The Birds of Paradise (known by the Malay as Manuk Devata, "birds of God") were traditionally represented as lured from their celestial home by the spicy perfume of these enchanted isles, from whence perpetual incense steals across the sea, and rises heavenward with intoxicating fragrance. A Dutch naturalist in 1598 says, "These birds of the sun live in air, and never alight until they die, having neither feet nor wings, but fall senseless with the fragrance of the nutmeg." Linnaeus asserts that "they feed on the nectar of flowers, and show an equal variety of colour, blue and yellow, orange and green, red and violet." Portuguese naturalists also represent the passaros de sol as footless, their mode of flight concealing the extremities. Birds of Paradise were articles of tribute from native chiefs, and a sacred character belonged to the feathered tribe, wheeling between earth and sky above the spicy groves of the alluring Moluccas. This island group, for ages the coveted prize of European nations, exercised an irresistible attraction on Arabia and Persia. Various expeditions were organised, and in the ninth century Arab sages discovered the healing virtues of nutmeg and mace, as anodynes, embrocations, and condiments. A record remains of a certain Ibn Amram, an Arabian physician, whose uncontrolled passion for the nux moschata overthrew his reason. The story, continually quoted as a warning to subsequent explorers of the Spice Islands, has apparently kept his memory green, for no previous details of his career have come down to us. Eastern spices were favourite medicines in Persia during the tenth century, and fifty years later the karoun aromatikon was added to the Pharmacopeia of Europe. In A.D. 1400, Genoa and Barcelona became the principal spice markets, though the attention of Northern Europe had been directed to the Moluccas by those voyages of Marco Polo which, especially in lands of fog and snow, fired popular imagination with myriad visions of realised romance. Camöens, in the Lusiad, chanted the praises of the verde noz in those poetic groves, which he regarded as a new garden of Hesperides, when the magic lure of an untravelled distance, and the dreamful wonder of an untracked horizon, wove their spells over the mind of an awakening world. Powers of observation and comparison were still untrained and untried; superstition was rife, and a necromantic origin was frequently ascribed to the unfamiliar products of the mystic East. Portugal, in the zenith of her maritime power, became the first European trader in the Southern Seas, and in A.D. 1511 Albuquerque reached the Moluccas, but was quickly followed by the Spaniards under their great Emperor Charles V. Incessant war continued for the possession of "the gold-bearing trees," until Spain and Portugal, united by a common danger, combined their forces to exclude the northern nations from any share in the coveted spoil. The rage for spices spread throughout Europe, and kindled a fire of international animosity which lasted for centuries. In A.D. 1595 the unwieldy Dutch ships started on a perilous voyage round the Cape, to trace the unknown path to the mysterious Moluccas, described as "odorous with trees of notemuge, sending of their fragrance across the sea on the softe breath of the south winde," and Holland, at the climax of her power, eventually secured the monopoly of spices. The islands so fiercely contested were twice owned by England, but finally relinquished in that readjustment of power necessitated by the fall of Napoleon. Although the Moluccas were declared open to the flag of every friendly nation in 1853, it was not until twenty years later that every vestige of monopoly disappeared, and the Spice Islands were liberated from the political chicanery of rival Powers. Peace brooded at last over the sea-girt Elysium, where "Nature tries her finest touch," and in the green shades of these "ultimate islands," the tumult of the world died away into silence. Old German and Flemish ballads borrow quaint anachronisms from that sylvan sanctuary of incense-laden sweetness, which coloured the thoughts and dreams of contemporary poets, and added exotic traits to their descriptions of northern scenery. "The nutmeg boughs in the Garden of Love," droop over the fair-haired Teutonic maiden in her home amid German pine-forests, and she gathers "the scented fruit of gold," as a worthy gage d'amour for her stalwart Saxon lover, with that picturesque incongruity of poetical license permitted to mediæval versifiers. The canvas of many an early painter depicts the sacred figures of Madonna and Child on an incongruous background of German or Italian landscape, and the mediæval poet seldom hesitates to enrich his verse with whimsical allusions, full of fantastical inaccuracy, but valuable as revelations of current thoughts and ideas. Only a slight sketch of the prolonged conflict waged for centuries round the nutmeg groves of the remote Moluccas is possible in this little record, but even the briefest account of the Spice Islands demands mention of evidence proving the value attached to the precious "fruit of gold," then outweighing every other product of tropical climes in popular estimation.
