Sumba is an island in Indonesia, and is one of the Lesser Sunda islands. It has an area of 11,153 km², and the population has been estimated as between 350,000 and 425,000. There is a dry season from May to November and a rainy season from December to April. Historically, this island exported sandalwood. The largest town on the island is Waingapu, with a population of about 10,700.
Before colonization, Sumba was inhabited by several small ethno linguistic groups, some of which may have had tributary relations to the Majapahit Empire. In 1522 the first ships from Europe arrived, and by 1866 Sumba belonged to the Dutch Indies, although the island did not come under real Dutch administration until the twentieth century.
The Sumbanese people speak a variety of closely related Austronesian language and have a mixture of Malay and Melanesian ancestry. Twenty-five to thirty percent of the population practices the animist Marapu religion. The remainder are Christian a majority being Protestant, but a substantial minority being Roman Catholic. A small number of Sunni Muslims can be found along the coastal areas.
The Marapu religion is a form of ancestral religion that is practiced in Sumba. They believe in temporary life in the world and eternal life in the Doomsday, the world of spirits in Marapu heaven – Prai Marapu. The world Marapu means: Firstly, the occupants of the eternal heaven, who lead a similar existence to men. They live in couples and one of these couples is the ancestor of the Sumbanese. Secondly, the spirits of Sumbanese ancestors in Prai Marapu. Thirdly, the spirits of their relatives. Fourthly, all spirits dwelling the universe. Marapu has mysterious and magical authority over human life.
According to Marapu beliefs, any spirit consists of two elements: Ndewa and Hamanangu. Marapu teachings concern the balance of universal life through which happiness can be gained. This balance is symbolized by the Great Mother (Ina Kalada) and the Great Father (Ama Kalada) who lives in the universe and takes the forms of the moon and the sun. In mythology, they are husband and wife who gave birth to the ancestors of the Sumbanese.
To honor Marapu, the Sumbanese put effigies, called Marapu statues, on stone altars where they lay their offerings in the forms of Sirih Pinang (a dish containing betel leaves, nuts and lime) and sacrificial cattle. The statues of Marapu are made of wood in the shape of human faces. These images are usually placed in the yard of their houses or inside the traditional houses.
A further manifestation of devotion to Marapu and the ancestors is reflected in the continuing construction in parts of East Sumba of impressive stone burial monuments, vestiges of one of the last surviving megalithic cultures on the planet. In many cases individuals will put their families into debts extending into future generations in order to build these tombstones in the traditional manner.
Funeral ceremonies and burials can be delayed for decades during which the bodies of the deceased are kept in the homes of the living. Once sufficient funds have been acquired, it is not unusual for several generations of Sumbans to be buried or reburied together in segmented compartments of the belowground tomb according in a manner that does not violate incest taboos.
While some now use winches and cattle trucks to lift and transport these stones, and others construct them out of cement, the practice of hauling slabs of rock weighing up to 70 tons atop log rollers across the countryside by hand persists in some eastern parts of the island.
The actual event is preceded by months of negotiations between allied clans and villages culminating in hundreds of men participating in the tarik batu stone-pulling ceremony. Failure to perform the necessary rites, including the butchering of large numbers of buffalo, cows, pigs and occasionally horses, and nightly protection rituals at the quarries where the stones are cut, risks a violent reaction from malevolent ancestral forces whose approval is sought through the divining of animal innards.
Sumbans believe seven pairs of men and women descended from the sky on a ladder made of buffalo horns to a point in the north central part of the island, and that suitably-buried, they too will ultimately ascend this same ladder to be reunited with their families.
15th – 16th Century – In 1512, the first European, a Portuguese by the name of Antonio de Abreu, sailed past Flores but failed to notice Sumba. When in 1512, one of Magellan’s companions around the world, Antonia Pigafetta made the first map of this area in Indonesia, he got the same Sumba right but put it in the wrong place. So life went on in each own way in Sumba, with no real outside influence except the occasional trading boat. By the beginning of the 16th Century, the Portuguese had taken control of the Sandalwood trade on Timor Island. By the end of the same century the Chinese were taking slaves from Flores and Timor to sell in Bali. Sumba was still left alone with its own troubles.
17th Century – in 1622, the Sultan of Bima claimed Sumba to be under his influence. He even tried to charge tax from the Kingdoms on the north coast of Sumba but with little success. The lack of success was probably due to the Sultans unwillingness to help the Sumbanese in their efforts to defend themselves against the Pirates from Ende that were carrying out slaves raids. By the end of this century the Portuguese traders from the Timor region had started to establish sporadic trade with East Sumba to acquire Sandalwood. Outside influences were still minimal, since no one safety was guaranteed on this head until war-ridden island.
18th Century – In 1751, the Dutch East Indian Company declared that they should retain control over the Slave Trade from Sumba, and in the next year it received 16 slaves as a gift from “Sumba” (Alderwerel 1906). By 1757, the island was regarded as a main source of slave on behalf of the company. The company so fast formed a working idea of the possibilities of getting slaves from Sumba was mainly due to the non-existent problems this trade with Sumbanese nobility and King meant.
Since the nobility and Kings themselves possessed a large number of slave that whether in inherited, bought or captured could be sold, just like an animal. Even European soldiers who are shipwrecked on the coast of Sumba, as notably in one instance 1820, where enslaved sold later by the Endenese and Makassares. By the later half of this century the export of horses from Sumba replaced the number one income of exporting slaves. An Arab trader from Ende initiated this; who in 1843 founded Waingapu, the port town and present capital of East Sumba. “The scarcity of the population of Sumba on the north coast, is caused by nothing other then the repeated and incessant trading in slaves, which has lasted for years and up till the present day has not come to an end.” (Gronovics 1855)
19th Century – Finally in 1866 the first Europeans Settled in Sumba. Establishing an office for the Netherlands Indies Government did this. This is 350 years after Antonio de Abreu sailed past Flores and 270 years since the Dutch first landed in West Java (1596). The Dutch tried hard to gain control over the Sumbanese Kings but with little luck. Only in 1912, after 6 years of “campaigning for pacification” had the Dutch established a colonial administration on Sumba. Bear in mind this administration only stretched as far as the roads would allow, so a large proportion of the island remained uncontrolled.
The Dutch divided Sumba into sub-departments and soon realized that if this was to work, each sub-department had to be ruled by a former king. Not until 1933 were the army replaced by the police force in West Sumba. This was a thorn in the side of the Dutch since they had control over the rest of Indonesia and here was this “unimportant” island being so resistant. Conditions of life were still “wild and disorderly ” (Meigering 1927). The first Japanese troops landed in Indonesia in 1942 surrendered in the same year. The Japanese power over Sumba was very brutal, but they did not change the political system, “enforced” by the Dutch. By 1946, the Japanese had surrendered to the Allied Troops and left Sumba. The Dutch yet again tried to establish control over Indonesia but had, due to international pressure, to transfer their sovereignty over to the new Indonesian Republic on the 27th December 1949.
The old ways remain still alive on Sumba in a large part because the island was relatively unimportant to the European colonist and the archipelagic empires, such as Majapahit, that preceded them. Sumba was a source of sandalwood, livestock and slaves, Cendana – “Sandalwood Island” in the early 16th century, Sumba’s landscape must have looked as barren and inhospitable as it does today. This, combined with fragmented political structure of Sumba, insured that any attempt at conquest would be a thankless and unrewarding endeavor.