What and where are the Spice Islands?

The Spice Islands are a small group of islands to the north-east of Indonesia, between Celebes and New Guinea. They are known as the Spice Islands because, despite their relatively small size, they were the largest producers of mace, nutmeg, cloves and pepper in the world.

There was a thriving trade in spices and other goods in the Far East for centuries before European vessels arrived in the Indian Ocean in 1498. Spices were bought with Chinese silks, Indian cottons, Arabian coffee and African ivory. Spices had been available in Europe throughout the Middle Ages but the prices were very high because they had to be shipped expensively overland through the hands of many traders. Each trader made a profit and by the time that spices arrived in Venice (the chief point of contact between Europe and the East) they were often worth 1000 % more than the prices paid for them in the Spice Islands.

The Portuguese began buying spices directly from the Spice Islands as early as the 1520s. Dutch and English ships did not reach the islands for another 80 years. Because the Portuguese had continued to control the trade and demand high prices, the profits on the first English and Dutch voyages were still enormous. On the first English spice voyage, in 1598, two out of the three ships were lost and only a small cargo of spices was bought, but the voyage still made a handsome profit.