Chapter 4, Part 4
As the Age of Discovery began in the 15th century, Portugal and Castille (Spain) sent a large number of maritime missions to seek direct sea route from Europe to India and the fabled Spice Islands, as well as to discover lands previously unheard to the Europeans. With the Atlantic Ocean at their doorstep, it was natural that both countries were the ones who commenced global exploration in a scale no other European nation had ever attempted.
The competition between Portugal and Spain, however, escalated upon Christopher Columbus’ return to Europe after rediscovering America. Columbus, whose mission was sponsored by the Crown of Castille, arrived in Lisbon before he reached Spain. In the Portuguese capital he informed King João (John) II about the Terra Firma he discovered across the Atlantic, much to the king’s resentment for it was a clear violation of multiple treaties signed by both nations. Portugal was hitherto entitled for any new lands discovered south of Cape Verde, hence according to the Portuguese king America should belong to him.
Pope Alexander VI brokered a treaty to solve the matter between Portugal and Spain. Signed in Tordesillas, the treaty divided the newly discovered lands between both nations along a meridian west of Cape Verde. The lands to the east of the meridian would belong to Portugal, and the lands to the west to Spain. Over the years the exact location of the meridian constantly changed, although the east-west division remained. The treaty became a solid base for the Spaniards to launch massive expeditions to the Americas, and for the Portuguese to send their best navigators and explorers to India, Southeast and East Asia.
As both nations scoured the world from different directions, a problem would soon arise: where was the boundary of the Portuguese and Spanish newly conquered lands at the opposite side of the Tordesillas meridian?
In the faraway Spice Islands, Ternate – a small island about the same size with Paris’ core city area – together with nearby islands were the only places in the world where clove grew. Known in Europe as clavo, cravo-da-índia, clou de girofle and chiodo di garofano, cloves were introduced to the Europeans by Arab traders in the fourth century. The route to the source of the spice, however, was kept secret by the Arabs, lending the commodity an even more exotic appeal.
Having been frequented by Arab, Chinese, Indian and Javanese merchants since the first millennium AD, in 1512 – one year after the fall of Malacca – Ternate received its first ever Portuguese on its soil by the name of Francisco Serrão who was tasked by Afonso de Albuquerque to find the Spice Islands. Serrão remained on the island and sent a letter about the Spice Islands to his cousin, Fernão de Magalhães, who would convince King Charles I of Spain to sponsor his expedition.
Serrão’s cousin, better known by his Spanish name Ferdinand Magellan, set sail to the west to find the other route to the Spice Islands. Magellan was the first person who managed to find a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean in South America, and eventually in March 1521 his expedition reached the Philippines. Eight months later the expedition reached Tidore, a small island neighboring Ternate, marking Spanish arrival in the Spice Islands. However Magellan was killed when he was in the Philippines, and Serrão mysteriously died in Ternate around the same time.
Spain and Portugal, two rivaling neighbors in the Iberian Peninsula, were now separated on the other side of the world only by a narrow strait. Upon their archrival’s success in reacing these remote islands from the west of Europe, the Portuguese reacted quickly by fortifying their strongholds as subsequent skirmishes would shortly emerge between the two European powers. One year after Spanish arrival in Tidore, Fort Kastella was built by the Portuguese on Ternate, and over time both nations constructed more forts on their respective possession in this far-flung corner of the world. Due to the increasing enmity between them, in 1529 King John III of Portugal and Emperor Charles V of Spain signed a treaty in Zaragoza, determining the antimeridian of Tordesillas.
Problems for the Portuguese did not subside, though, as they were increasingly active in converting the local people who were known for being staunchly Muslim. This, and the constant threat from the Spanish across the narrow strait, forced the Portuguese to withdraw altogether from Ternate – a situation the Spanish were quick to exploit by taking over some former Portuguese forts on the island. However tensions between the Spanish and the locals would soon escalate, and in 1606 the Spanish captured Said Barakat Shah – the Sultan of Ternate – and put him into exile in Manila, already a Spanish colony by that time.
By the early 17th century the southern part of Ternate was occupied by the Spanish and the rest by the Dutch, a new European power who were late in joining the spice race but would rise into a colonial superpower in the region. In a clever strategy to gain support from the local populace, the Dutch made an alliance with the Sultan of Ternate to repel the Spanish forces not only from his land, but also from Tidore, his main rival. The Dutch ambition to control the Spice Islands would soon prove to undermine Ternate’s ambition to weaken Tidore. In the end the Spanish forces retreated from Tidore and the Spice Islands completely in 1663 to the Philippine Islands.
Before long, the Dutch strengthened their grip on Ternate, Tidore and eventually all islands in the Moluccas (present-day Indonesian provinces of Maluku and North Maluku). Old forts were fortified, new forts were constructed, and a monopoly on the clove trade was made possible by the eradication of most clove trees on Ternate, Tidore and nearby islands. As demand remained high but supply was significantly lowered, the clove was sold at exorbitant prices, thus providing the Dutch with even greater profits. Until a few years ago Afo, the oldest clove tree ever recorded in history, still stood tall and alive on the fertile slopes of Mount Gamalama. However since Afo had died, today Afo 2 is the oldest surviving clove tree in the world with only one branch still bearing leaves and clove buds.
As the spice trade had declined substantially by the 19th century, so had the importance of the Spice Islands to the Dutch. The once wealthy Ternate and Tidore had largely been ignored by both the Dutch and the Indonesian central government following the archipelago’s independence in 1945. They had been serving as quiet outposts amid a chain of small volcanic islands in the sprawling Indonesian archipelago. However soon after the fall of Suharto – Indonesia’s dictator for 32 years – sectarian conflicts flared up across the nation, and the bloody incidents in the Maluku Islands were among the worst in the history of modern Indonesia.
Peace was restored three years later, and gradually life returned to how it was before the conflicts. Ternate, as the provisional capital of the newly-formed North Maluku province, grew rapidly with local businessmen as well as others from across the nation setting up new shops, restaurants and hotels, reviving the once spice-reliant economy into a thriving city in this northeastern corner of Indonesia. With a much smaller population than Ternate, Tidore today is a very quiet island where daily life goes by in a very sedate pace. It must have looked very different back in the time when rivalry with its neighbor across the strait was at its height centuries earlier.
Towns and villages on Tidore are connected by a decent network of roads with street lights installed at some intersections, although none of them worked – either because they are broken or simply because the low traffic doesn’t require them to be turned on. Streets on Ternate, on the contrary, are always bustling with traffic and activities, as if the stark contrast between the two islands could not have been more striking. Nevertheless, both Ternate and Tidore still live with vestiges from the past, including with how the locals call potatoes: batatas on Ternate (from Portuguese) and patatas on Tidore (from Spanish). Remnants of a time when these islands were sought after by the Europeans will likely to endure the test of time.
Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.