The Maluku archipelago is a large group of a thousand islands that straddle the equator between Sulawesi to the west, Papua to the east and Timor to the south. These islands are collectively known as the Moluccas and all are exceptionally beautiful and different from each other but only a few of the names are familiar: the Spice Islands of Ternate, Tidore, Ambon and the Banda’s. The Spice Islands acted as the magnets attracting explorers to the region for more than a thousand years. The first seafarers from faraway countries to explore the area as early as the 8th century were Chinese, later followed by the Arabs in the 1200s. In fact, the name Maluku is thought to have been derived from the Arab trader's term for the region, Jazirat al-Muluk ‘'the island of the kings” and an ancient Arab text places the islands rather precisely “fifteen days sailing east of Jaba”.
What the Arab traders brought back to their home ports, were exotic spices: cloves, mace and nutmeg. These were sold to Venetian merchants and became known in Europe as “the nuts from Muscat”. Because of the high value of these spices in Europe and the large profits they generated, many adventurers followed in the wake of the Chinese and the Arabs, first Portuguese and later Dutch and British. For two centuries the latter two nations fought naval battles over control of the Banda Islands, principal centre of the nutmeg trade. An amazing historical footnote is the fact that in 1667, under the Treaty of Breda, the small island of Run near Banda was ceded by the English to the Dutch in exchange for Manhattan. The tumultuous history of Maluku clarifies how several islands in the archipelago came to harbour cosmopolitan societies where spice traders from different backgrounds established settlements and enclaves. Understandably these outposts far from the mother countries attracted t6he more adventurous and colorful characters.
Ambon is the capital of Maluku Province and its airline hub. There are flights to and from Jakarta, Sulawesi and Irian Jaya. Smaller planes serve the outlying islands. Unless one travels by sea one must always fly to Ambon first to go anywhere in Maluku. The city was built on a hillside overlooking a deepwater bay and there are several sites of historical and cultural interest. Ambon used to be the commercial center of the Dutch clove monopoly and during the heydays of the spice trade the Dutch East Indies Company built fortified trade posts throughout the archipelago; Fortress Amsterdam is a good example from the 17th century. In the hills outside Ambon the Siwa Lima Museum displays Maluku's foremost collection of regional and colonial artifacts.
Ternate Today the island of Ternate is still the major administrative center of the North Moluccas but the peak of its power and importance was in the fifteenth and sixteenth century when the sultans of Ternate and nearby Tidore ruled an empire that stretched all the way from the eastern part of Sulawesi to Ambon, Ceram and parts of Papua. The islands were the world's major producer of cloves and the sultans who controlled the spice trade were celebrated through the East for their power and regal magnificence. Ternate is exceptionally beautiful but very small, less than 10 kilometers in diameter, dominated by forest clad Gunung Gamalama, an active volcano, 1721 meters high. The island is home to a very diverse mix of races: Malay, Chinese, Mediterranean, Melanesian, Arab and Indian, settled down one by one over the course of a millennium. Ternate Town with about 50,000 inhabitants has grown over the past 350 years around Fort Oranje, built by the Dutch in 1607.
There are daily flights from Ambon and from Manado in North Sulawesi.
Banda-Neira. Veteran sailors and others, who know the archipelago well, call the Banda Islands the most beautiful in Indonesia. Tiny specks in the vast Banda Sea, the three main islands enclose a harbour with water so transparent that living corals and even minute objects are plainly seen on the volcanic sand at depths of tens of meters. The reefs surrounding the island are in good health and teem with fish so Banda is one of the world's finest spots for scuba diving.
The Banda islands are in fact the ridge of a massive volcano that sank into the sea in ancient times and the curved edge of the largest island clearly traces out the rim of the sunken caldera, from the center of which now rises Gunung Api, (Fire Mountain), a perfectly conical volcano reaching 650 meter above sea level. Its most recent eruption was in 1988.
The Banda islands barely cover 50 square kilometers of dry land but played an oversized role in world history. In the old town of Neira one does find a fair record of this past in the restored planters’ mansions, fortifications and churches. Fort Belgica, built in 1611 seems an early blueprint of the Pentagon and it is still possible to visit fragrant nutmeg groves. Until today the population of Neira is an interesting mix of Malay, Arab, Dutch and Melanesian.
There is a landing strip within walking distance from the town. There are daily flights to Ambon, which lies 140 kilometers (87 miles) to the North West.
The rainy season on Banda lasts from mid June to August; the seas around the islands are calmest from October to December and again from March to May, but the harbor offers good protection year-round.
Maluku : Spice islands that added flavor to history
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