Chapter 1

Tracing the path, recounting the past: historical perspectives on Timor

James J. Fox


'Tracing the path, recounting the past: historical perspectives on Timor' places Timor within its regional and historical setting. It is concerned with the entire island, as it is difficult to discuss historically one part of the island without reference to the other part, and indeed the region.

These historical perspectives on Timor take into account its physical setting, ethnic diversity and colonial division. The discussion of the physical aspects of Timor encompasses the climate, the patterns of settlement and the various kinds of agriculture. Ethnic diversity covers traditional politics, languages and social identity, including the emergence of Tetun as a lingua franca in East Timor. The discussion of colonial division looks at the 400 years of engagement between the Portuguese and the Dutch.

The resilience of the Timorese, evident throughout their history, is likely to continue to play an important part in the development of East Timor.

The island of Timor, in one of its mythic representations, is described as a half-submerged crocodile, wary and waiting. In another mythic representation, Timor is mother earth, accepting, long-suffering, supportive of all who rely upon her. Geologically, Timor has been described as a 'tectonic chaos'. Linguistically, the island is a babel of languages and dialects. Historically, for centuries, it has been a divided island and a source of continuing dispute. Its local populations have long resisted outside interference and have been fiercely defensive of their different local cultural traditions. From these perspectives, Timor is not one place, but many.

Because of the complexity of its traditions, there have been various attempts to simplify Timor's diversity. Dividing the island's population into East and West is one of the most potent of these simplifications. This division makes little sense in understanding the history of the island, the ethnic composition of its population or the interrelationship of its cultural traditions. Moreover, it leaves the enclave of Oecussi, the historical founding site of Timor's Portuguese traditions, on its own in the West - detached and with little relevance to the rest of East Timor.

To understand East Timor requires a perspective on Timor as a whole. It also requires that careful attention be given to Timor's distinctive cultural traditions. Thus Suai's traditions differ from those of Maliana, Maliana from those of Maubara, Maubara from Manatuto and Manatuto from Los Palos. These traditions form the basis of local resilience and are the source of multiple identities.

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This brief introduction will focus on East Timor but will adopt an island-wide perspective, considering, in turn, the physical setting of the island, its linguistic and ethnic diversity and its extraordinary history. This account of Timor's history will consider the foundations of the colonial division of the island and the intermittent negotiations that went on for decades to arrive at an agreement on the borders between the Portuguese and Dutch. It will also consider some of the effects of this colonial presence on the Timorese population.

On Timor, a narrative that recounts the past is described as 'the tracing of a path'. This, then, is one path toward an understanding of the present.[1]

Timor in geological perspective

The island of Timor is itself an extraordinary geological formation which has been formed - and is still being formed - by the forward thrust of the Australian tectonic plate in the direction of the Asian plate. The movement of these massive plates has created and trapped a set of multi-island ridges of which Timor is the most prominent. In the distant geological future, the mountains of Timor, given the enormous pressure that is being brought to bear beneath them, are expected to rise to the heights of the Himalayas.

The dominant soil type on the island is a soft, scaly clay which has been given the Timorese name Bobonaro, taken from a region in the centre of the island. This Bobonaro clay substratum is overlaid with a jumble of limestone and associated marl derived from the greater Australian land mass and a melange of volcanic materials and scattered outcrops of metamorphic rock piled upon by marine deposits and overlaid yet again by a stratum of raised reefs and corals.

Timor's climate is dominated by brief but intense monsoonal rain - from December through February or March - followed by a prolonged dry season. The south coast of East Timor enjoys a second period of rain which begins, after a short respite from the west monsoon, and extends to July when the dry season begins.

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Rainwater, trapped in limestone deposits by irregular sheets of clay, often surfaces in a scatter of freshwater springs. Perhaps a third or more of all settlement names on Timor include the word for water - such as OeWai, We or Be - indicating a source of fresh water.

Timor's clay soils do not support heavy vegetation. They soak up rain and swell in the wet season; dry, crack and fissure in the dry season. Historically, the Timorese population has carried on shifting agriculture on alluvial and limestone terraces or on the mixed, marine-based soils of ridges, slopes and valleys throughout the mountains of the island, or they have developed more intensive agriculture on various alluvial plains, formed by Timor's main rivers, along the coast.

The peopling of Timor: the linguistic evidence

The mix of peoples on Timor is as complex as any other aspect of the island. Prehistorians consider Timor as one of the gateways for the movement of populations to Australia. Given the time-depth of these migrations, the search is on for the equivalent of 'Solo man' in Timor. As yet, however, no human traces of this antiquity have been found in the alluvial riverbeds or caves of Timor.

The first evidence of early agriculture dates back to 3000 BC (Glover 1971). This evidence is generally interpreted as an indication of the initial arrival of early seafaring Austronesian populations into the region. It is from these, and probably from subsequent migrations of Austronesian-language speakers, that the majority of Timor's present languages derive. Glover's research also points to an earlier hunter-gatherer population whose flaked stone tradition he dates to approximately 11500 BC. Whether this earlier population was assimilated or whether it gave rise to other non-Austronesian-speakers of Timor is still uncertain.

All the languages of Timor belong to one of two major language groupings: the Austronesian language family or the Trans-New Guinea phylum of languages (see Map 1).

The main Austronesian languages of Timor are Uab Meto (the language of the Atoni Pa Meto who are also referred to as Dawan or Vaikenu), Tetun, Mambai, Galoli, Tokudede and Kemak. Other Austronesian languages, about which relatively little is known, are Waima'a (Uaima), Kairui-Midiki, Habu, Idate, Lakalei and Naueti. Some of these languages form contiguous dialect clusters. The Austronesian 
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Map 1: The languages of East Timor

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