The Spice Islands

Cloves, nutmeg and mace grew only on a few small volcanic islands of the Moluccas; now the Maluku Province, which is part of the nation of Indonesia. Archaeology has shown that more than 3000 years ago cloves from the Moluccas were traded to Persia. The Romans were able to buy spices and other luxuries from the remote east of Indonesia.


Spices were valued, as they are today, for the exciting flavour they can add to food and drinks. They were also highly valued as medicines. "No man should die who can afford cinnamon." it was said in the 15th century.

Health was believed to depend on a balance of the four fluids or "humours" in the body and correct spicing of foods was important to retaining or rectifying the balance of the humours.

Because spices were sourced from the other side of the world they were very expensive in Medieval Europe. Their delivery was largely in the hands of the Moslem world which Catholic Europe was often at war with. Spices attained huge luxury value as emblems of conspicuous consumption.


In the late middle-ages the Moslem rulers in Spain and Portugal were gradually driven out by Christian Kingdoms. The Christian Spanish and Portuguese had particularly good reason to buy spices from traders other than the Moslems. It was the Portuguese who developed navigation and map-making whilst making voyages of exploration which culminated in Vasco da Gama reaching India in 1497. The sea route to Asia around the Cape of Good Hope allowed the Portuguese to bring spices direct from the markets of Southeast Asia to Europe. It was a dangerous but hugely profitable trade.

The increasing availability of spices is reflected in the cuisines of the time. In 1596 Henry of Navarre (the King of France) granted corporation to the Guild of Spice Bread Makers in Paris separate from the Guild of Pastry Chefs. A master spice bread maker was required to make a "master-piece" starting with 200 lbs (90kg) of dough containing cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and honey, and dyed red with brazil wood (Caesalpinia sp). The dough fermented for weeks or even months and when finally baked would produce three cakes or loaves of about 20 lbs (9kg). We've got a simpler recipe for traditional Kruidkoek (spicecake) here.


Cloves and nutmeg trees grew only on a few small volcanic islands. Ternate, Tidore, Makian and Bacan are towering volcanoes that rise from the depths of the sea. Forts built by Dutch and Portuguese when Duyfken sailed are now buried under lava. The Banda islands are also volcanic. The name of the highest island Gunning Api means "fire mountain": it is a volcanic cone and the largest of the islands is the remains of huge crater wall.

When the Dutch first encountered the people of the Banda islands they thought them "nimble and lusty", skilful in playing a type of football, and with swords, pikes and spears. They were constantly at war with each other. "They are very subtill and stout men in their warres, seeking and visiting their enemies with great courage and assurance ..."

Initially the Dutch traded amicably with the Bandanese. Later in the 17th century Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the Dutch East India Company Governor, tried to impose a monopoly but the proud and independent Bandanese would not co-operate. Coen, a monstrously inhumane accountant who had studied in Rome, decreed a final solution: the entire population was put to the sword or driven from the islands.

Duyfken was one of the first Dutch ships to got directly to the Spice Islands to load spices. Many ships bought their cargoes from the merchants in the major ports of Java, particularly Bantam. The Javanese merchants operated some very large cargo ships called "jong". The largest jong were about 1,000 tonnes capacity whereas Duyfken was about 50.