Three volcanic peaks tower up before us on reaching Ternate, the first of the Molucca group. This mountain chain includes types representing every period of volcanic agency. The smoking cone of Ternate slopes in sweeping contours to the blue strait unbroken by bay or creek, and smaller satellites flank the central height, grooved by wooded gorges. The serrated ridge of Tidore, the opposite island, culminates in the red pinnacle formed by a fresh pyramid of lava above the ruined wall of a broken crater, the gap creating a sheltered inlet, where a fishing boat with yellow sails skims like a huge butterfly across the shimmering purple of the flowing tide. The fretted turquoise of the further range rises on the great island of Halmaheira, inhabited by an Alfoer population of Papuan origin, but beyond the scope of the present cruise. The port of Ternate, on the southern slope of the volcano, shows the pointed gables of palm-thatched dwellings rising from masses of glorious greenery, brightened by purple torrents of bougainvillea, or golden-flowered ansena trees, wreathed and roped with a gorgeous tangle of many-coloured creepers. The breath of heavily-scented flowers mingles with the pungent sweetness of clove and nutmeg. An avenue of dadap trees skirts the shore, with varied foliage of amber and carmine. The dark figures sauntering in the shade, and clad in rose-colour, azure, or orange, add deeper notes to the symphony of colour, only marred by the white-washed Dutch conventicle, like an emphatic protest against Nature's response to her Creator. Ruined arches and pillars of white Portuguese houses, standing in a wilderness of verdure amid tumbled heaps of stone and concrete, testify to the earthquakes which have continually wrecked the little port. The mixed population includes Chinese, Arabs, and Malays. The original native race also contains Malay, Dutch, and Portuguese elements, European descent resulting here as elsewhere in darkening the native brown of the pure-blooded Ternatian to ebony blackness in the second and succeeding generations.
The discovery of an English-speaking schoolmistress simplifies the day's itinerary, which begins with the thatched palace or kedaton of the Sultan. The tiered roofs of the royal Messighit rise above the atap dwellings of the rustic Court, still professing a slack Mohammedanism. The Dutch territory includes the Chinese and Oriental campongs divided by Fort Orange, but though the palmy days of Ternate's hereditary Ruler have long since passed away, he retains a shadowy authority over a limited area. Sir Francis Drake, on one of his romantic voyages, touched at Ternate in the early days of the 16th century, and in graphic words records his amazement at "the fair and princely show" of this barbaric potentate, who sat robed in cloth of gold, beneath a gold-embroidered canopy, and wore "a crown of plaited golden links." Chains of diamonds and emeralds clasped his swarthy neck, and on the royal right hand "there shone a big and perfect blue turky." This regal splendour was attained by monopoly of the Spice Trade, the incalculable profits inducing Europeans to exchange fortunes of gold and jewels with native magnates. The Dutch, when seizing the islands, often compelled the local Sultans to destroy acres of spice-bearing trees, in order to concentrate the focus of commerce. The thriving industries of copra, rattan, and damar (the gum used in making varnish) were increased tenfold by the abolition of private spice-trading, and by emancipation of the slaves in 1861, when the Dutch Government placed the liberated population under police surveillance, compelling each individual to prove honest acquirement of the slender means necessary for subsistence. Contact with the world begins to sharpen native intelligence, already heightened by the fusion of European blood with the island race, and external cleanliness being enforced systematically in Dutch territory, the concrete cottages which alternate with the thatched dwellings are dazzlingly white, the diligent sweeping and watering at fixed hours helping to energise the indolent people of the Moluccas. The warm air, redolent of spices and flowers, the riotous profusion of richest foliage, and the depth of colour in sea and sky, imbue Ternate with the glow and glamour of fairyland. Bright faces and gay songs manifest that physical joie de vivre of which Northern nations know so little. The grass screens hanging before the open houses are drawn to keep off the burning sun, but the twang of lutes (a relic of the Portuguese occupation), and the sound of laughter echo from the dusky interiors. A forest of mangos, mangosteens, bread-fruit, and cocoa-palms, extends between the town and Fort Teloko, the first Portuguese stronghold, and now a rocky outpost of Fort Orange, the headquarters of the Dutch troops. Beyond shadowy nutmeg groves lies the Laguna, a volcanic lake between mountain