The “Timor Crisis” and Dom Bonaventura’s plea for help: Houben’s archival investigations

The struggle for independence in Timor Leste has prompted renewed interest in the figure of Dom Bonaventura, the traditional ruler of Manufahi, who led the single most threatening Timorese uprising against the Portuguese. Now recent research in the Dutch archives has uncovered a missive from Dom Benaventura and offers a unique glimpse of his precarious situation under siege at his stronghold on the south coast of Timor. This research is to be found in Vincent Houben’s Histories of Scale: Java, the Indies and Asia in the Imperial Age, 1820–1940 that includes a key chapter on the Timor crisis of 1910-1912 as part of his remarkable re-examination of Indonesia’s colonial history.

Presented as a contribution to current debates on global and imperial history, Houben’s Histories of Scale engages with a diversity of issues: Javanese rural capitalism and the transport of coolie labour, policies of indirect rule and consequent border disputes and the effects of the two World Wars on nationalist movements in Indonesia. At its core, this history consists of six densely researched ‘pericentric’ case studies that cast local developments within a larger-scale framework. Each case highlights the role of a specific colonial figure of note.

In one of these cases, Houben examines the role of Johannes Augustinus Dezentjé and the local capitalisation and economic fluctuation of his extended network of plantations formed from apanage lands leased from the Central Javanese court; in another case, he examines the involvement of Jacob Izaak van Sevenhoven in the affairs of native states of Cirebon, Palembang and Surakarta and the tightening of a colonial policy of indirect rule; in yet another case, he looks at the role of the Dutch labour inspector D.R.J. van Lijnden,  who considered the testimony of Javanese coolie labourers in British North Borneo who were part of a Dutch scheme that transported labour to British and French colonies in the region. Houben’s assessment of all of his cases in their particular contexts reflects a research perspective of over thirty years and an unparalleled intimate exploration of Dutch archival sources.

One of the most interesting of these cases chosen for scrutiny by Houben is that of the Gerret Pieter Rouffaer, a prolific Dutch ethno-commentator on Indonesian affairs who dared to compare Dutch and Portuguese colonial rule on Timor.

Houben uses Rouffaer to focus on the years from 1910 to 1912, a time of serious border conflicts between the Dutch and Portuguese prompted by substantial unrest in Portuguese Timor – a period that Dutch colonial authorities labelled the “Timor Crisis”. To appreciate Houben’s remarkable archival findings that deal with this period requires some historical background on the situation on Timor to which the Dutch were responding

The Timor Situation in an Eastern Indonesian Context

Disputes over borders between the Netherlands and Portugal had begun, initially beyond the borders of Timor, in a struggle for control of the islands and seas from Flores to Alor over which both European colonial powers contented.

When in 1838, the Dutch carried out an attack on the town of Larantuka at the eastern end of Flores, Lisbon claimed that this was a provocative assault on a Portuguese possession. Not long afterwards when a Portuguese ship fired on a perahu from Macassar, the Dutch reciprocated by claiming this incident as an armed offense on their colonial authority. Several years later, in 1846, the Dutch initiated discussions with Portugal on acquiring their territories in the Indies, an offer that was officially declined in 1851. Instead, ‘Timor and the ‘Solor Islands’ including parts of Flores, were declared a separate province of the Portuguese Indies.

However, the impoverished governor in Dili continued negotiations with the Dutch authories and, without authorisation from Lisbon, agreed to relinquish claims to Solor, Flores and its nearby islands for an immediate payment of 80,000 florin (followed by a further payment of 120,000 florin). The Dutch responded immediately, made these payments, and laid official claim to the islands from Flores to Alor.

Although the Portuguese governor was recalled in disgrace, his agreement could not be undone. So, after further negotiations in 1854, an agreement of exchange of territories was reached and, finally, ratified in 1859: the Portuguese ceded their claims to the islands of Flores, Solor, Adonara, Pantar and Alor to the Netherlands Indies, while the Dutch ceded the domain of Maubara on the north coast of east Timor to the Portuguese and agreed to recognise Portuguese claims to Oecussi and the tiny enclave of Noilmuti in central west Timor.  In turn, the Portuguese agreed to recognise Dutch authority over the domain of Maucatar along the central southeastern border between east and west Timor.

