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Spice Route 1450-1800

From land to sea


Maritime trade between Arabia and China is recorded as far back as the 8th century CE.

In the Middle Ages ships from India heading West would birth in Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea and here the merchandise would be transferred to smaller vessels sailing up the Red Sea before transfer to overland camel trains whose journey of about one month would take them to ports having access directly to Alexandria. Maritime trade generated vibrant cosmopolitan ports in Zanzibar, Alexandria, Muscat, and Goa.

Mamluk sultanate in Cairo (1250-1517)

The Mamluk Sultanate which controlled Egypt, Syria and Hejaz, lasted from 1250 to 1517 – from the overthrow of the Ayyubid dynasty until the Ottoman conquest of Egypt. Ruling Mamluks were high status Turkic and Georgian soldier slaves. At its height the sultanate exemplified the political, economic, and cultural splendor of the Islamic Golden Age that lasted from the 8th to 14th centuries.

Mamluk Egypt supplied Western Europe with raw materials and manufactured textiles, although European production of textiles, silk products, sugar, glass, soaps, and paper was on the increase.

Papal restrictions on Muslim trade during the Crusades was ignored. Mediterranean trade consisted mostly of spices, especially pepper, muscat nuts and flowers, cloves and cinnamon, medicinal drugs and indigo from Persia, India, and SE Asia which entered Europe through the Mamluk ports in Syria and Egypt. Here European merchants traded gold and silver ducats, silk, wool and linen fabrics, furs, wax, honey and cheeses.

In 1387 Sultan Barsbay,(1422-1438) established control of Alexandria and a monopoly on luxury goods and the pricing of spices, then in 1429 he insisted the spice trade to Europe pass through Cairo before reaching Alexandria, effectively closing off the spice trade route from the Red Sea to Alexandria. However, 15th and early 16th century Portuguese expansion into Africa and Asia cut into the Mamluk-Venetian monopoly on the trans-Mediterranean spice trade contributing to the demise of the sultanate.

European merchants

In 1450 trade within the Mediterranean was largely controlled by rich merchants from the Italian city-states of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa with each city-state having its own fleet of ships. Connections with the Silk Road were made through the Byzantine ports of the eastern Mediterranean. Camel trains then passed through the steppes of Central Asia which were peopled by nomadic tribes who would trade goods with Chinese merchants. This was a lengthy and expensive journey with many middle-men.

All this changed in 1453 when the Ottoman Turks overran Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine empire, thus gaining control of the lucrative east-west trade routes. Faced with a resurgent non-Christian power heavily taxing their trade European governments set about finding a quick, cheap, and direct alternative route by sea to access spices and other goods from the East.


Silk Road & Spice Routes
Showing overland routes across the steppes of Central Asia (red) and maritime trade routes (blue)
The overland route from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea Ports and western India was closed by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 prompting a search for alternative sea routes to the west round Cape Horn and east round the Cape of Good Hope – thus launching the Age of Discovery, European colonialism, and the mercantilism that eventually produced the modern global economy
Rt Click to enlarge
Courtesy UNESCO


A partially conjectural map of world trade around 870 CE
The Radhanites (blue lines) were medieval Jewish merchants who dominated trade between the Christian and Islamic worlds during the early Middle Ages and travelled as far as Tang dynasty China
Rt Click to enlarge
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Briangotts – Accessed 19 March 2018

Trade in the Indonesian Archipelago

The trading economies of the Indonesian archipelago rivaled those of the European powers up until about the mid 18th century. To this day the ketch-like two masted pinisi ships – probably based on the Dutch pinnaced ships dating back to the early days of the Dutch East India Company – still ply their trade in rice, copra, sago, and spices as well as modern goods although not in the thousands that once connected all the islands of the Indonesian archipelago.

Local trade of the Sumatra-based Buddhist-Hindu Srivijaya culture of the 8th to the 12th centuries and the later ..Mohavajit Empire gave way to 400 years of European dominance as key trading hubs at Malacca and Makassar and were subjugated on the path to a fast-growing global economy in which gold and silver mined in Mexico and Peru were transported from the Americas to China and Manila.

Breaking the Arab hold on trade – 1450-1600

Toward the end of the first millennium there was a surge in the spice trade as the European nobility began ostentatious displays of wealth by increasing their consumption of luxury goods including spices.[9] Arab traders arrived in Indonesian Archipelago only a few decades after the death of Mohammed and by the 13th century had established settlements and the first sultanates.

By the 15th century the Muslim Turkish empire (which lasted from 1299 to 1922) extended all the way from Morocco to Indonesia, the various Asian trading ports being under the control of Indian and Arab merchants. Suleiman II had, in 1529, expanded the Ottoman Empire over three continents to control much of southeast Europe, Western Asia and North Africa, reaching the outskirts of Vienna in 1529. During his reign admiral Barbarossa had led the Ottoman Navy to several victories over Christian fleets. Controlling much of the Mediterranean basin for about 600 years the Turkish navy competed with the navies of Europe and controlled the crossroads of trade between East and West through the capital Constantinople (Istanbul) situated at the entrance to the Bosphorus, the strait between the Mediterranean and Black Seas on the critical boundary between Europe and Asia.

