Friday, August 10, 2012


Indonesia is made up of around 17,000 islands. Some are huge, like Borneo and Sumatra, whilst many are tiny. The cluster of four islands of Ternate, Tidore, Makian and Moti, each centred around a volcano and each small enough to be circumambulated in a single day, is certainly towards the small and insignificant end of the spectrum. Nevertheless these tiny islands, located some 250km east of the northeastern tip of Sulawesi in a sub-archipelago known as the Moluccas (or Malukus), were to have a huge and dramatic impact on world history, far in excess of their puny size. According to legend Helen's is the face that launched a thousand ships. These little islands did that and far more.

A view of Ternate from its twin, and eternal rival, Tidore. Little speedboats shuttle people back and forth from one to the other throughout the day.

Sulawesi and the Moluccas form what is known by geographers and evolutionary biologists as Wallacea, in honour of the biologist Alfred Russel Wallace. It is here that, in effect, the continent of Australia meets Asia, and the flora and fauna of the region is unique in that it has origins in both continents. It was during his travels in the area that Wallace noticed this and wrote to Darwin about his findings, prompting him to publish his seminal book On The Origin Of Species. And although Darwin's name is most famously associated with the theory of evolution through natural selection, Wallace independently came up with the very same idea. Be that as it may, in terms of biological diversity the Moluccas are a fascinating place with bucketloads of endemic species. Not surprising really as any biologist will tell you that islands are ideal locations for diversification to occur. On these four islands, as with many others, that's exactly what happened as a tree from the myrtle family happened to develop flower buds with a particularly high concentration of essential oils that made them bitter tasting to animals. This abundance of pungent essential oils made the buds attractive to humans who started collecting them, drying them and then trading them for other commodities. Welcome to the home of the clove tree.

Immature clove buds still on the tree. It is at this stage that they are usually harvested and then dried.

Throughout human history, up until the development of modern methods of food preparation and preservation, spices, such as cloves, pepper, nutmeg and cinnamon, have been incredibly important as a means of preserving and, more importantly, masking the taste of spoilt food. These spices were known as far back as antiquity and their worth was often greater than their weight in gold. Cloves and pepper were top of the tree and in the Middle Ages huge amounts of money were spent by Europeans to service their cravings for these exotic spices (it speaks volumes that the coat of arms of the London Guild of Grocers, established in 1100, is comprised of nine cloves). The reasons for their great cost was partly due to their scarcity and partly thanks to the many layers of middle-men involved in getting the goods to Europe, each of which would take a hefty cut. It is for this reason that in the early Middle Ages Venice became the richest city in Europe thanks to its trade monopoly with the Muslim world and its subsequent domination of the silk and spice market. By the 15th century European countries were almost bankrupting themselves thanks to their spice addiction and it was this economic imperative, to find a direct route to the mythical spice islands, that fuelled the great voyages of discovery by Columbus, Magellan, da Gama and Albuquerque and laid the foundations of European colonialism.

When the Europeans turned up in the Moluccas (cloves are from the north Moluccas, but nutmeg is indigenous to the equally inconspicuous Banda islands in the southeast) they found four petty, yet incredibly rich, sultanates centred around each of the islands (even though they are each only separated by a handful of kilometres), with a population that had so much leisure time that the likes were not seen until today's oil skeikhdoms. The harvesting of cloves is done annually and requires a certain amount of effort for a couple of months, but with the substantial profits from the trade local Moluccans were able to buy all the other essentials that they required, allowing them time to rest and fight each other (the island sultanates of Ternate and Tidore were almost constantly at war with each other). Ternate's sultan allowed the Portuguese to build a fort in exchange for military help against Tidore, although they were quickly kicked out thanks to their spectacular lack of diplomatic tact. Next it was the turn of the Spaniards and the Dutch who allied themselves to rival sultans and continued their war that they were waging back in Europe, entrenching themselves on opposite islands and building stone forts.

Remains of the very first Portuguese fort built on Ternate. Despite their wealth stretching back many centuries before European arrival to Indonesia there is no tangible evidence to indicate this rich history. Instead the European forts are the oldest structures around and they are either in a sad state of decay or very badly restored.

Eventually the Dutch, via the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC), drove out the Spanish and became the colonial masters of the Moluccas from where they were to expand to the rest of the Indonesian archipelago. They brutally enforced their monopoly on cloves and nutmeg, for the former by burning down the clove forests of the mountains and leaving only those trees under their control, and in the latter by massacring much of the population of the Banda islands. This way they also kept prices high by limiting output. The monopoly disintegrated in the 18th century thanks to the French botanist Pierre Poivre who managed to smuggle out both nutmeg and clove seedlings to the French colonies of Mauritius and Reunion. The final nail in the coffin came when the British stepped in to fill the void caused by the fall of the Netherlands during the Napoleonic wars and soon the spices were being grown in Africa and India causing the price to collapse.

Chengkeh Afo (Old Clove Tree), one of the only survivors of the Dutch extirpation policy in the Moluccas. Unfortunately the tree died recently

Now cloves and nutmeg are grown worldwide in the tropics, though they still form an important part of the Moluccan economy and allow for a relative degree of financial comfort amongst the locals (even though they're no longer worth their weight in gold), most of whom have rights to a stand of trees somewhere. I was there during the tail-end of the clove season and so there were still many mats of picked buds lining the streets as they are left to dry. The islands are undoubtedly the most aromatic of Indonesia. What I find most amusing though is that, although Indonesia is by far the world's largest producer of cloves, it still has to import more from abroad as its consumption, thanks to the (male portion of the) country's kretek addiction. Cloves make up about a third of the cigarettes and even the shortest length of time in any public space in Indonesia will make you realise that that's a hell of a lot of cloves. The only other noticeable industry I observed on the islands was bureaucracy. Both on Ternate and Tidore a significant proportion of the people on the streets were in some sort of uniform, and when I went to get my visa renewed there were eight people in the office (a handful of whom weren't even trying to hide the fact that they were playing computer games) whilst I was their only "customer". They were all very friendly and I'm sure would have invited me to stay for tea and biscuits if it wasn't Ramadan. At least it allowed me to get my extension the same day and not have to wait like in Makassar.

Cloves drying in the street in a small village in Ternate.

No comments: