Maluku Islands

From New World Encyclopedia
Map of Maluku Islands-en.svg

The Maluku Islands within Indonesia
yellow : North Maluku province
red : Maluku province

LocationSouth East Asia
Coordinates3°9′S 129°23′E / -3.15, 129.383
Total islands~1000
Major islandsHalmahera, Seram, Buru, Ambon, Ternate, Tidore, Aru Islands, Kai Islands
Area74,505 km² (28,767 sq mi)
Highest pointBinaiya (3,027 m (9,930 ft))
Flag of Indonesia Indonesia
ProvincesMaluku, North Maluku
Population1,895,000 (as of 2000)
Ethnic groupsNuaulu, Manusela

The Maluku Islands (also known as the Moluccan Islands) are an archipelago in Indonesia, and part of the larger Malay Archipelago. The political entities encompassing the islands are Maluku (Indonesian province) and North Maluku. The islands were also historically known as the Spice Islands by the Chinese and Europeans, but this term has also been applied to other islands. In the seventeenth century, the Dutch killed, enslaved, and drove out the occupants of Banda Islands (an island group of the Malukus) in a bid to control the lucrative spice trade. At the start of the twenty-first century, Ambom (another of the Malukan islands) was the site of fierce fighting between Muslims and Christians.


The Maluku Islands are located on the Australian Plate, lying east of Sulawesi (Celebes), west of New Guinea, and north of Timor.

The major islands and island groups in Maluku are: Ambonia Island, Aru Islands, Babar Island, Barat Daya Islands (including Wetar Island), Banda Islands, Buru, Kei Islands, Leti Islands, Makian, Saparua, Seram, and the Tanimbar Islands.

The major islands and island groups in North Maluku are: Halmahera, Bacan, Morotai, Gebe Umera, the North Loloda archipelago, the Widi archipelago, Obi, the Sula archipelago, as well as three small volcanic islands.

Banda Besar island seen from Fort Belgica.

The islands lie on the Australia-New Guinea continental shelf, and were connected to Australia and New Guinea by land when sea levels were lower during the ice ages. The flora and fauna of Aru are part of the Australasia ecozone, and closely related to that of New Guinea. Aru is part, together with much of western New Guinea, of the Vogelkop-Aru lowland rain forests terrestrial ecoregion.

Most of the islands are mountainous, some with active volcanoes, and enjoy a wet climate. The vegetation of the small and narrow islands is very luxuriant; including rainforests, savanna, and mangroves, sago, rice, and the famous spices—nutmeg, cloves, and mace, among others.

The Barat Daya Islands, together with Timor, Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi, and most of Maluku, are part of Wallacea, the group of Indonesian islands that are separated by deep water from both the Australian and Asian continental shelves. The islands of Wallacea have never been linked by land to either Asia or Australia, and as a result have few mammals and a mix of flora and fauna different from both continents. Rainfall is highly seasonal based on the monsoon, and the islands are mostly covered in tropical dry broadleaf forests that are partly deciduous, with many trees losing their leaves in the dry season. The Barat Daya Islands, together with Timor, the Leti Islands, and Alor, are designated as the Timor and Wetar deciduous forests ecoregion. In general, temperatures range from 75 to 88 F (24 to 31 C) November to April, with an average rainfall of about 10 inches (260 mm). Temperatures from May to October range from 73 to 82 F (23 to 28 C) with rainfall averaging about 6 inches (147 mm).

The Barat Daya Islands are part of a volcanic island arc that includes the Banda Islands, created by the collision of the Indo-Australian Plate and the Eurasian Plate. Romang and Damar are volcanic; Wetar consists mostly of oceanic crust that was pushed to the surface by the colliding plates.

Gunung Api as seen from Fort Belgica on Banda Neira.
Note people at left.
The active volcano Gunung Api in the Banda Islands

The Banda Islands are a group of ten small volcanic islands in the Banda Sea, about 90 miles (140 km) south of Seram island and about 1,250 miles (2000 km) east of Java. They rise out of 2.5 to 3 mile (4 to 6 km) deep ocean and have a total land area of approximately 70 sq mi (180 km²). They have a population of about 15,000. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the Banda Islands were the only source of the spices nutmeg and mace (derived from the outer covering of the nutmegs). The islands are also popular destinations for scuba diving and snorkeling.

The main city and capital of Maluku province is Ambon City on the small Ambon Island. The planned provincial capital of North Maluku is Sofifi, on Halmahera, but the current capital and largest population center is the island of Ternate.