For seven or eight centuries nutmeg and mace were supplied to Europe at exorbitant prices by Arab merchants who maintained a monopoly on trade by concealing their source, a matter of some irritation to the Christian crowns of Europe.[9] All this would change with the establishment of a sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope, cutting out the Arab controlled Red Sea and Persian Gulf and giving Europeans direct access to the wealth of Indian and Far Eastern trade that would drive the European economy and colonial aspirations from the late Middle Ages into the modern era.

At the end of the 15th century the East-West maritime trade could be divided into seven distinct trading zones and major ports: Red Sea (Aden), Persian Gulf (Hormuz), Arabian Sea, Indian Ocean (Calicut), Bay of Benghal (Calcutta), Java Sea (?), and South China Sea (Malacca).(B. p. 47) Multinational trading was subject to taxes at the various ports which demanded respect for their local cuture.

A world currency

Control of the spice trade seemed to guarantee riches as they were, at this time, a universal currency and world commodity that at their peak value rivalled gold. Portuguese, Dutch and English colonial empires in Asia (and to a lesser extent those in the New World) sprang from the race to control the spices trade. The Spice Race was initiated in the 15th early 16th centuries by the heroes of the Age of Discovery, Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), Vasco da Gama (?1460-1524), and Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521): all were spice hunters first and discoverers second. Spanish conquistadors in the New World were motivated by the lure of spices as much as gold and silver although it was first the Portuguese and then the Dutch that would dominate trade with the Far East.

It was because of the Dutch spice trade and the Dutch East India Company based in Batavia (Jakarta) that there was a gathering awareness of the mysterious land mass to the south.


The sheltered port of Malacca on the Malay Peninsula was an ideal staging post for trade between the Indian Ocean, Java Sea, and South China Sea which made it among the world’s foremost harbours of the late 15th century. Northern monsoon winds would bring Chinese traders in January and February turning southerly for the return trip mid-May. Between April and August south-west monsoons would bring the Muslim trading ships with their Arab, Indian, Javan, Sumatran, Malayan, and Persian crews. Moving mostly westward were camphorwood, cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, pepper, and sandalwood exchanged for gold and other metals, silver, Chinese porcelain and silk, and Indian textiles.(B. p. 46) To control the port of Malacca was to control maritime trade between East and West.

The Spice Islands

Indonesia is an archipelago of about 17,000 islands and more than 155 active volcanoes the most famous being on the island of Krakatoa (it last erupted in 1883) in the strait between Java and Sumatra. These volcanoes are distributed in an arc along the tectonic plate extending from Sumatra to Flores. Continental Australia’s northward migration into the Pacific Ocean plate has produced the 5000 m glaciated New Guinea highlands while to the east four tectonic plates meet: the Indian Ocean, Asian, Australian, and Pacific plates.

Of today’s c. 250 million Indonesian people about 170 million live in the densely populated Java and Sumatra. Spices are found on the sparsely populated islands of the East Indonesian Maluku group (the Moluccas) which comprise over 1000 islands carrying a population today of about 2.5 million people.

In the South Moluccas lie the Ambon and Banda island groups which remain remote. Nutmeg occurred naturally on the southern islands of Banda, Lontar, Ai, and Run while the original natural distribution of cloves was restricted to the northern Moluccan islands of Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Makian and Bacan.

Bacan is the largest and tallest of the spice islands with its peak rising to 2110 m. Passing Bacan the traveller heading north crosses the equator before encountering the islands of Makian, which once provided the majority of the region’s cloves, and Moti before reaching the adjacent twin volcanic islands of Ternate crowned by the 1720m-tall Mount Gamalama (more than 60 eruptions since the earliest record of 1538,[19] the last time in July 2015), and Tidore whose Mount Kiematubu reaches 1730 m. All the while the extensive island of Halmahera serves as a backdrop to the east.

The Mediterranean

Though maritime trade after 1450 was to expand across the world, competition for the highly lucrative merchandise distribution within the Mediterranean was among Italian coastal states of Genoa, Pisa, Naples, and Venice, the latter becoming the envied and despised victor (immortalised in the title of Shakespeare’s play ‘Merchant of Venice‘).


Here merchants of all nationalities could be seen in the bustling aromatic bazaars of carpets and spices, silks and textiles, trinkets and jewellery, money-changers, marble buildings, and warehouses that all bore witness to the international vibrancy and luxurious benefits of trade.

Spices became the favoured commodity among the well-to-do, provided the seasoning so desperately needed to relieve the taste and smell of the deteriorating meat consumed so widely across Europe. Sea trade with Venice took advantage of both the Silk Road and Spice route as the Venetian fleet consisting of thousands of ships combining both public and private interests sought protection in numbers as they headed for either the Silk Road port of Constantinople and Black Sea ports, or heading more southerly for the Spice Route ports of Antioch, Tyre, Gaza, and Alexandria.(B. p. 51)

The powerful European Iberian nations of Spain and Portugal, fronting on to the Atlantic, now considered the possibility of cutting out Venice, the expensive Mediterranean middle-man, by dealing directly with India and the Far East. This could be done by sailing around the southern cape of Africa.

