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Papuan Fault Line: Part IV
Playing into Colonial Hands
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
Papuans with Laptop

Both inter-tribal fault lines and Papuan mythologies have helped played a determining role in creating the modern predicament that has befallen the West Papuan peoples today (as of Dec. 5, 2009).

As history reveals, few factors have determined current conditions in West Papua more profoundly than the demographic fact that hundreds of individual tribal groups constitute the past and present population profile of the indigenous peoples. From an outside point of view, this has made Papua an object of endless anthropological fascination for Western anthropologists, art collectors and foreign travelers, but has also made the Papuans vulnerable to divide and conquer strategies used to exploit by two waves of colonial intervention- first Dutch, then Indonesian.

This is not to blame the “victims”, so to speak, as the subjugation of an entire land and its people is an incomparable fault. But it is clear that during the five hundred year period of European exploration and worldwide colonization many examples arise where those peoples who suffered from foreign intervention contributed to their own downfall due to the exploitation they themselves practiced in their own land. There’s abundant evidence of this in the case of West Papua.

This is neither a view point nor a subject line that will garner much sympathy with those who support the West Papuan cause of 2009. But the lessons of history must be understood and heeded lest the tragedies that befell past generations be needlessly repeated. Though nothing less than amiable relations between tribes may well prevail across West Papua today, it can in no way be of any harm nor be any less true to say that solidarity amongst an oppressed people can only be as strong and the good relations they foster within their own ranks.

What has compounded the present day plight for the West Papuans is the historically documented fact that many Papuan tribes routinely violated the welfare of their own neighbors, who were often related through inter-tribal marriage. Human trafficking was especially rampant. For example, in the 17th century, coastal tribes of the Bird’s Head peninsula periodically raided their inland neighbors, kidnapping groups of people, many of whom would be traded to foreigners offshore as slaves in exchange for valued objects such as ambergris, tortoise shell, and the famous “kain timur” (a highly sought after kind of cloth). (Coastal tribes considered themselves superior to their inland neighbors, and it may still be common for inter-tribal marriages between the two groups to be referred to as “marrying up” or “marrying down”) The slaves would become the property of traders who sailed to Papua most often from neighboring Malukan ports, such as in nearby Ceram. Once the slaves had been transported by ship back into the Malukus, they would often be sold to the Dutch who were in constant need of slave labor across the breadth of their growing empire which stretched west from the “East Indies” to South Africa.

The raiding culture as practiced by some Papuan tribes served as one headwater of the slave trade network that spanned from the western shores of Papua, across the Banda Sea, westward to Bali and Batavia, Jawa (Jakarta, Java); up through the Melaka straits and then crossing the breadth of the Indian Ocean to Africa. This network was just one part of the greater mosaic of world wide human trafficking that was perhaps the most vicious trademark activity of the colonial age. Originally a slave trade system commanded by the Malukan sultanates of Tidore and Ternate and encompassing the Maluku Islands and parts of today’s West Papua, the rise of Dutch power in the early 17th century so capitalized and expanded it into a vast, intercontinental network.

Once the Dutch penetrated and took charge of the Malukan slave network, apart from its victims, all parties involved found the terms amenable enough to maintain the trafficking for more than two centuries. How long the network existed before the 17th century is not clearly understood, but it certainly existed as a well-established business long before the Dutch arrived.

Important to the survival of this system included the following: the raiding culture of participating Papuan tribes allowed for a rather problem-free, ready supply of fresh slaves on the supply end, and as for the demand, the Dutch cleverly attached themselves to the Malukan sultanates as terminus consumers. Most remarkable is that the “Dutch” we speak of were not part of the country’s government or military per se, but consisted of a sole, private organization, called the VOC (Vereenigde Osst-Indische Compagnie) who was granted license by the Dutch government to create profitable trade in the East Indies, inspired initially by the value placed by the European market on the spices found in the Malukus. Nutmeg and cloves were at the time worth more than their weight in gold. But the Dutch were interested in slaves as well, and both slaves and spices were in abundantly available in the Malukus, making it the most potentially lucrative trade network in the world during the early 17th century.

