Maluku Islands

This page is about the geography and history of the island group in Indonesia — for the political entities encompassing the islands, see Maluku (Indonesian province) and North Maluku.

The Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccas, Moluccan Islands or simply Maluku) are an archipelago in Indonesia, and part of the larger Malay Archipelago. They are located on the Australian continental plate, lying east of Sulawesi (Celebes), west of New Guinea, and north of Timor. The islands were also historically known as the "Spice Islands" by the Chinese and Europeans, but this term has also been applied to other islands.

Missing image
Map showing Maluku Islands within Indonesia

Most of the islands are mountainous, some with active volcanoes, and enjoy a wet climate. The vegetation of the small and narrow islands, encompassed by the sea, is very luxuriant; including rainforests, sago, rice, and the famous spices nutmeg, cloves, mace, and others. Though originally Melanesian, many island populations, especially in the Banda Islands, were decimated in the 17th century. A second influx of Malay immigrants began in the early twentieth century under the Dutch and continued in the Indonesian era.

Politically, the Maluku Islands formed a single province of Indonesia from 1950 until 1999. In 1999 the Maluku Utara Regency was split off as a separate province of North Maluku. The islands are now divided between two Indonesian provinces, Maluku and North Maluku. In recent years they have been home to ethnic conflict between Muslims and Christians.


Prehistoric and colonial history

Melanesians have been sailors and traders for thousands of years. The earliest archaeological evidence of human occupation of the region is about thirty-two thousand years old, but evidence of even older settlements in Australia may mean that Maluku had earlier visitors. Evidence of increasingly long-distance trading relationships and of more frequent occupation of many islands, begins about ten to fifteen thousand years later. Onyx beads and segments of silver plate used as currency on the Indian subcontinent around 200BC have been unearthed on some of the islands. In addition, local dialects employ derivations of the Malay word then in use for 'silver', in contrast to the term used in wider Melanesian society, which has etymological roots in Chinese, a consequence of the regional trade with China that developed in the 500s and 600s.

Although cultures varied across this dispersed group of islands, there is a sense in which the Moluccas were a cosmopolitan society, in that traders from across the region took residence in Moluccan settlements, or in nearby enclaves, to conduct spice business. Arab and Chinese traders frequently visited or lived in the region.

In 1513 the Portuguese landed on Ambon island, whose produce was in great demand. A Portuguese fort and control quickly followed for Ambon, the Uliasser Islands and Banda. The Spaniards took control of Ternate and Tidore. While Roman Catholicism spread quickly among the native population of Ambon, most of the region remained Muslim.

The Dutch arrived in 1599 and reported aboriginal discontent with the Portuguese monopolising their traditional trade. After the Amboinese help the Dutch construct a fort at Hitu Larna, the Portuguese begun a campaign of retribution against which the Amboinese invited Dutch aid. After 1605 Frederik de Houtman became the first Dutch governor of Ambon.

The Dutch East-India Company was a company with three obstacles in its way: the Portuguese, controlling the aboriginal populations, and the British. Again smuggling would be the only alternative to a European monopoly. Among other events of the 17th century, the Bandanese attempted independent trade with the British, the East-India Company's response was to decimate the native population of the Banda Islands sending the survivors fleeing to other islands and installing slave labour.

Though other races re-settled the Banda Islands, the rest of Maluka remain uneasy with foreign control and even after the Portuguese had a new trading station at Macassar there were native revolts in 1636 and 1646. Under company control northern Maluka was administed by the Dutch residency of Ternate, and the southern by "Amboyna" (Ambon).

During the Japanese occupation in World War II, the Moluccans fled to the mountains but begun a campaign of resistance also known as the South Moluccan Brigade. After the war's end the island's political leaders had successful discussions with the Netherlands about independence. Complicated by Indonesian demands, the Round Table Conference Agreements were signed in 1949 transferring Maluku to Indonesia with mechanisms for the islands to chose or opt out of the new Indonesia. The Agreements granted the Moluccans the right to determine their ultimate sovereignty.

Indonesian history

With the declaration of a unitary republic of Indonesia in 1950 to replace the federal state, the South Moluccas (Maluku Selatan) attempted to secede. The commencement of Indonesian transmigration of (mainly) Javanese populations to the outer islands (including Maluku) during the 1960s is thought to have aggravated independence and issues of religious / ethnic politics. There has been intermittent ethnic and nationalist violence on the islands and acts of terrorism by members of the Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS) government-in-exile in the Netherlands since that time.

Maluku formed a single province of Indonesia from 1950 until 1999. In 1999 the Maluku Utara Regency was split off as a separate province of North Maluku. Its capital is Ternate, on a small island to the west of the large island of Halmahera. The capital of the remaining part of Maluku province remains at Ambon.

The situation in much of Maluku has been highly unpredictable since conflict erupted in the province in January 1999. The subsequent 18 months were characterized by fighting between largely local groups of Muslims and Christians, the destruction of thousands of houses, the displacement of approximately 500,000 people, the loss of thousands of lives, and the segregation of Muslims and Christians. The following 12 months saw periodic eruptions of violence, which appeared more targeted and pre-meditated, designed to keep suspicions high and people segregated. In spite of numerous negotiations and the signing of a peace agreement in February 2002, tensions on Ambon remained high until late 2002, when a series of spontaneous 'mixings' between previously hostile groups led to a sporadic, but generally increasingly stable peace.


  • Bellwood, Peter (1997). Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824818830.

External links


Fiji | Papua New Guinea | Solomon Islands | Vanuatu
Other political units
Papua | Maluku Islands | New Caledonia

et:Maluku saared es:Molucas fr:Moluques ja:モルッカ諸島 nl:Molukken pl:Moluki


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