Biodiversity conservation is currently seen as an essential part of saving the planet. However, over centuries the succession of nations that have monopolised the world trade in cloves have deliberately and successfully decimated diversity within the crop, with potentially disastrous consequences.
Cloves are the dried aromatic flower buds of a small evergreen tree, which is native to the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. It is said only to grow on tropical islands where it can see the sea. It is related to a number of other smelly trees such as eucalyptus and pimento, the source of allspice. The cultivation of cloves in the Far East is ancient, and the spice has been known in Europe since the end of the second century. During the Han period (220-206 BC) all court officials were required to hold cloves in their mouths when addressing the Emperor, to ensure that their breath was sweet. For more than one thousand years the Chinese managed to monopolise this valuable trade, by concealing the source of their supply. Cloves were imported into China before being exported to India and Europe via the spice caravans. Cloves have been used medically as a cure for languid indigestion and flatulence. Clove oil has weak anaesthetic powers that have been used to dull toothache. In Indonesia large amounts of shredded cloves are mixed with tobacco and smoked in kretek cigarettes. Current consumption is in the region of 36 billion cigarettes per year and it is this use, which now dictates the value of cloves on the world market. However, it was the use of cloves in flavouring both sweet and savoury dishes that made them the most valuable of spices for two millennia.
By the sixteenth century the Portuguese finally discovered the Chinese’s secret. The source of the clove crop was five small volcanic islands in the north Moluccas that were to become known as the spice islands. For the next century the Portuguese dominated world trade in cloves, planting trees throughout the Moluccas islands. When the region fell into Dutch hands the trade was taken over by the Dutch East India Company. For ease of control they transferred the growing of the clove crop to Ambonia and a few other small islands in the south of the Moluccas. To protect their monopoly they destroyed trees outside these few islands and imposed severe penalties on anyone caught growing them in prohibited regions. In 1816 this resulted in what has been described as the most fragrant fire in the history of the world as thousands of clove trees went up in smoke. The fumes could be detected hundreds of miles out to sea. This act enraged the native Moluccans who traditionally planted clove trees on the birth of their children and believed that the fortunes of these trees were linked with those of their children. In the bloody uprising that resulted more than just clove trees were killed.
In spite of all these efforts the French managed to smuggle some trees out and establish their own plantations on the French controlled islands of Mauritius and la Réunion. It is said that during this process only a single tree survived to become the ancestor of the entire crop in la Réunion and from there the clove plantations of Madagascar. Early in the nineteenth century trees were taken from this source to Zanzibar off the East coast of Tanzania. Within fifty years Zanzibar had become the worlds largest producer of cloves supplying more than 90 percent of the global crop. This it managed on the back of the intensive use of slave labour which was used to handpick the flower buds.
In this fashion the crop jumped west across the Indian ocean, with each island stepping-stone reducing the amount of genetic diversity present until it finally it reached the east coast of Africa. Every link in the chain involved planting new trees from seeds and since cloves are highly self-fertile, each step resulted in more and more inbred offspring, to an extent not even matched by the best of European Royal Families. Even within the original populations in the Moluccas the lack of variation in the clove crop was documented as early as the seventeenth century. Such high levels of genetic uniformity present the clove breeder with severe problems, what hope is there of finding a tree with resistance to the ominously named ‘sudden death’ disease from among this ocean of sameness? Probably the only way to prevent future generation of cloves in Zanzibar from falling victim to this disease which rapidly kills trees on the point of reaching maturity is to once again cross the Indian Ocean to the Molluccas. This time the quest is not for the origin of the clove, but is a search for its wild ancestors and the Holy Grail of resistance to sudden death.