Raja Ampat's Story

is intertwined with the rest of
Papua and the Maluku islands

We've tried to summarise as much as possible — without skipping the crucial links, that are necessary to understand Raja Ampat's history.
Enjoy the archipelago's fascinating chronicle.

70.000 - 60.000 BCE

The Origins

Migration from Africa

According to the Southern Dispersal Theory, a small group of humans emigrated from Africa between 70.000 to 50.000 years ago. They dispersed along the southern edge of Asia before eventually reaching the Sundaland.

Small groups of people would eventually reach the very edge of Sundaland, confronting them with an obstacle: The deep-water straits separating the islands of Wallacea.

However, the relatively narrow channels between the islands allowed migration movements to continue all the way to Sahul.

60.000 - 50.000 BCE

First Arrival

New Guinea's Indigenous People

Papua's early history is vague and mysterious. What's certain is the arrival of the first people in New Guinea, which back then was still joined with Australia, approximately 50.000 years ago — maybe even several millennia earlier.

These pioneers spread across Melanesia and Australia. They developed many distinct peoples, which are collectively referred to as Aboriginal Australians and Melanesians.

50.000 - 4.000 BCE

The Pioneers

Melanesian Hunter-Gatherers

For a long time Indigineous Papuans were the only inhabitants of New Guinea. They continued to settle even the remotest areas of the island, including the inaccessible central highlands as well as the inhospitable southern swamps.

Misool and Salawati were connected to New Guinea during this period. There are indications of Melanesians settling here, but we know very little about indigineous populations. Batanta and Waigeo were joined together by a land bridge, but never had a connection to the mainland. It is improbable that groups of hunter-gatherers made it there.

Approximately 10.000 - 8.500 years ago the rising sea levels cut off Misool's and Salawati's access to New Guinea. Latter also got separated from Australia by the Torres Strait. Further contact between the inhabitants of the two hemi-continents was rather sporadic. Whether indigineous populations remained in Raja Ampat is uncertain.

3.000 - 1.300 BCE

The Expansion

Austronesian Migrations

The Austronesian Expansion started between 5.000 and 4.000 years ago. Originating from Taiwan, the Austronesian people migrated into the Indo-Pacific region. They were the first people to invent oceangoing sailing technologies which enabled their rapid dispersal.

Austronesian sailors first crossed to the Philippines more than 4.000 years ago. Just a few centuries after their arrival they had spread throughout the archipelago, all the while refining their maritime skills. Taking advantage of the improved boats, the seafarers started to expanded further into the Indo-Pacific between 4.000 and 3.700 years ago.

By then, the Austronesian expansion had split up into several branches. Some groups quickly colonised Micronesia, while others settled throughout the rest of Maritime Southeast Asia. Austronesian migration reached Melanesia approximately 3.700 - 3.300 years ago.

1.300 - 1.000 BCE

New Arrivals

Austronesians in Melanesia

On New Guinea's north coast — and in Raja Ampat in particular — where Austronesian languages are spoken, a few tribes show a small Austronesian genetic signature (below 20%).

Austronesian influence in New Guinea, however, was limited to coastal regions — and even there populations only intermixed to a modest degree. There is no sign of this genetic signature at all among Papuan-speaking groups.

This suggests that Austronesians moved rather quickly through Melanesia and settled further east in the Pacific. Where contact between the seafarers and indigenous Melanesians was common, the latter mostly absorbed the incoming seafarers.

1.000 - 400 BCE

Transformation

Austronesian Influence in Papua

In coastal New Guinea — and particularly in Raja Ampat — the mixing of indigineous populations with Austronesians brought a variety of changes with it.

Some Melanesian groups benefitted from the newly acquired maritime skills and fully embraced the seafaring culture of their own. The introduction of new domesticated plants and animals led to a transition away from the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

These tribes colonised islands that had formerly been out of reach or uninhabitable for the indigineous people. It didn't take long for them to develop their own distinct Cultures and Languages. Their descendants still occupy large areas of New Guinea's north coast today.

400 BCE - 700 CE

Diversification

Further Cultural Developments

Over the next centuries, cultural diversification in coastal New Guinea and the surrounding islands continued. Migration movements continued and led to further complex cultural, genetic and linguistic exchange. The different tribes, that had dispersed along Papua's north coast and spread over the Raja Ampat archipelago, developed distinct cultures and languages.

Slowly trade developed among New Guinea's coastal people.At first, trade was localised, but soon the routes reached from Cenderawasih Bay to the Maluku islands. Wherever there was an exchange of goods, the exchange of culture soon followed. This led to further admixture of customs, language and mythology.

