Working Paper No. 29: Haumeni1, not many: renewed plunder and mismanagement in the Timorese Sandalwood industry


A short history of Sandalwood politics and indigenous Timorese domains



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A short history of Sandalwood politics and indigenous Timorese domains


The intricate history surrounding the trade in sandalwood and the protracted struggles over its control among an array of trading interests has been the subject of a numerous detailed studies. Boxer (1947, 1948), Ormeling (1956), Schulte Nordholt (1971), Fox (1977) and Therik (1995) in particular have provided extensive accounts of this complex background, particularly from the viewpoint of external trade and its consequences. My intention here is not to reiterate these exercises but more to highlight the longer term consequences of these complex trading relations and sandalwood politics on indigenous Timorese domains.
Prior to the intervention of European colonial interests, Timor’s reputation as a source of high quality white sandalwood was already widely known. Chinese trade in the timber is clearly of ancient duration. As early as 1436 a Chinese source states that "the mountains are covered in sandal-trees and the country produces nothing else" (Groeneveldt, 1880: 116). Chinese ships visiting the region had comparatively massive displacements of up to 1500 tons (Monk 1997: 651). Early Javanese and Sulawesi interests via Bugis and Makassarese traders were also well established by the time Portuguese and Dutch traders entered the region and established their presence in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. (Schulte Norholt 1971; Therik, 1995: 45-63).
Of the early pre-European sandalwood trading between Timorese and external trading interests, relatively little is known. Fei Hsin in his 1436 chronicle says of Kih-ri Ti-mun, (the Chinese Characters still used for Timor) that "there were 12 ports or mercantile establishments, each under a chief" (Schulte Nordholt, 1971: 159). Pigafetta, who landed on the north coast of Timor in 1522 aboard Magellan’s boat, Victoria, provides somewhat more insight into the indigenous political order. He noted that:
On the other side of the island (there) were four kings, who were brothers. And where we were there are only towns and some chiefs and lords of them. The names of these kings are Oibich, Lichsana, Suai and Cabanazza. Oibich is the largest town…..All the sandalwood and wax which is traded by the people of Java and Malacca 7comes from this place, where we found a junk from Lozzon which had come to trade for sandalwood (Pigafetta, 1969: 141)

Pigafetta identified the southern central region of Timor as a centre for sandalwood and political power. The region corresponds to what Timorese oral tradition and the Colonial historical records recognise as the mythico-ritual Kingdom of Waiwiku Wehale. This domain is said to have represented the ritual apex of a complex confederation of Timorese political domains known by the phrase Liurai-Sonbai, that incorporated regions of west and east Timor (Fox 1992 and 1996; Therik, 1995). Under this reputed system, the political legitimacy of subsidiary domains rested on the spiritual hegemony and ritual authority of the Wehale centre. Although the structure and organisation of this mythical federation remains unclear, and some like Forman dismiss it as a fiction of Portuguese and Dutch historiography (1977: 100), it is evident that Wehale played an important role in sandalwood trade. Friedberg, for example, has argued that Wehale centrality in the political system was based on the "progressive control over the exploitation of sandalwood. The redistribution of Wehale wealth in the form of regalia (to lesser allied domains) would have been no more than payment for the sandalwood and wax delivered, perhaps in the form of tribute" (1978: 163).


Whatever the extant reality of the Wehale confederation it clearly represented a barrier to early Portuguese attempts to monopolise the sandalwood trade. In particular, an alliance with Makassarese sandalwood traders constrained Portuguese attempts to extend their trading influence (Therik 1995: 58-63). So much so that in 1642, the Portuguese under Captain-Major Francisco Fernandes accompanied by 3 Dominican Priests and 90 muskateers, marched from their base on the north coast of Timor and razed the settlement of the ‘Great Lord’, Nai Bot of Wehale (Fox, 1992; Leitao, 1948; Therik, 1995).8
This action succeeded in destroying the symbolic authority of Wehale and many leaders of vassal domains celebrated the victory and pledged allegiance to the Portuguese (Leitao, 1948: 207). It also ushered in a centuries long struggle for hegemonic control over the sandalwood trade involving a complex triangle of Portuguese and Dutch trading interests, as well as a myriad of indigenous Timorese domains which sought to benefit through political opportunism and strategic alliances.
The sustained historical interest exhibited by Colonial and other trading concerns in Timorese sandalwood underscored the very significant economic benefits derived from the trade. Profit was undoubtedly the driving force.9 At the same it is also apparent that the trade was a mutually beneficial one for indigenous Timorese communities, especially those who managed to bring significant stocks of sandalwood under their direct political control. It is true that the benefits of participation in sandalwood trading were not distributed equally, with the bulk of income and imported commodities accruing to the political leaders and petty Rajas. In one early report for example, Crijn van Raemburch (1614) wrote that

