Daily Archives: 5 April 2004

Out of the Ashes: Deconstruction and Reconstruction of East Timor

The Australian National University’s new E Press has placed online a new (2003) electronic edition of Out of the Ashes: Deconstruction and Reconstruction of East Timor, edited by James J Fox and Dionisio Babo Soares, described thus:

Out of the Ashes is a collection of essays that examine the historical background to developments in East Timor and provide political analysis on the initial reconstruction stage in the country’s transition to independence. The volume is divided into three thematic sections – background, assessment and reconstruction – bringing together the experiences and knowledge of academic researchers and key participants in the extraordinary events of 1999 and 2000.

After years of Indonesian rule, the people of East Timor voted to reject an offer of autonomy[,] choosing instead independence from Indonesia. This decision enraged pro-integrationist militia who, backed by the Indonesian military, launched a program of violence and destruction against the inhabitants of East Timor. President Habibie eventually agreed to the presence of a United Nations peace-keeping force, but by this stage East Timor had been ravaged by destruction.

The new East Timorese government faced the challenges of the future with an understanding that the successful struggle for independence was both a culmination and a starting point for the new nation. As the events of 1999 recede, many of the issues and challenges highlighted in Out of the Ashes remain of central significance to the future of East Timor. These essays provide essential reading for students and interested observers of the first new nation of the 21st century.

Here are some excerpts from the chapter on historical background.

All the languages of Timor belong to one of two major language groupings: the Austronesian language family or the Trans-New Guinea phylum of languages (see Map 1)….

One striking feature of the socio-linguistics of Timor is the remarkable contrast between the eastern and the western halves of the island. Almeida (1982) lists over 30 different languages and dialects in the East compared with only three languages in the West…. This sociological difference between East and West is, to a large extent, the result of initial Portuguese historical involvement in the western half of Timor, which gave rise to the expansion of the Atoni population. As with much else on Timor, to understand this difference between East and West requires an historical perspective. It is essential therefore to consider the history of Timor over the past 450 years….

The Portuguese were the first Europeans attracted to Timor by th[e] sandalwood trade. It took over 50 years after the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in 1511 to establish a presence in the area….

In 1561-62, the Dominicans built a palisade of lontar palms to protect local Christians but this was burnt down the year after by Muslim raiders, prompting the Dominicans, in 1566, to erect a more permanent stone fortress on Solor. For its first 20 years, the captain of this fort at Solor was nominated by the Dominican Prior in Malacca. Around this fort there developed a mixed, part-Portuguese population of local Christians, many of whom were themselves involved in the sandalwood trade with Timor….

The Dominican fort on Solor had a chequered history. Plundered in a local uprising in 1598, the fort fell, after a long siege, to the Dutch in 1613. According to Dutch sources, their forces were able to take the fort because over 500 of its occupants were, at the time, on a sandalwood-trading expedition to Timor.

Instead of sailing for Malacca, the thousand strong population of the fort, later joined by those from Timor, transferred to Larantuka, a harbour on the eastern end of Flores and from there, established themselves at Lifao on the north-west coast of Timor. With their strongholds on both Flores and Timor, this mixed, part-Portuguese population of local islanders resisted all attempts to dislodge them. This population became known as the Larantuqueiros or as the Tupassi (‘Topasses’, purportedly from the word for hat, topi, because the Topasses regarded themselves ‘Gente de Chapeo’: ‘People of the Hat’) – or, as was common in all Dutch documents, the ‘Black Portuguese’ (Swarte Portugueezen). In the language of the Atoni Pa Meto population, who had the longest established contact with them on Timor, these Topasses were known as the Sobe Kase: ‘The Foreign Hats’. (Yet another variant of this designation, among the Rotinese, on the small island at the western tip of Timor, was Sapeo Nggeo: ‘The Black Hats’.)

These Topasses became the dominant, independent, seafaring, sandalwood-trading power of the region for the next 200 years. They were a multilingual group. Portuguese was their status language which was also used for worship; Malay was their language of trade, and most Topasses spoke, as their mother-tongue, a local language of Flores or Timor.

The British buccaneer, William Dampier, visited Lifao in 1699 and has provided a perceptive description of this mixed, multilingual Topass community:

These [the Topasses] have no Forts, but depend on their Alliance with the Natives: And indeed they are already so mixt, that it is hard to distinguish whether they are Portugueze or Indians. Their Language is Portugueze; and the religion they have, is Romish. They seem in Words to acknowledge the King of Portugal for their Sovereign; yet they will not accept any Officers sent by him. They speak indifferently the Malayan and their own native Languages, as well as Portugueze….

Neither the Dutch nor the Portuguese who were loyal to the Viceroy of Goa were able to exert any substantial control over them. On Timor, there were times when the interests of the Portuguese Viceroy and those of the leaders of the Black Portuguese coincided. Just as often, however, the Black Portuguese opposed both the Portuguese Viceroy and the Dutch East India Company with whom they also carried on trade. However often the Viceroy’s delegates were rejected, Portuguese friars were always welcomed on Timor and moved freely throughout the island….

In 1777, the Portuguese in Dili regarded Timor as divided into two provinces: a western province called Servião, inhabited by the Vaiquenos (Dawan or Atoni) and consisting of 16 local kingdoms (reinos) and an eastern province called Bellum (or Bellos), inhabited and dominated by the Belu (or Tetun) and comprising no less than 46 small kingdoms. Servião covered much of the area controlled by Topasses….