700 - 1300

Srivijaya

The Hindu-Buddhist Empire

The roots of the Srivijaya empire developed in the early 6th century in Sumatra. In the 7th century, the kingdom had extended its reach across Sumatra, the Malay Peninsula as well as west and central Java.

From the 7th to the 12th century, the Srivijaya empire engaged in trade relations with western New Guinea, taking items like sandalwood and birds-of-paradise. With the decline of the empire towards the end of 12th century these trade relations ceased to exist.

1300 - 1450

First Mention

The Majapahit Empire

The first written mention of Papua is in the Negarakertagama — written in 1.365 — in which the East-Javanese Majapahit kingdom claimed rule over coastal New Guinea.

In reality however, the Majapahit kingdom had no more than a distant trade network connecting Java to New Guinea — just like the Srivijaya empire before. There is no evidence of the kingdom's direct influence reaching Papua. Other Javanese kingdoms probably maintained a similar relationship with New Guinea.

1450 - 1526

Spice Islands

Sultanates of the Moluccas

By the 15th century the elites of the Maluku Islands' trade centers had converted to islam. Merchants from the newly formed sultanates developed exclusive trading ties with Papua. The sultans of Tidore, Ternate, Bacan and Jailolo all claimed parts of New Guinea.

Due Papua's relationship with the Sultans of Maluku, several local kingdoms emerged along the coast. This marked Papua's entry into a system of feudalism. Most coastal areas of West New Guinea became vassals to the Sultanate of Tidore.

1526

European Discovery

The "Curly-Haired"

The Portuguese sailor and explorer Jorge de Menezes reached New Guinea’s north coast en route to Biak. He reportedly named the island Ilhas dos Papuas - referring to the Malay word papuwah, which translates to curly-haired.

1536

Kurabesi

& the Siege of Tidore

In 1534, the Portuguese laid siege to Tidore. This was to become an important moment for Raja Ampat. The Papuan warrior and seafarer Kurabesi aided Tidore’s sultan in defeating the foreign invaders. In return, Kurabesi was married to the sultan’s daughter, a princess of Tidore.

Together, the newlyweds moved back to Raja Ampat and had four children: three sons and a daughter. It was these children that grew up to become the four rulers, after which the archipelago is named: Raja Ampat - the Four Kings.

1545 - 1600

Spanish Exploration

in & around New Guinea

The sultanate of Tidore formed close ties to Spain during this time. In 1545, Yñigo Ortiz de Retez, left from Tidore to explore large parts — and in fact naming — the island of New Guinea.

The first map showing the whole island (as an island) was published in 1600. Luís Vaz de Torres explored the southern coast of New Guinea. Starting Milne Bay in modern day PNG, he made it all the way to Raja Ampat. On the way he claimed several territories for the King of Spain.

1600 - 1663

The VOC

Arrival of the Dutch

The VOC started its activity in Indonesia in the early 17th century, focusing on the incredibly lucrative spice trade. Despite the Moluccas being the centre of Dutch spice trade, only few of their expeditions reached New Guinea.

The Spanish remained active in Papua and the Maluku islands for some time, supporting the sultanate of Tidore. Britain and Portugal both tried to compete with and undermine the VOC’s spice trade. The Dutch, however, steadily increased their grip on the region.

In 1660, the VOC and the sultan of Tidore signed a treaty, recognising Tidore’s rule over West New Guinea. In return, the sultan pledged to help defend the Dutch spice monopoly against European rivals. Only three years later the Spanish left the region, while Portuguese and English still maintained a minor presence.

1663 - 1779

Spice Trade

The Rule of the VOC

Tidore resisted direct Dutch control for some time, but the VOC inevitably gained more and more influence. Both, Ternate and Tidore, allowed the Dutch spice eradication program, strengthening the Dutch spice monopoly by limiting production to a few places. At the same time this impoverished the sultanates and weakened their control over the region.

Up to this point, the almost three centuries of colonial presence in the region have had only minimal influence on the life in Papua. However, in 1780 the Dutch arrested and exiled the sultan of Tidore. As his replacement a regent was appointed and forced to sign a treaty that reduced Tidore to a Dutch vassal.

1780 - 1800

Nuku Rebellion

Part One

The exiled sultan's son Nuku, however, had other plans for Tidore. He called himself Sultan of Tidore and Papua. Many Malukans and Papuans — Raja Ampat in particular — sided with him, since he was the only one standing up against European’s and their puppet-sultans in the region.

Nuku’s rebellion against Tidore was first successful in 1783, killing all Europeans on the island and forcing the sultan to declare war on the VOC. However, just months later the Dutch in cooperation with Ternate took back the island. Nuku managed to escape, but continuous attacks on the rebels by Dutch forces weakened his position up to 1790.

