Scents of the Spice Islands – Haven for a Historian

Every SeaTrek voyage serves up rich experiences in the fields of botany and zoology, geography and oceanography, ethnography or cultural studies – something for everybody, in other words. My own favourite SeaTrek itinerary covers all of these, but it adds something special for a lifelong historian like me. “Scents of the Spice Islands”, sailing the Moluccas from Ternate to Banda each year in September-October, is an extraordinary time capsule: a voyage into a fascinating past that comes vividly to life virtually everywhere we anchor.

For a start, we’re in the island realm of history’s greatest mariners. The people of the Moluccas are descended from a race of seafarers whose ancestors sailed out of China 5000 years ago. They spread through all of island South-East Asia – including the 17,000 islands of today’s Republic of Indonesia – and then navigated even further, across two thirds of the planet’s oceans. They settled as far away as Madagascar in one direction; Hawaii, Easter Island and New Zealand in the other.

We see evidence of this maritime heritage everywhere we go: trading sloops anchored off remote islands, elegant outrigger craft on village beaches, craftsmen skilfully shaping new boats beneath the palm trees, Sea Gypsy children paddling dugouts or swimming like fish beneath the waves. Every island no matter how small is connected to every other island by a web of sea-routes plied by colourful, locally built market boats and ferries.

From ancient times the Moluccas were the source of some of the world’s rarest and most precious commodities: the spices clove, nutmeg and mace. They had evolved on just a few of the volcanic, equatorial islands that we visit, and nowhere else on earth. That made these remote islands the starting point of ancient trade networks that carried the unbelievably costly spices to distant markets in China, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

We visit beautiful, shady plantations of nutmeg trees on the Banda islands and admire groves of shapely clove trees on Ternate or Tidore, enchanted by their heady aromas which can reach us before we even step ashore. When we do, we are at the very heart of tumultuous historical events that played out over the last half a millennium and shaped the modern world we know. The Moluccas, now so sleepy and remote, were once at the centre of it all.

In earlier times these spices changed hands often, as they were traded from one ancient sea port to another. By the time they reached Europe their price had multiplied exponentially while their origin was a mystery, veiled in legend, jealously guarded or simply unknown. This added to the spices’ mystique and cost. In mediaeval Europe, where cloves and nutmeg were believed to have magical properties like warding off the plague, they became the ultimate symbols of status and prestige. Only the wealthiest elites could afford them.

It was these Moluccan spices, along with other luxuries from the East such as pepper, tea and porcelain, silk and sandalwood, that motivated the newly emerging powers of Europe to sail away to locate the fabled Indies for themselves. Their aim was to get to the source and seize the profits for themselves. That’s where Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were both headed when they first set sail in the service of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns.

On island after island where we step ashore in the Moluccas, the events of the following centuries have left their mark. They were turbulent times as Europeans wove a web of shifting alliances pitting one local sultan against another, sidelining earlier foreign traders such as the Arabs and Chinese while plotting and fighting against fellow European rivals. First it was the Portuguese against the Spanish, then Dutch versus English with their rival, heavily armed East India trading companies.

One enduring legacy of this period lies in the mix of Christian and Muslim villages that we visit, reflecting the influence of Catholic, Protestant or Islamic traders. Another legacy: the forts we encounter everywhere, built by forced local labour with volcanic rock or coral ripped from nearby reefs. They range from tiny Fort Tolucco on Ternate, founded by the Portuguese, to the towering hilltop bastions of Dutch Fort Belgica on Banda Neira. Near Ambon, seaside Fort Durstede and its adjacent museum tell the story of local hero Kapitan Pattimura who seized this fort in a brave rebellion against Dutch colonial masters.

An ambitious government heritage project from the early 1990s rescued many of these forts from a state of advanced abandonment and decay. Crumbling structures have been stabilised, restored and made safe for visitors. Landscaping the surrounds with gorgeous tropical gardens set against stunning island seascapes, as with Spanish forts Torre and Kastela on Tidore, has made them truly beautiful places to visit. Remote historical names – Magellan, Sir Francis Drake, Jan Pieterzoon Coen, Alfred Russell Wallace – come to life as tour guides and lecturers unfold their stories in the places where these figures set foot.

Well-preserved history lies thickest in the Banda islands. Here we visit the tiny nutmeg island of Rhun, sensationally traded for Manhattan Island (where New York now stands), in a treaty between Dutch and English rivals three-and-a-half centuries ago. Banda Neira has Indonesia’s best-preserved colonial architecture, a rare landscape of Dutch forts, houses, churches, spice warehouses, barracks and offices, telling stories of enterprise and exile, conflict and cruelty.

Banda’s present peace and tranquillity belie a violent past, when native Bandanese and Dutch intruders slaughtered each other on different pretexts. But perhaps most poignant is a tragic historic document etched by hand into the centuries-old window pane of the Dutch governor’s palace. It’s a cry of loneliness and despair by an employee of the colonial government, Charles Rumpley, scratched into the glass on 1 September 1831. The following day he hanged himself.

 

It’s in French, and any of our guests who speak the language always try to decipher the painfully inscribed stanza for themselves. In translation it reads:

When comes the time that shapes my good fortune?
When strikes the bell that sounds the hour?
The moment when I will see again the shores of my country,
The bosom of my family whom I love and bless?

 

When not being Honorary Research Associate at the Australian National Maritime Museum, Jeffrey Mellefont can be found leading certain SeaTrek Sailing Adventure cruises through the Moluccan Islands. If you would like to join Jefferey on a voyage through the Spice Islands, click here to find out more.

 


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