The Spanish

Early European seaborne empires were dominated by the navies of Spain and Portugal. Looking for a western route to the Spice Islands Columbus established a Spanish presence in the Bahamas in 1492, setting a precedent for future Spanish domination of this New World. Portuguese interests would, over time, be more evident in the pursuit of spices by means of an eastern route to the Far East as Spanish interests retreated to Manila in the Philippines which became its colonial capital in 1565. With major Spanish commercial interest in the Americas a direct global market was established between cloves of Tidore and silver mined in Mexico and Peru.

Christopher Columbus
In 1492 Genoese sea captain Christopher Columbus set sail for the Asian Indies hoping to find a trade route that would yield new treasures along with the secrets of the Asian spice trade. After numerous aborted requests to Portuguese sources to sponsor his expedition he eventually took up Spanish nationality to gain 2500 ducats-worth of support from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, the most powerful European monarchs at the time. Sailing west across the Atlantic he made landfall on several islands of the present day Bahamas (West Indies) thinking he had arrived at the Spice Islands. He had sailed from the Canaries to the Bahamas, a distance of 8,690 km, in 36 days, a remarkable feat. Though he had encountered the Americas, Columbus did not return in triumph: the desired spices had not been found and he had lost one of his ships, bringing back only a few trinkets and some natives as proof of his journey. Even after three more voyages that included Spanish settlement and landfall in Central America there were still no spices. Columbus died believing the islands of the Caribbean were the mysterious orient … that the natives were ‘Indians’ and their sacred chilies wer ‘red pepper’, and that the West Indies were indeed the East Indies – even though his contemporaries had long decided that the Americas were, in fact, a ‘New World’.

Columbus did, however, assist future navigators by observing that the prevailing winds in the low latitudes around the tropics were easterlies (blowing from east to west) and those in the middle latitudes westerlies. These winds, aptly termed the ‘trade winds’, would now provide a means of sailing east-west and vice-versa without having to tack for long periods. Knowing the latitudes of the trade winds was also a way of avoiding the dreaded ‘doldrums’, latitudes where there were long periods of time with no wind at all.

Ferdinand Magellan
Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese explorer determined to build on Columbus’s discoveries by finding a westward route across the Atlantic then Pacific Oceans, passing around South America on the way to the Spice Islands. He had served Almeida in India followed by the two expeditions to and capture of Malacca. Like Columbus he needed finance for the expedition and he looked to Spanish royalty as sponsors, presenting King Carlos with the known information about the Moluccas, charts of the Banda and Java Seas, and a globe indicating that the Spice Islands lay within Spanish territory as agreed under the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), suggesting possible Spanish wresting of the spice trade from Venetian and Portuguese control.[26]

Leaving with five ships in 1519, and orders to find the western route to the Spice Islands that Columbus had missed. From the start the Spanish crews were rebellious, resenting Magellan’s leadership, and mutiny was only just averted, the ships negotiating what is know known as the Strait of Magellan. Only three ships anchored in the Philippines in 1521 where on the island of Cebu he persuaded the local King Humabon to convert to Christianity. In the attempt to suppress a rebellious chief on the Island of Mactan Magellan was killed and, with King Humabon turning against then the depleted Spanish fled with only two ships. The wandering expedition continued under the command of Sebastian del Cano in the Victoria anchoring off Tidore in the Spice Islands in November 1521 ready to to stock up with cloves.

This was the first circumnavigation of the world, setting finite boundaries to planet earth and confirming the conclusion of the Greek Eratosthenes, over 1500 years before, that the Earth was a sphere. The cost was high with only one of the original five vessels returning. The sale of 533 hundredweight of returned cloves amply covered the expense of the voyage and King Carlos awarded del Cano a coat of arms displaying two cinnamon sticks, three nutmegs, and twelve cloves. Though considered a Spanish triumph the voyage had lost its leader and only 18 sick men manned the battered Victoria when it anchored in Seville. But for 250 years Spain controlled one major spice route passing through the continents of Asia, the Americas, and Europe.

The Portuguese

The Portuguese were at the height of their trading power in the period of 1571-1610 when they possessed bases that spanned the world from Brazil to Macau.

Iberian trade routes were founded mainly on pre-existing trading stations and routes. Portugal, became the major European sea power of the day with a fleet of 300 ships, achieving its success through the development of maritime technology (see below) and exploration of the West African coast of Africa by nobleman ‘Henry the Navigator’ (1394-1460) a pioneer in the Age of Discovery in the 1420s. Henry hoped to establish trade links, explore islands, and possibly find the legendary, possibly mythological, Christian emperor Prester John. So Portuguese expansion began with the exploration of coastal west Africa including the colonization of its offshore Atlantic islands. In spite of early Portuguese claims it was Spain that began its ultimate occupation of the Canaries in 1402 but other island groups later fell to Portugal: Madeira (1418) and, further south, the Azores (c. 1427),and Cape Verde Island groups (discovered 1456, settled 1462) islands that would establish sugar plantations and become important stop-off points for the Portuguese slave trade.[22] Further south and also eventually claimed by Portugal were the islands Ascension (1501),[24][25] St Helena (c. 1502), and Tristan da Cunha (1506).

