The Clove Tree That Defied An Empire

“The spice extends life. The spice expands consciousness.” —Princess Irulan, Dune (1984)

In A Nutshell

In the 1600s, the Dutch United East India Company controlled the Indonesian spice trade. All clove trees that didn’t belong to them were destroyed, with only 800–1,000 tons of cloves allowed out each year, giving them a monopoly on clove prices. However, one free tree remained. A Frenchman stole some seeds from it and took them to other countries, taking away the company’s monopoly on the trade.

The Whole Bushel

The Dutch United East India Company (abbreviated “VOC” for the Dutch title) was founded in 1602 and soon forced the Portuguese out of the Southeast Asian region they were competing for. Clove trees only used to grow on two islands in modern-day Indonesia: Ternate and Tidore. They remained a closely guarded secret until the Portuguese and the Dutch arrived in the region. In 1667, the VOC gained complete control over the clove trade with the capture of the last harbor where non-Dutch-owned cloves could be purchased.

Beginning in 1652, the VOC introduced a policy of extirpate. Any clove trees that weren’t owned by the company were uprooted and destroyed by fire. Consequently, the company made huge profits with their control on the clove trade (among other spices) and to conserve this, punishments were harsh for those who defied them. The death penalty was handed out to anyone caught with a clove tree or seeds. All clove exports were limited—only 800–1,000 tons were allowed out of their control with the rest of the harvest being dumped in the sea.

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But one tree defied the iron grip of the Dutch. Known as Afo, growing on the slopes of the Gamalama volcano on the island of Ternate. Somehow, Afo survived the policy of extirpate and was found by a French missionary turned entrepreneur who took some of Afo’s seeds in 1770. The seeds were taken to the Seychelles and Zanzibar (currently the world’s largest clove producer), thus ending the VOC’s trade monopoly.

Afo is estimated to be over 400 years old and still stands today, albeit a shadow of its former self, protected by a brick wall from locals who once tried to use it as firewood.

Show Me The Proof

BBC News: The world’s oldest clove tree
Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie: Organization