Debatably the Dutch could be considered the earliest practitioners of modern day capitalism and international capitalist trade. They wisely attached themselves to and utilized the Malukan network as they found it, pandering to the powers that commanded it and using its intermediary agents rather than destroying what was already well-organized and starting from scratch. The VOC itself could be understood also to be an economic device leveraged by the Dutch power elite that acted indirectly on behalf of the Dutch monarchy vis-à-vis company stockholders. It was a collusion of political and economic interests not unlike the international power bases of politics and trade found in the 21st century.

A “pure” economic ambition in the East Indies was considered a “clean” way to proceed. It was free of the complicating factor of religious conversion which the Catholic colonial powers of Portugal and Spain judged core to their own colonial missions. Initially, the VOC had no interest in “civilizing” their East Indies contacts through religious conversions, and proselytizing arms of the Dutch religious community held relatively little sway with the organization in its early carnation. Compare that with the Spanish, for example, which were driven to convert as many “heathens” as they could. The power and interests vested in the Spanish monarchy could not be separated from that of the Catholic church, and when it came to the rationale for establishing colonies, conversion was as important to the church as economic gain was to the crown. The VOC’s board of governors was much less interested in God than they were money. In their inception, we see an early example of almost pure economic enterprise, nearly devoid of moral or religious ambitions. It was all about making money for the company and its stockholders.

These observations are germane to understanding why the VOC experienced success in the Malukan-Papuan slave-spice trade network. Their business ploy was simple- make a deal with the existing powers that be, and do everything possible to cultivate and sustain that relationship. In the early 17th century, the controllers of spice and slaves was vested in a collection of major and minor sultanates as found across the Malukus, with the sultans of the twin islands of Ternate and Tidore having unrivalled influence. Their religious qualifications as per their ranking in the new order of Islamic power sweeping across the Malay Archipelago were kowtowed to by the region’s other sultanates. The sultans of Tidore and Ternate made a calculated risk by allowing the VOC access into their slave-spice trade network. The Europeans were newcomers and possessed demonstrable military might, but the profits to be made through Dutch participation were just too fantastic to overlook. Besides, it the Dutch were not given the nod, they could very easily employ their naval power in order to enforce their will, just as the Portuguese and Spanish had done in the previous century.

However purely economic VOC’s nascent modus operandi, it was not long before military and religious ambitions interceded and claimed stake. As a result, many Malukan lives were overturned, most tragically in the spice-rich Banda islands where a VOC captain ordered the mass slaughter of most of the small island’s inhabitants due to their “lack of cooperation.”

A snap-shot from this narrow window of time provides an historical demarcation of the early modern age for East Indonesia as well as a baseline for which to explore future relations between all the major players in the trade network. It was a crucial period which allows access into understanding the vulnerabilities of West Papua and what would become of its land and peoples.

East Indonesian trade networks also reveal that many tribes of the Papuan northwest were actively engaged with outsiders, especially with the peoples of the East Malukus, and long before the arrival of Europeans. Many people labor under the false notion that Papuans existed in isolation from the rest of the world until the 20th century, but this applies to mainly tribes inhabiting the island’s more remote interior. (It must be said in passing, though, that the majority population of indigenous peoples have most likely always lived in the interior, and still do)

As a consequence of geography, one result finds fault lines to exist between the coastal and interior tribes, as well as between tribes of the north and south. Coastal tribes were active in regional trade networks, and so benefited economically and technologically (such as their access to metals and cloth) whereas more-inland tribes were relatively isolated and often suffered due to the raids upon their villages from their coastal neighbors.

But how were the “New Guinea” tribes perceived by the Dutch before they finally established an encampment on coastal Papua itself in 1828? The Dutch held a more-or-less collective prejudice against the tribal groups as a whole. To the Dutch, similarities between tribes were more striking than the differences. Dutch records as held in the huge archives in the Netherlands include numerous written records of Dutch depictions of the “natives.” The earliest reports of contact with Papuan tribes detail are chilling. Murderous response by Papuan coastal tribes to early Dutch landings along the northern and southwestern coasts burnished indelible attitudes into the sea farers from Northern Europe. The image was simple and unambiguous- across the board, the Papuans were stereotyped as fundamentally blood thirsty, warlike, and unapproachable barbarians who universally practiced head hunting and cannibalism.