Eventually the African Cape of Good Hope was rounded by Bartholomew Diaz in 1488, a major milestone on the route to the East, Vasco da Gama later continuing directly across the Indian Ocean to Calicut on India’s Malabar coast.

Vasco da Gama
Searching for a sea route to the Far East Portugal’s Vasco da Gama set out in 1497, his flotilla equipped with the latest navigational aids and specially rigged to withstand rough weather – but rather than heading west, like Columbus, this time the ships headed east. Braving the hazardous African Cape of Good Hope he sailed into uncharted waters along the coast of east Africa then crossed the Indian Ocean to anchor off Calicut (Calcutta) on the Indian west coast in May 1498 completing Europe’s first direct sea voyage to Asia. At this time Calicut, and the associated Malabar Coast was one of the world’s most vibrant trading hubs for spices and other goods passing between East and West on the busy maritime trade routes. The locally produced Kerala pepper is used in Ayurvedic medicine and was first traded in about 3000 BCE, Egyptian papyri reporting the use of Asian herbs by the labourers building the great pyramid of Cheops.

Da Gama’s newly discovered trade route had removed the necessity for overland camel trains and Arab middle-men. He had broken not only the Arab hold on the spice trade but also the commercial grip of wealthy Venetian and Genoan merchants acting as financial middle-men for trade across the Mediterranean. Da Gama records how the Arab traders of Malindi had offered his sailors oranges and that their ailment (presumably scurvy[21]) had miraculously disappeared – this 300 years before Cook’s famed use of citrus for English sailors.<sup[23]

Pedro Cabral
Having gained this strategic advantage a second fleet of 13 ships and 1,000 men was sent in 1500 under the command of Pedro Cabral. Now the goal was to seize control of both the spice trade and Indian Ocean – an undertaking that was ruthlessly achieved in just a few years.[11] The return of ships to Lisbon laden with spices was received with jubilation by all except the merchants of Venice. Having gained a firm hold in the East it was now time to take control of the Indian trade.

Alfonso de Albuquerque
To complete this task an Armada of 22 ships was assembled and set sail in 1505. Through the years 1507-1515 Albuquerque gained control of sea routes by capturing trading ports at the mouths of the Red Sea and Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf in 1515. Francisco de Almeida was appointed to blockade the mouth of the Red Sea. After a failed attempt to take Calicut in 1509 de Albuquerque was eventually more successful, taking the important port of Goa on the Indian west coast which was taken in 1510 (only subsequently returned to India in 1961).

Then in 1511, the key Asian free-trade spice port of the Sultanate of Malacca (Arabic malakat, market) in Malaysia was added. At this time Malacca was a key port for trade between the Indian Ocean, China and southeast Asia and the richest port in the East: it was captured and secured with fortifications along with other coastal trading posts in the region. The fleet of 15 vessels under Albuquerque had included captains Magellan, Abreu, and Serrão.

The precise trade route from India to the Spice Islands themselves was still unknown to the Portuguese until finally, in December 1511, three ships under the command of Antonio de Abreu arrived at the Banda Island group where they filled their holds with nutmeg and mace leaving the cloves behind to be collected the following year. The mysterious islands so long protected from European eyes – Greek, Roman, and Portuguese – had finally succumbed.

By the end of 1515 Portugal controlled the sea trade passing from the Moluccas to Malacca, trade to both India and Sri Lanka and the route to Lisbon whether via the Mediterranean or Atlantic Ocean. Asian and Arab traders not holding a Portuguese license would now have their cargoes confiscated.

Antonio de Abreu
By 1514 both the Moluccan Spice Islands of Amboina and Banda were under Portuguese control. By adding the rich cinnamon forests in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) to their dominions Portugal had cornered the cinnamon trade as well.

With the secret source of spices finally revealed the Arab commercial hold on the East Indies was at last broken. Portugal now sealed its trade monopoly with a garrison empire of trading posts distributed around the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese was the first and longest-lived of the European empires in Asia, some outposts lasting for nearly 500 years. It was a trade monopoly that had avoided large-scale territorial acquisition, needing only the trading stations and fort-ports that supported the trade.

With the agreement of Sultan Bolief in 1518 a permanent trading post and fort was established on the island of Ternate and, with moderate success, the Portuguese set about establishing a monopoly on the trade in cloves.

Treaty of Saragossa (1529)

With both Spain and Portugal having trading interests in the East Indies disputes over trading rights demanded resolution. Pope Alexander IV through the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas granted discoveries to the west of a mid-Atlantic meridian to Spain and those to its east to Portugal – half way between the Cape Verde Islands (Portugal) and Hispaniola (Spain). Portugal captured Malacca in 1511 and the Banda islands in 1512, the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace and, while heading for home with the holds full, stumbled across the clove islands of Ternate and Tidore, the last piece of the spice jigsaw. In 1529 with the Treaty of Saragossa ceded the Moluccas to Portugal and the Philippines to Spain, Manila being the port for Spanish trade with Asia.[12] The Spanish, meanwhile, had been diverted from interests in the Far east by the discovery of the Americas and the resources to be exploited there, giving Portugal unhindered control of the spice trade for nearly a century. Walter Raleigh had travelled to the New World in 1585, his botanical finds being published in 1597 in Gerard’s Herball (for the most part a derivative work translating other European herbalists), the most widely circulated botany book in English in the 17th century,[15]after the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588.

