IIAS Newsletter 10, Autumn 1996, Southeast Asia 02

IIASNewsletterNo 10Regions

Southeast Asia

The EDEN historical research project

Environmental History of the Island of Sumbawa (Indonesia)


EDEN (1500-1850), a historical research project of the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology (KITLV) Leiden, is the acronym for Ecology, Demography and Economy in Nusantara. Being considered the most innovative aspect of this project, the centre of gravity has come to focus on the ecological component. Researchers in the project therefore are trying to write 'environmental histories' of various regions within Indonesia. In 1993, Bernice de Jong-Boers commenced research within the project on the region of Bali and Nusa Tenggara.

One of the first problems I encountered was the diversity found within this range of islands. Of course, the islands do have similarities: they are all relatively small in size, and from an ecological point of view (except Bali) have less favourable means of subsistence to offer than many other Indonesian islands. The soils are relatively infertile and the climate is characterized by drought. Despite these similarities the number of differences between the islands is much higher. Each island has its own history in which specific events took place; they all had different foreign rulers, particular cash-crops, and their own specific forms of subsistence-agriculture. All these differences make the ecological history of Bali and Nusa Tenggara very complex. This is the reason why I decided to focus my attention on one island in particular: that of Sumbawa.


Sumbawa lies in the middle of the Nusa Tenggara chain. Nusa Tenggara is known as a transitional zone in Indonesia, especially with regard to its climate (the further east, the drier), and its flora and fauna (both Asian and Australian species are found, but the further east, the more the Australian species and the fewer the Asian). Sumbawa itself is therefore very much a transitional island. This not only holds true for its climate and flora and fauna, but is equally applicable to its culture. This makes the island very interesting in my eyes. Despite its intriguing character very little has yet been published about this island. This is borne out by the fact that ethnographic research has been conducted on the island only five times, astonishingly little compared to the amount of material produced on Java and Bali. Precisely because Sumbawa is a transitional island, doing research there a fairly complicated task and it is at this door that the responsibility for its neglect in research can be laid according to some authors.

From an ecological point of view the history of Sumbawa is very interesting. Traditionally its subsistence agriculture comprised both sawah and ladang cultivation. Besides agriculture, animal husbandry and horse breeding have also been important activities there for centuries. At an early date Sumbawa was already integrated into a trading network, in which its principal export products were horses, sappan wood, rice, wax, honey, and salt.

Sumbawa has a periodically dry savannah climate, which is characterized by a mean rainfall of less than 60 mm in the driest month. The average annual precipitation for Sumbawa is about 1250 mm. Under the influence of the east monsoon Sumbawa is seasonally very dry (lasting from April until November). In this period the island often looks desolated and barren.

Geomorphologically, Sumbawa is a volcanic island. Its physical landscape consists of mountains, terraces, plains, valleys, and rivers. The lower regions contain large grass plains which are punctuated by shrubs and trees; remnants of ancient forests are found here as well. The hilly uplands consist of savannah and forests. Because the average annual rainfall is limited, most of the forest on Sumbawa is monsoon forest. Higher up on the mountains, where the annual average precipitation is higher than 1800 mm, rain forests can be found.

Volcanoes, horses and sappan wood

So far, I have investigated three themes relevant to the environmental history of Sumbawa. The first theme is the eruption of one of the Sumbawan volcanoes: Mount Tambora which erupted in April 1815. This eruption has been recorded in the World Guiness Book of Records as the biggest in modern times. The eruption had drastic consequences for the island. Two of the six realms that existed on the island before 1815 completely disappeared. Many inhabitants died, not only as a direct consequence of the eruption itself but also from the resulting famine. The surface of the land was covered with thick layers of ash, making the agricultural land unworkable. The situation was exacerbated as trade came to a complete standstill for a great number of years. Decades were to pass before the island had recovered from this blow and this dramatic event may justifiably be seen as a turning point in the (environmental) history of Sumbawa.

In the 16th century, Sumbawa was already famous for its trade in two products: horses and sappan wood, which brings us to the second and third themes.

