Urban Kampongs in Ambon: whose domain? Whose desa?

Urban Kampongs in Ambon: whose domain? Whose desa? – Indonesia

David Mearns


In the course of fieldwork, many anthropologists encounter revelatory events which serve to crystallise a series of partial understandings into a lens through which the lives of those they are studying come into sharper focus. One such event is described below. A destructive fire and its aftermath which form the first section of this paper provided the context in which many issues of concern to the local population were thrown into stark relief. Grappling with the meaning of the event induced dialogues between many people, not least between the visiting anthropologist and local people. This paper is about the processes which have to be taken into account in order to begin to comprehend the emergent meanings in the lives of local people and the consequences for them of such major disruptions to their understanding of their place in the world.

The fire

On September 17 1994, a major fire broke out in the urban kelurahan (administrative area) of Silale in the city of Ambon. According to official reports some 56 dwellings containing 124 families and 579 individuals were destroyed. Fortunately, there were no reported deaths or serious injuries. However, many families lost almost all they owned. The area completely burnt out was only about 75 x 55 metres but the density of this tightly packed quarter of mainly wooden, atap (palm thatch) roofed houses and the effect on some neighbouring structures, which partially survived, resulted in the lives of so many people being so severely affected in just a few short hours.

I had surveyed the area just a few months before in the course of fieldwork in the city and can confirm that the population affected mostly comprised migrants (pendatang) of Bugis and ‘Butonese'(1) origin, many of whom worked in the nearby market and harbour areas as labourers, or as pedicab drivers. There were, however, a few families affected who were described by migrants and by themselves as being asli (or native) to the area – an interesting designation in itself given the history of settlement in the quarter, as we shall see in what follows. The latter were mainly Christian and the former, the recognised migrants, exclusively Muslim. In June/July 1995, there was a small amount of rebuilding going on at the site but the government, with the aid of the police, stopped others from rebuilding temporary dwellings on the burnt-out area. Many of those trying to rebuild were said to have been people who were in the first place illegal squatters. The majority of the former population of the area had been displaced around the city, though some individuals had found temporary refuge with relatives and friends in the same area. A year later, the displacement had been made more clearly and relatively few of the former residents of the destroyed area were still to be found in the kelurahan.

The argument

This paper is about transformational moments in the continuous process of negotiating the meanings of space and its constitution as ‘place’. It comes about because this fire and its consequences served to highlight for me as analyst and for the residents themselves some of the major issues surrounding the transformation in contemporary conceptualisations of social space in Ambon city, in the province more broadly and probably more widely in the region of Eastern Indonesia. These issues relate then not only to the urban centres such as Ambon itself but to the urban periphery and even to more remote areas of the province of Maluku such as settlements on the neighbouring ‘mother’ island (nusa ina) of Seram, though the precise form they take obviously varies with the context. The problem is that while some trends in the patterns of transformation may certainly be detected, and some putative underlying ‘structures’ certainly may be constructed, the local variations in understanding and response pose, I suggest, interesting questions for the manner in which we can and should characterise the current situation of Indonesia’s eastern populations in regard to the social and cultural relationships they have with the space they inhabit in the contemporary world.

I wish to argue in this paper that to appreciate adequately the processes involved in producing the very current and unfortunate circumstances of many of the people of the urban area of Silale, and to understand why those processes do not form one simple or monolithic set, it is necessary to understand the historical genesis of that population and its relationship to the earlier forms of governance of the region and the city. Transformations are necessarily located in longer term processes and these to some extent constrain the array of sources and outcomes of the negotiated meanings which may be achieved. As an event, the fire exposed the history and the contemporary social processes at work in seeking to define urban space in the 1990s. It also provided an opportunity to see the operation of power in these processes. I shall return to the specifics of the contemporary Silale situation and the cultural dimension of my analysis a little later in the paper, but for now I wish to set Silale in its context.

The historical and cultural context

Now a city, the town of Ambon was entirely the creation of the process of colonialism which began with the Portuguese. Having fought running battles with the indigenous rulers of Ternate and Tidore and their allies for control of the seas, the spice trade and a port site (Andaya 1993; Knaap 1991), the Europeans

finally settled on the present location where they proceeded to establish a fort with harbour facilities in 1575. There followed a long history of hostility to the colonial presence from the local population, especially during the early Dutch period (Knaap 1992a). Prominent in this resistance was the Raja of Soya – in whose domain area (negeri) most of the town was to be located.(2) There was also continued resistance from the other peninsula of the island, Leihitu, where there had been earlier confrontations and where Muslim pata lima(3) coastal villages were dominant. Soya was one of the major pata siwa communities (Cooley 1962; Valeri 1989) of the island of Ambon and had their own language, belief systems and myths of origin (Pariela 1995) which include stories of the arrival of Javanese nobility in the period of turmoil in the central Javanese kingdoms at the end of the fourteenth century. Thus, the original inhabitants of the domain in which the major part of the town was to be located shared with other Eastern Indonesian communities a mythical history of powerful interlopers or migrants having significant impact upon the location, even before the coming of the colonists (see, for example, Lewis 1989:181; Fox and Sather 1996).