The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas was an agreement between the dominant European powers of the time, Portugal and Spain, to divide between them any newly discovered lands outside Europe. A rough longitudinal line was indicated to the west of the Cape Verde islands (off the west coast of Africa) about halfway between these Portuguese-held islands and the islands discovered by Cape Verde islands (already Portuguese) and the islands discovered by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage. Land east of the line would be Portuguese, those to its west Spanish.

This left some uncertainty about the line of demarcation on the opposite side of the world so in 1529 the Treaty of Saragossa established the appropriate delimiting line of longitude for this part of the world.

These treaties served quite well but, being accepted through papal authority and omitting other European countries were ignored by ascendant Protestant countries following the Reformation.

By 1620 Portuguese power was waning with vulnerability to attach from both sultans and the ascendant Dutch. Fortunes had changed when, in 1580, Spain’s Philip II seized the Portuguese crown and an ‘Iberian Union’ was formed with the crowns of Portugal and Spain united for 60 years. Spanish possessions now became a potential military target for the Dutch Republic which was at war with Spain. This was an opportunity to gain a foothold in the highly lucrative spice trade and the Netherlands began a successful military take-over of the Portuguese trading bases an economic triumph as the bankers in Amsterdam and Antwerp thrived. By 1650 Amsterdam financiers effectively controlled the European economy.

The Dutch

The Catholic Christianity of Portugal had made little impact in the East. In 1581 the Protestant United Provinces of the Netherlands was formed as a reaction to Spanish Catholic domination. Following the tradition of Venice and the Italian city-states, the cities of Antwerp and Amsterdam now gained a stranglehold on spice trade in Europe. Attempts by the Portuguese to stifle the rise of a Dutch merchant class failed and the Netherlands entered a Golden Age that included its assumption of colonial power in the East Indies. It was the era of Dutch science that included botanists studying the plants of the tropics, finance demonstrated by the VOC and its stock market, the art of Rembrandt and Vermeer, all buoyed by wealth amassed from the spice trade. Dutch domination in the Far East was a result of a heavy hand and a direct route from the Cape of Good Hope to the Sunda Strait in Indonesia.

Portuguese navigation charts stolen by Jan Huyghen van Linschoten were used for a Dutch reconnaissance of the Moluccas in 1599. From a base in Batavia in the 17th to 20th centuries the Dutch would systematically take control of the the entire archipelago including trade with the Chinese at Macau and Japanese in Nagasaki. Little attempt was made to convert its population to Christianity. European power struggles would come to a head in the Seven Years War of 1756–1763, virtually the first global war, and the later Napoleonic Wars of 1803–1815 from which arose a new order of commerce in which Britain ruled the waves.

Dutch sailors now had access to sophisticated navigation charts, notably Mercator’s World Chart of 1569 and had become the greatest Asian maritime power, controlling cloves, mace and nutmeg in the Moluccas, cinnamon in Ceylon and pepper in Malabar (southern India).

Only with the Declaration of Indonesian Independence in 1945 would colonial control of the Indonesian region, latterly shared with Britain, come to a close.

The Dutch East India Company

Sensing the potential for huge profits the
Dutch East India Company
(Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC) was founded in 1602. Promotion of the company was encouraged by the production of a detailed map of the East Indies as a copper plate engraving by clergyman Petrus Plancius. The VOC was the most successful corporate venture in the world to date – as Amsterdam merchants united to reduce competition, share risk, and realize economies of scale setting a precedent for the multinational organizations of today. As locals traded rice, fruit, and coconuts the Dutch commandeered the spices, timber, textiles, and metals that were passing to the major Asian ports and Europe.

A Far Eastern Headquarters were established in Batavia (Jakarta). Though there was a lucrative pepper trade in Java and Sumatra, and resins and camphor to trade with China, it was cloves and nutmeg that were the prize.

With the VOC we see the formation of the first joint stock company and the establishment of the world’s first stock exchange in Amsterdam. The company thrived, paying its shareholders an annual dividend of 40% on their investment. Employees numbered about 50,000 including a private fleet with 30,000 fighting men and 200 ships: they were heavily armed and unscrupulous. Dutch naval supremacy was achieved by a military take-over of existing Portuguese and Spanish settlements. Between 1605 and 1621 the Portuguese were driven out of the Spice Islands.[13] The VOC took Ambon (colonised by the Portuguese in 1526) in 1606 where Fort Amsterdam was constructed in 1637 to become the centre of trade in the Moluccas and built on the site of Serrao’s storehouse constructed in 1512, and the nutmeg Banda Islands in 1621 (most of the population slaughtered or expelled) leading to a monopoly of clove production by 1650. In 1667 Makassar was captured and Fort Rotterdam constructed.

