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Of Spice and Men: How Spices Built the VoC

Steven Kent | Kingston University

Painting of Banda Neria, 1724
Painting of Banda Neria, 1724

The Spice Islands, what are known geographically as the Maluku Islands (previously, the Moluccas), consist of several individual archipelagos that span the Banda Sea. Sandwiched between Celebes (contemporary Sulawesi) and New Guinea. Located in the far corner of South East Asia, some may question how these islands command a vast fortune that bolstered the coffers of European states and why was so much bloodshed over their control? The answer, nutmeg.

Image showing ground and whole dried nutmeg
Image showing whole nutmeg with mace
Images of Nutmeg ground (above) and Nutmeg inside of husk and covered with mace, another lucrative spice(below).

Nutmeg, to contemporary audiences, may not conjure images of culinary grandeur. Today, this dull, earthly looking, nut shaped condiment is readily available to global consumers. But nutmeg was, at one time, worth more than its weight in gold. In the mid-sixteenth century, vast fortunes were to be made, or lost, by merchants, monarchs and chartered companies in the spice trade. This article will focus upon the most profitable cluster of islands in a forgotten corner of contemporary Indonesia, the Banda Islands, and recount how nutmeg forged the bloody legacy of the Dutch East India Company and its most ruthless governor, Jan Pieterszoon Coen.

A Dutch Map of the Banda Islands displaying the locations of nutmeg plantations, date unknown – VoC Archives
A Dutch Map of the Banda Islands displaying the locations of nutmeg plantations, date unknown – VoC Archives

Spices have long, though falsely, been associated with the preservation of food compared to practices such as salting, which was a more effective means of preserving food over prolonged periods. Instead, they have for centuries been utilized to enhance bland and tasteless foods, alongside their usage in medicine and as incense to fend off diseases. Within Europe, honey had remained the sole, widely available sweetener readily available until knights returning from Crusades in the Holy Land introduced Medieval diets to a steady supply of sugar. So popular and sought after was sugar, Venetian merchants established a series of estates near Tyre to cultivate the lucrative crop.

In After Tamerlane, Professor John Darwin attributed the collapse of the Silk Road, the main physical trading route between Europe, Africa and Asia, to the emergence of the ‘world conquerors’, such as Genghis Khan and Tamerlane. This shift in global trade coincided with the dawn of European seafaring and the great voyages of discovery undertaken by European sailors.

One expedition of specific importance was that of Sir Francis Drake between 1577 and 1580. After plundering Spanish treasure ships along the unguarded Pacific coastline of Spain’s Southern American colonies, Drake sailed The Golden Hind across the Pacific Ocean on his return to England. Whilst paused at Ternate, a meeting with the local Sultan resulted in the English departing having exchanged an untold sum of Spanish silver for an approximate 10 tonnes of spices, which included nutmeg, ginger, black pepper and six tonnes of cloves. Despite striking a reef after departing the fabled ‘Crab Island’ and having to discard a portion of the cargo to rebalance the ship, it is estimated that some of those who had financed Drake’s 1577 Voyage received a return of upwards of 4000% interest on their investment. The detailed accounts of the voyage by Drake and his crew were considered ‘state secrets’ and were not published until 1628 under penalty of death.

Portrait of Francis Drake
Portrait of Sir Francis Drake – Credit: National Portrait gallery

Drake demonstrated the illustrious financial opportunities for Europe’s seafaring powers, namely England, Spain and Portugal, in establishing trading routes and networks within South East Asia. But prior to 1600, trading companies were established solely for a single voyage and were dissolved when, or if, they ever returned, making investing unstable and incredibly risky. To limit both risks and competition, a group of English investors grouped together and founded, with royal consent, the East India Company in 1600.

However, it would be the Dutch who came to command a vast monopoly of goods originating from the Far East. This was achieved in 1602 following the establishment of the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, better known as the VoC, or The Dutch East India Company. Founded to rival the English East India Company, the VoC would tactfully manoeuvre to establish itself as the strongest mercantile power in East Asia.

VoC logo
VoC logo

The VoC incorporated successful, and often coveted, enterprises throughout East and South East Asia. Dutch traders came to hold the sole European trading post with Japan, alongside having established numerous crucial commercial stations in Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand and India. However, it is arguable that the most important assets which the VoC commanded were its territories in Indonesia, most notably, the port of Batavia (modern-day Jakarta) and the Banda Islands. Here, the VoC oversaw a colossal enterprise on both the spice and the tulip trades. By 1620, the VoC held an unrivalled monopoly in nutmeg.