Thus, though a relatively remote locality from the perspective of pre-Portuguese centres such as Ternate and Tidore, Soya was then in no sense a completely isolated or pristine indigenous village even before the Portuguese invaded its territory, any more than many of the other domains of the island. Moreover, it was a community with a sense of its own noble origins and a distinctive cultural identity. Like other Eastern Indonesian cultural groups, Soya’s ritual focus was and still is the sacred mountain at the symbolic centre of its territory, Gunung Sirimau (see, for example, Barnes 1974; Geertz 1980; Traube 1986). The sacred mountain is typically either a centre for the autochthonous arising of humans, often from the union or violent separation of heaven and earth, or at the very least, the centre to which ancestors journeyed and from which inherent power emanates. Sometimes, as Barnes (1974 Ch.1) records, it is both. At other times, as in Tanimbar (McKinnon 1991), the central mountain is the place of origin from which populations were forced to migrate on long journeys which may not yet have ended. It is not unreasonable to represent the history of Soya since the coming of the Portuguese and later ‘invaders’ as one of repeated physical and social contraction back to this centre of cultural identity often after attempts to part its inhabitants forcibly from it or following other crises affecting the population. So, the focus of this specific cultural identity has remained the ancestral village of Soya Atas on the slopes of Mount Sirimau, while the town centre has grown in importance below. Moreover, I shall argue that while that focus has been tightened or sharpened in some respects by the historical events of the last four hundred and fifty years, especially for the descendants of the domain’s original settlers, the significance of this sacred centre to the broader population living within the traditional domain has also shifted, and, indeed, continues to do so. Moreover, there has been a tension evident, especially in the last fifty years, between this element of cultural contraction towards a heartland and the expanding universes of experience, both real or direct and virtual or vicarious, for the inhabitants of the domain and its neighbouring areas. So, while Soya’s cultural and ritual identities are in many ways distinct from those of the much larger city which has come to dominate its domain, its inhabitants are increasingly able to enter the universes of discourse, meaning and experience which Ambon and its location within the Indonesian nation are able to provide.

Intra- and inter-island disputes and warfare over territory and other matters had also seen conflict figure in the history of the village long before the Portuguese arrived. The siting of the main village in a highly defensible position in the hills some six kilometres inland from the coast, close to its ritual heart, along with the local oral history and mythologies of headhunters to the north all attest to this. Equally, however, accommodation to newcomers is mythologically sanctioned, as in the tales of the coming of the Javanese and through the traditional ritual alliance relationship (pela) with, among others, the neighbouring domain of Urimesing (Bartels 1977). Ultimately a degree of accommodation even with the Portuguese resulted in some residents of the area intermarrying. Indeed, individuals in the Soya population still maintain Portuguese family names. This seems to have come about when a residual Catholic ‘Portuguese’ population quitted the town area and went, by invitation it is said, to reside in the Soya village area, shortly after the arrival of the Dutch conquerors in 1605.(4) Once more we see how strangers are able to be incorporated into the local community in a manner which becomes mythologically sanctioned over time, a phenomenon frequently recorded in the ethnography of Eastern Indonesia (especially Lewis 1996). Nevertheless, Knaap (1991) also records how shiploads of Portuguese and mestizos left the island altogether to head for Melaka and later the Philippines during the first decade of Dutch rule. However, the potential for the Soya population to be a continuing focus for resistance to colonial rule was recognised by the new colonists who tried to insist that the Raja of Soya take up residence in the town area. This was a strategy adopted in many other parts of the Dutch East Indies.(5) In fact the move down from the hills of part of the population to Soya Bawah and Belakang Soya was and is a matter of dispute and the present Raja of Soya Aras claims that the original settlement near the town was headed by a deputy of the actual Raja. The present incumbents of the Rajadom are the Rehatta family, while the head of the lower kampong was a Da Silva. Disputed histories concerning the legitimacy of leadership of the ‘real’ Soya people continue to surface from time to time. A widespread concern with origins, ancestry, and precedence throughout this part of the world have been the focus of a recent volume in the Australian National University’s ‘Comparative Austronesian Project’ series (Fox and Sather 1996). In many contexts, the incorporation of incomer populations can be seen in the ritual and social orders at the local level. However, here in Ambon, time has seen the severing of social relations and the two areas containing the Soya name are distinct communities spatially and socially with successful claims to precedence being made for the mountain village. Meanwhile, the lower settlement has merged into the crowded city suburbs, and to the outside observer its boundaries and its identity appear indistinct. This is certainly not yet the case for Soya Atas (Pariela 1995). Thus, it provides an interesting contrast not only to its lowland offshoot, but also to Silale, the initial focus of this study.

Although Islam was already present and spreading in the Moluccas when the Europeans arrived, Christianity first took hold of the population in the early period following the arrival of another mythologised figure in the region, Francis Xavier. This ‘Christianisation’, though somewhat transformed, was consolidated when the Dutch took over. As Pariela notes (1995) the church (now Protestant) remains an important force in contemporary Soya Atas, the desa asli or village of origin. However, throughout the colonial history and into post-colonial times, Soya has maintained a reputation as a desa adat or village with an ongoing local cultural tradition which is still manifest in certain rituals and knowledge. The continuity of practice is also apparent in the organisation of governance of the social relations of space in the village. Even today, the Raja heads a saniri or council of elders, (heads of the various

soa or patrilineal clusters), who together decide the distribution of land held in common (dusun dati) and decide on the granting of land to migrants who wish to make gardens or establish house sites within what is now an administrative area under the designation desa according to contemporary Indonesian law.