The people of the Maluku have been sailors and traders for thousands of years. The earliest archaeological evidence of human occupation of the region is about 32,000 years old, but evidence of even older settlements in Australia may mean that Maluku had earlier visitors. Evidence of trade and of occupation of many of the islands begins about 10,000 to 15,000 years later. Onyx beads and segments of silver plate used as currency on the Indian subcontinent around 200 B.C.E. have been unearthed on some islands.

The Maluku Islands were a cosmopolitan society, in that traders from across the region took residence in Maluku settlements, or in nearby enclaves, to conduct spice business. Arab and Chinese traders frequently visited or lived in the region.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the islands of North Maluku were the original "Spice Islands." At the time, the region was the sole source of cloves. The Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, and local kingdoms, including Ternate and Tidore, fought each other for control of the lucrative trade in these spices.

The Portuguese navigator António de Abreu was the first European to encounter the Bandar islands, in 1512. In 1513, the Portuguese landed on Ambon Island, which produced some cloves, but also played an entrepot, or intermediary, role in the region. A Portuguese fort, along with a nearby settlement of indigenous Christian converts, formed the nucleus of what became Ambon city (the capital of Maluku province). But the Portuguese presence on Ambon Island was regularly challenged by attacks from indigenous Muslims on the island's northern coast, in particular Hitu, which had trading and religious links with major port cities on Java's north coast. The Portuguese never managed to control the local spice trade, and failed in attempts to establish their authority over the Banda Islands, the center of nutmeg production.

The Spaniards took control of Ternate and Tidore. While Roman Catholicism slowly spread among the native population of Ambon (the missionary Saint Francis Xavier resided in Ambon for a time), most of the region remained Muslim.

The Dutch arrived in 1599 and reported indigenous discontent with Portuguese attempts to monopolize their traditional trade. After the Ambonese helped the Dutch to construct a fort at Hitu Larna, the Portuguese began a campaign of retribution; the Ambonese requested Dutch assistance in defense. After 1605, Frederik Houtman became the first Dutch governor of Ambon.

Controlling production of nutmeg and mace was a major motivation for the Dutch conquest of the Banda islands in 1621, led by Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Nutmeg was one of the “fine spices” kept expensive in Europe by manipulation of the market, but also sold to India, where consumption was twice that of Europe. The lucrative monopoly over supply was ruthlessly enforced. The Dutch decimated and displaced the indigenous Bandanese and imported slaves, convicts, and indentured laborers to work the nutmeg plantations. Eventually, clove trees were replanted all around the world and the demand for cloves from the original spice islands ceased, greatly reducing Maluku's international importance.

The population of the Banda Islands before Dutch conquest was around 15,000 people, some of whom were Malay and Javanese traders, as well as Chinese and Arabs. The actual numbers of Bandanese who were killed, expelled, or fled the islands by 1621 remain uncertain. Evidence suggest around one thousand Bandanese survived in the islands, and were spread throughout the nutmeg groves as forced laborers. Though other groups re-settled the Banda Islands, the rest of Maluku remained uneasy under foreign control. After the Portuguese established a new trading station at Macassar, there were native revolts in 1636 and 1646. Under commercial control, northern Maluku was administered by the Dutch residency of Ternate, and southern Maluku by Ambon.

In the nineteenth century, Dobo, Aru's largest town, temporarily became an important regional trading center, serving as a meeting point for Dutch, Makasarese, Chinese, and other traders. The period from the 1880s to 1917 saw a backlash against this outside influence, by a spiritually-based movement among local residents to rid the islands of outsiders.

During the Japanese occupation in World War II, the Malukans fled to the mountains and began a campaign of resistance also known as the South Moluccan Brigade. After the war, the island's political leaders discussed independence with the Netherlands. But the Round Table Conference Agreements signed in 1949 transferred Maluku to Indonesia, while granting Maluku islanders the right to opt in or out of the newly formed Indonesia.

When the unitary republic of Indonesia was declared in 1950, the Maluku Selatan (South Moluccas) attempted to secede. This movement was led by Ch. Soumokil (former Supreme Prosecutor of the Eastern Indonesia state) and supported by the Moluccan members of the Netherlands special troops. Lacking support from the locals, this movement was crushed by the Indonesian army and because of the special agreement with Netherlands, those troops were transferred to Netherlands.

A program of transmigration of mainly Javanese people to the outer islands (including Maluku) during the 1960s aggravated the issues of independence and religion or ethnicity. There has been intermittent ethnic and nationalist violence on the islands and acts of terrorism by members of the South Moluccas or Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS) government-in-exile in the Netherlands, in the Malukus and the Netherlands, since that time.

Conflict erupted in Maluku in January 1999. For 18 months, local groups of Muslims and Christians fought, thousands were killed, thousands of houses destroyed, approximately 500,000 people were displaced, and Muslims and Christians were segregated. In spite of numerous negotiations and the signing of a peace agreement in February 2002, tensions on Ambon remained high until late 2002, when a series of spontaneous “mixings” between previously hostile groups led to an increasingly stable peace.

