Monday, 14 June 2010

History on Sabu Island

Captain Cook and the remote island of Sabu, Nusa Tenggara

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 01/06/10

The island lies to starboard in the grey light of the dawn – a streak of pale sand and a dense wall of lontar palms. I watch from the upper deck of the ferry as a concrete jetty materializes from the shoreline, marking the location of Seba, capital of the tiny island of Sabu, one of the most isolated of all Indonesia’s scattered landfalls.
Two hundred and forty years ago another vessel approached this same shore. It was not a rusting ASDP ferry, but an English sailing ship under the command of the celebrated Captain Cook, returning from his first successful exploration of the Pacific. Cook had stumbled upon Sabu, a dot in the ocean halfway between Timor and Sumba, by chance, for at that time he noted, it was “so little known that I never saw a map or chart in which it is clearly or accurately laid down”. Still, he was glad to have found it, for he was short of supplies. The island was, he wrote, “a most pleasing prospect from the sea”. After 15 hours on a ferry, it still is.

The arrival of the ferry from Kupang marks the busiest day of the week in Seba. But by the time I have settled down in one of the little township’s simple home-stays a damp, tropical torpor has returned. Electricity is only available here during the hours of darkness, and even motorbikes are few and far between. Children play amongst the puddles as a thin rain begins to fall.
There is, however, a certain buzz around Seba these days. For years Sabu, with a population of around 60,000, was an appendage of the Kupang Regency, administered from the East Nusa Tenggara capital, 250 kilometers to the east. But last year it became a regency in its own right.
Sitting drinking coffee outside his house on Seba’s muddy main street as the rain continues to fall, local Arman al Gadri tells me that the upgrade to regency status has been welcomed in Sabu, raising hopes of increased development. The biggest problem that the island faces, he says, is transport. One or two ferries a week connect the island to Kupang, but it’s an exposed crossing, and in the wet season the island can be cut off for weeks. Air links are even more tenuous: the tiny Merpati plane that serves Sabu sometimes only makes it to the island a couple of times a month.

There were no ferries at all when Captain Cook arrived in 1770, but treaties had already been signed between the Dutch and the rulers of Sabu’s five principalities, and Seba was home to an official resident, Johan Lange. Marooned at his lonely outpost Lange was the archetypal corrupt colonialist, and he issued threats until Cook and his men paid the locals in cash for their supplies – cash that Cook was convinced was destined for Lange’s own coffers.
The Dutch had become involved with Sabu in the previous century. In 1674 nervous islanders had massacred the shipwrecked crew of a Dutch vessel, and in seeking revenge Dutch forces formed an alliance with the king of Seba and set out on punitive raids of the neighboring principalities.

The next day I visit the spot where Sabunese defensive architecture defeated those early Dutch attackers. Some twenty kilometers east of Seba, the hilltop village of Hurati is abandoned now, a place of crooked trees and crumbling foundations. But the sturdy surrounding wall that the Dutch failed to penetrate still stands. They were forced to accept a nominal payment instead of total conquest as recompense.
Though the arrival of the Dutch is usually seen as the first European contact with Sabu, Captain Cook noted in 1770 that “many of the people can speake Portuguese, but hardly any one Dutch”, and as the Portuguese had been present on neighboring Flores long before the Dutch arrived on the scene, it seems likely that it was they who made the first landfall here.

The following day I head for the hills on a borrowed motorbike. Cook declared that most of the Sabunese were “heathens and others of no religion at all”. Today, with the exception of a handful of Muslim Sabunese-Arab families in Seba, the majority are nominal Protestants, but old traditions are strong.
In the hilltop kampung of Namata, south of Seba, the original ancestor-worshipping Jingi Tiu religion still lingers. When I arrive most of the villagers are out at work in the surrounding fields, but a woman named Hi’a tells me that during Jingi Tiu ceremonies people from around the island, dressed in traditional ikat cloth, descend on Namata.
The houses have long thatched roofs. According to legend the first settlers came originally from India – and the Sabunese do indeed often look decidedly Indian. When they came ashore they turned their boats upside down for shelter, and traditional Sabu houses still symbolize these makeshift dwellings. On the outskirts of the village a picture of a European sailing ship is carved into a slab of grainy yellow sandstone, another echo of those early European contacts.
From Namata I follow a rough road south into rolling hills grazed by sheep and horses. Sabu is a dry island – “indifferently water'd in the dry season” according to Cook – where maize is the staple crop and drought is a real risk.
On the stony southern coastline I reach the village of Ege. There is a foreign connection here too, for locals say that Ege means “English” in the Sabunese language. At some uncertain time in the past, they say, a British ship ran aground near here, and the sailors received a rather warmer welcome than the unfortunate Dutch of 1674. They were housed by the locals while they repaired their ship and remembered fondly when they went on their way.
There are echoes of a more recent and less happy historical episode at Ege too. The old village – surrounded like Hurati by a formidable wall of black basalt – is abandoned now. Two local men, Daud and Lido, take me there. The place was used as a fort by the Japanese occupiers during World War II.
“We know from our grandparents that the Japanese time was the hardest time of all,” says Lido, pointing out the loopholes for rifles that the soldiers knocked through the walls; “people had to work for them from six in the morning until six in the evening without food, and if people did something wrong they would tie them up and leave them in the sun. But then the British came back and chased them away!”

Over the next two days I travel the back roads of Sabu, finding warm welcomes and fine white beaches where seawater is left in upturned clamshells to evaporate and make salt. Bumpy tracks lead to hilltops offering swelling views to rocky shores, to the off-lying hulk of Raijua Island, and to the empty horizon beyond.
Captain Cook noted that the people of Sabu were addicted to betel nut – and they still are; smiles here have an extra dash of red color. The other lifeblood of Sabu is the lontar palm, which provides sweet sap for making sugar and palm wine, described by Captain Cook as “a very sweet agreeable Cooling liquor”. On other islands people hack steps into the trunks to get at the harvest, but in Sabu there is such respect for this “tree of life” that locals wish to do it no injury and bind smooth pebbles to the trunk with twists of dried leaf for footholds instead.

Captain Cook sailed from Sabu on 21 September 1770, bearing west past the tiny, uninhabited islet of Dana, said to be home of ancestral souls in the Jingi Tiu tradition, and heading for Java. As the island fell behind, Cook called his men together and swore them to secrecy about the place they had just visited for fear of arousing Dutch jealously in Batavia. As I make my own departure on the returning Kupang-bound ferry, watching the white beaches and lontar-clad hills fade to a dot on the empty horizon, it seems like the secret is still well kept.

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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