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Clove tree: Syzygium aromaticum

Clove tree: Syzygium aromaticum, aka Eugenia caryophylatta (Myrtaceae).

Why did the Dutch give up New Amsterdam? Considering what it has become,


trading away the city of New York does not sound like such an attractive deal. It did seem so to the Dutch government of the time — whereas the local Dutch did not willingly relinquish their colony to the English. As part of the Treaty of Breda (1667), Holland traded the island of Manhattan to England in exchange for another island, the tiny island of Run, about 3 km long and less than 1 km wide. There is a claim that Run was the first British colony overseas. It became part of the Crown on Christmas Day, 1616, during James I’s reign.

Run’s location, in the archipelago of the Moluccas and part of present-day Indonesia, explains why the Dutch accepted the exchange. Since we shall refer by name to some of these islands, let us mention a few others : Gilolo, aka Almahera, is the largest island in the Moluccas, but for much of its history it was controlled by the sultan of the smaller island of Ternate. Bachian, and like many other among the Moluccas, is a volcanic island. The equator passes between the islands of Bachian and Machian. The latter has a watery center, the volcano blew up in 1616. The Bada Islands lie south of those. In-between, there is the island of Seram.

These are the Spice Islands, which explains the Dutch interest in Run Islet. Its possession gave them full control of the Banda archipelago, in the southern part of the Moluccas, with its lucrative production of nutmeg and mace. Elsewhere in the Moluccas, cloves were also harvested.

The clove trade is alluded to in Egyptian hyeroglyphs 3,600 years ago. Another early text about cloves is from China, from the Han dynasty (207 BCE to CE 220). They were referred to as ‟chicken-tongue spice.‟ The use of cloves, to defoul the air, anticipates upon the pomanders of the Elizabethan Age, consisting of citrus fruit studded with cloves, held in pierced jewelry. Han dynasty courtiers were enjoined to keep cloves in their mouths when speaking to the Emperor, lest he be inconvenienced by a bad breath.

A clove is the dried flowerbud of the tree Syzygium aromaticum, native to the Moluccas. It owes its name to its nail-like appearance (French clou). A tree must be ten years before cloves can be harvested, always during the dry season:

‟The tree is tall and as thick as a man. Its branches in the center spread out widely, but at the top they grow into a kind of peak. The leaf is like that of a laurel, and the bark of the color of brown tan. The cloves come at the tip of branches, ten or twenty together. These trees almost always bear more of them on one side than on the other, according to the season. When the cloves sprout, they are white; when ripe, red; and when dried, black.‟ 
(account by Antonio Pigafetta, from his Narrative of Magellan’s Voyage, published between 1526 and 1536 in Western Europe).

The tree is an evergreen, pyramid-shaped, about 15 m-high, with large ovate dark green leaves. It is best grown near the sea, with an annual rainfall of about 60 inches. Crimson flowers grow in groups of three at the end of branches.

Arab traders introduced cloves to Europe in about the fourth century AD, and Arabs continued to control the trade in spices until the end of the fifteenth century. During the fourteenth century, Venitian imports of cloves came almost exclusively from Alexandria and Beirut. To give an idea of how precious these spices were to Europeans at that time, a master mason's or master carpenter's daily wage in London, in 1438-1439, of 8d. could buy less than a quarter pound of cloves — relatively large amounts were needed, given the prevailing strong odors city dwellers had to face.

Following Vasco da Gama’s voyage to India in 1497, Portuguese traders held a monopoly on import of spices from India — 10 to 40 tons of cloves were imported from Goa to Lisbon every decade. Most of the pepper, however, and all of the nutmeg, mace, and cloves came from the Spice Islands, which the Portuguese began conquering in about 1512. The Portuguese made treaties with rulers in the Moluccas. On Ternate, then the main clove-growing island, the Portuguese signed a treaty with the Sultan of Ternate which enabled them to build warehouses for cloves to be shipped back to Europe.

Who came after Portuguese traders ? In the late 16th century, Spaniards. The line separating the Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence ran just east of Malacca, the Portuguese center of the spice trade, thus leaving Spain most of the rest of Asia and the The ruthless Dutch East India Company (VOC) seized the fort on Bachian Island from the Spaniards in 1609 and renamed it Fort Barneveld; henceforth, the island’s cloves could be sold only to that company. During the seventeenth century, VOC forcefully established its hegemony on clove plantations. It had its headquarters in Batavia (today’s Djakarta).

Governor-General Jan Pietersz Coen (1587-1629) and his countrymen resorted to brute force to establish their monopoly on the spice trade of the Moluccas and to deter English competition. A consequence was price control. Cloves sold in Amsterdam, as a rule, from about 14 to 25 times what they cost in the Moluccas. No wonder if the seventeenth century was a period of prosperity in the Netherlands, as documented in the still lifes that adorned many a Dutch interior at that time.

In 1651, after a more or less calm period, rebellion against Dutch rule broke out in the Moluccas. To protect its monopoly on the clove trade, the VOC once again imposed restrictions on planting clove trees. Majira, a chief in Hoamoal on the island of Seram, refused to destroy the young plantation and also began selling cloves to Asian traders. Amasser, a town on the island of Sulawesi, ruled by the Sultan of Goa, supported the insurgents, as did Ternate. Inhabitants of the Banda Islands attempted independent trade with the English. 
VOC's response was to decimate the Bandanese, sending the survivors fleeing to other islands, and then imposing slave labor.

Between 1651 and 1656, the governor of the Moluccas, Arnold de Vlamingh van Oudshoorn (1618-1662), suppressed the rebellion with the help of Moluccan chiefs, who put war boats (praus) as his disposal. Later this was to be called The Great Ambon War, or Hoamoal War. Following that war, growing cloves was restricted to Ambon and the islands of Haruku, Saparua and Nusa Laut with their strong Dutch forts. The clove monopoly was once again firmly in the hands of the VOC — or so did the Dutch thought.

However, early in the 1770s, French adventurers smuggled clove tree cuttings to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Not until the early 1800s, did the young plantations yield enough cloves to break the VOC monopoly. As for the Spice Islands, the English occupied the Dutch settlements on the Moluccas in 1795. Cultivation of cloves, mace and nutmeg henceforth spread throughout the archipelago and later to other parts of the world as well, to Zanzibar in particular.

Why do cloves smell so lovely? Eugenol is among the volatile molecules in their oil. The name derives from that of the species, Eugenia caryophylatta, whose essential oil is rich (45-90 %) in this molecule. It consists of a six-membered benzene ring bearing two oxygen-containing groups and an allyl (CH2CH=CH2) chain. Eugenol was isolated in 1929.

A late date considering the medicinal uses of the essential oil from cloves. They go back centuries. Local use against toothache is documented in France in 1640. Besides its analgesic and anaesthetic effects, eugenol acts also as anti-inflammatory and bactericide.
Moreover, it has benefitted many cultures of the world, such as India and China for times immemorial, for respiratory and digestive ailments, among many other syndromes.

Coming back to its attractive odor, eugenol has been used as an ingredient, not only in mouthwashs and other dental preparations, but also in the make-up of perfumes, such as Yves Saint Laurent’s Opium and Kouros.

Thus cloves tie the present with the Han dynasty, China with the West, and the Spice Islands with a past that European traders made more infamous than heroic.