Secrets of the Spice Islands

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Part 1: Cloves

One small island fascinates me more than any other. This volcano rises like a perfect cone from the emerald sea. Nestled on its eastern shores is a busy township, ever watchful of the belching sulphurous cloud above.

Even before I step off the boat, a sweet, pungent aroma fills my nostrils, carried on the tropical air. It is the smell of cloves drying in the midday sun—green flower buds blushing three days to a deep crimson-brown.

Welcome to Ternate. Before the dawn of modernity, when ships carried giddy explorers to every corner of the globe, this secret paradise and its four near neighbours boasted the world’s only clove forests.

“In Europe, cloves were said to be worth their weight in gold.”

That fact would be a footnote on the pages of history—except that medieval Europe’s hunger for spice was insatiable. To the rich, cloves were the ultimate symbol of affluence.

For three thousand years, this tiny wooden nail had been shipped across the world to flavour foods, preserve meats, numb pain, and infuse perfume. If that weren’t enough, clove was rumoured as a choice aphrodisiac. And more lately, as a cure to Black Death—the bubonic plague that had decimated the continent.

Venice was Europe’s spice gateway, and as a result, the canals of this seaport city dripped with wealth. And merchants all the way from here to Arabia, India and the far-flung Orient held two of the world’s most jealously-guarded secrets.

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The first was the spices’ mysterious origin, believed by many to be the lost Garden of Eden somewhere across the seas. The second was the dizzying profits being made along the spice trail.

Truth really is stranger than fiction: between their source in Asia and the markets of Europe, cloves underwent a one thousand percent markup. In cities like London and Paris, this spice was said to be worth its weight in gold.

“The spices’ mysterious origin was believed to be the lost Garden of Eden.”

These were times of swashbuckling adventures, of pirates, and a yearning for exotic lands. But no kingdom sailed the unmapped world for sport. It was only as Europeans closed in on the spice trade secrets—namely, that wealth unimagined was theirs if they could bypass middle-men and trade directly with Asia—that the Age of Discovery was born.

Portugal had bravely ventured round Africa’s southern cape, and the spices of Asia lay before them. Not to be outdone, Spain surprised the world and sailed west, searching for a quicker route to the Spiceries.

clove

Along the way, they happened upon a continent unexpected, which we now know as America. But this was not the prize. South round the Americas they went, pushing boldly into the uncharted Pacific.

Finally their worm-eaten ships laid anchor at Ternate. These adventurers had done it—they’d sailed to the far side of the world. Cordially welcomed, they traded their gold and textiles for more cloves than they’d ever dreamed of. Then evading the Portuguese through Asia, they limped back home.

“They had just completed the greatest voyage in naval history.”

Three years had passed. When the journey began, their ships numbered five and their crew 237. Alas, scurvy, dysentery and perilous storms had reduced them to 18 haggard sailors on a single carrack. But they had just completed the greatest voyage in naval history, having circumnavigated planet Earth.

More importantly, they’d tapped into the world’s most lucrative market at its source. The single haul of cloves and other spices brought home by the crew would pay for the venture and all its losses several times over.

circumnavigation

This was only the beginning. For the next two hundred years, wars would be fought, empires would rise and fall, and the most unbelievable real estate deal in history would be made—all in a bid for monopoly of the spice trade.

Today a bottle of cloves is sold for just three dollars on a supermarket shelf, yet this spine-tingling tale of the Spice Islands remains one of the greatest stories never told. Now that you’ve heard it, permit me to leave a few thoughts with you.

“Empires would rise and fall, all in a bid for monopoly of the spice trade.”

These bold explorers sacrificed life and limb, braving deadly seas and enemies unknown, all for dried bark, seeds and buds. What about you? As you toil from dawn til dusk each day, what’s the prize you’re seeking? Like these sailors, is it a treasure here on earth, vulnerable to rust, moths and thieves—or will it last eternally?

ternate

Jesus warned that we could gain the whole world and yet forfeit our souls—and that the only way to avoid this greatest of errors was to surrender our lives for his sake. Is this message as forgotten for you as the history of the Spice Islands, or does it ring with warm familiarity?

O, that we would seek God’s kingdom and righteousness with the passion that monarchs and men had for spice.

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Read Part 2 of 2 | Secrets of the Spice Islands: Nutmeg.

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