On Banda island, nutmeg is picked by workers who are allowed to keep half of what they pick.

After the fruit is harvested the sour, tough, almost woody outer pulp is removed. In Indonesia it is regarded as a delicacy and preserved in syrup. Under the husk is a lacy scarlet fiber covering (the aril). Under the mace is the nut-like pit. Inside this is the inch-long ridged nutmeg seed. The seeds are slightly wrinkled and dark brown on the outside and light brown on the inside.

Workers cut the fruit with a paring knife and leave it under the tree so the mace and nutmeg dry in the sun. The mace is striped from the nuts and is dried and flattened between boards. The nuts are dried until they rattle and then they are shelled. At the mill, the mace is ground into a powder while the nuts are usually shipped whole to preserve their flavor. Nutmeg powder loses its flavor quickly. Low quality nuts are ground and used to make "oil of mace" or nutmeg butter.


Cinnamon is the inner bark of a tropical evergreen tree. It has been known since ancient times. In ancient Egypt it was used as a medicine, a flavoring for beverages and as a cavity filler in mummies. In ancient Rome it was valued more than gold. Nero reportedly burned a year’s supply at his wife’s funeral to express the extent of his grief. In the Middle Ages, it was used as a flavoring in a variety of dishes, including mince pie, which is still eaten today.

Cinnamon varieties
Cinnamon was one of the spices sought by early European explorers to Asia. Columbus was looking for it when he discovered America. The Portuguese invaded Sri Lanka after reaching India in 1536 and were able to secure a tribute of 110,000 pounds of cinnamon a year from the Sinhalese king. When the Dutch captured Sri Lanka in 1636 they introduced a system for cultivating cinnamon that is still used today.

Cinnamon has a sweet, woody aroma. In Europe and the United States cinnamon is used mainly in desert dishes or added to bread and other bakery items. In India, it is an ingredient in some curries, rices dishes and is used as flavoring for tea. In the Middle East it used as a flavoring for lamb, tangines and stuffed eggplants. The largest importer of Sri Lankan cinnamon is Mexico, where the spice is brewed as a tea and drunk with coffee and chocolate. In medicine, it is used in some places to treat nausea, flatulence and diarrhea. Cinnamon is rumored to be the secret ingredient in Coca Cola.

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Cinnamon harvesting
Cinnamon is known to stop spoilage. Used by ancient Egyptian mummy embalmers, it is being studied as an ingredient in wrappers and possible natural alternative to chemical preservatives. In a study by Spanish researchers published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, bread already tainted with mold was wrapped with wax paper with six percent cinnamon oil. The growth was inhibited by 96 percent (plain wax paper had no effect on the mold).

Top Producing Countries: (Production, $1000; Production, metric tons in 2008, FAO): 1) Indonesia, 104194 , 60000; 2) China, 95511 , 55000; 3) Sri Lanka, 23322 , 13430; 4) Viet Nam, 21707 , 12500; 5) Madagascar, 2865 , 1650; 6) Seychelles, 163 , 94; 7) Timor-Leste, 130 , 75; 8) Dominica, 104 , 60; 9) Grenada, 86 , 50; 10) Sao Tome and Principe, 52 , 30; 11) Comoros, 17 , 10;

Cinnamon Sources

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Cinnamon harvesting
There are between 50 and 250 cinnamon species depending in the botanical source. Two kinds are used as spices: 1) Ceylon cinnamon, or true cinnamon, light brown bark with a sweet, delicate flavor; and 2) cassia, which is darker, less sweet, thicker and courser than true cinnamon.

True cinnamon is native to Sri Lanka. The best cinnamon is said to grow along the coastal strip near Colombo. Efforts to grow it outside of Sri Lanka have largely been unsuccessful The Seychelles is the only place it has become naturalized.

In North America, cassia is often sold as cinnamon. The cinnamon of ancient times was most likely cassia. The Cassia is native to Burma and is grown in China, Indonesia, the East and West Indies and Central America. There are many varieties of cassia.

Cinnamon Cultivation

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Cinnamon tree
In the wild, cinnamon trees grow tall, with broad trunks. Under cultivation, the shoots are continually cropped almost to ground level. The result is a low, dense, leafy bush that continually produces new stems for bark. Cinnamon grows best in low altitudes in a hot, wet, tropical climate.

The tree produces yellowish white flowers that have an unpleasant smell and yield dark, purple, berries. Both the leaves and bark are aromatic.

Cinnamon comes in the form of “quills”--- strips of rolled bark which have had their outer bark scrapped off. The finest varieties are pale in color and very thin. Processing is relatively simple. The outer bark, cork and inner lie are stripped of the stems. The inner bark is left to dry completely. After it curls into quills it is harvested. Several quill are rolled together, which is then cut into uniform lengths and graded according to thickness, aroma and appearance. Sometimes it is ground into a powder.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2011

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