Until 1512 Ambon was ruled by Ternate. The sultans brought the civilising force of Islam to the island’s north coast and developed Hitu Lama as a major spice-trading entrepôt. The Ternateans were later displaced by the Portuguese who found the less developed, un-Islamicised south more receptive to Christianity and developed a fortress around which Kota Ambon would eventually evolve. In 1599 the Dutch renamed this fort Victoria and made Kota Ambon their spice-trade base. Despite a 1817 uprising in the Lease Islands, Dutch rule survived until WWII, when Kota Ambon became a Japanese military headquarters and prisoner-of-war camp. The result was extensive Allied bombing which destroyed most of its once-attractive colonial architecture. In 1950 Ambon was briefly the centre of the South Malukan independence movement. This was extinguished within a few months by Indonesian military force with a last stand at Passo village.
From 1999 until mid-2002, Ambon was ripped apart by Christian-Muslim intercommunal violence. In Kota Ambon the first wave of attacks came in January 1999 with a largely Christian mob assault on the city’s main markets. A July 1999 reprisal torched predominantly Chinese businesses in the city centre. Island and city alike became polarised into Muslim and Christian zones. By late 2001, battered Kota Ambon looked like 1980s Beirut. During 2002 things improved markedly and the last significant disturbances were riots in 2004, though occasional provocations continue, including occasional sniping between police and army forces. Some burnt-out ruins remain, notably around Pattimura University in Rumah Tiga, but these are rapidly being rebuilt or swallowed by insatiable tropical weeds. By 2006 the island seemed gripped with a great optimism and visible economic resurgence. It’s as though everyone suddenly awoke from a bad dream to find themselves back in their busy little south-sea paradise.