Boy in the wilderness

Project: The Aru Islands: Trade, beliefs and colonial encounters on the fringe of Indonesia

The project focuses on a part of the Moluccas in present-day Indonesia, the Aru Islands. These islands are marginally situated in relation to older power centers, but at the same time usedto provide important luxury goods. The project studies how local, colonial and external Asian forces interacted from 1500 to 1900.

About the project

Project manager
Hans Hägerdal
Linnaeus University Center for Concurrences in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies
1 January 2018–31 December 2019

More about the project

The project intends to study how a region in Indonesia, often considered marginal, was involved in commercial, religious, demographic and political exchange with the larger region, exchanges which partly have global ramifications. The time perspective is long, covering the period from c. 1500 to the late colonial era in the twentieth century. This ties in with one of the aims of Concurrences to elucidate non-Western cultures by scrutinizing simultaneous voices about the past.

The Aru Islands are part of the little-investigated past of southern Maluku (Moluccas, the Spice Islands), which encompasses a number of islands and archipelagos at the eastern end of the Indian Ocean: Kisar, Wetar, Sermata, Tanimbar, Kei, Aru, and some other. On one hand they are at the physical edge of insular Southeast Asia, bordering vast areas of open sea to the south and southeast. The ethnolinguistic groups are small and diverse, have seldom been tied to larger political realms before colonial rule set in, and are rarely mentioned in works on Indonesian history. Aru was a frontier in several respects: for a long time it marked the furthest advances of Islam, Christianity, and European colonial presence, though these three phenomena were implemented piecemeal until late in history. On the other hand, a closer look quickly reveals a wide spectre of connections with the outside, partly even with global implications. From early on there was a commercial exchange in natural products which trickled all the way to China or the Ottoman Empire. The Aru Islands delivered sago and wood for the regional centre in the Banda Islands, but also tripang (sea cucumbers), edible bird's nests, pearls, and birds of paradise – items which fetched high prices in other parts of Eurasia and were consequently set for luxury consumption.

How do we study the past of a society that did not leave written texts behind until fairly recently? How can external colonial accounts be balanced by other categories of materials such as oral tradition? In what way can interdisciplinarity inform research processes that have normally been conducted by individual subjects? These are considerations that apply to the past of the Aru Islands. As increasingly realized in historical research, local and regional history enable us to study the workings of politics, economy and social structure on a micro-level with important ramifications for macro issues. The choice of the present area opens up a set of interlocking perspectives on historical processes and connectivities of Southeast Asia and Oceania that involve history, archaeology, anthropology and linguistics – in other words, concurrent sources to reconstruct an often contested past. This is one of the major aims of Concurrences, and has been advocated by scholars such as Gunlög Fur.

The main research questions of the project are twofold. First, how did Aru function as a frontier society, from the sixteenth century to the late colonial era? Some recent research on Southeast Asian frontiers (James Scott, Oscar Salemink) has focused on porous inland frontiers, as being extensive territories with ethnic groups characterized by state-avoidance, i.e. strategies of retaining small-scale autonomy without blocking processes of economic exchange. Such resilience has been due to marginality, with inaccessible geographical features and dispersed populations. Building on this, the relevance of studying watery frontier zones has also recently been pointed out (Leonard Andaya, Hong Seok-Joon). Such zones may be open in terms of inter-ethnic relations and economic exchange; a basic idea here is that water has tended to bind together geographical entities in many regions, while land has divided them – that is, before the onset of modern means of physical communication and governance. Aru may be seen as a frontier zone of state-avoidance, but also an open maritime frontier.

Second, what is the significance of Aru for the wider history of Indonesia and beyond, particular with respect to the spread of religious beliefs and the development of economic exchange? While Aru may be a watery frontier marked by marginality, economic austerity, and low population density, it is also bound up with larger, even global patterns of consumption due to the occurrence of luxury products – items which fetch high prices at the receiving end of the distribution line and are marked by a certain scarcity/exclusivity: tripang, bird's nests, pearls, birds-of-paradise feathers, etc. Its economic significance was pointed out by Europeans from the very start of their presence in Southeast Asia (Roy Ellen, Patricia Spyer). With economic relations came the influx of beliefs, i.e. Islam and Christianity which interestingly coexisted concurrently with indigenous beliefs. The project therefore explores concurrences between local, indigenous agency and global (partly but not only colonial) influences.

A substantial textual material about Aru exists, being mainly European (mostly Dutch) documents but also some local accounts. These sources are available in Dutch colonial archives, and have to a large extent been identified by me. I have long experience of analyzing such sources. Oral tradition is another category of great importance. I have collected oral data at a previous field trip and will cooperate with other researchers in my network, especially Emilie Wellfelt, Ross Gordon and Sonny Djonler, who have done recordings in situ. Archaeological remains, especially ruins situated on Ujir, one of the Aru Islands, are to be investigated by Joss Whittaker, another member of the network, from 2018, and we will collate our results. Meanwhile, linguistic data are collected by Antoinette Schapper and Benjamin Daigle and will provide ground for conclusions about long-term historical processes. At the present, we plan a collaborative issue of an academic journal based on work already done.

To sum up, the project scrutinizes the workings and effects of colonialism, while destabilizing Euro-centric notions about the relationship. It compares concurrent voices and claims about a region, and explores interdisciplinary ways to recover the past of people who have traditionally been voiceless in Western historiography.