The Dutch drew a different picture of this same political situation. In 1756, the Dutch East India Company sent a distinguished envoy by the name of Paravicini to order its relations on Timor. This renowned Commissaris returned to Batavia with a contract treaty purporting to have been signed by all of the rulers of Timor in addition to those of the islands of Roti, Savu, Sumba and Solor: 48 signatories on a lengthy document with 30 clauses. Whether, in fact, he obtained the signed agreement of all of these rulers, the contract of Paravicini represented the political geography of native rule more accurately than did Portuguese documents for the same period….

During the Napoleonic wars, the British occupied the Dutch fort at Kupang and laid claim, for a brief period, to Dutch colonial possessions on Timor. When, in 1816, the British returned colonial authority to the Dutch, the Dutch set out to determine their areas of supposed control in relation to the Portuguese. Almost immediately thereafter there occurred the first of a series of disputes over the borders between the two colonial powers….

[T]he Portuguese mounted no less than 60 armed expeditions between 1847 and 1913 to subdue the Timorese. In 1860, even as he was negotiating with the Dutch over ‘Portuguese territory on Timor’, the Governor of Dili, Affonso de Castro, described the situation with remarkable candour: ‘Our empire on this island is nothing but a fiction’….

From the earliest Chinese sources to the final reports of the colonial powers, all commentators agree that Timor was comprised of kingdoms and rulers. Traditional kingdoms dating back to at least the fourteenth century imply well-established, indeed fundamental, ideas about order and political relations. Curiously, however, in the long history of European contact with Timor, virtually no commentator has credited the Timorese with a political philosophy or has sought to explore and to treat seriously indigenous ideas of authority….

Relations among the local polities of Timor were continually changing. Alliances among these polities shifted, especially as internal relations changed; there was regular, seasonal raiding into each other’s territories – some in the form of ritual headhunting; and migration of clan groups in search of land and water was common. The Portuguese and Dutch both contributed to this situation.

In return for diverting the sandalwood trade to Lifao and other ports on the north coast of the island, the Topasses formed close alliances with the local Atoni Pa Meto polities and in several instances became the rulers of these polities. They were the first to introduce muskets to the Timorese and they increased the supply of simple iron tools. The Dutch (rather than the Portuguese) introduced maize to the island and promoted its planting, initially in the area around Kupang… This combination of muskets, iron tools and maize, provided principally to Atoni groups, changed the face of West Timor. With a new highly productive crop, the tools to plant it and the firearms to expand aggressively and open new land in others’ territory, the Atoni population, previously subordinate to Tetun rulers who controlled the sandalwood trade, rapidly spread through much of West Timor, assimilating other groups to Atoni modes of livelihood and culture.

The language map of Timor today attests to this Atoni expansion over the last 400 years. Only the remnant Helong speakers, now confined to the western tip of Timor and the island of Semau, give some indication of what West Timor may have been like before the Atoni expansion….

It was never just the Topasses, Dutch and Portuguese who influenced developments on Timor. The Chinese, who initiated the earliest trade with Timor for sandalwood, were a major influence as well. Dampier who visited the Topass settlement at Lifao in 1699 noted the presence of ‘China-Men, Merchants of Maccao’ living among the Topasses. This Chinese connection has long been crucial on Timor and at times has been paramount. As Topass control of trade in the interior of Timor declined, Chinese control increased….

Prior to the Atoni expansion, there was an earlier expansion of the Tetun people, probably from what the Tetun regard as their traditional centre of origin on the central south coast. This expansion was both northward and along the south coast. As a consequence of this expansion, there are several distinct forms of Tetun. These are generally described as different dialects, though there are considerable differences among them….

Writing about the formation of Tetun Dili which is also known as ‘market Tetun’ (Tetun Prasa or Tetum Praça), the historian and language scholar, Luis Thomaz, admits that ‘the origin of the use of Tetun as a lingua franca in East Timor is very obscure’…. Dili is in an area where one might have expected the Mambai language to have been chosen as a vehicle for communication since the town itself is located within an area originally inhabited by Mambai-speakers.

Promotion of Tetun by the Catholic church toward the end of the nineteenth century was an important factor in the eventual establishment of Tetun as a lingua franca….

The everyday Tetun of Dili has a simplified syntax and shows strong Portuguese (and, more recently, Indonesian) influences. It could almost be considered a creole derived from vernacular Tetun….

Dampier’s 1699 account of the Topass community portrays a multilingual community: Portuguese, Malay and at least one local Timorese language. Translated into the present, this would suggest a combination of Tetun, Indonesian and Portuguese. This simple translation, however, misrepresents the present situation: Tetun and Indonesian are languages understood by a large proportion of East Timorese whereas the use of Portuguese is still limited. Moreover, for most East Timorese, Tetun is their ‘second’ Timorese language. Indonesian, whether or not it continues to be taught in schools, will – as in the past – remain the language of inter-island communication. The teaching of Portuguese will inevitably conflict with the need of the East Timorese to learn English to communicate internationally. Whatever solution is worked out over time, the people of East Timor are likely to remain a multilingual population.

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