The volcanic island of Ternate, where Wallace first stepped ashore in January 1858, was at that time nominally ruled by an eccentric one-eyed Sultan. An octogenarian, he liked to be addressed by his full title of Tadjoel Moelki Amiroedin Iskandar Kaulaini Sjah Peotra Mohamad Djin. He was the twenty-third Sultan, and traced his authority back to the ruler of Ternate who had been on the throne when the English adventurer Francis Drake came there in 1579 looking for the fabled Spice Islands. Drake had found what he was seeking, because Ternate and the small islands to the south were then the main source of cloves, a spice which cost more than its weight in gold when brought to Europe. The Sultan of Ternate – with his equally autocratic neighbour the Sultan of Tidore, who ruled another little volcano island a mile away – controlled virtually the entire world’s supply of the spice, and a good proportion of the nutmeg and mace as well, because these spices happened to grow in domains which paid them tribute. In fact the suzerainty of Ternate and Tidore extended, in theory at least, as far as Waigeo, where nearly three centuries later Wallace found the natives still obliged to send a tribute of feathers from Birds of Paradise to decorate the turbans of the Sultans and their clusters of courtiers.
In Drake’s day the Sultan of Ternate had been a splendidly barbaric figure, wearing a cloth-of-gold skirt, thick gold rings braided into his hair, a heavy gold chain around his neck, and his fingers adorned with a glittering array of diamonds, rubies and emeralds. By the time Wallace arrived, the effective power of the Sultan had been eroded by more than two centuries of bullying by larger nations who coveted the spice trade. In the mid-nineteenth century Sultan Mohamad Djin was frail and very forgetful, living on a Dutch pension as a doddering semi-recluse who spent his days in his shabby and dusty palace surrounded by his wives, a brood of 125 children and grandchildren, the princes of the blood and their families, courtiers, servants and slaves. Most of them were poverty-stricken. A memory of the glamour remained, however. The Sultan himself would emerge from his palace, the kedaton, for state occasions or to call on the Dutch authorities in the town. These appearances were like mannequins come to life from a museum, and greatly enjoyed by the Sultan’s citizens who continued to ascribe semi-divine powers to their overlord. The Sultan and his court would sally forth dressed in a magpie collection of costumes which had been acquired piecemeal from earlier colonial contacts, or had been copied and recopied over the intervening centuries by local tailors. They donned Portuguese doublets of velvet, Spanish silk jackets, embroidered waistcoats and blouses, parti-coloured leggings and Dutch broadcloth coats. Their exotic headgear and weapons ranged from Spanish morions and halberds to swashbuckling velvet hats with drooping plumes and antique rapiers set with jewels. The pièce de résistance was the state carriage, which had been given to an earlier Sultan by the Dutch and was a period piece. It was so badly in need of repair that, to climb aboard it, the elderly Sultan had to mount a portable ladder. Safely ensconced, he was then pulled forward in his rickety conveyance by 16 palace servants harnessed instead of horses, who towed him slowly along to the Dutch Residency a few hundred metres distant.
The real power in Ternate when Wallace arrived was not even the Dutch Resident but the chief merchant, Mr Duivenboden. He was of Dutch family but born in Ternate, and had been educated in England. Locally known as the ‘King of Ternate’, he was extremely rich, owned half the town as well as more than 100 slaves, and operated a large fleet of trading ships. His authority with the Sultan and the local rajahs was considerable, and he was very good to Wallace who, with his help, was able to rent a run-down house on the outskirts of the town and fix it up well enough to serve as his base of operations. He kept this house for three years, returning there regularly from his excursions to the outer islands. Back in his Ternate house, he would prepare and pack his specimens for shipment to Europe, write letters to his family and to friends like Bates, and begin preparations for the next sortie into the lesser-known fringes of the Moluccas.