Moluccas, Or Spife Islands, a group of the Indian or Malay archipelago, between lat. 3° N and 9° S., and Ion. 122° and 133° E., scattered over the sea which extends from the E. coast of Celebes to the W. coast of Papua, and from the Philippine islands on the north to Timor on the south; area, 42,946 sq. m.; pop. in 1871, 331,879 natives and 1,803 Europeans. The number of the islands is estimated at several hundreds; many of them are small and uninhabited. The large islands are Ceram, Gi-lolo, and Booro. This part of the archipelago is naturally divided into three clusters, viz., the Moluccas proper or Gilolo group, the Ceram group, and the Timor Laut group. The first comprehends Gilolo, Morty, Mandioly, Batchi-an, Oby, Motir, Makian, Ternate, Tidore, and many other islands. The Ceram cluster, which lies in the centre of the group, contains, among others, the inlands of Ceram, Booro, Amboyna, and Banda. The third cluster lies further S. between Australia and the west of Papua, Timor Laut being the principal island.
Originally, and in a more circumscribed sense, the Moluccas comprehended only the small islands off the W. coast of Gilolo, including Bat-chian, Motir, Ternate, and Tidore; under the early Dutch dominion the appellation was extended to Amboyna and Booro, but was still restricted to the smaller isles. The outline of the coast of the Molucca islands is very irregular; in many places they rise abruptly from the water to a considerable elevation. There are many excellent harbors, but sand banks which render navigation intricate and dangerous are frequently formed by earthquakes. Nearly all the islands are mountainous, and some of them contain peaks 7,000 or 8,000 f. high. The formation of the group is volcanic; the surface is singularly broken and indented with lofty peaks and rocks piled up to great elevations; there are several active craters and hot springs, and violent earthquakes are frequent. On account of the comparative smallness of the islands and the regular monsoons, the heat is never excessive Cereals cannot be cultivated to any great ex-tent; and the people subsist almost entirely the pith of the sago palm.
The most common tropical fruits;and vegetables thrive well, and sugar cane, coffee, pepper, cotton, and small quantities of indigo are grown; but the Moluccas are especially remarkable for the production of cloves and nutmegs. The breadfruit tree, the cacao, and many of the fruit trees of India are found. There are more than 400 different kinds of wood in the forests, including the lingoa (pterocarpus draco), which is admirably adapted to cabinet work. Gold is found in small quantities on Gilolo, but no other metals on any of the islands. The group has comparatively few indigenous mammals, but birds are very numerous, and the fauna presents close affinities to that of Papua. Of the mammalia there are 35 known species, including 25 bats, a baboon-monkey, a civet cat, several species of pigs, a deer, a shrew, and four marsupials, one of which is a flying opossum. Of birds there are 265 species known to inhabit the group. These comprise the cassowary, found in Ceram, the megapodii or mound makers, 22 species of parrots, and 27 species of pigeons. The surrounding seas are exceedingly prolific, and the cachalot, which yields the spermaceti of commerce, is met with; but the whale fishery, once of some importance in this region, is now quite insignificant.
Pearls are frequently found on the coasts. Cloves and nutmegs are exported in large quantities; sandal wood and other valuable woods are obtained; edible birds' nests, sea slugs, and shark fins are sent to China. The imports are chiefly opium and Indian and European goods. The Dutch monopolies confined the commerce for many years within very narrow limits, but a more liberal policy is now pursued. - The Moluccas, like nearly all the islands which constitute the Indian archipelago, are chiefly inhabited by two races, the Malays and Papuans. The latter people, supposed to be of the same family as the aborigines of Australia and Papua, have been exterminated in many of the smaller islands by the Malays, and in the larger ones have only retained possession of the interior and more inaccessible parts. The Moluccan Malays, according to Wallace, form one of the five divisions of semi-civilized Malays found in the Indian archipelago. They are in possession of the lower lands and seacoasts, where they cultivate the soil or gain a subsistence by fishing. They are very expert in the construction and management of their vessels, and are greatly addicted to piracy. The Malay is the common language, and the Arabic character is employed in writing it.
Mohammedanism is the prevailing religion; but some profess Christianity, and distinguish themselves by wearing black garments. The laws are chiefly founded upon the precepts of the Koran. - The Moluccas had been visited by the Arabs, and the Mohammedan religion spread among the people long before the arrival of the Portuguese in 1511. The Portuguese had only begun to form settlements when the Spanish'vessels under Magalhaens arrived from the east, and a prolonged dispute arose between the two nations respecting the possession of the islands, which terminated in favor of the Portuguese. A system of violence and oppression was maintained for 60 years, when the Dutch with the assistance of the natives expelled the Portuguese. The Dutch East India company early in the 17th century obtained supremacy over many of the native princes, and allowed them to retain their authority by tribute to the company. To secure the exclusive trade in nutmegs and cloves, the Dutch nearly extirpated the spice trees on all the islands except Amboyna and Banda, which two they reduced entirely under their authority. To keep up prices in foreign markets, they frequently burned whole cargoes of spices.
The English were allowed at one time to have a mercantile establishment at Amboyna, when held by the Dutch; but the latter in 1622, after forcing some Chinese and Javanese soldiers by torture to make confession of a plot on the part of the English, seized on the leaders and put them to death with horrible cruelty. In common with the other Dutch East Indian possessions, the Moluccas were held by the British from 1796 to 1802, and from 1810 to 1814. In 1824 some of the more oppressive laws were repealed, and the free cultivation of the islands was allowed. The Dutch possessions are divided, in point of administration, into the three residencies of Amboyna, Ternate, and Banda. The seat of the Dutch governor general is at Amboyna.