In the late 19th century some sixty-five years after the fall and disappearance of the VOC and pure capital enterprise, the so-called liberal policies of the Dutch government started to make inroads into parts of West Papua, especially through the agencies of missionaries, both Protestant and Catholic. Outside of some exceptions such as greater North Sulawesi, the Dutch had come to the game of proselytization and religious conversion comparatively late in the colonial game, especially in comparison to the most famous of the East Indies missionary vanguard- the Jesuits- as headed by the passionate Spanish-Basque Father Xavier who had worked his mission with great success from the Philippines as far southeast as the Eastern Malukus. The Jesuits were active as early as the late 15th century with Magellan’s landmark landing in the Philippines, more than three hundred and fifty years before the first European missionary ever set foot on Papuan soil.

Modern Papua, at least in terms of outside influence, began with the efforts of two Dutch missionaries, Ottow and Geissler, who established Papua’s first Christian mission on Doreh Bay in 1855. What success they had in spreading their faith amongst the local tribes came mainly by coupling trade opportunities with the word of Christ. From the first, Dutch missions used a carrot-and-stick approach with the Papuans. For the Papuans, committing to- or rather agreeing to a “religious conversion” had economic benefits here on earth. Securing an afterlife was an afterthought.

Ottow and Geissler’s early tenure didn’t last long, but their establishment of a first mission was a watershed event. Not only was Christianity introduced into the vast cultural landscape of the huge island, but Europeans quickly discovered how to leverage power and influence over the Papuan peoples by offering economic incentives to convert. But another, more serendipitous phenomena factored in as well.

The appearance of white, Protestant pastors preaching salvation through Jesus Christ and his second coming resonated with many Papuan tribes, but not in ways the missionaries could first understand. How remarkable that on similar mythological grounds a decided edge would be given white-skinned invaders when making initial advances in places as far removed as the Aztec capitol in the 16th century and Papua’s Bird’s Head Peninsula in the 19th. Cortez’s appearance as conquistador astride a white horse at the gates of Tenochtitlan, capitol of the Aztec civilization had been predicted by Aztec myth. Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, saw in Cortez the return of Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, who was according to myth believed to have left central Mexico for the Yucatan in the 10th century, but was believed to ultimately return and reclaim the highest status of authority. The arrival of Cortez reinforced the Aztec myth-history that “descendents of Quetzalcoatl would come and conquer this land, perpetuating an ongoing cycle of creation and destruction amongst the Aztec peoples; of invasion and assimilation.” For some Papuans, the arrival of the white man signified the return of their long departed ancestors, returning from the land of the dead. The return also signaled apocalyptic change. The first wave of Dutch missionaries and the anthropologists that soon followed discovered many Papuan to hold strong millenarian beliefs. The Christian second coming and the reordering of the world to follow- promising a heaven on earth- was a concept easily transferrable to the Papuans mythology. Again creation myth and prophesy was being fulfilled.

The vast array of manufactured objects accompanying the Dutch held great sway over the Papuans. Many felt that their ancestors had created these objects in far away places and that they were truly meant to fall into the living descendants’ own hands. But the general attraction foreign objects held for Papuans is no surprise as the tribal raiders exchanged their human captives most favorably for “kain timur,” a cloth made in the Malukus, the material and manufacturing technology of which wasn’t available in Papua. The cloth held such value that it was worthy the price of payment for a Papuan bride, and it that bride was from another area, access to that area’s land and its resources was given the groom and his clan. Tribes could expand their territorial reach, access to women, and natural resources merely through possession of a bolt of cloth. The powers and riches spices and gold afforded the European was no less equal to that of “kain timur” for many coastal Papuans.