and sea. In the poetic Moluccas one draws closer to the warm heart of Nature than in any other part of the vast Archipelago, for the great Mother seems calling her children to rest, as she raises the veil from her inmost shrine and discloses her altar of peace. The presence of the smoking volcano which dominates the landscape, supplies that poignant note which, like a minor chord, accentuates the sweetness of the melody. "Gather ye roses while ye may," sounds Nature's admonition to humanity amid the lavish loveliness of blossom and foliage, clothing the mysterious height which hides the smouldering fountains of eternal fire beneath the vivid splendours of tropical vegetation. The population of Ternate—native, Malay, Dutch, and half-caste—throngs the wharf; the pretty schoolmistress, in spotless muslin, waves a smiling farewell. Though we are to each other but as "ships that pass in the night," the memory of cheery words and gracious deeds throws rays of light across the surging seas, and the golden cord of kindness anchors heart to heart. Passengers are few from these remote parts. A Dutch officer, with a half-caste wife and two unruly children, whose violent outbreaks would even give points to the juvenile English of British India, are returning from a three years' exile at Ternate. The incompetence of Malay nurses is equalled by the maternal indifference to kicking and squealing, which threatens pandemonium for the remainder of the voyage. At the last moment the native Sultan of Batjan embarks for his island home, after commercial negotiations in Ternate, for this native prince, a keen-faced man in European dress and scarlet turban, trades largely in damar, the basis of his wealth. When at anchor next morning in the wooded bay of Batjan, the green State Barge of his Highness, with drums beating and banners flying, flashes through the water, the blades of the large green oars shaped like lotus-leaves. A horse's head carved at the prow, and a line of floating pennants—red, black, and white—above the gilded roof of the deck-house, enhance the barbaric effect of the gaudy boat, the brown rowers clad in white, with gay scarves and turbans.
Although our ship possesses a launch, various modes of landing are required by the vagaries of the tide, the outlying reefs, and the position of the ports. A wobbling erection of crossed oars, a plank insecurely poised on the shoulders of two men, a rocking bloto, and an occasional wade to shore, with shoes and stockings in hand, vary the monotony of the proceedings. Landing at Batjan is accomplished in a chair, borne aloft on two woolly black heads, but the shore, being cut off by a crowd of fishing craft, can only be reached by sundry scrambles over intermediate boats. The Sultan's modest mansion stands in the midst of the palm-thatched campong, ostensibly guarded by a grey fort, among rustling bamboos and tall sugar-canes. A friendly native offers me a palm-leaf basket, filled with nutmeg sprays of glossy leaves and yellow fruit from a roadside plantation, and a tribe of children, dancing along through the delicious shade of a palm-grove, leads the way to a point of view on a green knoll, with merry laughter and eager gesticulation. Blue mountain crests soar above dark realms of virgin forest, where the sombre conifers exude the precious damar, which glues itself to the red trunks in shining lumps often of twenty pounds' weight, or sinks deeply into the soft soil, from whence the solidified gum needs excavation. The damar, pounded and poured into palm-leaf tubes, serves for the torches of the fishermen, and for the lighting of the dusky native houses. Batjan—rich in gold, copper, and coal—awaits full development of the mineral treasures hidden in the mountains of the interior. The island was colonised in early days by a band of wandering Malays, who exchanged the perils of the sea for the tropical abundance of this unknown anchorage, sheltered within the reefs of the lagoon-like bay. If an aboriginal element existed in Batjan, it probably died out or mingled with the immigrant race, which broke off from the main body of the nomadic Malays, and formed one of the numerous sub-divisions of the stock eventually planted on almost every island and continent of the vast Pacific. The weaving of a bark cloth, stained with the red juice of water-plants, suggests an industry of these early days. The native cuisine still includes the unfamiliar Malay delicacy of flying fox cooked in spice, and the hereditary skill in hunting finds endless satisfaction in forests abounding with deer, wild pig, and edible birds. A touch of barbarism lends a charm to mysterious Batjan, and the marked individuality which belongs to every portion of the Molucca group is nowhere more apparent than in this island, which lies on the borderland of civilisation without losing the distinctive character stamped upon it by the influences of an immemorial past.