In official terms, then, the law now separates the desa of Soya Atas from the municipal area as a distinct administrative region. This is despite the fact that the village stands just some six kilometres from the centre of the city as the crow flies or fifteen minutes by minibus up a winding road. However, Pariela (1995) notes that the official structure of governance under this law has not been strictly implemented, but rather the traditional leaders have assumed the functions sanctioned by official bureaucratic regulation. It remains a place governed by customary leaders who are sanctioned by the population primarily through the one annual ritual performance which is outside the Christian calendar and by the still relevant rules of access to land to which I have already alluded (Pariela 1995).

Ritual relations and the nation state

National laws and regulations emanating from Jakarta do attempt to make some concessions to local cultural traditions, of course, but they are essentially constructed to create bases on which national programs of ‘development’ (pembangunan) can be implemented. As such, there is relatively little apparent room to acknowledge prior relations between people, or between people and the land they inhabit. On the other hand, local populations and, as we shall see, even incomers, often do acknowledge such prior relationships, especially those relating to what Fox (1996) calls ‘origin groups’, and see them as critical in certain circumstances. Around the region, many of these local relationships are recognised as entailing specific ritual responsibilities. One of the continuing ritual roles for the village of Soya, in certain situations, remains that of the Raja performing adat ceremonies to ensure the success of new undertakings within the city area, especially those involving new uses of what was originally his domain land or, to give another example, the naming of ships. The current incumbent also reports that the military commanders of the present era will call on the Raja to perform an adat ceremony to send them safely on their way when they have to go out from the city to other parts of the province or beyond, especially on the dangerous tours of duty in East Timor. There is still said to be some fear that without this ritual insurance, which is explicitly drawn from the ancestral spirits, problems may arise which will prove troublesome if not disastrous to any new project or departing group. They would not be enabled to return safely. Despite the ritual precedence accorded to the origin group, there are significant contradictions made manifest in this involvement of the traditional rulers with the very state apparatuses which have usurped their assumed original authority. These can be better appreciated if we remember that from Portuguese times through the Dutch period and post-war reconstruction and into contemporary times, the formally recognised municipal area of the city has continually expanded in every direction from the original fort site. Since 1979, the municipality (kotamadya) has officially occupied a staggering 377 square kilometres and incorporates, as well as most of the southern peninsula of the island, a large part of the southern section of Leihitu, the northern peninsula. The municipal area now covers the domains of several traditional Rajas, as a consequence. In the course of the expansion since colonial times the power and influence of the traditional political leaders may appear to have been in constant if not rapid decline, while the Raja of Soya and his village became merely peripheral to the town and, latterly, to the forces of the modern Indonesian state. As we will see, the story is a little more complicated and perceptions of different actors are significantly at variance with such monolithic or unidirectional assumptions.

Populations and place

From the earliest Portuguese days, populations of local people, mostly other than Soya residents, are reported to have established themselves on the periphery of the colonially dominated areas in more or less permanent urban settlements. They came both voluntarily and by government edict (Knaap 1991; 1992b). A continuing process of regulation and incorporation of these areas and their populations has certainly been evident from the beginnings of the town. As we will see, in an area so close to the city centre and the harbour, such as Silale, this process can be given new force by the misfortune of a major fire and its destructive results, as well as bringing to the fore significant alternative understandings. The strong pattern of regulation, particularly evident in the Dutch tendency to create or attempt to create orderly and documented settlements, has continually been frustrated and continually reasserted. The story was little different in that respect in 1995 and 1996 under independent Indonesian rule.

The history of the kelurahan of Silale is typical in some respects of many such in the urban area with its origins lying largely in rather haphazard patterns of migratory settlement (Mearns 1996). On the other hand, Knaap (1996, pets. com.) suggests that there was enforced resettlement to the area of residents from the original Silale village prior to 1800, and Rumphius (1993:34) mentions the resiting of the urban kampong of Hatiwe(6) to approximately its present site, soon after the Dutch took over. At about the beginning of the nineteenth century, the residents were allowed to return to their home villages, but also at about that time it became possible for Ambonese to be accorded the status of citizen (burger). By 1856 burgers were able to educate their children in the town’s first successful Dutch language school (Chauvel 1990a). It is probable that these changes encouraged more spontaneous migration to Ambon from early in the nineteenth century.

However, the history of migration to and settlement in this specific area is arguably different in at least two particularities when compared to that found elsewhere. These hinge on the fact that, because of its proximity to the port and its estuarine location, the area’s physical characteristics have seen two major changes of great significance in the course of this century. The first began with a slight change in the course of the river in the 1920s following major floods. This created new river flats and extended old coastal mudflats. This physical change culminated with the government’s final reclamation of the mudflat foreshore in the 1970s (map). The second significant physical alteration, before the recent fire, was the almost total destruction of the buildings of the quarter in the Second World War as a result mostly of allied bombing prior to Japanese surrender. Thus, the two events led to the need for almost complete reconstruction of the area in the period after 1945. Both were transformational moments in my terms in that they provided the context for major reconfigurations not only of the physical space but also of the social relations encompassed within that space. In reconstituting the built environment of the area following the major physical changes, there were also, undoubtedly, significant moments of reflection about the meaning of that space and the constitution of place, but most of my older informants see the period after the second world war as the most significant in defining the new spatial and social relations which constitute the current Silale.

