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Food destruction and depopulation. How the Dutch East India Company gained a clove monopoly on the Ambon islands

Nutmeg, mace and cloves: spices the Dutch East India Company (VOC) wanted to get its hands on. PhD candidate Tristan Mostert conducted research into the ‘clove hunt’ on the Ambon islands and discovered that VOC governors used increasingly extreme tactics to get hold of this spice.

Drawing of a branch of a clove tree, from the manuscript of Het Amboinsche kruid-boek by G.E. Rumphius. Leiden University collection.

An impossible assignment

‘It was an impossible assignment, a clove monopoly,’ says Mostert. ‘In its early days, the VOC did not have that much power. The different VOC governors of the island of Ambon that I studied clearly struggled with this too. They used different ways to gain control of the gigantic area where clove trees grow. Whereas, for instance, governor Philip Lucasz (governor in the period 1618-1631) focused on stopping foreign merchant ships, his successor Artus Gijsels (governor in the period 1631-1634) directed his attention on the villages that received these foreign traders. He punished them by destroying everything edible in the area and chopping down all the clove trees.’

The role of local powers

Mostert also looked at the role local powers played in the battle for cloves. Mostert: ‘Large parts of the Ambon islands were officially under the rule of the Sultan of Ternate. The VOC had an official alliance with him. In exchange for “protection”, the inhabitants of these areas had to sell cloves to the Dutch at a fixed price. As many of them did not want to, and the VOC increasingly resorted to military force to coerce them into cooperating with this policy, local leaders in these areas sought alternative sources of political protection. They often ended up with Makassar, a strong state on the island of Sulawesi that also traded with the Ambon islands.’

Makassar made two serious attempts to expel the Dutch from the area. This was in 1642 and 1653, when they sent a large war fleet to the Ambon islands. ‘These attempts to drive out the Dutch, both of which failed in the end, show that local powers that resisted the VOC did not give in easily.’

Map of the areas studied

Depopulation of West Seram

After decades of struggle, the VOC managed to gain colonial control of the Ambon islands in 1656. The area that was most affected was West Seram, also known as Hoamoal, which was originally part of the sultanate of Ternate. ‘It was one of the biggest pockets of resistance in the area and was therefore regularly attacked by the VOC from 1625 onward. By cutting down the clove trees, destroying the habitat and ultimately deporting the few that remained after the last big war from 1651-1655, the VOC finally brought West Seram under its control.’

The way the VOC proceeded in West Seram is reminiscent of its actions in the Banda islands, which were almost completely depopulated in the period 1609-1621. According to Mostert that was a small but important part of the conflicts he describes in his dissertation. ‘It put a strain on relations with other territories and therefore contributed to the later conflicts. Within the VOC, moreover, it was seen as both a deterrent and an inspiring example. Some VOC officials found what had happened horrifying but others mainly saw Jan Pieterszoon Coen’s actions as an effective way to solve problems.’


How the VOC ultimately carried on West Seram has much in common with the depopulation of Banda. The VOC did all it could to completely erase West Seram society. ‘The few people left in 1655 were spread as thinly as possible over households on other islands. The idea was to wipe out their society or, as one senior VOC official put it, “ensure they lose their own name all the more”. Nowadays you might call that genocide.’

Tristan Mostert will defend his dissertation on 28 March entitled ‘Spice War. Ternate, Makassar, the Dutch East India Company and the struggle for the Ambon Islands c. 1600-1656’. Follow the livestream via this link.

Text: Sabine Waasdorp
Image: Tristan Mostert

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