Fort Belgica, one of many forts built by the Dutch East India Company, is one of the largest remaining European forts in Indonesia.


Politically, the Maluku Islands formed a single province of Indonesia from 1950 until 1999. In 1999, the North Maluku (Maluku Utara) and Halmahera Tengah (Central Halmahera) regencies were split off as a separate province, so in 2006, the islands were divided between two provinces of Indonesia, Maluku and North Maluku. Maluku is one of the first provinces of Indonesia, proclaimed in 1945 until 1999, when the Maluku Utara and Halmahera Tengah Regencies were split off as a separate province of North Maluku.

The provinces are subdivided into regencies and cities, which are further subdivided into subdistricts.

The politics of Indonesia takes place in a framework of a presidential representative democratic republic, whereby the President of Indonesia is both head of state and head of government, and of a pluriform multi-party system. Executive power is exercised by the government. Legislative power is vested in both the government and the two People's Representative Councils. The Judiciary is independent of the executive and the legislature.

E. Borneo, Sulawesi, Maluku (Moluccas), Birds Head Peninsula (Papua)


Pearl farming is a major source of income for the Malukan island of Aru. The Aru pearl industry has been criticized in national media for allegedly maintaining exploitive debt structures that bind the local men who dive for pearls to outside boat owners and traders in an unequal relationship.

Other export products include sago (a starch product used in food and textiles, derived from the sago palm), coconuts, tobacco, "trepang" (an edible sea cucumber which is dried and cured), tortoise shell, and bird of paradise plumes. Weta, also in Maluku, has several gold mines. Buru, in Maluku, produces ebony, teak, sago, and coconuts. Seram produces copra, resin, sago, and fish. Oil is exploited in the northeast near Bula.

On Babar Island, from December to April rain is plentiful so that corn, plantains, bananas, cassava, and red rice (unirrigated) grow plentifully. Sufficient potable water on the island is provided by year round springs. This contrasts markedly with the much smaller islands ringing Babar Island. These are low-lying, uplifted reef and limestone (with the exception of Dai Island), infertile, not heavily forested, and lacking in fresh water. Life is more difficult on these outlying Babar islands where the indigenous inhabitants focus on fishing and hand-crafts that are then traded for garden produce from Babar Island.

View from a boat towards Tulehu, on the North Seram coast


Maluku had a population of 1,313,022 in 2004, and North Maluku had a population of 870,000, making it the least populous province in Indonesia.

On Aru, in Maluku, most indigenous islanders are of mixed Malay and Papuan descent. Fourteen languages, indigenous to Aru, belong to the Central Malayo-Polynesian language family, and are related to the other languages of Maluku, Nusa Tenggara, and Timor. Ambonese Malay is also spoken on Wamar. All are members of the Austronesian language family.

The indigenous Babar Islanders tend to darker skin color, kinky hair, and generally lack the epicanthic eyefold of East Asians. Due to the aridity of the islands and the lack of natural resources, there has been no transmigration from more populous Indonesian areas. Most indigenous Babar Islanders are baptized into the Protestant Church of Maluku. There is, however, a mosque and a small community of Muslims living in Tepa, the main town of the Babar Islands. Tepa also is home to one congregation each of Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and one Pentecostal church, the Gereja Betany Indonesia (GBI) (Bethany Church of Indonesia). The village of Kroing, on the Eastern side of Babar Island, also has a GBI. There is much hybridization with the indigenous animist beliefs and practices.

Bandanese speak a Malay dialect that has several features distinguishing it from Ambonese Malay, the better-known and more widespread dialect that forms a lingua franca in central and southeast Maluku. Bandanese Malay has a unique, lilting accent, and has a number of locally identifying words, many of them loanwords from the Dutch language. The descendants of some of the Bandanese who fled Dutch conquest in the seventeenth century live in the Kei Islands to the east of the Banda group, where a version of the original Banda language is still spoken in the villages of Banda Eli and Banda Elat on Kai Besar Island.

Three Austronesian languages are spoken on the Kei Islands; Keiese is the most widely spoken, Kurese is spoken on Kur Island and nearby Kaimeer, where Keiese is used as a lingua franca. Bandanese is spoken on the west and northeastern side of Kei Besar. Bandanese speakers originally came from the Banda Islands, where the language is no longer spoken.

Buru islanders recognize a clear distinction between the majority coastal people and the smaller number of mountain-dwellers. The coastal population is generally Islamic, and about one third is considered indigenous, while the rest are immigrants. There is also a population of Javanese transmigrants who have moved to the island since the 1960s. The smaller mountain-dwelling population differs from the coastal peoples in that they are not Muslim, and have limited social interactions with the coastal people and off the island.