I wish to concentrate on two of the original settlement areas, Silale itself and Hatiwe, both now designated separate rukun warga within the kelurahan. Only two intact houses were reported to have been left standing in the immediate area of my research following the bombing at the end of the Second World War and another had been dismantled in the absence of its owners by the Japanese, who wanted the timber from which it was constructed (Chauvel 1987 and 1990b on this period). After the war, many of the former population of the area returned from their places of escape and refuge. These were mainly Christians, some from the villages in the areas of Ambon Island which gave their names to the urban settlements, but many from the neighbouring Uliasser islands. Some had fled back into the hills of the Soya and Urimesing domains and others had crossed the bay and lived within striking distance of the city but relied on friends and relatives with land to support them. Some families never returned, having died out in the desperate times or having left for distant shores. Those who returned usually rebuilt on the sites of their previous homes, initially in many cases from simple locally available materials. However, the new course of the river and the expanding mud flats had created extra areas of land which had not been occupied previously. One further important consequence of the war, here as elsewhere in the region, was that such documentation as had existed, giving proof of ownership or use rights to land under Dutch law, had very frequently been lost.

Strategic places and empty spaces

The almost total destruction of Silale in the world war might at first have seemed to mark the culmination of the increasingly military, territorial and strategic conceptualisation of Ambon which had begun with the Portuguese. An awareness of such perception of Ambon’s situation, even in its recent history, is certainly strong amongst its population. It is sometimes contrasted with the province’s contemporary ‘sleepy backwater’ status. My informants in Silale reported that they had hoped that with the defeat of the Japanese they could rebuild their homes and their lives without further disruption.

However, even when the Japanese were defeated the twin issues of Ambon as strategic territory and of who had rights to its occupation had not been resolved. Violent conflict had not yet ended either. There were about four years of relatively stable governance, first by occupying Australians and then by the returned Dutch, despite the violence of the independence revolution taking place elsewhere in the Indonesian islands. In 1950, though, shortly after the official end of Dutch colonial rule, Ambon itself became the site of a rebellion against the newly self-proclaimed Republic of Indonesia (Chauvel 1990b). The Ambonese had been famous for their support for the Dutch. This was particularly evident in their propensity for joining the Dutch military and civil services, especially after the middle of the nineteenth century (Chauvel 1990a). The concerns of some of the soldiers from the Dutch army (KNIL) and of others who had been closely associated both with the former East Indonesia (Negara Indonesia Timor) and with the Dutch led to the declaration of the Republic of the South Moluccas (Republik Maluku Selatan) in April 1950 (Chauvel 1990a). For the rest of that year there was further intense conflict and uncertainty in the city area (Chauvel 1990a, 1990b; Kaam 1980). Once more the families in Silale and Hatiwe were caught in the engagements. Some were related to active members of the Republik Maluku Selatam (RMS) movement and all were affected by the shortages of food and other supplies which resulted from the hostilities. Eventually, the Indonesians conquered the islands and many Ambonese fled, some initially to Seram and Irian Jaya and others directly to Holland where they remain as a displaced colonial vestige (Kaam 1980; Steijlen 1991). During the period of the RMS, much reliance was placed on the rural hinterland of the town and on the local fishermen as it had been during the war. The role of the Rajas of the traditional domains of the islands, who had formed a dominant part of the consultative council (the Ambonraad) under the Dutch, was symbolically prominent in the rebellion against Jakarta though they were not uniform in either their actions or their attitudes. Chauvel (1990a) records that only one Muslim Raja was actively associated with the abortive move to independence. So, at two times of major social and political upheaval, the importance of the hinterland of the domains for physical survival and the continuing symbolic importance of the traditional heads of the domains had been highlighted.

Moreover, what is clear is that the 400 plus year history of Ambon as a contested site for the territorial ambitions of external powers is locally perceived by some residents as a continuing saga which involves merely a change of players rather than a fundamental shift of structural relations at any particular point. From this viewpoint, the Java-focussed Indonesian state is seen by some locals as being little different from the earlier occupations by non-Malukans. This is of course not to say that the experience of the different occupations is thought of as essentially the same. Among my research population, significant local differences in how people (families for the most part) were situated and how they were treated in each earlier period mean that their individual assessments are highly variable. In present times, many have also accepted the status of citizens of an independent state of Indonesia as a fact of life. Many of the younger residents have obviously known nothing else.

With the ultimate success of the Indonesians, the reincorporation of Ambon into a more dominant state system was achieved, at least in name, and a period of military rule was put in place once more. This lasted for over a decade. Afterwards, a nominally civilian administration along uniform provincial lines was established. However, it has taken longer for the incorporation to take full effect, if indeed it can be said to have done so even now. One important dimension of the processes involved has been the deliberate opening of the province to migrants from other parts of the nation. As is well documented, viewed from Java, the whole of the eastern part of Indonesia is perceived as a relatively empty and underpopulated region, ripe for resettlement programs both official and unofficial.

In addition to a continuing heavy military presence, normally dominated by soldiers from other islands of the nation, the population of the urban Ambon area has indeed been supplemented by a great number of migrants from many regions, but particularly from South and Southeast Sulawesi. This appears to have been a matter of deliberate policy. In the city and in the province as a whole, it has led to a recent numerical dominance of people of the Islamic faith. Not that the Sulawesi migration per se was a new process. Indeed, Butonese farmers had been on Soya land for generations and had opened many gardens in the domain’s virgin forest. Most of the early migrants to Soya are in fact said to be from the region of Binongko, another island off the Southeast peninsula of Sulawesi. Historians also record the extent to which Butonese sailors and traders, along with Bugis, were important in the early trading networks which extended to Ambon. What differs is the extent to which the new migrations are longer term, greater in number, more diverse in population, and the fact that they are sanctioned by the state and facilitated by the concept of national citizenship.

