Times & Places


Timor, with its eastern location in the Indonesian archipelago, has a unique position among the Lesser Sundas (a group of volcanic islands) —not only because it is the largest of the islands, but also because of its political situ­ation. The island consists of two parts virtually identical in size: West Timor (Timor Barat), a former Dutch colonial territory that is currently part of the modern nation of Indonesia, and East Timor (Timor-Leste), an independent state that used to be a Portuguese colony. The Ambeno enclave at the northern coast of West Timor, as well as the islands of Atauro and Jaro, are also now part of East Timor.

The cause of this remarkable division was the centuries-long conflict over the stocks of sandalwood (Santalum album) that were present on Timor. The primary reason that sandalwood would grow only in the Lesser Sundas, on Timor and several nearby islands, is climate. On Timor, in contrast to the majority of the Indonesian archi­pelago, the climate is affected most of all by neigh­boring Australia, a continent with many desertlike regions. In particular, the eastern monsoon (April to December) is often remarkably dry as a result. Sandalwood used to be in high demand for ritual and medicinal purposes in many Eastern cultures and was considered a very valuable commodity. The rare and aromatic wood initially drew a variety of Asian (particularly Chinese) and Arabian merchants to the island.

The first Europeans landed on Timor’s shores at the beginning of the 16th century. The Portuguese arrived in 1515, followed by the Dutch midway through the 17th century. Subsequently, a fierce battle between these two colonial superpowers ensued over who would gain a monopoly in the sandalwood trade. In the course of this struggle, all sorts of deals were made with the local Timorese rulers, as the island was divided into dozens of small sovereign princedoms. From the mid-19th century onward, both the Portuguese and the Dutch attempted to demarcate their respective areas of influence on a permanent basis. In the end, both govern­ments settled on a division of the island, followed by a definitive agreement on the borders in 1916 in The Hague.

When the island was being divided, ethnic and linguistic character­istics were, unfortunately, largely overlooked. The border between West and East Timor runs straight through the Belu region, which is home to two major ethnic groups who both speak the Tetun language. On both sides of the northern border lives a group that, based on this language, is classified as Northern Tetun. The Southern Tetun are likewise spread over the two countries in the southern area of Belu. Similar labeling of the inhabitants on an ethnolinguistic basis also occurs elsewhere on the island.

Timor-Leste (East Timor) became an indepen­dent state in 2002, after a long period of occupa­tion by Indonesia. In late 1975, the Indonesian army invaded the region, which had a profoundly destructive effect on the traditional culture. Many of the villages were relocated, which endangered the old traditions and led to the confiscation of valuable family heirlooms. Moreover, Indonesians were resettled into East Timor on a large scale from other overpopulated regions (at a rough estimate approximately one hundred and fifty thousand people), and more than two hundred thousand Timorese died as a result of violence.

Adapted from

Nico de Jonge, "Traditional Art in Timorese Princedoms," 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), 245-251.