The Dutch began to fathom the parallels of belief found in Papuan versus Christian mythologies, and at the same time calculate the relative value held by an array of commodities that they possessed and the Papuans desired. Beginning with Ottow and Geissler, the Dutch integrated these two vital aspects of comparison and advanced them on one front. Christian and Papuan second comings seemed closely related versions of the same grand story; kain timur could be considered equivalent to the value and prestige found in gold; dowries were not so different than brides payment; and slave trading didn’t seem to much offend anyone. These cultural currencies and the fair trade exchanges implied would take the Dutch sixty years to successfully exploit after establishment of the first mission in 1855. By the beginning of World War I, a key Papuan tribe, the Biaks, had been “pacified” and the Dutch first established a government post on Papuan soil in 1915.

Dutch liberal policies of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were much in favor of treating colonial subjects “humanely,” and this included the process of “civilizing” them through religious conversion. This was a far cry from Dutch colonialism as especially practiced in Java, and reforms were due in part due to Dutch public response that repulsed at the horrors of Java’s cultivation system. Dutch interests purely interested in control of Papua for geo-political reasons amongst others saw the missionary movement as the coat cloth to which they could hold on to accomplish their goals.

These further historical observations just do begin to explain how colonial power was initially leveraged against the Papuans vis-à-vis Papuan cultural beliefs and customs, but certainly omits some many important aspects of pan cultural practices common to most Papuan tribes, including the Big Man leadership system; exchange systems for maintaining social cohesion and development of Big Men; black magic and death-dealing lethal powers (lait and suangi); male initiation (such with the former practice of Wuon), and forms of social egalitarianism that are radically different from anything practiced in Western culture.

The Dutch foothold as first forged by missionaries in the 1850’s did not foment widespread grievance amongst the coastal Papuans, but as Dutch administrative apparatus followed in the wake, the Papuans were soon aggrieved by an imposed system of governance totally foreign- that of western-style bureaucracy and governmental hierarchy. Such a control and command style was one example of a cultural artifact very importantly not shared by most of Papuan tribes and the Dutch. In part due to this, the Dutch first deemed the native peoples incapable of learning how to hold any kind of administrative or civil service post, and given the inadequate population of available Dutch personnel, Indonesian Malays from distant places such as Jakarta were imported to serve as the first generation of Papuan civil servants in the embryonic regional bureaucracy after World War I. Part of the reforms instituted in Dutch colonial rule included the preening of Indonesian elites from Java as well as other parts of Indonesia, whose Western educated sons-and-daughters had been afforded the education and language skills necessary to take on administrative responsibilities within the Dutch system.

The establishment of government posts in West Papua in the early years following World War I is the second snap shot in time which again signals an historically important demarcation- that of a second, or Indonesian colonial wave. The Indonesianization of Papua had begun, and the Dutch had unwittingly provided for it- even in terms of trained personnel.

As described in a previous part of this Papuan historical series, the Dutch would eventually find it in their interest to hasten the human resource development of select Papuan tribes- especially those of the Biak-Numfor area- for populating civil service posts, but it was too little, too late as the end of World War II spelled the end of a five hundred year colonial spree by Europeans with the Javanese positioned to take their place as neo-colonialists in West Papua.

By the time Indonesia had officially taken over from the Dutch in the May of 1963, a great well of grievance and enmity for the Javanese civil servant class had already stuck and metastasized in the collective Papuan craw. Indonesian bureaucrats serving as Dutch minions had for decades already demonstrated a clear discriminatory attitude toward the Papuan peoples. As feces runs downhill, so too whatever inferiority the Javanese experienced in relation to their Dutch superiors they heaped with value-added excess atop the heads of the Papuans. Many of the Dutch believed the Papuans to be uncivilized and barbarian, but they didn’t necessarily express such beliefs in verbally abusive terms. It was more the case as mentioned: The Dutch were motivated to change the conditions they believed kept the Papuans trapped in such a perpetuated state of “non-development.” In that sense, they were pitied.

The Indonesians on the other hand, felt no responsibility for the Papuan’s future as they were colonial subjects themselves, and freely called the native peoples “animals” to their faces. As many Indonesian administrators were Muslim, the fact their “Papuan charge” were thought of as semi-naked creatures who regularly consumed a diet of pork exacerbated the downward spiral of Indonesian-Papuan relations.

It was clearly a dark portent of things to come.

Ed Note: This is Part IV of a multi-part series on West Papua. Part V will appear as published in The Seoul Times online edition in the near future.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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