Silale and Hatiwe

The origins of more recent migrants living in the present administrative units of Silale and Hatiwe are far more diverse than its earlier counterparts, though it is possible to identify a couple of particularly significant characteristics. The vast majority of the residents in the Hatiwe quarter of the kelurahan are families that originate in islands of the Maluku province, especially Ambon itself and the nearby islands of Saparua, Nusa Laut and Haruku. They are families often with many generations of residence and they are overwhelmingly Christian. Silale itself is still very mixed, though, until the fire, the vast majority of contemporary households was comprised of Muslim pendatang who had mostly arrived in a period from the mid-1950s onwards. These newcomers had filled up almost all the available space alongside the river and on the foreshore, both on !and rented to them by the few long-term Christian residents in the area or on the unclaimed land on the river bank and on the new mudflats (map). This somewhat haphazard process of settlement had resulted in the tightly packed, irregularly located, typical squatter/shanty area alongside and around the more orderly and more widely spaced Christian houses of families whose members had in many cases been employed in government service.

Early maps such as that of Valenteyn (1724) represent the area, located between the mouths of two rivers, in a ideal diagrammatic way which suggests the ordered suburbia of a European city. It is unlikely that the area was ever anything like this ideal diagram,7 but it is clear that the post Second World War rebuilding, which was initially dominated by the older Christian residents, did take place in a relatively orderly way along the preexisting local roads and lanes. It was, however, doubtful that many had obtained legal title to the land which they saw as theirs. Certainly very few presently possess documentation of their rights either of freehold or leasehold over the land. There are notable exceptions to this characterisation, but it is, in fact, only recently that rights over !and and the possession of documented title have become major issues. Several recent cases have come before the courts over the ownership of land in the area. Some have arisen following disputes over the rights of longer-term Christian residents to charge rent to later comers for the use of land (and in one case the house). It is my understanding that two of the cases have been resolved but in contradictory ways. The first was upheld by the courts in favour of the Christian owner but she had literally just received the legal documentation of that fact when the fire burned down the disputed house and a good part of her own house! The second was over land which was right on the edge of the old tidal area before the government reclaimed the land. The local history of this particular site was disputed but it seems to have been the area on which a failed sawmill had been situated, the waste from which had assisted in the landfill on which the more or less stable though flood-prone house sites had been established. This was also the area where some of the houses of the squatters had been rehabilitated under an urban renewal scheme of the government, following its extensive reclamation works in the 1970s. It was reported in several of these houses that there was a legal process under way to determine and regularise title ownership, following the rehabilitations. One of the disputants was the second Christian ‘owner’ mentioned above who has since lost at least one case. She was not alone, however, as at least one other prominent Christian is in dispute in this process.

The point here, of course, is that it is the combination of several factors which has come to make the issue of land title in the area so contentious. For many of the long-term residents, there is a direct and increasingly important financial issue to be noted. For some years, local residents and others, especially Chinese business families, have been building more substantial houses in the area in a process which is somewhat akin to the ‘gentrification’ of inner city suburbs in North American, European and Australian cities (Zukin, 1987).(8) As indicated earlier, Silale is now an inner city area which makes it very attractive both to business people and to the labourers they employ, or who are employed as casual labour, in the harbour and market or elsewhere in the developing central business district. Formerly this area, especially in the Silale proper section, had a reputation for tough, violent and drunken behaviour. However, the increased vigilance of local officials and the police has done a lot to clear up this negative image. With Ambon’s classic problem of urban sprawl and its population of over 280,000, the scarcity of residential land has seen land prices rise rapidly and traffic problems mount. Among the older Christian residents, as elsewhere, there is a problem of unemployment (Mearns 1996) which means that ownership of land which might be sold, or leased, represents a major potential financial resource above and beyond its former significance.

For more recent arrivals, legal and illegal, these pressures and the difficulty of finding affordable alternative sites have resulted in a growing consciousness of the need to legitimate their presence, even if they cannot afford to emulate their richer neighbours who are building fine double storey modern villas wherever they can. For no-one is this more obvious than for those who have nowhere else to go. Hence the almost desperate attempts to re-establish residence by building illegal shacks on the area which has been burned out. Meanwhile, the Lurah (head of the urban district) and the government planning officials see this as a golden opportunity to continue the process of ‘rehabilitation’ which was begun before and largely destroyed by the fire. The Lurah wishes to see the area rebuilt but in the more ordered, regularly spaced and hygienic patterns which he was beginning to establish with the twenty or so successful cases of rehabilitation. He intends to make this a condition of issuing ‘surat izin’ or letters of permission for rebuilding. However, his authority is not absolute and the issue of previous title over the land has come once more to the fore, delaying the process. The granting of the surat izin is a necessary but not sufficient condition of rebuilding, depending on whether another claim to title exists or whether the land can be declared to have been the property of the state.

The local head of planning for the much expanded urban area once told me that his vision for Ambon was something akin to that perpetual model for organised planning in the region – Singapore. Certainly his success in seeing the municipal area expand to account for much of the island’s land mass would seem to suggest that his vision of a totally urbanised island might not be quite as fanciful as it at first could appear.