Crescent-shaped Boeroe, where difficulties in landing involve launch, bloto, and paddling through a long reach of shallow water to a black swamp, possesses a commercial rather than an artistic value, being the only place in the Archipelago which exports eucalyptus oil, locally known as kajopoetah. A fleet of praus, with graceful masts of bending bamboo, surrounds the steamer, the aromatic cargo packed in long bamboo cases. The head-man of the campong, lightly attired in his native brown, with a few touches of contrasting colour in scarf and turban, acts as escort through a maze of weedy paths, and across bamboo bridges in various stages of dilapidation to a couple of dreary villages. The religious interests of Boeroe are represented by two ruinous Messighits, and a deplorable Dutch conventicle. Some Hindu element underlies native idiosyncracy, for nearly every forehead bears a white prayer-mark, but the unchanging conservatism of localities almost untouched by the lapse of Time, often retains symbolic forms when their original meaning is entirely forgotten, and the lack of missionary or educational enterprise among the Dutch exercises a paralysing effect on the small communities of distant islands. Only a relative poverty belongs to a clime where the shaking of a sago-palm provides a large family with rations for three months, but the physical energies of Boeroe have ebbed to a point where "desire fails," and the unsatisfactory conditions of life meet for the most part with apathetic acceptance. The marshy coast abounds with harmless snakes, but these gruesome inmates of the tropical morass seldom leave their hiding-places before sunset. The presence of the steamer awakens a faint simulacrum of life and interest in sleepy Boeroe, and a native woman, in the rusty black calico wherewith Dutch Calvinism counteracts the Eastern love of glowing colours, brings a rickety chair from her dingy hut, and sets the precious possession under a shadowy nutmeg-tree in the village street. A little crowd assembles, for local excitements are few, and the Malay phrase-book, an inseparable companion, aids in carrying on a halting conversation, eked out with signs and facial contortions. No school is found on Boeroe, and the simple people assert with submissive sadness that nothing is done for them. The tone of regret suggests an underlying consciousness of the hopeless ignorance inevitable under the conditions of their narrow lot. The watery plain, covered with tangled verdure, extends to the foot of the twin peaks which merge into a low range of wooded hills, their lower slopes glistening with the grey-green foliage of the great kajopoetah trees. The writhing roots of screw-palms rise above the green marshes, and patches of tobacco alternate with ripening millet, but every crop seems allowed to degenerate into unpruned disorder, and the feeble attempts at cultivation soon lapse into the surrounding wilderness. The ruddy trunk of the candelabra-tree towers above the ferns and oil-palms of the tall undergrowth, the glossy sword-like leaves, often ten feet long, being woven into the cocoyas, or sleeping mats, peculiar to Boeroe. The whistle of the steamer proves a welcome summons from this melancholy island, a solitary exception to the divine beauty and irresistible witchery of the Molucca group.