From the beginning of recorded history, Chinese junks and other boats from Southeast Asia had been welcomed to trade with the sultans of the Spice Islands. The sultans of the clove islands had also welcomed trade with the Europeans but the independent Islamic merchants of the Moluccas had never allowed Spain or Portugal to build forts on their islands and insisted on free trade. The Dutch East India Company supplanted the Portuguese and traded the resources of Southeast Asia using the persuasive power of its gunboats for negotiation, arriving in Ternate in 1601 and building forts throughout the island group.

Having cornered the spice market, like their predecessors the Dutch now attempted to raise prices further by monopolizing their control of sources. Sultans of Timor, Ternate and the Moluccas were persuaded to remove clove and nutmegs from their land, thus confining nutmeg to the Banda Island group and cloves to Ambon. Each year rogue plant populations were removed and nutmegs were treated with lime after harvest to prevent them from being grown elsewhere. In 1621 Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Director of the VOC, massacred the population of Lontar, largest island in the Banda chain, creating 68.5 acre nutmeg plantations called perkens, each managed by a Dutch perkonier, this island becoming the world’s greatest producer. Fort Hollandia was built here in 1624 to protect the strait approaching the island of Bandaneira and its volcano Gunung Api guarded by the Dutch with Fort Nassau (1609) and the substantial Fort Belgica (c. 1611), the latter intended to guard the Banda Group as a whole.

By 1681 the Dutch monopoly of the spice trade was secure and this lasted for about 200 years. The huge profits from this strategy fuelled the Dutch Golden Age which lasted from about 1580 to 1670.

End of the spice monopoly

Inevitably spice plants were eventually smuggled to be cultivated elsewhere. Eventually the French through the aptly named Pierre Poivre (Peter Pepper), who was an administrator on Mauritius, smuggled plants, including cloves, nutmeg, and cassia, to the Ile de France in 1770, cloves from these plantations growing well when transported to nearby Madagascar and the Zanzibar Archipelago. By 1800 the Dutch government had assumed control of the bankrupt VOC and through the 19th century the Dutch colonial administration introduced roads, railways, improved shipping along with rubber and tobacco plantations while ruthlessly suppressing any dissent.

In 1795 Ceylon (Sri Lanka) became a crown colony of Britain and cinnamon was released from the control of the Dutch and distributed to other tropical regions and in 1843 nutmeg was transplanted to Grenada in the Caribbean. The British occupied the Moluccas twice during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and transplanted spices to possessions in SE Asia. With the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 colonial possessions of the Dutch ceded to Britain and France during the Napoleonic Wars were returned to the pre-war state of 1803 in the Americas, Africa, and Asia with the exceptions of the Cape of Good Hope and certain South American settlements.

Tobacco, coffee, and tea had dampened the desire for spices and textiles were now generating substantial profits. With its monopoly broken, the VOC widened its interests to Java and the trade in sugar and coffee, its trade monopolies declining under renewed competition from British, French, American and Chinese commercial interests. Over time world attention passed to new commodities: tea, silver, Rubber and textiles.

The English

Francis Drake
Englishman Francis Drake was a privateer who made a small fortune plundering gold, silver and other goods from Spanish galleons in South America and mule trains in Panama. Leaving Plymouth in 1577 he set out with five ships on a secret mission announcing after leaving port that he was out to discover new lands including the famed Terra Australis. Following the western route he completed the world’s second circumnavigation (1577-1580) passing through the Moluccas in 1579 and returning to a hero’s welcome and securing a title from Queen Elizabeth for the booty he had collected which amounted to more than a year’s royal income. He had visited Ternate in the Golden Hind in 1579 sealing a trading agreement for cloves with the Sultan, an action that prompted the formation of the British East India Company which arrived in the islands in 1603.

The nutmeg islands of Ai and Run were, in the reign of James 1 (1566–1625), the first overseas British possessions first occupied in 1603 and defended from the Dutch by Nathaniel Courthope (1585-1620) for five years, key figure in Giles Milton’s novel Nathaniel’s Nutmeg (1999). Run, an island in the Banda group was established in 1616 as the first English overseas colony but were overrun by the Dutch in 1620. So intent on nutmeg were the Dutch that they traded New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) to gain its possession through the Treaty of Breda (1667) at the conclusion of the second Anglo-Dutch war, a foolhardy bargain by the Dutch when viewed with the benefit of hindsight. On the island of Ai the English built Fort Revenge, captured by the Dutch in 1616. So determined were the Dutch that th English left the spice islands in 1624 to give their attention to commercial ventures in China and India. Dutch trading rites were also established in Ceylon (1638, being managed essentially by the VOC until 1798 when it became a British possession), Malacca (1641), and Taiwan, followed by the pepper ports of the Indian Malabar coast (1661–1663). By 1657 the company was almost bankrupt, losing the commercial battle with VOC, but was reinvigorated by its trade with India, Surat, Madras, and Calcutta that included cotton, dye, salt, saltpetre, and silk and by 1770 thriving on a lively trade in tea and opium (cultivated in India) with Q’ing China through Canton and Macau. The company developed an army and taxation system and with the defeat of the Bengal army (supported by French troops) at Plassey in 1757 assumed the status of a national government as part of the Seven Years’ War that gave Britain maritime powers. Penang was used as an alternative to Dutch controlled Malacca.