A less visible issue which has come out of contemporary debates over the utilisation of the space in which these kampong, as the older residents still refer to the settlements, are located is the perception of the changing nature of their social characteristics. Informants from both areas report that it was only after the 1950s that the area changed from one in which everyone, both Christians and the few Muslim households (some of Malukan and some of Sulawesi origin), knew each other and the family histories well. It had been a place too where, within religious groups, intermarriage was not uncommon. It became one where there was little knowledge and almost no interaction between the Christians and the Muslims and where many of the newcomers (especially the Butonese) were perceived as troublesome and potentially violent. This is particularly the case for the Silale area but it obviously impinged directly on the lives of their neighbours and relatives in the Hatiwe area. This resulted in the Christians being increasingly inclined to support the active intervention of the local authorities to apply social control over the perceived ‘troublemakers’. This increased the social distance between the two populations. In terms of the way people speak of the area, the feeling that the earlier village-like character is becoming lost and, regretfully from their point or view, the influence of the older families is waning.

Responses to the changes

One response of the residents to their general sense of the changes and the difficulties of some among the ageing population was to build a small local church within the Hatiwe section of the kelurahan but facing east across to the Silale area where most of the longer-term Christian families in Silale reside. Local residents always reported the construction of this church in 1986/87 as a response to the difficulties which older people were having in getting to the main church in the centre of the city and to the attempt to encourage the youth to attend more regularly than they tended to do. No-one directly suggested that the building of the church was a statement of the Christian identity of the area, let alone an assertion of proprietary or original possession. However, inevitably and especially in the absence of a local mosque or Muslim prayer hall (the city’s main mosques, old and new, are just five minutes walk away), the building of the church makes a symbolic statement which is not lost on the Muslim people still designated as pendatang or migrants. Many of them had to walk past the building on a daily basis, some of them on their way to pray in Ambon’s main mosque.

Another way of viewing the successful construction and use of the new church is to see it as a mark of significant identification of this place as Christian community space. However, this is not to deny the continuing significance of ultimate place of origin even for the families who have been resident in the area for several generations. Ambon city generally and Silale in particular are conspicuous for the degree to which people retain a strong sense of their place of origin and often continuing links with the population of that place. This was often despite the fact that neither they nor their parents may ever have lived there. Several of the more prominent Christian families of the Hatiwe area have visited the ancestral village on outlying islands and some retain influence over the affairs of that village or are used as brokers by villagers needing access to the resources of the city. It is a common feature of introductions that someone’s ancestral place will be given when their identity is being stated.

Thus, there is a definite distinction in the people’s way of speaking of themselves and others between the category of Malukans who are asli or original, albeit not from Ambon island itself, and those who are later migrants from islands outside of the province. Moreover, the latter, mainly Muslim, residents mostly have a number of protective talismans and amulets on the lintels above the doors of their houses. Locals say that this in fear of the strong reputation for magic (pake pake) that Ambon and its people possess. Domestic space must be protected against the dangers that inhere in this foreign place. A grander version of this view is to be found in the rites performed by the Raja of Soya, for example, when he ceremonially sanctions the activities and the comings and goings in his domain. For the population as a whole, almost without reference to origin, the space of metropolitan Ambon remains a place of supernatural forces which deserve respect and must be heeded, lest they seek vengeance. Most people can easily recount tales that speak of the effects of perceived neglect of the spirits. These might be personal histories or the difficulties that the government has encountered in developing new roads, for example.

Yet, the Malukans who are not from the original Soya or Urimessing families cannot claim that their status is that of ritual landowners. The Rajas of Soya lost control of the shoreline of their domain in the very early stages of colonial rule. The rulers of the neighbouring domains followed suit very soon after. However, it is they alone who can legitimately claim the ancestral inheritance of the rites and stories relating to the space which now makes up most of the city of Ambon. As indicated, this is still recognised in contemporary socio-cultural practice, especially in regard to matters where spiritual forces and magic are deemed to be potential problems to progress. In an important sense it means that even long term residents remain ‘strangers’ in the land if they are not descended from the original domain villages. Yet, as Christian Malukans, most of the residents of Hatiwe had achieved an incorporated status within the city with shared ritual obligations in their Christianity which significantly differentiated them from the later Muslim migrants and more closely allied them with the Christian Rajas of the immediate hinterland. Combined with their generally better levels of education, family histories of government employment, and shared narratives of suffering through many conflicts, this already gave them a credible claim to precedence over the post-war incomers. Ironically, the Lurah, himself of a Sulawesi migrant origin, brought the forces of the state to bear upon the postfire situation in such a way that the precedence of the largely Christian Malukan population was reinforced, at least within this small enclave of the city. Very few of the Muslim migrants were able to establish their right to remain in the area.

The contested meanings of Ambon as a place and as a home are ever present then in its social history. Like other eastern Indonesian domains, the Ambonese domains of Soya and Urimesing, especially, have seen the constant influx of foreigners who have both transformed their lives and, ultimately, reproduced their ritual precedence with regard to domain space. Political authority shifts through time and religious forms change but the ‘origin group’ remains a relevant force even in the new configuration. The military and civil powers, perhaps unwittingly, reinforce an old pattern even as they attempt to transform the value systems of the local population. Even the forces of market capitalism have acted in this case to emphasise the subordinate position of the latest arrivals when it comes to the control over and disposal of the increasingly valuable urban land space.

