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Review: Telling a new story of the Indonesian past

Review: Telling a new story of the Indonesian past
Published: May 30, 2010

Stephen Druce’s new book unveils the Ajattappareng kingdoms of South Sulawesi

Campbell Macknight

Tourists on their way northwards to Tanah Toraja speed through the area surrounding Parepare, South Sulawesi’s second city, and probably think it’s all fairly dull. By this stage of the trip, they have had their fill of fertile rice fields, glimpses of the sea through the coconut palms and the distinctive South Sulawesi houses on stilts. It is highly unlikely that they have heard anything of the story of the Ajattappareng kingdoms which ruled over this land from 1200 to 1600 CE, even if they have been exceptionally diligent in searching out the best histories of Indonesia.

Historians of Indonesia have long discussed the scope and nature of their subject: what should be written about, what questions asked and, above all perhaps, whose questions should be addressed? The debate had particular force in the late colonial and immediately post-colonial period, but as a quick scan of the books on offer in any branch of Gramedia or airport bookshop will show, there is still plenty to argue about in the history of independent Indonesia.

So what is so important then about a new book dealing with the events of half a millennium ago in a small area of South Sulawesi?

The tale of the ‘lands west of the lakes’

Perhaps the first thing to notice about Stephen Druce’s The Lands West of the Lakes: A History of the Ajattappareng Kingdoms of South Sulawesi 1200 to 1600 CE is that it is possible to write well over 300 pages on this topic. Who would have thought there was so much to say about so long ago in such a relatively small area of what is modern-day South Sulawesi? Until now, most people would have assumed that there were no more than a few mythical folktales here; certainly no ‘real’ history.

Some things found in the local manuscripts do sound like folktales, such as the story of La Bangéngngé, the pure white-blooded man who descended from a mountain top and married Wé Tépulingé, a pure white-blooded woman who rose from a spring near the shore of the bay below. Their descendants, who came to rule in the various ‘lands west of the lakes’, inherited their rights of precedence, which they justified in elaborate, if not necessarily consistent, genealogical records. Yet whatever we may make of tales of how things began, by the sixteenth century, if not earlier, we have enough confirmation from other written sources to rely on the names and relationships of particular rulers. The politics of power within and between kingdoms, domains and tributaries is clear.

This is also the story of the steady expansion of wet-rice agriculture from about 1200 CE onwards with forest clearance and the laborious construction of irrigation works assisted by the movement of hill people down to the plain. Surplus rice then featured among many items of export – as it still does from this very fertile area – and in return came ever greater quantities of the ceramics which are so useful to the archaeologist. The diagnostic thirteenth and fourteenth century pottery fragments (potsherds) from China are found first on the coast and in sites along the former courses of the great Saddang river. Suppa’, on the bay of Parepare, was the first beneficiary of this trade and around 1400 CE was developing not just as an agricultural power but also as a maritime one. The following century, however, saw the rise of Sidenreng, an inland power with wide-spreading rice fields. By the sixteenth century, the jockeying for power between these kingdoms and the other major states across the peninsula, such as Gowa, Wajo’, Luwu’ and Boné, had begun.

Much has happened in this area since 1600 CE: the arrival of Islam, various colonial wars, and the final imposition of Dutch control at the beginning of the twentieth century. To tell that story, however, would require another book and the use of very different kinds of evidence.

Uncovering Ajattappareng

It is an old story that the historian needs a good pair of boots; this research must have worn out several pairs. It also helps to have a talent for gaining people’s trust and a good ear to listen to what they say, as well as competency in a range of local languages. It is a revelation what sharp eyes and careful hearing can pick up about long past centuries. The book reeks of both fieldwork, often with a team of friends, and the library.

The book is not, though, an easy read. Druce ranges across many types of evidence: geomorphology, linguistics, archaeology, cartography, oral history, the analysis of Bugis documents, and so on. By the nature of the case, he has to present in detail the evidence from which his tale is woven. For example, one cannot understand what happened without following the complex shifts in the course of the Saddang River. There is much to be learned by comparing different versions of what is meant to be the same genealogy - who had an interest in changing things? Some conventional historians may have trouble interpreting the statistical information on the numbers and kinds of pottery fragments collected from various sites, but this evidence is vital to the story. The maps are needed to locate tiny villages and the long Bugis names take some adjusting to.

It is a revelation what sharp eyes and careful hearing can pick up about long past centuries. The book reeks of both fieldwork, often with a team of friends, and the library

Experts will know that interesting work of this type has been done in South Sulawesi over the last few decades and Druce is well aware of his predecessors. He makes use of the methods and results of others, including local scholars, with due acknowledgment.

The fact that this is not the richest, or the most powerful, or the most famous of the various areas in the Bugis and Makassar lands only makes this story the more unexpected. To those who aspire to write future histories of Indonesia, Druce offers up a challenge to look to South Sulawesi for insight:

Historical and archaeological research carried out in South Sulawesi over the last twenty years or so provides us with well-documented examples of the transformation of several Austronesian-speaking societies from simple chiefdoms to large political entities constructed largely around indigenous concepts. This makes South Sulawesi, with its extensive written and archaeological sources, of fundamental importance in understanding the historical evolution of Austronesian societies in Indonesia and beyond.

The importance of this book is that it opens the window, for anyone with a serious interest, on a whole new chapter of Indonesian history. This has nothing to do with the glories of Borobudur and Prambanan, or the intricacies of Javanese inscriptions and literature. It precedes the adoption of Islam which, in this area, was most unusually achieved by force, and the Dutch are nowhere on the scene. The book gives us a picture of how people managed their lives in the archipelago before the impact of these great cultural, religious and political forces. It is a genuinely pre-colonial history of at least one small part of Indonesia.

Stephen Druce, The Lands West of the Lakes: A History of the Ajattappareng Kingdoms of South Sulawesi 1200 to 1600 CE (KITLV Press, Leiden, 2009).

Campbell Macknight (macknight@ozemail.com.au) first visited South Sulawesi over forty years ago and still finds it just as interesting. He is currently a Visiting Fellow in Anthropology at the Australian National University.

Inside Indonesia 101: Jul-Sep 2010

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