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Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices up to the Arrival of Europeans

Author(s):Donkin, R. A.
Reviewer(s):Knaap, Gerrit

Published by EH.NET (July 2004)

R.A. Donkin, Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices up to the Arrival of Europeans. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2003. xx + 274 pp. $40 (cloth), ISBN: 0-87169-248-1.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Gerrit Knaap, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, Leiden.

The subtitle of this book promises the reader the following subjects: 1) the Moluccas, the Indonesian island group, located between the larger islands of Sulawesi (Celebes) and Papua (New Guinea), and 2) the traffic in spices. The expression ‘Between East and West’ of the main title covers the direction in which spice traffic moved. The timespan under discussion is from time immemorial up to the arrival of Europeans in the Moluccas, which is in 1511. The author of the book, Robin Donkin, is emeritus reader in historical geography, University of Cambridge.

The Moluccas and spices are subjects pregnant with meaning in Dutch history. Whenever Dutch historians try to explain the beginning of the colonial expansion of the Netherlands around 1600, what stands out first is the desire of merchant-adventurers to take part in the profitable trade in spices, which had hitherto been in the hands of the Portuguese and, to a lesser degree, of the Venetians. They lost little time in achieving their purpose by joining in the race for colonial, territorial expansion. Consequently, the seeds of later Dutch colonial rule were sown on Amboina, Banda and Ternate, islands which are now collectively known as the Moluccas, at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Dutch textbooks on colonial history make a distinction between ‘spices’ and ‘finer spices.’ The finer spices consist of cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and mace, which shared the fact that the places where they were grown were rather select, hence, the limited supply. The other spices, most notably black pepper, were grown over a much vaster area and supplies were much greater or at least much more in balance with demand.

With this point of reference, I started reading Donkin’s book. By adding the Moluccas to the traffic in spices in the title, it was obvious that he also had the finer spices in mind. In fact, the book deals with three botanical species: cloves (Eugenia caryophyllus), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) and sandalwood (Santalum album). As mace is a by-product of nutmeg, we can say that three out of the four finer spices are included in this study. The fourth, cinnamon, is deliberately left out, because this was grown in quite another corner of Asia, namely in Ceylon, present-day Sri Lanka. In its stead, sandalwood is given a prominent place. This is a rather strange cuckoo in the nest as sandalwood does not belong to the category of spices in the proper sense of the word. It is not, like the others, an edible product, an aroma to be used in the kitchen to flavor food. Its main function is to provide a basis for incense or for perfuming certain places and people to eradicate unpleasant odors. Even more important, sandalwood did not grow in the Moluccas, but in Timor. Timor is part of Nusa Tenggara (the Lesser Sunda Islands), geographically and culturally different from the Moluccas. The only thing which it does have in common with the Moluccas is that it is also a remote corner in the eastern part of the Old World, relatively isolated from the great historical centers of civilization.

The book consists of five chapters. In the first chapter Donkin introduces readers to cloves, nutmeg and sandalwood as well as their scientific and folk nomenclature. This chapter is rounded off with an overview of the discovery of the Moluccas by the Europeans, in particular the Portuguese and the Spanish. After that, the history of the three products is followed in four different ‘subcontinents': India, the Arabo-Persian world, the medieval West and China-cum-Southeast Asia. Each of these areas is covered by a different chapter. It appears that the products under discussion were already being traded internationally about two thousand years ago, but that individual traders only used to carry them over rather short distances. Consequently, before the spices reached the great markets of China, India, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, they had already changed hands several times. Hence, it took a very long time, many centuries in fact, before the production areas in the Moluccas and Timor themselves became known in the actual consumer lands. This did not occur before the twelfth to the fourteenth century. Only a few odd Chinese and Indian ships seem to have reached the Moluccas roughly one century before the Europeans arrived there in 1511.

Interesting though the book may be, a few points of criticism are inevitable. First, each of the five chapters stands on its own. In principle there is nothing wrong with that. But having said this, I would have wished to see some sort of a synthesis in the Epilogue, some bold conclusions which could be used to carry the discussion further along the road. Second, actually the book does not stop with the arrival of the Europeans. Gradually, the time span is enlarged to include the sixteenth and early seventeenth century, in particular in Chapter 5, the China-cum-Southeast Asia section. Consequently, it stretches into the period of Portuguese and Dutch colonial involvement. Unfortunately, Donkin did not have all the relevant literature produced by Portuguese and Dutch writers at his fingertips. This leads to superficiality, as in map 12 on p. 172, showing the European presence in Southeast Asia in the period 1511-1650, which bristles with errors. Third, the book hardly touches upon the indigenous peoples and societies who produced the finer spices, especially the Moluccans, Amboinese and Bandanese. The information provided about them is scant, but it is still quite plentiful compared to what Donkin tells about Timor and its inhabitants, namely virtually nothing. Fourth, in a book about trade, one should expect quantifications. Indubitably, every now and then a few details are mentioned about turnovers and prices, but any analytical, systematic approach as a tool to delve into matters of volume of trade and numbers of merchants and ships, in order to assess the significance of the phenomenon under study, is lacking.

Notwithstanding these omissions and weaknesses, it has to be acknowledged that Donkin’s book certainly contains a number of praiseworthy points. He has digested an impressive amount of literature, covering many languages and crossing many borders, both in geography and in time. Producing this book has been a meticulous, almost encyclopedic endeavor. It is well written and well illustrated. It has to be said that it is the most systematic and extensive work in the field of Moluccan spices and of sandalwood, insofar as it covers the history in the period until about the end of the fifteenth century.

Gerrit Knaap, head of Archives and Images of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies, has published extensively about the history of Indonesia during and after the Dutch East India Company. His latest book is Kruidnagelen en Christenen; De Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie en de bevolking van Ambon 1656-1696 (Leiden: KITLV, 2004 [second imprint]).

Subject(s):International and Domestic Trade and Relations
Geographic Area(s):General, International, or Comparative
Time Period(s):Medieval