However, following Napoleon’s defeat in 1815 the Moluccas became a British possession and nutmeg was introduced from the islands to Sri Lanka and Grenada although soon returned to the Dutch as the colony of the Dutch East Indies.

As in the 19th century imperial Britain gained control of India, Malaya and China Iberian control of the East Indies encouraged the search for yet further access routes. Encouraged by Mercator’s maps indicating free space to the polar north there began a search for the north-est passage above Asia and a north-east passage above the Americas.

British East India Company

British defeat of the Spanish armada in 1588 had opened up the seas to the British, Dutch and others. In 1600 Elizabeth I granted a royal charter to 215 London merchants allowing them to trade privately on behalf of Britain as the East India Company (EIC), the Charter granting them a 15-year monopoly on trade with all countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan. Like the VOC this was a commercially successful joint-stock company set up to trade in the East Indies but with strong competition from the Dutch transferred its attentions to India maintaining a presence from 1612. The Company created trading ports and factories in Surat (1612), Madras (1639), Bombay (1668), and Calcutta (1690).

Protection of commercial interests and competition with the VOC for trade routes and colonies led to the two Anglo-Dutch wars of 1652-1674 and 1781-1810. Impressed by the performance of the EIC Charles II in 1670s conferred near sovereign powers through the right of the company to make its own territorial acquisitions, mint money, build forts, employ troops, make political alliances, and to exercise jurisdiction over its acquired domains.

The British East India Company (‘The Company’) was a joint-stock company chartered by the Queen on 31 Dec. 1600, marking the beginnings of global mercantilism and the first of several European East India Companies, including the Dutch East India Company that would have a major influence on the early history of Australia. This single company would dominate British finance and command half of global trade backed by a private army and their own coinage although weakened for a period during the English Civil War (1642–1651). Setting out to exploit the spice trade in the East Indies it would eventually influence the lives of over 400 million Indians, trade extensively with China, spreading the English language and the philosophy of enterprise and capitalism with the benefits of improved food, clothing and living standards for some, but also the adverse effects of profiteering, corruption, and colonial oppression.

Trade with India and the Orient included cotton, silk, saltpetre, porcelain, spices, tea, opium, salt, and calico. Over 14 years a trading station was constructed at Fort St George in Madras in 1639, over the next50 years other trading ports also established at Calcutta and Bombay for trade in tea, coffee and textiles like chintz which began to replace wool and silk. By 1700 there were 22 trading stations in India, the company increasing its power and presence, owning infrastructure and issuing coinage and, as Moghul India declined, assuming corporate sovereignty of the state of Bengal. Existence was rugged with a high death rate from disease rapidly spreading in the heat but also extensive drinking, gambling and brawling. Company officials adopted a pompous and arrogant manner, ostentatiously spending money like the Maharajahs. Tensions with France were rising and the lack of discipline prompted Clive to take government control of what was a private company to form a British colony.

British domination of Bengal was sealed when the private army of Lord Clive defeated the allied forces of Mir Jafar, the Nawab of Bengal, and a French army, at the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Major General Clive thus secured the region for Britain together with the wealth that would follow the region and the wealth that follow but is also associated with high taxation of the citizenry, cruelty, pillaging, and the cultivation of opium crops that lead to famine, not to mention his personal accumulation of wealth and a vast property empire back in Britain. He was a ‘nouveau riche Nabob’, a man, like many others at the time, who used wealth to assume the status of aristocracy. When famine broke out leading to the deaths of 2-10 million Indians the economic bubble had burst but being a colony too significant to abandon responsibility its administration passed from private hands to the British government.

Governor Richard Wellesley stepped into the breach building up the army and, rather than encouraging commerce, pursuing his imperial ambitions in southern and western India as a wealthy civil service developed, specially trained to look beyond profit but noted for its Britishness, bungalows, summer retreats in the hills and an aristocratic demeanour. The Company had been careful in dealing with Christian-Hindu-Muslim differences but, stirred by the moral fervour of slavery Abolitionist Wilberforce a Christian attempt to challenge the Indian caste system took the form of an attempt to Christianize and civilize. European moral and racial superiority was unquestioned and European customs and manners promoted, not least through the introduction of an English-style formal education system using English language – which continues today.

English control of the opium trade, used to provide the currency needed to buy tea, was resisted by Chinese authorities and eventually led to the forced dumping of shipments at sea. Insulted the Royal Navy bombarded the Chinese coast, subjugated Hong Kong and continued the trade. Imperial arrogance included the ill treatment of Indian soldiers enlisted into the British army leading to a Muslim and Hindu mutiny until in 1858 Queen Victoria assumed authority as Empress of India as the English language, legal system, cricket and so on took a greater hold.