What this brief examination of some of the notions of place and practices in space in Ambon indicate, I suggest, is that we are not witnessing a simple transformation from ‘ritualised space’ or ‘sacred space’ to ‘commodified space’. Neither is it a one-way movement from ancient Soya or Urimesing to modern Ambon with a simple discarding of the old in the processes of transformation. Rather, we are witnessing a complex interweaving of local histories and new situations, of internal and external ideologies, of ritual innovations and ritual continuities and of the power of the state and the power of the ancestors.

In practice, there are at least four important ‘clusters of ideas’ (none of which I would wish to call ideologies, because the concept is too bounded and too redolent of closure) surrounding the conceptualisation of space and society. I will develop these with case studies in another monograph length study but, in summary, they are:

1. Personal historical relationships to the place which significantly define the individual and his or her family’s conceptualisation of the meaning of the space. Examples of these are the narratives of original settlement, personal experiences during the Second World War and during the RMS, and the experience of ever-increasing imposition of state structures at the local level. They also include the personal effects of such events as the fire described in the opening paragraph. The accumulation of personal histories associated with a particular residential location is, of course, not a matter of isolated individuals but rather of individuals located in a local network of social relationships more or less dense. The experience of migrants or of being a migrant and the negotiation of relative ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ identity are all parts of individual understandings of residents of the area. This is a continuing and situational process which may be thrown into high relief by an incident like the fire which will show many exactly what their place was or was not within this social context. Individuals and families can find that despite many years of local residence, they remain ‘outsiders’ and lack the power or connections to permit re-establishment of their local place.

2. Collective (communal) historical relationships to the space which place individuals within a shared (but sometimes contested) discourse of meaning about the place. Here again, the common experiences of the war and the RMS for the Christians and the fire for everyone should figure. However, the building of the church and the collective experience of changing population bases would also be important, as would the collective judgement on the local branch of the government administration. The resort to narratives of shared and long experiences with relatives and neighbours permits of claims to legitimacy and precedence which are difficult to contest.

3. Mythical (sacralised) relationships to the place and to places of origin that situate those spaces in a cosmological scheme which retains experiential relevance. This means that in addition to being part of larger, global identities such as Christian or Muslim, which provide differing outward focuses, people are also conscious of the place as a location of spiritual and magical forces of an indigenous sort. These latter forces are thought to be able to mobilise to resist or harm those whose incursions offend. Even after colonial conquest or modern nation state usurpation, the spiritual forces associated with region and locale are potent forces in organising people’s perceptions and social actions with regard to the meanings of place and local space.

4. State ideological (legal) definitions of space both as sovereign land and as commodity. This is evident in both the government regulation of the urban area and in the increased consciousness of both residents and officials of the monetary value of land which was once not thought of as commercially attractive. Most clearly, this is demonstrated in the recent court battles over ownership and in the exclusion of those whose rights could not be demonstrated within this frame of discourse or arena of power relations. Space is not a matter of abstract ideas at this level, but rather the issue of access of people to the major condition of their existence, a place to stay.

In each of the above categories or clusters of ideas, an experiential reality is evident then in the lives of the people of the area, from their point of view. This is true for nobody more than for those who were to lose a place in the inner city area, following the fire. The issue of finding one’s place in the world has a very direct and material set of meanings in this situation. However, in the contemporary context, we must also deal with the ‘transcendence’ of directly experienced space which is brought about by the capacity of modern communications to transport people to the other side of the world or to the national capital instantaneously, albeit virtually. The increasing prevalence of satellite dishes and the capacity to receive a range of foreign networks mean, that the world literally appears in the living rooms of people in the remotest corners of the province as well as in Ambon city. With this form of communication, even the all pervasive Indonesian state, which controls the local television and radio stations very tightly, cannot filter completely the understandings of the larger world and Indonesia’s place within it which are currently available to Ambonese and other Indonesian citizens. The fact that many of the messages received from neighbouring states and from the American and Australian media stand in some contradiction on occasions to those received from the Indonesian state only serves to add to the complexity of the contemporary cultural repertoire of explanatory schema available to the population. There is not space here to allow an adequate analysis of the implications of all this for the transformations in the perceptions of space and place in the world, but clearly we could not ignore the delimiting of horizons which such technology permits.

With all this, it becomes obvious that we must resist the enticing tendency to see unilinear progression from ‘tradition’ to a singular ‘modernity’, just as we must avoid the simple models of the unequivocal and unidirectional domination or penetration of the state in explicating the use and meanings of space and the understandings of place in Ambon. However, we must also not over emphasise the idea of resistance either, if by this we mean the thwarting of the aims of the state and of international capitalism. The resistance is undoubtedly there to some degree, in the conscious defence of the status quo by those who feel that their privileged position is under threat; wealthier Christians did seek to retain control over land. It is also to be found in the relative impenetrability of the everyday practices of those with apparently less to preserve. I have in mind here the magical and religious practices and understandings such as the use of place-defending talismans. The paradox is that this can be the case while simultaneously these same people are subscribing to the nationalist ideology of incorporation and ‘development’. The point is that in order to begin to account for, let alone understand, the experiences of such events as the disastrous fire in the lives of Ambonese people and of their reaction to it, we need to understand not only the current social and political relations of the town but also the historical factors which provide the available cultural repertoire for dealing with the event. It is the selections from this repertoire which provide the basis for personal and collective accounts and which, therefore, give them their experiential shape. It should not be forgotten that the outcome for many was that they ultimately lacked the resources in their political, social or cultural repertoires to resist displacement and a new, enforced form of migration followed. For those poor and uninfluential former residents, a sense of identification, belonging and ownership in Ambon remains a remote dream. For others, the fire saw the removal of at least one group of interlopers. The struggle to control the meaning of Silale and its place in contemporary Ambon will, no doubt, continue to be negotiated. Replacements will take the place of the displaced and the battle for the ownership of increasingly valuable space will equally involve transformations in sense of place for the residents, old and new alike.


