The Spice Islands

map-moluccas-bellin-1760The Spice Islands are a small assortment of islands off the coast of Indonesia which once attracted traders from all over the world. During Tudor times, they were the largest producers of all of the favourite spices, making them a vital connection for any self-respecting court. The core islands of the Spice Islands were the Moluccas, a little group of islands between New Guinea and Celenes, to the north-east of Indonesia. Among the many spices produces here were nutmeg, pepper, cloves and mace.

The Spice Islands, then, gained importance from the thriving spice trade that took place there. Spices and similar goods were traded here for quite some time before the arrival of European traders, with items such as Indian cottons, African ivory and Chinese silks being traded for fine spices. Similarly, spices were available in Europe before trade began with the Spice Islands, but these spices were much more expensive as they had to be transported overland. By the time the spices arrived at their destination, they would have passed through the hands of many traders, with each making a profit. In the end, spices could cost up to 1000% more than they originally would have.

British fleetAvoiding these massive upmarkings, the Portuguese began trading directly with sellers in the Spice Islands in the 1520s, with English and Dutch traders arriving 80 years later. Because the Portuguese continued to demand high prices for spices despite the lower original price, it was still profitable for the English and Dutch to travel all the way to the Spice Islands instead of trading with their neighbours. For example, on the first trip made to the Spice Island by English traders, two of the three ships were lost and only a small amount of spices were bought, but the traders still made a notable profit.

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