By 1700 a small trading empire had been built with an army of 200,000 men to police its interests, mainly in India. Plants and plant products formed a major part of the company’s trade as cotton, indigo, tea, spices, and opium. Merchants became rich acquiring large estates, the company itself being the largest in Britain and thriving from the energy of the Industrial Revolution. Rule over large areas of India however became corrupt the British government removing its monopoly rights in 1813 and effectively dissolving the company in 1857, an action followed by the imposition of British rule in India as the British Raj.

Trade & Australia

It is against this background that we see the establishment of Australia as a post on the other side of the world. Australia’s European links to plants began well before Cook’s voyage of scientific exploration in HMS Endeavour and Banks and Solander’s collecting spree at Botany Bay. Cook and Banks were well aware of the economic potential of plant resources. It was no doubt the memory of spices, the ‘gold and silver’ of the Middle Ages, traded between the great civilizations of the world, that prompted their interest in the mast-like straight trunks of the Araucaria trees spied on the Loyalty Islands, and the possibility of Norfolk Island flax for the hungry English textile mills of the Industrial Revolution, arguably a greater incentive for the settlement of Australia than the dumping of convicts.[20] The Dutch East India company (VOC) had, 200 years before, sent Abel Tasman to assess the Australian potential but Tasman had given the continent an economic thumbs down. Perhaps this is just as well as the spice islands to Australia’s north bear the show the signs of the European conflict for domination of the spice trade (which had begun, so far as we know, with Venitian merchants) and their subjugation of the indigenous people through the forts that stud the islands – in sequence, those of the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and British leaving today’s strange amalgam of European colonial mansions and churches, and the Muslim architecture of the local sultanates.

Against the grand global plant lust for spices and the lucrative possibilities of Araucaria trees and Norfolk Island flax spied by England’s first voyage of discovery that the convict motivation for settlement takes on a reduced significance.

Clove islands Ternate & Tidore

The twin adjacent volcanic islands of Ternate and Tidore, long-time rivals, continued the tradition of enmity under both their Islamic Sultanates and European occupation. Portugal had effectively taken posession of Ternate and simmering resentment of the new rulers on Ternate gave the Spanish a chance to capture the heart of the Sultan of Tidore but the 1529 Treaty of Saragossa ceded the Spice Islands to Portugal. News of the treaty arrived late as the Portuguese had already subjugated Tidore, its fort and Sultan with Spanish interest moving to the Philippines where they occupied Cebu and in 1571 took the city of Manila. Before long Spanish silver dollars (‘pieces of eight’), made from Spanish metal extracted from mines in South America, were the currency of choice throughout the East.

Named after the island’s volcano Fort Gamalama was built on Ternate by the Portuguese as a defence against attackers eventually becoming a walled town also with remains of the Portuguese Fort Toluko and Dutch Fort Oranje.

Clove trade between India and the Spice Islands began in April when the Royal Clove Ship sailed out of Goa arriving at Ternate in October just when the harvest of cloves was complete. Loading cloves at Ternate, nutmeg at Banda the ship waited in the Bay of Ambon for the May monsoon trade wind to arrive, returning to Goa where connecting ships would take the cloves to Portugal. Dutch influence increased between 1606 and 1663 and allied with the Sultan of Ternate against Spain and the Sultan of Tidore the Spanish withdrew to Manila.

Swamping the European market in the 1650s resulted in a clove glut, Director Jan Coen ordering destruction of trees on Ternate and other drastic measures that would restore high prices.

In the late 18th century French challenge tpo Dutch control in the region led to several English occupations of Ambon and though it was finally returned to the Dutch it was not before the English had transplanted nutmeg to its colonies thus breaking the Dutch monopoly.

In 1592 the English captured a Portuguese spice ship off the Azores, it contained:

425 tonnes of pepper, 45 tonnes of cloves, 35 tonnes of cinnamon, 3 tonnes of mace, 3 tonnes of nutmeg, 25 tonnes of cochineal and 2.5 tonnes of benjamin (an aromatic resin), as well as ebony, ivory, pearls and precious jewels. The cargo value of this single ship was estimated at half a million pounds, almost half of England’s treasury at this time(B pp. 122-123)

Establishment of both Spanish and Portuguese trade created a network of trade routes that spanned the world – the beginnings of today’s global economy. South American gold and silver passed to China and the East Indies while laquered goods, porcelain, silk, spices an other fancy goods flowed into Europe.

The island is especially well known for Alfred Russell Wallace‘s Letter from Ternate, his account of natural selection sent to Darwin in 1858 and expediting the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859).

With France and England obtaining nutmeg plants plantations were set up in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and Granada spices became commonplace and relatively cheap, much as they are today. Through the 17th and 18th centuries the one-time mystery and magic of spices that enhanced the exotic cuisine of the aristocracy faded as their use passed into broader society. Nevertheless, the anticipation of fortunes to be made from plant commodities was a factor high on the list of reasons to delve into the last global frontier Terra Australis Incognita.

European colonial conflict finally drew to a close with the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and Napoleonoic Wars (1803-1815) with England, now ruling the waves, taking the Lion’s share of the Far East but returning the islands to the Dutch as the Dutch East indies, remaining in Dutch hands until the Declaration of Indonesian Independence in 1949, acknowledged and granted by Holland in 1949.

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