[O]n Timor in buying sandalwood one must engage in endless negotiations with the king and noblemen. The felling and transportation to the coast is carried out by the ordinary people. The greater part of the profits go to the rulers. (cited in Ormeling, 1956 : 177)

At the same time, given the re-distributive character of indigenous socio-political systems, and the need to maintain political alliances among the congeries of clan groups which comprised Timorese political domains, sandalwood benefits tended to be dispersed fairly widely. Kruseman (1835) observed that,

Nobody is permitted to cut sandalwood without an order from the Radja. The profits are divided so that the radjas receive half, the fettors and the cutters one fifth each, and the Temukung on whose territory the wood is felled, one tenth. (cited in Ormeling 1956: 177).

Opportunities for more individualistic sale and barter of sandalwood by local farmers seems also to have been possible, even within a system where the bulk of the revenues accrued to the political elite. In his early nineteenth century account, Moor (1837) provides an interesting insight into the dynamics of this trade at the time.

The [bees]wax10 and sandalwood, in the Coupang market, are generally brought by natives of Coupang from the south coast, in the months of December and January. The inhabitants of that part of the country are perfectly uncivilised and do not acknowledge the authority of any European Government.

The method of trading with them is very singular, as they very seldom exchange words….When the prows (boats) arrive off the coast, they land the articles they have for barter in small quantities at a time on the beach, when the natives immediately come down with the produce they have for sale and place it opposite the goods from the prows, pointing to the articles, or description of articles, they wish to obtain in exchange. (1837: 8)

The shifting and uncertain political climate of pre-twentieth century Timor also provided avenues for subsidiary political communities to assert varying degrees of autonomy from the ruling centre of the domain. One of the standard demonstrations of dispute or disagreement by allied subject communities was the withholding of annual harvest tribute from the central Ruler or Raja. While this action could well result in a coercive response from the centre, it nevertheless enabled local communities and subsidiary clan groups to enrich themselves and retain the harvest surpluses for their own benefit and that of their allies. A unique perspective of precisely this situation was documented by the anonymous Dutch writer ‘D’, who traveled into the mountainous domain of Amanuban in West Timor during the dry season of 1850. At the time a warrior clan of the Raja of Amanuban was asserting its independence from the Raja centre and a continuing state of enmity prevailed (McWilliam, 1996). ‘D’ recognised the place of sandalwood politics in this process. He wrote:

...[F]or many years sandalwood has been the main trade item from Amanuban and many thousands of pikol (bundles) of wood have been exported from here to China. Through this trade the population has become somewhat wealthy in a way which one does not find in other parts of Timor. Men and women and children are richly decorated with silver rings and plates and cloths and other types of European manufacture. Usually on Timor the sandalwood trade belongs only to the Raja as his monopoly…but here in this part of Amanuban that has split away..the whole population is gaining from this trade [paraphrased] (1851: 171-172).

This particular political community was unable to sustain its autonomy from the central Ruler and was eventually drawn into a re-united domain of Amanuban. It followed that most of the lucrative benefits of sandalwood once again flowed to the political centre. Nevertheless, the point remains that for varying periods in Timorese history leading up to the twentieth century, sandalwood production and the supply of the export trade provided a lucrative revenue base for indigenous communities. Benefits were manifold and included a whole range of exotic consumer goods including cloth, firearms and gold that underpinned local capacity to resist colonial control and sustain varying degrees of political autonomy.11 In the shifting fortunes of the Colonial struggle for control over sandalwood trade and supply, Timorese political communities also derived a changeable but lucrative share.





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