Times & Places
Lampung Province, Sumatra
Lampung province in southern Sumatra is known today as one of the most densely populated and also one of the poorest parts of Indonesia. This current poverty forms a dramatic contrast to its recent past. Travelers who visited the region in the nineteenth century, for example, would often be awestruck by the impressive display of beauty and splendor. English biologist Henry Forbes gives an apt testimony to this in his writings of 1880 upon encountering splendidly adorned young girls in some villages: “Every girl is arrayed in sinkels or necklets, of various shapes of heavy silver, few or many, according to the wealth or position of her parents; on their arms rows and rows of bracelets, and in their ears large buttonlike earrings.” It was with good reason that the region’s inhabitants were renowned in this period for their “persistent vanity and ostentation.”
This former wealth was closely linked to the lucrative trade in pepper. From around the 9th century, pepper—originally an Indian commodity—became a cash crop in Java and later developed into a major export from Sumatra, where from the 15th to the 19th centuries it was grown in Lampung, Palembang, Bengkulu, and Jambi. Large shipments of pepper grown in South Sumatra would enter the world market via Java. When this trade market collapsed in the course of the nineteenth century, Lampung was plunged into poverty. According to Funke (1961: 113), the global pepper market collapsed around 1870; as a result, many Lampung pepper gardens gradually became overgrown. This downturn in fortune was exacerbated by the devastating effect of the 1883 eruption of the Krakatoa volcano, which caused a colossal tsunami that ravaged coastal villages and claimed thousands of lives. The downturn continued into the twentieth century, and worsened after the Lampung area was designated as the primary immigration destination for poor migrants coming from overpopulated Java. Due to the arrival of Javanese migrants, currently only one in ten inhabitants of Lampung province is a descendant of the indigenous population.
It was not just the material wealth of the region that was special; the character of Lampung culture was also remarkable. It reflected the archipelago’s long history in a way that was seen in very few other Indonesian cultures. Each of the grand cultural traditions that had reached Indonesia over the past 4,000 years found expression among the inhabitants of Lampung society, and their traces remained particularly evident in the region’s artworks. An examination of these historical roots and how they were expressed during the apogee of Lampung culture reveal that new influences continued to infuse older traditions so that existing cultural concepts remained virtually unchanged. Because of art, in particular the unique textiles of ship cloths, the rich past of the Lampung is still very much alive today.
Nico de Jonge, "Lampung Ship Cloths: Ancient Symbolism and Cultural Adaptation in South Sumatran Art," in Eyes of the Ancestors: The Arts of Island Southeast Asia at the Dallas Museum of Art, Reimar Schefold, ed. in collaboration with Steven Alpert (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2013), 81.