History, Genealogy and Heritage Events

Unlock The Past will be at

Unlock the Past Cruises

The Spice Islands and the Age of Discovery

Event Information

  • 15 May 2012 12:30pm
  • Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts (SMSA), 280 Pitt Street
  • Sydney
  • New South Wales
Other Information

Ian Burnet takes us on an exotic journey, tracing the lucrative spice trade that led explorers such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama and Magellan to dream of bypassing the Silk Road by sailing directly to the Spice Islands.  

The clove tree is indigenous to only five small volcanic islands in Indonesia, namely Ternate, Tidore, Moti, Machian and Bacan. The nutmeg tree is indigenous to the equally small and even more remote islands of Banda, Lontar, Ai and Run, which lie 700 kilometres away in the Banda Sea. The exact location of these islands was long shrouded in myth and mystery, and together they became known as the Spice Islands.

From earliest times, traders sailed from the Spice Islands across vast oceans in leaky boats to bring these clove buds and nutmegs to markets in East Africa, the Middle East, India and China then transported even further across the deserts of Egypt, Arabia and Central Asia before finally reaching the Mediterranean Sea and markets in Europe. The spices travelled half way round the world and the profits and taxes extracted at each stage meant that when demand was highest, these simple buds and seeds were said to be worth their weight in gold.

The stakes were high, but so was the potential profit. So is it any wonder that competition was fierce between the various powers - everyone from the rival Sultans of Ternate and Tidore to the Portuguese, Spanish and the Dutch and English East India Companies - who wanted to monopolise the trade in cloves and nutmeg.