Traditionally, most of the people in Seram have been of the animist, Muslim, or Christian faith. However, during the inter-religious conflict that swept the Maluku province and other parts of Indonesia in 1998 and continues sporadically, the Christian and other non-Muslim population was either killed, driven off the island, or forcibly converted to Islam. The remaining population is now entirely Muslim.


Maluku Island culture has evolved the same way as indigenous cultures throughout Indonesia have—it is multicultural, rooted in older societies and interethnic relations, and embroiled in twentieth century nationalist struggles.

The nuclear family of husband, wife, and children is the most widespread domestic unit, though elders and unmarried siblings may be added to it in various communities and at various times. Maluku Island kinship groupings are based upon patrilineal descent. Fulfilling obligations to kin can be onerous, but provides vital support since the Indonesian government does not provide social security, unemployment insurance, old age care, or legal aid. Unfortunately, the pressure to fulfill kinship obligations can result in nepotism when kin gain key positions in the private sector and government service. Extensive corruption has been a hot political issue throughout Indonesia.

Most of the present-day inhabitants of the Banda Islands are descended from migrants and plantation laborers from various parts of Indonesia, as well as from indigenous Bandanese. They have inherited aspects of pre-colonial ritual practices in the Bandas that are highly valued and still performed, giving them a distinct and very local cultural identity.

Music is a integral part of Malukan culture. In particular, on Kei traditional music is re-created with traditional instruments. The savarngil is a small native flute from 4 to 8 inches (100mm to to 200mm) long, open at both ends and having six fingerholes placed along the pipe made of bamboo and are keyless. The tiva are single headed drums made of a calf-skin membrane stretched over an enclosed space or over one of the ends of a hollow vessel, and the dada, a medium-size gong, 12 to 16 inches (300mm to 400mm) wide.

Renowned Malukan author Pramoedya Ananta Toer composed the stories that became his Buru Quartet by telling them orally to other prisoners while detained in a large prison camp holding alleged communists and other dissidents on Buru island. The Buru Quartet, published between 1980 and 1988 in Indonesian, are four novels that are rich documentaries of life in turn-of-the-century colonial Java. They were banned in Indonesia during the New Order. Pram (as he is commonly known, rhyming with Tom) received a PEN Freedom-to-Write Award in 1988 and a Magsaysay Award in 1995. He is the only Indonesian novelist to have received such acclaim overseas.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Andaya, Leonard Y. 1993. The World of Maluku: Eastern Indonesia in the Early Modern Period. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824814908
  • Bellwood, Peter. 1997. Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 0824818830
  • Donkin, R. A. 1997. Between East and West: The Moluccas and the Traffic in Spices Up to the Arrival of Europeans. American Philosophical Society. ISBN 0871692481
  • Monk, Kathryn A., Yance De Fretes, Gayatri Reksodiharjo-Lilley. 1997. The Ecology of Nusa Tenggara and Maluku. Singapore: Periplus Press. ISBN 9625930760
  • Van Oosterzee, Penny. 1997. Where Worlds Collide: The Wallace Line. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801484979
  • Wallace, Alfred Russel. 2000. The Malay Archipelago. Singapore: Periplus Press. ISBN 9625936459

External links

All links retrieved November 5, 2022.

Countries and territories of Oceania
Australia.png Australia : Australia · Norfolk Island
Melanesia.png Melanesia : East Timor · Fiji · Maluku Islands & Western New Guinea (part of Indonesia) · New Caledonia · Papua New Guinea · Solomon Islands · Vanuatu
Micronesia.png Micronesia : Guam · Kiribati · Marshall Islands · Northern Mariana Islands · Federated States of Micronesia · Nauru · Palau · Wake Island
Polynesia.png Polynesia : American Samoa · Cook Islands · French Polynesia · Hawaii · New Zealand · Niue · Pitcairn Islands · Samoa · Tokelau · Tonga · Tuvalu · Wallis and Futuna


New World Encyclopedia writers and editors rewrote and completed the Wikipedia article in accordance with New World Encyclopedia standards. This article abides by terms of the Creative Commons CC-by-sa 3.0 License (CC-by-sa), which may be used and disseminated with proper attribution. Credit is due under the terms of this license that can reference both the New World Encyclopedia contributors and the selfless volunteer contributors of the Wikimedia Foundation. To cite this article click here for a list of acceptable citing formats.The history of earlier contributions by wikipedians is accessible to researchers here:

The history of this article since it was imported to New World Encyclopedia:

Note: Some restrictions may apply to use of individual images which are separately licensed.