The horses of Sumbawa were famed for their stamina and endurance. They were in demand in Java and South Sulawesi. The island of Sumbawa is suitable for horse breeding. The wide stretches of savannah plains and fallow lands make wonderful pastures and, it is an activity easily combined with ladang cultivation, which for a long time constituted the major source of livelihood of the inhabitants. The only hazard to which the animals were exposed was drought, a problem recurring all too frequently. Some people have considered drought to be a natural method of selection through which only the best and sturdiest horses survive, thus improving the quality of the breed.

Sappan trees are native to the forests of Sumbawa. Very early, the wood of this tree was a much sought-after commodity because of the valuable red dye which could be extracted from it. It is a multi-purpose plant as the wood is very hard and durable and used for constructing houses and ships. It used to be exported to neighbouring regions, but the VOC was also interested in this wood (for their markets in Europe and Japan). As soon as they could (in 1669), the Dutch made contracts with the sultans of Sumbawa to ensure the delivery of this wood. The sultans dispatched a certain number of their male subjects to the forests in the mountains to cut the trees and carry the logs to the shore. There the ships would pick them up and transport them to Batavia. It was not long before the delivery of sappan wood showed signs of becoming very erratic. There were a number of reasons for this irregularity, of which the most important was a dearth of these trees, caused by the massive scale of the felling. Shortages of trees were to remain a recurrent problem but due to the natural vigour of the tree (it has a strong regenerative power), harvesting of sappan wood always revived again fairly quickly. This harvesting system survived for more than two centuries, and it appears that the environmental consequences of it were fairly restricted. It never led to any appreciable deforestation or erosion.

The trades in both horses and sappan wood collapsed as a consequence of the eruption of Mount Tambora. Around 1830 both trades had revived only to decline again at the turn of the century. Around that time Sumbawa's major trade products were affected by inventions taking place in far away continents. Artificial dyes were invented around 1870 and soon supplanted the natural ones. At the beginning of the 20th century motorized vehicles began to replace horsepower. Consequently, demand for sappan wood and horses declined drastically. Nowadays, both horses and sappan trees are still to be found on the island and remind the visitor of the days of economic glory of (the sultans of) Sumbawa.

Archival research

During the spring of 1996 I did archival research in the National Archives (ANRI) of Indonesia in Jakarta, where the very important Residential Archives from the Dutch colonial period are kept. These documents contain important information at a regional level. Sumbawa was once part of the 'Residency of Celebes and Dependencies' and so the 'Arsip Makassar' was the archive I consulted the most. The material I found here dates back to the period 1750-1880. The aim of my historical research was to collect specific data referring to the (natural) environment, agriculture, and ecology of Sumbawa. Also, mindful of the fact that the general history of the island is still largely unknown, I collected more general information as well (such as political and cultural data).

My pursuit of the collection of data did not run as propitiously as I had hoped. Some of the documents relevant to Sumbawa had disappeared. Others had disintegrated almost completely and were therefore not available for consultation. From the documents I did see, it very soon became clear that most of the Dutch traders and officials did not take a real interest in Sumbawa, which was a great disappointment to me. In their reports they wrote extensively about the southern parts of Celebes and of the island of Selayar, but when turning to Sumbawa they confined themselves to a few lines. The material I found is therefore not as detailed as I had hoped. Compared to the other members of the EDEN project my 'harvest' is meagre.

Nevertheless, I did find relevant and valuable information, concerning 'ecological' data like the occurrence of epidemics (especially chicken-pox, dengue fever, and malaria), earthquakes, floods, droughts, crop failures, and the construction of irrigation systems.

The most important documents I found are five 'Memoriën van Overgave' (reports left by a retiring official for the enlightenment of his successor), which dealt exclusively with Sumbawa. These finds were made completely by accident for nothing in the Indexes indicated their existence. The oldest one dates back to the year 1769. These 'Memoriën' contain descriptions of the six tiny realms that existed on the island before the eruption of Mount Tambora. Because two of these realms (Pekat and Tambora) were wiped off the face of the earth by this eruption and hardly anything is known about them, these 'Memoriën' are invaluable. They constitute the richest treasures of my archival research so far, and enable me to imagine what Sumbawa must have looked like around the year 1800. It is this sort of discovery which makes the sometimes rather disappointing and frustrating archival searches exciting and rewarding.

Bernice de Jong-Boers
is an OIO researcher at the Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology (KITLV), Leiden. Email: bernice@let.leidenuniv.nl

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