Companion to East Timor - Portugal and East Timor

Portugal and East Timor


Map Copyright 2007 The Red Hat of Pat Ferrick

In 1511, the Portuguese seized Malacca, on the west coast of the Malay peninsula, as it was a vital commercial hub in Southeast Asia. In 1566 Dominican missionaries built a fortress on Solor, to the east of Flores. When the Dutch captured the Portuguese fortress at Solor, its population moved to nearby Flores in the seventeenth century. More Dutch attacks forced the Portuguese to move to Kupang, in West Timor, in 1636. More wars ensued between the Dutch and the Portuguese, who eventually moved their administrative capital from Lifau in the enclave of Oecussi to the tiny trading post of Dili in 1769.



Map from The Malay Archipelago showing the physical geography of the
archipelago and Wallace's travels. The thin black lines indicate where
Wallace traveled, and the red lines indicate chains of volcanoes.

The great naturalist, scientist and geographer Alfred Russel Wallace wrote in 1861 that 'the Portuguese government in Timor is a most miserable one. Nobody seems to care the least about the improvement of the country, and at this time, after three hundred years of occupation, there has not been a mile of road made beyond the town, and there is not a solitary European resident anywhere in the interior.' As for Dili, it was 'a most miserable place compared with even the poorest of the Dutch towns… and there is no sign of cultivation or civilisation round about it.' In 1859, Portugal and the Netherlands signed a treaty demarcating a boundary, which was finally settled in 1914 following a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

Read the ruling here.

The Portuguese developed the suco (indigenous local community) as the basic unit of administration. A suco was composed of villages called aldeias, which contained approximately 100 people each. The aldeia in turn consisted of patrilineal/patrilocal or matrilineal/matrilocal hamlets or house-clusters called knua. Several suco were subordinated to rais, or minor kingdoms, under the rule of a liurai, or king. The kingdoms, which are better understood as chieftancies, consisted of anywhere from just a few to several dozen aldeias. The Portuguese incorporated native rulers into the colonial system by granting them titles (Coronel or Brigadeiro) in a 'second-line' paramilitary force and recognising their hegemony over their territory and its people, known collectively as a reino. They secured the allegiance of these rulers, known by the Portuguese term regulo or minor king, by granting them lesser titles of rank. Relationships between the regulos were cemented through a system of 'royal' marriages, until a hierarchy of powerful rulers, now related by marriage, extended itself across the colony.