Indonesia and the Spice Islands


Map of Indonesia

Indonesia

Official Name: Republic of Indonesia

Capital: Jakarta

Population: 192 million

Population Problems: Uneven distribution of population is a major concern to the government. Some 60% of the population live on the island of Java. The government hopes to relieve this congestion by attracting people to live on the outer islands. To facilitate this move grants, free travel and land has been made available.

Official Language: Bahasa Indonesia

Religion: 80% Muslim, 10% Christian, with the remainder comprising animists and other religions

Area: 1,904,570 sq km (735,555 sq miles)

Highest point: Puncak Jaya (5030 m above sea level)

Major Islands: Java, Kalimantan, Irian Jaya, Sulawesi (Celebes), Sumatra and the Moluccas (Group)

Currency: Rupiah

National Anthem: "Indonesia Raya" ("Great Indonesia")

Current Head of State (March 1996): President Suharto

Education: Primary education is compulsory but some regions do not have school buildings, textbooks or enough teachers to meet the needs of the expanding population. Over 90% of the country's children attend primary school. Attendance at secondary school is much lower at around 15% - 30%.

Indonesian Culture: Because of its sheer size the culture of Indonesia is highly varied. Perhaps the best known aspect are popular dances on Bali, gamelan orchestras, Dyak wood carvings to ward off evil spirits, Javanese puppet dramas and the batik method of dyeing cloth.

Major Industries: Rubber Production; Oil, gas and chemicals; Precious Timbers; Heavy Engineering and other high-technology industries on a smaller scale; Tin, copper and nickel; Cassava, Coconuts, Rice and Spices: Tuna and Prawns; Tourism.

Climate: Largely tropical monsoon. Rain falls all year round but the months from June to September are relatively dry everywhere except in the Moluccas which are very wet during this period.

Physical Description: Covering a distance of over 5000 km, Indonesia is the world's largest archipelago. Estimates vary but it is thought the country is made up of over 13,000 islands. Less than 1,000 of these have permanent settlements. Many of Indonesia's islands are mountainous, have active volcanoes and are covered by dense rainforest. Outside of Amazonia Indonesia has the largest area of surviving primary rainforest in the world.

Natural History: Indonesia's natural history is widely regarded as the world's most varied and perhaps the most precious also. 20% of the bird species found in Indonesia are found nowhere else in the world and 40% of the archipelago's mammals are unique to this region. Modern farming, logging and mining techniques pose a serious threat to this area which is famous for its natural diversity.

The Spice Islands

The island region where Tim Severin and his crew will sail is known as the Spice Islands. Another name for this group is the Moluccas or Maluku. Although romantically named, the Spice Islands have a long and bloody history.

Today the importance of the Spice Islands is as one of the few surviving areas of primary tropical rainforest with a rich natural history. In previous centuries the islands' importance lay with their name. As the source of cloves and nutmeg they were the focus of attention from traders since 300 B.C. or possibly earlier. Chinese, Indian and Arab merchants sought out these riches long before the European powers came to Maluku. The Arab connection, in particular, meant that the Muslim Influence was very strong. Individual sultans amassed great wealth and came to control the precious spice trade. Indeed, by the early 1500s, Maluku was known as Jazirat-al-Muluk or "Land of Many Kings."

It was at this time that Europeans first came to the Moluccas in search of cloves and nutmeg. They were highly valued as food preservatives. Wealthy ladies used to keep spices in lockets around their necks so they could freshen their breaths easily. Gentlemen added nutmeg to food and drink. Spices were also used for medicinal purposes, especially in the relief of colic, gout and rheumatism. Such great demand meant that the prices of nutmeg and cloves soared. To offset this crisis expeditions were launched to find the source of these spices and bring them directly back to Europe.

Christopher Columbus was searching for the fabled route to the Indies when he arrived at the Americas in 1492. Not long after this the Portuguese enforced their rule on parts of the Moluccan Islands. Along with the spice traders came military forces and missionaries keen on converting the natives of the islands. Conflict soon broke out and the Portuguese brutally crushed the islanders. The natives continued to disrupt Portuguese trade and everyday life in the islands and within a century they were replaced by the Spanish. They did not last long either and lost out to the Dutch who governed the islands between 1605 and 1945.

The period of Dutch rule is marked by the usage of vast plantations as a means of producing vast quantities of spices for the European markets. All the land was under the control of the Dutch East Indies Company and anyone caught selling land, however small, was executed. By the early 1800s new plantations of spices in Africa and India meant that there was a greater choice of supply available to the traders. As a consequence, prices fell and the Dutch were in trouble. It was around this time that Alfred Russel Wallace arrived in the Malay Archipelago.

Today, the Spice Islands make up Maluku Propinsi (or Maluku Province) of the Republic of Indonesia.


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