Times & Places
Sulawesi’s strange, spread-eagled shape is the result of a geological collision between its eastern and western halves, originally separate landmasses, which occurred between 13 and 19 million years ago. Sulawesi remains one of the most geologically complex regions of the world, with eleven active volcanoes along the northernmost peninsula and its outlying islands, and seismic activity giving rise to frequent earth tremors. It is also, as the great naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace first established, biologically remarkable in being the home of numerous unique species of flora and fauna, found here and nowhere else.
Though it is the fourth largest island in Indonesia’s vast archipelago, Sulawesi remained largely unexplored by Europeans until the late 19th century. Sixteenth century Portuguese voyagers landed at opposite ends, visiting both Minahasa in the north and the kingdom of Makassar in the south, without realizing that the regions were connected in a single landmass.
All European maps until 1546 showed the peninsulae as separate islands, which gradually became known by the apparently plural name “Celebes.” The origins of this name itself are obscure. The Dutch conquered the Makassarese kingdom of Gowa in 1667, establishing a fort at Makassar, and were at that time using the name “Selebessi” for the region. The term is conceivably a corruption of an indigenous name, sula besi, meaning “iron dagger.”
The name is apt because Central Sulawesi is indeed the site of rich deposits of iron ore and nickelous iron (pamor), which provided raw material for the swordsmiths of the Toraja highlands. This valuable iron ore was one of the items upon which the wealth of the early Buginese kingdom of Luwu’, formed in the second half of the fourteenth century, was based. Iron ore was traded throughout the archipelago, being especially sought after by Javanese sword makers, since iron ore was never extracted on Java. Since the 1940s, the old appellation “Celebes” has given way to the island’s modern name, Sulawesi.
Roxana Waterson, "The Art of Sulawesi," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, ed. Reimar Schefold in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 173-178.