The struggle to maintain possession of their eastern most islands and the concessions of 1859 that they were forced upon them prompted the Portuguese to turn inward in their governance of what remained of their presence on Timor. They became ever more wary of threats of unrest among the local population of the island and began what became annual expeditions enlisting rulers of supposed allies in one area to subdue the rulers in another rebellious area.  René Pélissier, in his Timor en Guerre, documented no less than sixty such Portuguese-led military expeditions between 1847 and 1913, culminating in the large-scale slaughter of the Manufahi rebellion.

The loss of connections with other islands in eastern Indonesia—particularly with the town of Larantuka which was one of the oldest Portuguese settlements in the region—left East Timor isolated and adrift from its historical origins.  The first Portuguese-speaking settlers to establish a base at Lifao on Timor had come from Larantuka and this connection had been maintained, particularly through close religious ties: Larantuka’s sodalities and confraternities regularly participated in the religious celebrations in Dili lending them an historical authority. But the Florenese participation in Timorese affairs went well beyond the religious: up to the early 1850s, Malay-speaking volunteers from Sika, known as the Companhia de Moradores de Sica, were regularly recruited for military service in East Timor.

The use of local Malay, which was particularly prominent in Larantuka, provided links among the other islands of eastern Indonesia. So, when these connections were severed, the Portuguese sought to encourage a new lingua franca.  Initially, the Catholic Church encouraged the use of Galoli, preparing catechisms in this language.  In the end, however, establishment of the Jesuit Soibada College in 1898 in an important Tetun-speaking area gave a crucial impetus for the use of Tetun. Soibada became responsible for training all of the schoolmasters (mestre-escolas) who taught throughout East Timor and provided the official staff for the colonial government in Dili.

Houben on the ‘Timor Crisis’ of 1910-1912

These factors set the scene for Houben’s account of the “Timor Crisis”. He begins his narrative in 1910 by discussing the provocations of the orientalist G.W. Rouffaer who after a brief visit to Timor had the temerity to compare Portuguese and Dutch colonial regimes on either side of the border. Rouffaer, most of whose previous experience was on Java, found that the Portuguese activities were more in line with what he regarded as “advanced” colonialism. Not only did the Portuguese have more efficient military communications and apparently better roads, they had also institutionalised plantations on their half of the island. Dutch Timor was less well organised and certainly there were no plantations.

When Dutch authorities became aware of Rouffaer’s assertions, there was irritation followed by a stout response. Syne Kok, the Dutch controller stationed on the border with Portuguese Timor, whom Rouffaer had judged incompetent, wrote a 92-page, point-by-point refutation.  Syne Kok was at the time mobilising troops to defend Dutch border territories. In June 1911, he led one such expedition that gathered information along the border areas that included the enclave of Maucatar, which the Dutch controlled. The Portuguese were relying on African troops whom they had brought from Mozambique to reinforce their own native moradores. It was reported that a contingent of forty of these African soldiers had occupied Lakmaras cutting off Dutch access to their enclave of Maucatar. Far from being pacified, as Rouffaer had claimed, there was considerable local unrest in much of Portuguese Timor.

Matters continued to escalate rapidly. On the 18th of July, shooting broke out at Lakmaras. Three African soldiers were killed and a Portuguese lieutenant and sergeant, nine African soldiers and six moradores and their wives were taken to Atupupu for sea transport to Kupang.

On receiving word of this incident, the Governor-General Idenburg in Batavia ordered the Dutch Resident in Kupang, Vorstman, to telegram his apologies to Filomeno da Cârama de Melo Cabral, the Governor of Portuguese Timor to deescalate the situation. Instead of passing on Idenburg’s message, Vorstman defended the actions of Major Pluimmetz.

Drawing on documents from the “Secret-Cabinet Archives” in the Dutch Colonial Archives, Houben provides a clear idea of the heated missives exchanged at this time. Defending his position as a matter of “national interest”, Vorstman wrote:

“The Portuguese were convinced that the Dutch are people (…) whom you can deceive, can fool, tease, take their territory from, kill their population, allow that strangers take their chiefs prisoner; despite this, they remain calm and decent and only protest on paper.”

However, according to Vorstman, when the “Dutch lion had shown its teeth,” the Portuguese capitulated.

For all his passions, Vorstman was immediately suspended and Infantry Colonel C.H. van Rietschoten dispatched to Kupang as the Civil and Military Resident of Timor. Van Rietschoten endeavoured to conduct regular exchanges, in diplomatic French, with the Governor of Portuguese Timor to mollify the situation, but by the middle of 1912 these exchanges had become far less amiable, especially as the Portuguese were by then reacting to a major uprising, the Manufahi Revolt, in their territory.

