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Origins from "Java"

The Sumbanese say that their ancestors migrated from the west, crossing over a "stone bridge" (lendu watu ) that once connected the island to lands to the west. There are many local versions of the shared mythic tradition of this migration. All of them agree that the first ancestors arrived at Sasar, a treacherous cape along the north shore whose name, in Malay, means "lost" or "off track." In some accounts, the two ancestors had a wooden ship that smashed on the coral reefs and left them stranded on the island. In other accounts only one of them, Umbu Walu Mandoko, traveled to the island by ship, and it was his descendants who settled along the banks of various streams. The other ancestor, Umbu Walu Sasar, often identified as Umbu Walu Mandoko's older brother, came down directly from the sky, riding on his horse; his descendants settled the drier areas


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A Kodi woman displays her high rank by wearing imported wealth: ivory
bracelets, heirloom ceramic beads, and a bark-embroidered betel pouch.
1980. Photograph by the author.

inland (Couvreur 1917, 209). Both men were originally said to have come "from Java," and to have been driven from their homeland by mysterious circumstances (Wielenga 1916-18, 21:3; Kruyt 1922, 471). Warfare, quarrels between the two siblings, and disputes over their marriages are sometimes cited as reasons for their decision to leave.


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These immigrants met an indigenous population, which they gradually displaced by means of a division of powers, a conquest, or the dying out of the original inhabitants. Early Dutch writers generally agreed with Kruyt's interpretation that an "originally democratic society" once existed all over the island. In the east, that society was replaced when a few noble families took power into their own hands, dislodging the traditional religious leaders who guarded the relics of their ancestors (Kruyt 1922, 467). In the west, the ceremonial leadership of a calendrical priest like the Rato Nale ("Priest of the Sea Worms") remained unchallenged, though warfare and political struggles between competing clans raged on. Wielenga noted that many Sumbanese domains are divided into two parts, one older and one younger; he explained this peculiarity by the fact that "one part represented the original inhabitants, who had ownership of the land, and one part were later-comers, who received, with the permission of their elders, a share of the land to live on, or else seized the land without permission through force. In both cases, the older part possessed spiritual powers" (cited in Kruyt 1922, 468). A final possibility was that the original inhabitants might have been almost completely wiped out, with few traces of their presence remaining.

In West Sumba, most domains are traditionally divided into two parts—for example, Lamboya and Patialla, Laura Marada and Laura Letena, Lauli Deta and Lauli Wawa, Kodi Bokol and Kodi Bangedo. It is not clear whether these in fact represent "older" and "younger" parts or are simply geographical divisions that were settled by different clans, with no disparity of rank or genealogical status implied. The names themselves distinguish "pastures" (marada ) and "mountains" (letena ), "highlands" (deta ) and "lowlands" (wawa ), and "larger" (bokol ) and "smaller" (bangedo ; lit., "founded by Umbu Ngedo") divisions. The division between "politics" and "religion" was less clearly established in the west, since there the title given only to a priest in the east (ratu ) could be used for a chief as well (Kruyt 1922, 469).

All West Sumbanese trace their descent from the ancestors who landed at Sasar, with the exception of the few hundred descendants of an earlier population, called the "Lombo" people in Laura and the "Karendi" in Balaghar. The indigenous people, who are believed to assume the form of wild animals or carrion-eating witches, are recognized as the original owners of the land. Before the migration from the west, they were said to have had no knowledge of fire or agriculture, living as hunters and gatherers of wild forest foods.

The original migration is recounted today in the paired couplets of ritual speech (panggecango ), a verse form that marks the most important


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texts in the oral tradition. An invocation of the ancestral journey runs like this:

The ancestors of long ago

Ambu lama ulu

Came to the distant cape of Sasar

Na duki ela haharo malango

From another land, the foreign land

Wali la hambali cana, tana dawa

The forefathers of ancient time

Nuhi la mandeiyo

Came to the adze-shaped stone bridge

Na toma la kataku lendu watu

From across the seas, the strange land

Wali la hambali lyoro, tana ndimya

When dawn came over Gaura's coast

Ba na mahewa helu nggaru

When day broke on Lombo's land[1]

Ba na madomo a tana lombo

Off to Kodi went Lord Ngedo

Otu la Kodu umbu ngedo

And to Rara went Lord Wango

Mono Rara umbu wango

. . . to Ede . . . and Manola

Ede umbu Koba, lbbila Manola

. . . to Manekka . . . and Lombo

Kairo Manekka, Roto Lombo

. . . to Karendi, Bukambero, Weyewa

Karendi Bukambero, Pittu Waiwewa

. . . to Gaura and Lamboya

Nggaro Umbu Tola, Lamboya Patialla

. . . to Rua and Wanokaka

Rua wu Wungo, Yongga Wanukaka

. . . to Lauli and Lawonda

Lauli Anakalang, Lawondo Bolobokat

To Kambera of a different language

Kambera Heka Hili

To Kanata of different speech

Kanata Heka Taki

. . . to Melolo and Kabata

Talinjaka Malolo, Kabata Dola Ngapu

. . . to Laura and Tana Righu

Mboro Palamedo, Laura Tana Righu

Much of the passage cannot be translated, since it consists of a series of place names and names of ancestors, which blend into one another. The division of Kodi Bangedo is said to have been settled by the descendants of a Lord Ngedo (umbu being an East Sumbanese title for a nobleman, and Ngedo remaining a common name in the area), but little else is known of such an ancestor. The other place names are recited in a sequence that suggests an itinerary from Kodi into the highlands (Rara, Ede, Manola), across various eastern boundaries (Karendi, Bukambero, Weyewa), down to the south coast (Rua, Wanokaka, Lauli, Lawonda), and then, with a final detour to East Sumba (Kambera, Kanata, Melolo, Kabata), returning to the northern coast (Laura, Tana Righu). These verses must be recited at rites bearing on the distant past, when the souls of ancestors of the whole island are invoked· The "strange, foreign land" of tana dawa, tana


