Spice Islands most commonly refers to the Maluku Islands (formerly the Moluccas), which lie on the equator, between Sulawesi (Celebes) and New Guinea in what is now Indonesia. The term has also been used in reference to other islands known for their spice production, notably the Tanzanian group off East Africa consisting of Zanzibar, Mafia Island and Pemba. These were the islands that Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was looking for when he encountered what would eventually become known as the Philippines.
The Moluccas were, until the late eighteenth century, the only source of economically significant spices including clove, nutmeg and mace. Archaeological and linguistic evidence places Spice Island traders within a seaborne circuit reaching westwards as far as mainland India and Arabia around 200 BC. Pliny the Roman author describes cloves not long afterwards, as Rome traded for spices along India's Malabar Coast. Javanese and Chinese merchants were heavily involved in the spice trade, and spices reached Europe only after passing through many foreign hands, with the main western terminus of the trade at Alexandria in Egypt.
For this reason, spices appeared in the European imagination as a miraculously expensive natural commodity. Their location was probably unknown to the Muslim traders of Alexandria, but wild stories were invented about the exotic conditions necessary for their cultivation, and the extreme hazards endured to harvest and transport them. This heady mixture of myth, romance and fabulous riches became the El Dorado of Europe's pre-Columbian consciousness.
One ancient Arabic source appears to know the location of the Islands, describing them as fifteen days' sail East from the 'island of Jaba' - presumably Java — but direct evidence of Islam in the archipelago occurs only in the late 1300s, as China's interest in regional maritime dominance waned. With Arabic traders came not just Islam, but a new technique of social organization, the sultanate, which replaced local councils of rich men (orang kaya) on the more important islands, and proved more effective in dealing with outsiders (See Ternate & Tidore articles).
Venice and the Age of Exploration
Venice came to monopolise the spice trade in Europe between 1200 and 1500, through its dominance over Mediterranean seaways to ports such as Alexandria, after traditional overland connections were disrupted by Mongols and Turks. The financial incentive to discover an alternative to Venice's monopoly control of this lucrative business was perhaps the single most important factor precipitating Europe's Age of Exploration.
Portugal took an early lead charting the route around the southern tip of Africa, securing various bases en route, even accidentally discovering the coast of Brazil in the search for favourable Southerly currents. Portugal's eventual success and the establishment of its own monopoly provoked the other maritime powers in Europe, Spain, France, England and the Netherlands to challenge and overcome the Portuguese position.
The ideal of the Spice Islands, eventually to be enveloped by the Netherlands' Dutch East Indies empire, had led to the accidental discovery of the West Indies, and lit the fuse of centuries of rivalry between European maritime powers for control of lucrative global markets and resources. The tattered mystique of the Spice Islands finally died when France and Britain successfully smuggled seeds and plants to their own dominions on Mauritius, Grenada and elsewhere, making spices a more commonplace and affordable commodity.