Friday, November 10, 2006

Makasar, South Sulawesi

Makasar (or Makassar) is a trade emporium that rose rapidly to prominence n Indonesia in the C16th and became one of the most important nodes in the vast East Asian international trading network. Renamed Ujung Padang in 1971, Makasar is based on the south of Sulawesi island in the eastern part of the archipelago. Its origins are not entirely clear - indeed, like so much of the region of island Southeast Asia, the early history of Makasar is rooted in a combination of possible reality and legend.

The most likely explanation of the rise of Makasar is that southern Sulawesi consisted of a handful of small individual kingdoms of no great significance. Trading links with Java and further afield had been established for some centuries prior to the rise of the Majapahit state. Traditionally, there were nine such states but it is not clear exactly where each of these were, if anywhere at all. Off the coast of Sulawesi, a couple of chains of tiny islands offered shelter, fresh water and fish and sea food in extraordinary abundance. These conditions were ideal for the Bajau, the name given by Indonesians to the boat-based sea nomads who lived in so many parts of the region for centuries and who have persistently (but not always successfully) resisted attempts to integrate them into the main central state. Together, in an as yet not fully understood process, the Bajau and the native Sulawesians combined to produce Makasar as a complex and sophisticated political state with the ability to host communities of foreign merchants and to produce perhaps the greatest fort that any Indonesians have ever built.

It is interesting that pre-Islamic Makasar and indeed Sulawesi was constituted of what seems to be quite a separate culture than that of other parts of Indonesia, signifying a different ethnic composition. Presumably, this resulted from a unique migration pattern at some distant stage in the past.

Makasar gained a reputation for being kind to strangers, which perhaps resulted from its enactment of laws which regulated the treatment of foreign merchants in the days before the Europeans arrived. Most of these merchants were Malays from various parts of the archipelago and they were guaranteed freedom from official interference in their home and personal lives and justice for them in their professional dealings. Thousands of Malays went to Makasar to settle there and help to establish it as a leading port for trade. Makasarese checked cloth soon became the most popular Indonesian textile and demand for it was strong in many international markets. Makasar leaders used the power of the presence of foreign merchants and the popularity of locally produced products, including tortoise-shell as well as cloth, to obtain a leading position in the lucrative and vitally important spice trade. This was successfully achieved and particularly so after the Portuguese seizure of Melaka in 1511.

However, the success achieved then made Makasar an inevitable target for the Europeans and, despite the immense strength of the fortress constructed to create themselves, the Makasarese were ultimately doomed to the misery of colonisation.

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