Three sketches of the Banda Islands
Sketches of the Banda Islands

A vital, influential and at times, controversial figure in the expansion of the spice trade in the Dutch East Indies was Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Born in the city of Hoorn in 1587, Coen joined the VoC in 1606 and sailed to the East Indies the following year as part of an expedition captained by Pieter Willemsz Verhoeff. Upon arrival in Banda Neira, the capital of the Banda Islands in 1609, Verhoeff sought to establish a fortress upon the island and demanded the Bandanese only sold their produce to Dutch merchants. During this visit, Verhoeff was killed by natives of the Banda Islands, an incident that resulted in the pillaging of several Bandanese villages. This culminated in an uneasy treaty between the Dutch and the Bandanese, enforced by Fort Nassau which oversaw nutmeg production within the Banda Islands. Banda Neira was further reinforced in 1611 following the construction of the imposing pentagonal Fort Belgica.

Painting of Fort Belgica, 1824 - Source: Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies
Painting of Fort Belgica, 1824. Note this fortress was captured twice by the British during the Napoleonic Wars – Source: Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies

Coen was despatched once again to the East Indies in 1612. He was promoted in 1613 to the position of accountant-general of all VoC offices within the region and secured the Molucca’s clove trade alongside several key trading routes between China, Japan and India. This monopoly transformed the VoC into a regional power and impressed his superiors, who appointed him as the fourth governor general of the East Indies in 1617, a position he learnt about in 1618.

Portrait of Jan Pieterszoon Coen
Portrait of Jan Pieterszoon Coen

Coen wasted little time in solidifying the VoC’s position within the East Indies by sending his subordinates to negotiate trade routes with various Sultan’s, such as that of Aceh. As a result, Dutch expansionism caused tensions and conflict amongst the native populations of the region. In 1619, Coen seized the port city of Jayakarta from the native Bantam forces and renamed the city Batavia. His attention soon shifted once more to the Banda Islands, where the native Bandanese had broken their agreement with the Dutch and had been selling nutmeg to English, Javanese and Malay traders. Despite several bloody skirmishes over a number of years in response to this, including the capture of Ai island which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of natives, the Bandanese continued to trade their spices with merchants other than the Dutch, mainly out of resentment for the contracts imposed upon them which commanded heavy discounts for Dutch merchants.

In 1621, a fleet commanded by Coen arrived at the Banda Islands, supported by over 250 Japanese mercenaries. His ships came under fire from English cannon’s manned by Bandanese entrenched in fortified positions. The resistance towards the Dutch was fierce, as was Coen, who ordered an all-out assault upon the main island of Lontor. What ensued has, to many Bandanese and Indonesians, been considered genocide. Less than 24 hours after Coen’s assault began, his forces were in control of much of the island and many natives had fled further inland. The Orang Kaya, the elders of the Bandanese, sued for peace and accepted Coen’s terms, but this did not quell the urge to continue fighting. Ambushes upon VoC soldiers infuriated Coen. He responded by torturing dozens of Orang Kaya into a confession of conspiracy and despite objections from some Dutch troops (of whom were executed), Coen summoned his Japanese mercenaries to behead and quarter the Orang Kaya who were his prisoners. Attention soon turned to the depopulation of the Banda Islands, a process which saw an estimated 93% of the Bandanese perish and hundreds sold into slavery in Java.

Painting depicting the massacre of the Orang Kaya by Japanese mercenaries
Painting depicting the massacre of the Orang Kaya by Japanese mercenaries

Coen’s actions in the Banda Islands received little criticism and he was greatly rewarded for securing the nutmeg monopoly for the VoC. His actions on Lontor became his staple policy in conquering the Spice Islands. The cultivation of nutmeg in the Banda Islands, now under the control of Dutch plantations, demanded regular imports of slave labour from Java to produce the highly valuable crop. Conditions were harsh and life expectancy was short. The VoC’s monopoly on nutmeg was ironclad until the company collapsed during the French Revolutionary Wars in 1799. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Banda Islands were seized twice by the British, squeezing Dutch influence (and indeed, Dutch territory) in the region and globally to its sole Japanese concession off the coast of Nagasaki. In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, the price of nutmeg plummeted due to saplings having been spread to other tropical climates by the British. The era of spices, such as nutmeg, sugar and cloves commanding international markets and fueling chartered companies, had, by 1815, come to an end.

Dutch chart of the Spice Islands
Dutch chart of the Spice Islands


Steve currently studies a PhD in Politics at Kingston University, where he explores relations between Britain and Japan between 1902 - 1945. Steve focuses his research upon the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and British appeasement of Japan during the 1930's up until the fall of Singapore.

Twitter: @SteveKentAuthor


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