East Timor’s “Red Rosa”

A look back at Rosa "Muki" Bonaparte Soares' life of anti-colonialism and feminism, cut short by Indonesian occupation.

The Manufahi Revolt from the Dutch Perspective

The Manufahi revolt was a major uprising in Portuguese Timor led by a traditional ruler, Dom Bonaventura da Costa Souto Maior, the eldest son of a ruler, Dom Duaete, who had previously led an uprising against the Portuguese.  He was closely allied with a number of other traditional rulers, liuriai, from the domains (reino) on the south coast of Portuguese Timor, particularly those of Suai, Camanasa and Raimean. He had been able to enlist sufficient popular support to mount major opposition to the Portuguese, forcing them to bring in extra military auxiliaries, including an increasing number of African soldiers, to quash this rebellion.

The Dutch became peripherally involved in the revolt because of their presence in the disputed enclave of Maucatar in the central southwest of Timor, but also because of another anti-Portuguese uprising that occurred at the same time in the enclave of Oecussi.  At different times, refugees fleeing the Portuguese were received and settled in west Timor, bringing with them detailed accounts of what was occurring in areas under Portuguese control.

Houben utilises the Dutch archives to give a glimpse of these developments. Of considerable significance, for the Dutch, was the uprising in Oecussi, led by the local ruler Dom Joâo Da Cruz Hornai, which on the 22nd of March 1912 killed two Portuguese non-commissioned officers and took control of the port of Pante Macassar. The Portuguese, in turn, besieged the port and were able to reoccupy it on the 31st of March and regarrison it with 150 African soldiers.  Thereupon the Timorese besieged the port and continued their siege for more than a year. When the Portuguese finally managed to break this siege, the ruler Da Cruz Hornai and many of his followers sought refuge in west Timor and were settled by the Dutch away from the Oecussi border.

The Manufahi revolt, which had begun in 1911, continued through into September of 1912 when Dom Bonaventura’s besieged supporters were overrun and crushed into submission. By May 1912, as a consequence of this uprising, the Dutch had begun accepting refugees. The first of these were members of the ruling family of Kailako who sought refuge in Dutch territory. This was followed by a larger contingent from Ermera, members of whom had been taken by the Portuguese to fight at Manufahi but had, instead, returned to their domain and had then fled across the border to avoid Portuguese reprisal.

One of Houben’s most important archival finding is a letter sent in July by Dom Bonaventura to Van Rietschoten, the Resident of Timor, pleading for Dutch intervention. This letter, in Malay, is a document of historic importance that deserves full consideration.

At the time when this letter was sent on the 17th of July, the Manufahi uprising had been ongoing for over nine months and the Portuguese governor, Philomeno da Câmara, had assembled a formidable force of over 9000 men.  Pellissier reports that this force consisted of 34 officers and 590 first-line soldiers, including the reinforcements from Mozambique, plus 647 second-line moradores (mainly regular Timorese soldiers) plus 8000 auxiliaries (arraiais) recruited specifically from other Timorese reino to support the campaign. Dom Bonaventura and his supporters were under siege at his hilltop redoubt at Leo Lako, which would fall on the 10th of August.

Van Rietschoten’s reply to Dom Bonaventura was that no direct Dutch assistance could be offered but that the Dutch would grant refuge to him and his people in Dutch Timor. Dom Bonaventura escaped the siege at Leo Lako but was reportedly captured on the 26th of October. In the end only forty refugees, including the ruler of Raimean who had also escaped the Manufahi massacre, were able to reach Dutch Timor and were given settlement.

Pellissier estimates that there may have been 20,000 or more deaths as a result of the Manufahi campaign, not just because of the fighting but because of severe dysentery that afflicted the assembled troops.  Official figures were much lower. So ended the largest and most concerted Timorese uprising against colonial rule.

More on Timor-Leste

Conservation of Timor-Leste’s world-class marine ecology is not being taken seriously

Teeming with the greatest fish species biodiversity on the planet, these seas are under threat from large and small scale illegal fishing compounded by lax law enforcement.

Civic space in Timor-Leste during COVID-19 Part 2: Access and equity

COVID-19 arguably provided opportunities to increase legitimacy and accountability.