In 1791 the rebellion gained momentum and just six years later — after heaving defeated the VOC’s posts in the region — Nuku’s forces put Tidore under blockade. From 1797 this made him Tidore’s de-facto ruler.

1800

The New Colony

VOC Dutch East Indies

War expenses, corruption, mismanagement and smuggling led to the VOC’s bankruptcy by the end of the 18th century. The company was formally dissolved in 1800. Its colonial possessions in the Indonesian archipelago were nationalised under the Dutch Republic as the Dutch East Indies.

1800 - 1810

Nuku Rebellion

Part Two

After having laid siege to the Dutch fortress on Ternate for several years, in 1801 — with the assistance of the British Navy — Nuku forced the Dutch to surrender. Immediately afterward, the British officially proclaimed Nuku Sultan of Tidore, though he had already been the actual ruler for four years.

The British, however, left Maluku in 1803, leaving Nuku to fend for himself. He eventually died in 1805, with his kingdom on the brink of war. Dutch forces reconquered Tidore in 1806, forcing Nuku’s brother and successor into exile. He — and the rebellion with him — died in 1810.

1800 - 1855

Quiet Times

The Forgotten Territory

Most of the following century came and went uneventful in West Papua. The Dutch had not shown any efforts to develop the region, until the British showed interest in the area. The Dutch reaction was to established a trade post close to modern-day Kaimana: Fort Du Bus.

In 1828, at the opening ceremony of Fort Du Bus, the dutch laid claim over West New Guinea from the 141st longitude west. This claim was to be repeated in the name of the sultan of Tidore in 1848. Great Britain and Germany later recognised the Dutch claims in treaties. However, no further attempts to develop region were made until 1890.

1855

Missionaries

Ottow & Geissler

In 1855, the two German missionaries Ottow and Geissler arrived on Mansinam islands close to Manokwari. Today, their names are still widely recognised in Papua and their arrival is celebrated every year.

The missionaries started converting locals, though with little success at first. It took another 50 years before their movement gained traction. By the early 20th century, however, almost the entire north coast of West Papua had converted to christianity — which is still an important part of life in Papua today.

1855 - 1863

Alfred Russel Wallace

The Naturalist’s Journey to Papua

The British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace travelled through the Malay Archipelago for almost a decade. From his base in Ternate, he visited the Maluku islands and then crossed to Raja Ampat in 1860.

The naturalist spent three months in Raja Ampat, collecting specimen from — and cataloguing the archipelago’s flora and fauna. He was especially interested in the Red Bird of Paradise. The descriptions in his book The Malay Archipelago give us a rough idea of the life in Papua at the time.

Wallace is famous for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection. He was one of his era’s great discoverers and scientists, with major contributions to Biogeography, Environmental Issues and Astrobiology. Sadly, his importance to modern natural science is often overlooked.

1863 - 1900

First Efforts

Settlements along the Coast

In reality the most part of New Guinea still remained outside colonial influence until 1890. Little was known about the interior — large areas on the map were white and the number of inhabitants of the island was unknown.

Finally, in 1896 the Dutch began to establish settlements in the coastal areas in response to other colonial activities on the eastern half of New Guinea. A few years later the first officials representing the Dutch government settled in Manokwari, Fakfak and Merauke.

1900 - 1924

Growing Interest

in West New Guinea

In 1901, the Netherlands formally purchased West New Guinea from the Sultanate of Tidore, incorporating it into the Netherlands East Indies.

In the early 20th century, the Dutch started to explore Papua’s north coast and the surrounding islands. The expeditions went on for more than a decade and — for the first time — navigated up rivers inland and progressed into New Guinea’s unknown interior.

In 1920, a Dutch Resident settled in Manokwari, making West Papua officially a dutch Residence. After only four years, however, the status was revoked and West Papua was once again incorporated into the Ambon residence.

1924 - 1930

A Tropical Holland

A new Home for Indos

With rising movements towards Indonesian independence, the Indos — people of mixed Dutch-Indonesian descent — started to show an interest in Papua. They wanted to establish New Guinea as a settlement territory for Eurasians. Most of their settlements ended in failure because of the harsh climate and natural conditions, or simply because most settlers previously had been office workers, unskilled in agriculture.

1930 - 1942

Unexpected Discoveries

of Resources & Peoples

In the 1930s, Dutch, American and Japanese mining companies led explorations looking for natural resources in West New Guinea. They soon recognised the regions huge potential.

Prior to about 1930, Europeans thought Papua’s highlands to be uninhabited forests. When first flown over by aircraft, numerous settlements were observed. A significant discovery were the Paniai Lakes in 1936. However, most startling was Richard Archbold’s discovery of the Baliem Valley in 1938.