Since very early times, the Florinese have been confronted with people from many parts of the world. Some of them came with purely economic intentions, others with ideas of power and belief. Whatever their interest in Flores might have been, it is certain that these outside influences left their footprints and contributed to the already manifold social and cultural diversity.
Flores has had its own history long before the first traders or missionaries arrived. However, as ancient Florinese societies shared their history through oral tradition, little is known about the origins of many of them. The first foreign visitors to Flores probably encountered dispersed, independent settlements consisting of several lineages which descended from a common ancestor. By that time, political authority was locally limited.
Before the first Europeans reached Flores, Makassarese and Bugis seafarers from Southern Sulawesi came to Flores for trading and slave raiding, and took control of some of the coastal areas. While the eastern coastal areas of Flores were under the authority of the emperors of Ternate in the Moluccas, West Flores was prominently ruled by the sultanates of Bima in Sumbawa and Goa in Sulawesi.
A Portuguese expedition crew reached the island in the early 16th century and named it ‘Cabo das Flores’, which means ‘Cape of Flowers’. The island became an important strategic point for the economic activities of Portuguese traders. However, Flores itself was neither a source of valuable spices nor sandalwood. After a long period of struggling with other trade powers, the Portuguese were finally defeated and withdrew themselves to Dili in East Timor in 1769. They renounced all their spheres of influence in Eastern Indonesia and sold their remaining enclaves on Flores to the Dutch administration.
Even though the Dutch administration was eager to expand its influence in Indonesia, it hardly interfered in local political issues at the beginning. When the Dutch administration decided to increase Flores’ potential as a source of income for its state treasury, systematic measures were taken to improve the island’s infrastructure and educational system. Being increasingly challenged with rebellions and inter-tribal wars, the Dutch army launched a massive military campaign in 1907 to settle the disputes. After being subdued in 1909, the island was provided with a new administrative system, dividing it into the five major districts of Manggarai, Ngada, Ende, Sikka, and Flores Timur. Each of these administrative units was headed by a local leader who was appointed by the Dutch colonial government.
Except for a short period of Japanese occupation during World War II, the Dutch remained the dominating colonial force until Indonesia became an independent nation state in 1945.
The main focus of Indonesia’s first president, Soekarno, was the building of a national identity for the new-born state and the preservation of its fragile unity. Soekarno and Hatta proclaimed Indonesian independence on 17th August 1945. After four years of bitter armed struggle and international pressure, the Netherlands formally recognized Indonesian independence. On 17th August 1945, Soekarno proclaimed a single unitary Republic of Indonesia. He also elaborated the idea of Pancasila, Indonesia’s five pillars of national unity, as an attempt to incorporate the many different religious and ethnic groups into an independent nation state.
President Soeharto, who followed Soekarno after a period of violent takeover in 1965, aimed to lead Indonesia from its rural condition into the modern industrialized world. An important political issue under his so-called New Order government was the economic development and growth of Indonesia. Therefore, the government launched many health care, education, economy, and infrastructure programs and projects with the idea of bringing modernity to the remotest villages. After a long period of governing Indonesia in a rather authoritarian way, President Soeharto was brought to fall in 1998.
After the Soeharto regime, Indonesia was turning into a more democratic and decentralized state. The positive effects of these new policies for Flores were limited: the majority of the Florinese people could not directly benefit from the increased local autonomy and decentralization, and remained to be among the poorest inhabitants of Indonesia. Most families on Flores still struggle with the educational system. They cannot afford to pay the school fees for their children, thereby reducing their future opportunities to make a living beyond rural agriculture. Besides, the access to health care is very limited – not only in the remote villages, but also in the larger towns. Furthermore, the access to water, electricity, transportation, communication, and information is still at a low coverage level.
However, the policy shift from a centralized focus on Javanese culture to an increased appreciation of Indonesia’s rich local cultural varieties brought some positive change: traditional cultural features and peculiarities are not equated with backwardness anymore, but proudly valued as the country’s treasure and heritage, which also has the potential to attract domestic and foreign tourists – and their spending power.
Article taken from ‘Flores: A Glimpse of The People and Culture’
Photo source: ‘Tropen Museum – The Netherlands, KITLV’