Once famed as the Spice Islands, the Moluccas, now known as Maluku, were zealously sought for many years before Portuguese mariners finally located them in the 1500s. Explorers such as Christopher Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan and Sir Francis Drake all dreamed of finding their wealth there. In fact, one of the main incentives for Europe’s Age of Discovery was the avid search for spices, easily worth their weight in gold at that time. Cloves, nutmeg and mace were used to camouflage the taste of spoiled meat in the days before refrigeration, and for medicine.
While its current production of nutmeg and mace is negligible, for centuries the tiny Banda islands supplied every last ounce of both, their origin a well-kept secret by Arab traders in Venetian markets prior to the arrival of the Portuguese. Control of the spice-producing islands assured vast fortunes, and countless lives were lost in the quest for them. But the introduction of refrigeration and British success in propagating nutmegs and cloves in Sri Lanka was to end the spice wars for ever.
Scattered across the sea north of Timor and east of Sulawesi, part of Maluku extends to the Arafura Sea south of Papua. Due to remoteness, Maluku’s two national parks bring in few visitors, but its spice trade-era and World War II historic sites are of interest to history buffs. It is the sensational diving, however, that lures most visitors. With so much sea, virtually every type of marine topography waits to be explored and enjoyed.
Ambon is the metropolitan focus of Maluku. By the 19th century, due to Dutch influence, about half of Ambon’s population had converted to Christianity. The newly baptised Ambonese availed themselves of educational opportunities, forming the backbone of the Dutch colonial army. Not even World War II could shake their loyalty to Holland. Maluku was overrun by superior Japanese forces in spite of heroic Australian resistance in Ambon, and the area became a central Japanese base. After the war, the Dutch returned to a rousing welcome in Ambon. When Indonesia became independent later, Ambon resisted; thousands fled to Holland while others fought a guerrilla war against the Indonesian military.
Ambon city’s architecture, functional but nondescript due to bombing in 1944, was almost entirely destroyed during the 1999–2000 upheaval. Fortunately, the entrance to the 18th-century Benteng Victoria, Ambon’s most worthwhile colonial relic, remains. However, it is difficult to find, and it is forbidden to take photographs unless one has a permit from military security in Jakarta. At the end of Ambon’s main street, Jalan Patty, is Mesjid Al Fatah, the main mosque next to the handsome old Mesjid Jame.
Seram, the largest and among the least-known islands in Maluku, hovers over Ambon, Saparua and Molana. Seram lies within the Wallacea Transitional Zone and is a key area for global studies on species evolution. The central Manusela National Park, which is home to 2,000 species of butterflies and moths and 120 species of birds, covers an area of 189,000 hectares (467,103 acres). Wahai village is the northern entrance to the park, and Sanulo village, overlooking the Bay of Teluti, is the southern gateway.
South of Seram and Ambon is Kepulauan Banda, or the Banda archipelago. “Founded” by the Portuguese in 1512, it was the Dutch who arrived a century later to set up a spice monopoly. The English, who came later, undercut the Dutch efforts of price control by shipping nutmeg and mace to Europe from Run island, in the Bandas. The Dutch monopoly was restored when Manhattan was traded for Run, but as spices were increasingly produced elsewhere, the nine Banda islands faded into obscurity.
The Bandas’ importance in the English–Dutch struggle to control the spice trade is evidenced in its remaining forts. A military headquarters until 1860, Benteng Belgica was restored in the early 20th century and dominates Bandaneira, the major island of the archipelago. Closer to the sea, Benteng Nassau, important during VOC governor-general Jan Pieterszoon Coen’s efforts to control Banda in 1621, crumbles in neglect. The string of forts continues on neighbouring Banda Besar island with Benteng Concordia and Benteng Hollandia, built by Coen high on a ridge to command the surrounding seas, and destroyed by earthquake in 1743. Benteng Revingil (Revenge) rises from the ocean on Ai island. On both islands, old nutmeg smokehouses line trails through fragrant nutmeg groves, dotted with huge mango and kanari (tropical almond) trees, coffee and other exotic plants as tropical birds fly overhead.
Banda’s islands, like the majority of Maluku’s fertile waters, offer excellent diving opportunities. Snorkelling is also possible on sites within Banda’s huge natural harbour. One special site, Lava Flow, situated upon the lava from Gunung Api’s 1988 eruption, has been identified as having the world’s fastest-growing table corals, with layer upon layer reaching a span of 3 or 4 metres (10–13ft). Sharks and pelagic species patrol deeper waters, while a myriad of colourful fish swarm coral-encrusted walls. Banda has a unique mandarin fish; every evening divers can observe and photograph its mating ritual. In April and October, the seas are calm and visibility excellent. The Bandas also have seasonal fishing, primarily for tuna, marlin and snapper.
North of Ambon, the administrative and geographical district of the northern third of Maluku is dominated on maps by Halmahera, but tiny Ternate island is the real centre of power and communications as it is the capital of North Maluku province. Two-thirds of the island’s people live in Ternate town, the business and market centre of the region.
One of the major clove-producing islands of Maluku, Ternate had been trading with Chinese, Arab and Javanese merchants hundreds of years before the first European arrival. The Portuguese were there in the early 1500s, followed by the Dutch at the start of the 17th century. Benteng Oranje was built by the Dutch in 1667 and is currently used by the Indonesian police and military. There are many ancient cannons in the large complex. On the outskirts of town, towards the airport, there is a mosque whose foundations date back to the 15th century. Its multi-tiered roof covers an airy space, beautifully designed for prayer and meditation.
Jl. Raya Air Manis, Desa Laha, Ambon
tel: 0911-336 5307
This new dive resort features individual bungalows set beneath mature mango trees in a tranquil waterfront plot. Great food and spacious air-conditioned rooms with en suite bathrooms. Packages include accommodation and meals.
Read more about Indonesia in Insight Guides: Indonesia
Insight Guide Indonesia is an essential guide to one of the world's last tourism frontiers, a far-flung archipelago of rainforests, volcanoes, vivid festivals and teeming cities, all brought to life t...Read full description