The Defiant Clove Tree

The Dutch United East India Company (abbreviated “VOC” for the Dutch title) was founded in 1602 and began competing with the Portugese in Southeast Asia. The Dutch soon forced their competitors out giving them a monopoly in the spice trade.

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 whereby 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 in commercial trade with the rest of the harvest being dumped in the sea.

Afo the clove tree

Afo the clove tree

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 controlled destruction 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, which is 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, though nearing the end of its life, protected by a brick wall from locals who once tried to use it as firewood.

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