Since this paper was written and revised, the tensions and suspicions, which I alluded to and which have historically plagued Ambon, have reached a tragic climax. Reports on the internet and in the electronic and print media have graphically recorded the extent to which mistrust and resentment have turned to frenzied hatred and bloody violence.

Silale, caught as it was between the main mosques of the city and large populations of mostly migrant Muslims, is reported to have suffered gravely in the turmoil. The Christian enclave of Hatiwe, despite its long history in the location, has been burnt. The oldest extant Dutch house in the area, which survived the Japanese invasion, allied bombing and the RMS, has reportedly been set on fire because its occupants were a prominent Christian family. Other Christian families in the area are also said to have had their houses fire bombed and have been driven from their homes of many decades. There is no news as yet of how many have died and been injured in the fighting. Nor can we know where they will go.

Churches and mosques throughout the island have been torched and attacked. It seems that the small church in Silale has gone and the nearby mosques have also suffered.

Butonese and Bugis residents of the town and of some of the villages outside the town are reported to be fleeing by boat in their thousands. It is not clear if they are going to try to return to Sulawesi, their place of origin, or will seek a safe haven elsewhere. On the north of the island in ancient and historically important villages like Hila, open and bloody warfare between Muslims and Christians has resulted in many dead and many more injured. Old feuds between indigenous Ambonese Muslim villages and neighbouring Christian villages seem to have been revived.

Amid the confrontation, which is too easily articulated as simply a religious conflict, some commentators have accurately discerned as a major factor the resentment of Ambonese Christians towards the post-war migrants who have gained such prominence and often come to positions of local power. The fear, the sense of hostile danger, felt especially towards the poorly educated and low paid Butonese labourers by many Christians may now not seem so irrational or unfair. I have argued in the paper that the barely suppressed fear of hostile intent was always there amongst a proportion of the Muslim population too. From their point of view, [suspect that many of their worst fears have been realised. I do not know whether the few identifiably Chinese families in the area have been especially singled out. In the light of reactions elsewhere, I fear that theirs would have been a terrifying lot.

One internet report records a man being shot by military forces after he had himself shot a black cat with a bow and arrow. It was explained that he had feared that his enemy had used magic to take the form of the black cat and thereby pass the guards in order to inflict harm. Other reports suggest that bands of marauding youths were halted by a barrier of water which they were not prepared to cross for fear that their protective magic would be washed away. Magic is still a force to be reckoned with on Ambon.

While my paper could not and did not predict the madness which has engulfed the island of Ambon, and destroyed the lives of many of my Christian and Muslim friends, I suggest that the seeds of this tragedy can only be understood in the historical and cultural context which I have tried to map. Without taking account of ali the elements I have sketched, the seemingly inexplicable would, indeed, forever remain unexplained,

In these circumstances, it can bring no joy to any academic to have seen below the surface of calm interaction and noticed how uncertain the trust was between neighbours. That even President Habibe can apparently have been fooled into believing that Ambon was an example of mutual tolerance for the rest of the nation, prior to the outbreak of the terrible violence, only adds to the tragedy.

I mourn for Silale, for Ambon and for Indonesia.

1. The label ‘Butonese’ (orang Buton) is locally used for migrants originating in Southeast Sulawesi without regard to the particular region or island they came from. Many of these were in fact from Bau Bau in more recent times.

2. The neighbouring domain of Urimesing was not the original site of the town but it was the place in which, within Nusaniwe, the villages (locally kampong) of Hatiwe and Silale were built. 3. The division of Malukan populations into two moieties is still recognised in contemporary understanding of ‘difference’ as an ancient division which was further entrenched when the pata lima population was the core of conversion to Islam and the pata siwa provided the bulk of the slightly later Christian converts.

4. Knaap, (1992b) does note the conversion of many of the Ambonese Catholics to Protestantism during the period 1605-1609.

5. Jacobs (1981:2) points out ‘as many Christians did not feel safe in their villages at some distance from the fort, they settled around it’.

6. Knaap (1992:12) notes that in 1536 -1538 ‘The heathen village of Hatiwe’ was the first to convert to Christianity, following an alliance with the Portuguese. It appears that the Dutch did not find the initial location of the Hatiwe settlement near the fort convenient and moved it to approximately its present location (see Valenteyn’s map in de Graaf 1977).

7. Though Lennon in his journal of 1796 (Heeres 1908:314) notes, ‘The town of Amboina is very neat: the streets at right angles, and houses very tolerably built.’

8. Zukin, following Anderson, makes a very important point in this regard ‘The gentrifiers’ choice of neighbourhood does not imply their social integration with existing neighbours of a different race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status.’ (1987:133)


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