Given its fierce reputation it is not surprising that most foreign traders stayed well clear of the island, and that it wasn’t until the latter part of the nineteenth century that the first Europeans attempted to settle on the island.
Not much is known about the history of the island other than it being one of war and hardship. In the sixteenth century Pigafetta, the traveling companion of the famed Portuguese explorer Magellan, was the first foreigner to mention Sumba. He recorded proud natives that were clad in fine woven ikats and bodies adorned with beautiful ornaments. He wrote of the breathtaking landscapes of Sumba, an island of untouched white sandy beaches, villages perched on green hills and fertile valleys swarming with sculptured stone tombs. At that time the air was filled with the sweet aroma of the sandalwood forests that covered the island, in fact there was so much sandalwood growing in the forests that the island was first known as the Sandalwood Island. The sweet smelling wood was in great demand throughout Asia and Arabia, and for centuries it was the main trade item flowing out of the island. The Sumbanese also bartered their sturdy horses for gold, silver and Chinese ceramics that were, and still are, highly regarded as precious items by the islanders. Today, in most parts of the island, Pigafetta’s view of the island has changed little. And, except for the destruction of the sandalwood forests in East Sumba, one can still experience the same sense of wonder that those first Europeans experienced over 400 years ago.
Sumba was known amongst foreign traders as being an island of fierce warriors were headhunting expeditions where common. It was due to these incessant raids the villages were built on hilltops and heavily fortified by stone walls. The dry season was the period of the headhunting expeditions as well as the wars between rival clans and villages. In East Sumba, heads were used as tokens of territorial conquest in battles between nobles. In West Sumba, headhunting rites were often acts of revenge between equals. In both parts of the island the heads were considered trophies that would be displayed on “skull trees” in the villages. It was believed that the trophies brought home would stimulate prosperity and fertility of the village and the fields.
Slave raids were also common on the island. Rival Kingdoms and clans would periodically attack each other in order to bring home slaves to work their fields, or for sale to the foreign traders that were based on the northern part of the island. Sumbanese slaves were sold in Flores and Bali, and even as far west as the Arabian Peninsula and southward from there to the island of Madagascar off the African coast.
Today, in some villages in West Sumba there are stories passed down about slave raids that the Portuguese made hundreds of years ago, and some elders are still in possession of ancient shields that they believe are adorned with human hair taken from the fallen invaders. Even well into the twentieth century it was common for Sumbanese headhunting parties to capture enemies to be brought back to the village. It is told that some would be treated as honored guests who would live in the village for years, all the while being overfed and becoming obese. Eventually the auspicious sacrificial day would come, only then would the head of the slave be taken and his skin used for sacred ceremonial drumheads.
Given its fierce reputation it is not surprising that most foreign traders stayed well clear of the island, and that it wasn’t until the latter part of the nineteenth century that the first Europeans attempted to settle on the island. It was then that the Dutch colonial administration based in Batavia, now known as Jakarta, claimed control of the island. In reality they could only manage to establish a small garrison on a beachhead at Waingapu and its soldiers rarely ventured out from there. Control could not be established on the island until near the end of its centuries of rule in Indonesia. It was not until late in the 1920’s that the colonial rulers deemed Sumba safe enough to replace its only garrison in Waingapu with police.
Since Indonesian Independence in 1945, Sumba has been part of Nusa Tenggara Timor, the “Southeastern Islands,” with its administrative capital in Kupang on the Island of Timor. Although the government has recently improved the cross-island road as well as ferry and airport access to the island, outside of the local administrative capitals of Waingapu and Waikabubak life has changed little.
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