Antonio Pigafetta, Malucca Islands Map, Beinecke Manuscript.jpg

Illustration of Pigafetta's map of the Spice Islands which includes a labeled clove tree.

             On Sunday, November 17th, 1521, Antonio Pigafetta went ashore Malacca Island, the first of five secluded landmasses to become known as the Spice Islands. These islands would become a source of profit and contention for the Portuguese under the hand of explorer Ferdinand Magellan. While aboard one of Magellan’s five ships, Pigafetta wrote a highly detailed account of his journey to the Spice Islands, a journey that undermined the dominant Venetian trade routes by rounding the Cape of Good Hope. Upon arrival at Malacca, Pigafetta was thrown into a tumultuous battle for the control of spice trading focused primarily on nutmeg and secondarily on cloves. Less than five decades later, cloves would make their way to the New World and incorporate themselves into a dish that would become the national dish of Mexico, mole poblano.

            The clove itself, when used in cooking, is the flower bud from the clove tree that has been harvested, dried, and in some cases ground into a powder. In the 16th Century, the clove tree was indigenous to only the Molucca Islands and thrived in their warm and humid climate. After nutmeg, cloves were the most sought after spice from the Molucca Islands. In the early 17th century, the Dutch succeeded in taking control of the spice trades from the Portuguese. They further concentrated clove production by burning down hundreds of clove trees and leaving only two islands with production capability. By doing so, the Dutch stunted production, raised prices, monopolized trade, and opened the door for cloves to be sent to the New World as a part of the Columbian Exchange. [1]

             Pigafetta’s account emphasizes the clove’s many distinctions; it’s value, rarity, and purity in the Moluccas. Pigafetta writes:

“That same day, I went ashore to see how the clove grows. The clove tree is tall and as thick as a man’s body or thereabout ... Those trees have generally more cloves on one side than on the other, according to the weather conditions. When the cloves sprout they are white, then ripe, red, and when dried, black. They are gathered twice per year... No cloves are grown in the world except in the five mountains of those five islands, except that some are found in Gilolo and in a small island between Tidore and Motir, by name Mareh, but they are not good.” [2]

 According to Pigafetta, each island had the capacity during ideal weather conditions to produce what would be today around fifteen hundred pounds of cloves each year. Despite this high production rate, the desire for cloves (due to both their medicinal and culinary applications) steadily increased so much so that the cost of cloves increased by a factor of fifty by the time it reached Western Europe and cities like London. [3] Producing the spice was not cost heavy, but merchants and middlemen between the growers and the buyers exploited the clove’s desirability. The desire for cloves was not new to the 16th Century. Evidence for the use of cloves dates back to China’s Han Dynasty (207 BC) where court officials were reported to chew on cloves while speaking to the king as to not offend the royal with their bad breathe. [4] Similarly, cloves exhibited many desirable medicinal qualities; the oil of cloves could be used as an anesthetic, chewing on cloves could relieve toothaches and numerous body ailments, and the clove itself could be used as an antifungal and antiparasitic agent.

            The clove’s novelty as described by Pigafetta seems to disappear when it arrives in the New World and in the dish of mole poblano. Cloves were just one of many spices and other commodities bought to the Americas by the Dutch during the Columbian Exchange. It is likely that the origins of the clove got lost in translation from the old to the new world. Some recipes for mole poblano contain dozens of ingredients. There is no emphasis on the clove itself in the dish because all of the components of the dish are blended and reduced to form a concoction of spices and varying flavors.

            Nonetheless, the clove was still important. Pigafetta went ashore on November 17th, 1521 just to see how the clove grew. He was amazed at the trees themselves and emphasized that the most desirable form of the clove comes from the Moluccan Islands. The fact that Pigafetta was a patrician of Vicenza writing to his lord emphasizes the new role that spices played in 16th and 17th centuries. Instead of writing about the politics and social structures of the places he visits, Pigafetta writes about the terrain and quite extensively about the clove tree itself. As a patrician or nobleman, it seems fitting that Pigafetta would want to explore the political and economic systems of the Islands. One possible explanation for Pigatetta’s focus on the clove itself is that Pigafetta viewed the clove as an item that was so engrained in the politics and culture of the Islands that it’s analysis would have led to further knowledge of the foreign lands. This fascination with the clove is what fueled its journey to the New World and soon into the national dish of Mexico.

            Visual evidence for Pigafetta’s seeing the clove in such a way is illustrated in the Beinecke Manuscript, an almost complete collection of Antonio Pigafetta’s writings and illustrations compiled and bound in 1851. [5] One of Pigafetta’s drawings is that of a map of the five Spice Islands with an enlarged clove tree situated amongst the islands. In the map, the islands themselves are labeled with ornate scrollwork and the clove tree too is labeled with the same scrollwork reading “Cave gomode, that is, the Clove Tree”. This illustration poses quite a few questions that need to be answered; why would such an illustration be on such a map, is the tree as the focal point of the image significant, and how would the image be used by those viewing it. All of these questions can be answered by the proposed view point of Pigafetta; the clove tree was more an ‘identifier’ of the islands than anything else. By the time the Portuguese and Dutch had taken control of the spice trade, the Molucca Islands would have only been associated with the goods that they produced. Through this image of the clove tree, one can infer that the clove tree was more important to the Portuguese explorers than the land and territory was. The tree occupies more space than any other object on the page, its scroll is the largest of the scrolls on the page, and the highly detailed tree contrasts quite strongly with the other objects on the map. For example, the leaves of the clove tree are extremely defined and detailed where the island of Tadore is drawn with what looks to be four houses or building structures. At best, these structures are glorified stick figures. Furthermore, upon looking at the map, the viewer is immediately drawn to the vivid color of the clove tree. The canopy of the tree, which would produce the clove, occupies the center of the map. All of these factors hint at the clove as being a prized possession of the islands and this idea is further emphasized by the production information outlined by Pigafetta in his account and his focus on describing the tree itself.

            With the illustration and writing of Pigafetta in mind, one can clearly and distinctly piece together the role cloves played in the early modern trade routes; cloves were a prized possession of those who were able to attain it. The clove would have been just as esteemed when it made its way into mole poblano. One of the myths for how the recipe came to be involves a nunnery frantically throwing together a meal for a visiting archbishop. The members of the convent slew their best turkey for the dish and the concoction spent over twenty hours on the stove. One could propose that the clove was just as important to the dish as that turkey was. At the time, the clove would have been valued and only been used in a dish for such a high-ranking religious official. However, today’s technological advances in production have devalued the clove to the extent that such a spice could be incorporated into innumerable ethnic dishes. Among these dishes is mole poblano.


By Timothy Kelly 




[1] Gladen, Cynthia. "Cloves | University of Minnesota Libraries." Cloves | University of Minnesota Libraries. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Nov. 2014. <>.

[2] Pigafetta, Antonio, and T. J. Cachey. The First Voyage around the World, 1519-1522: An Account of Magellan's Expedition. Toronto: U of Toronto, 2007. Print.

[3] Milton, Giles. Nathaniel's Nutmeg, Or, The True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999. Print.

[4] Gladen, Cynthia

[5] Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University