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ndimya is usually glossed as Java and Bima (one of two sultanates on the island of Sumbawa), though it may also include Lombok, Bali, or Flores. A similar series of couplets recited in East Sumba mentions Malacca, Singapore, Makassar, Ende, Manggarai, Roti (Enda), Ndau, and Savu (Kapita 1976b, 13).

The "Java" that is evoked as the origin of the Sumbanese should not necessarily be taken in its literal sense. As one of the earliest chroniclers noted, "The Sumbanese call everyone who comes from overseas a foreigner (tau jawa ), so the category includes Europeans, Arabs, Chinese, Javanese and inhabitants of other islands in the archipelago" (Couvreur 1917, 213). The great lord who ruled over the foreign kingdom from which the ancestors came is ambiguously rendered as Rato Ndimya, Rato Dawa, and his kingdom is not so much Java or Bima but any distant land to the west. Sumbanese oral tradition contains many narratives about heroes who traveled to this distant land; the presence of Javanese krises, heirloom porcelain jars, Indian patola cloths, and other imported finery suggests that relations with these distant states took the form of trade and perhaps tribute.

Written records offer only a few scattered references to substantiate the existence of a tie between Java and these outer islands. In the Nagarakrtagama (conventionally dated about 1365), Sumba is named as a subject of the Majapahit Empire (1294-1478). A fleet of Gajah Mada sailed to Dompo, Sumbawa, in 1357, and apparently laid some claim to the island, though there may never have been any physical landing on Sumba (de Roo 1906, 185). It is not known how much contact there actually was with Java at that time, and no Hindu or Buddhist remains have been found. The main resource that attracted traders since the seventh century was sandalwood, whose fragrant bark was used to make incense, fans, and clothes chests and was much sought after by Chinese merchants. In 1522, Magellan's chronicler Pigafetta mentioned sailing past "Cendana" or the "Sandalwood Island"—which, later maps indicate, must have been Sumba (de Roo 1906, 187).

The sandalwood trade attracted other European powers to the Timor archipelago, prompting competition for control of the waters. In 1566, Portuguese traders settled on the neighboring island of Solor and built a fortress to protect Christian converts from Moslem sea raiders. The fortress was attacked and captured by Dutch forces in 1613, which sparked an intense rivalry (Fox 1977, 63). In 1636, a Dutch ship was wrecked on "the unknown island of Sandalwood," and some of the men were left behind, but no expedition was sent to look for them (de Roo 1906, 188). The Portuguese of Larantuka built a small fort at Tidas, on the southern


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coast of West Sumba in Wanokaka, but its dates and use remain mysterious. In 1726, the government in Batavia recognized the presence of the Portuguese on the island; the fort itself, however, was not spotted until 1902 (de Roo 1906, 188).

Local legends often associate the ancestral migration to Sumba with the fall of the Hindu-Buddhist kingdom of Majapahit. Mythologies of aristocratic origins are extremely widespread in Indonesia, and it can hardly be true that all the peoples of the outer islands were descended from exiled Javanese princes. Nevertheless, the legend of Majapahit does have a long history on the island. Coifs, writing in 1880, reported: "Every evening a light can be seen in the direction of Monboro: the natives there say that it is on the tombs from the Modjopahit period which are there" (cited in Needham 1987, 21). No actual tombs with Javanese inscriptions were found at that time, though, nor have any been discovered since. In Anakalang, Alfred Buhler was told that the ancestors descended from the sky to settle first at Majapahit, later migrating from there through Bima and Flores until they eventually reached Sumba (1951, 57).

Present-day speculations about the origins of Sumbanese ancestors often include "the Majapahit" as a category of the prestigious past. In Kapunduk, East Sumba, I was told in 1988 that the noble families of the eastern part of the island had immigrated from Majapahit, and this was why they still had so much gold. In Kodi, some people speculated that Pokilo and Mangilo, the brothers who founded the ceremonial system, were from Majapahit, but the members of other clans were not. When a film crew from Java filmed scenes of horse battles on Sumba using local riders as extras, there was additional speculation that the ancestors of the Sumbanese must have been from Majapahit, because they also were horsemen. Such conjectures, however, should most appropriately be interpreted as reimaginings of the past, and not oral tradition. As Geertz (1973, 398) has noted, Majapahit assumes the mythical status of illo tempore in much of Indonesia: a glorified time of origins that may not correspond to any actual historical time or place.


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1 The Imported Past Foreign Sources of Power
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