History of Savu

Notes on history

Like other islands in the area, Savu has probably been inhabited since Neolithic times. Archaeological research has shown that the cave Lie Madira on the north coast of Mesara was occupied 6000 years ago; the diet of its inhabitants consisted essentially of fish and molluscs. It is probable that the Austronesian migrations in the first millennium have brought settlers to Savu. If the genealogies transmitted by the priests are used as a means of measuring time, Savu’s memory goes back to the first millennium CE.

In the 1970s two ancient ceremonial bronze axes were found in the district of Seba (Kecamatan Sabu Barat). One is at the Provincial Museum in Kupang (see below; courtesy of the Museum); the whereabouts of the second axe is not known. The bronze axe which shows a central anthropomorphic figure and two confronting crocodiles was excavated by farmers who were building a water reservoir for wet rice cultivation in the village of Raedewa, district of Seba. Its good condition is certainly due to the fact that it was still in its mould when it was excavated.

Ceremonial bronze axe

Ceremonial bronze axe

Savu is not mentioned in the list of tributaries of the Majapahit Empire (12-14th Century). A number of sites and objects carry the name ‘Maja’ which people attribute to the presence of settlers on the island during Majapahit times. Scientific proof is still lacking and more research is needed in this matter. Long before the arrival of Europeans in the Lesser Sundas, the area was involved in trade with India and the Arab world as well as with China. Chinese texts of the 13th and 15th C report on sandalwood trading with Timor.

Six traditional independent ‘states’ or polities are known for Savu: Teriwu which is recognized as the oldest ‘state’, Dimu, Liae, Menia, Mesara and Seba. However, Teriwu had lost its political independence at the time of the arrival of Europeans in the 16th Century but retained its primacy in religious matters (see Genealogies).

Banyan trees, Tuwi, West Savu

Banyan trees at Tuwi, a place related to Kore Rohi in Portuguese times.

No Portuguese sources regarding Savu and Raijua have been found so far. According to the genealogies of the island contacts with the Portuguese existed in the first half of the 16th Century. The ruler of Seba, Kore Rohi of the clan Nataga, is remembered as the first raja of Portuguese times while in Dimu the position of first raja is disputed by two clans: Natadu with Luji Talo and Nadowu with Tuka Hida. Kore Rohi and Luji Talo were indeed contemporary and related through marriages. Two to three generations later rajas of Portuguese times are mentioned in the oral genealogies of Liae and Mesara with respectively Lobo Dahi (clan Nanawa) and Lado Rohi (clan Napupudi).

A few written Dutch documents from the VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Companie) exist, covering the last three to four centuries. Some one hundred years after the arrival of the Portuguese Savu is mentioned in a VOC document of 1648 reporting two meetings, first in Menia and later in Dimu where three rulers were chosen as representatives of the VOC on the island. However, their names have not been located with certainty in the genealogies. In the same year, there is a mention of 60 Savunese slaves purchased for the VOC by sengajis [village heads] of the island of Adonara. But instead of bringing the slaves to the fort of Solor, they were brought by night to Larantuka (Flores) where they were sold to Portuguese merchants (See J. Fox 1977 ; R.H. Barnes 1996).

In July 1674 the VOC sloop de Carper ran onto a reef in Dimu. The ship was ransacked and the crew murdered. The Dutch records report that “Thalo and Liffkone murdered Captain Wagenburgh with their own hands”. Enraged by the sacking and the murder of the ship’s Captain, the Dutch wanted to take sanctions against Dimu. It is only two years later that the VOC could receive the help of the rajas of Amarasi (Timor), Termanu (Roti) and Seba and could put the fortified place of Hurati in Dimu under siege for a few months.  Unable to enter the place the troops retreated, but Dimu, as well as all other domains of Savu, were requested to pay a heavy fine to the Dutch: 100 slave men, 100 women and 100 boys, as well as 150 taëls of gold and 150 taëls of corals (beads / muti salak). (See J. Fox 1977). A manuscript of 1677 mentions that “after the Savunese have been so severely beaten, they were extremely obedient and friendly”.

 Because of the heavy burden of the fines they had to pay to the Dutch resentment from all other domains grew against Dimu which complained to be constantly harassed by Liae, Mesara and Seba and in 1682 asked for the help of the VOC. A reconciliation meeting orchestrated by the VOC took place in Seba in June 1682. Peace did not last long and towards the end of the 16th Century, the entire island was again at war. Some clans were allied to the Portuguese, others to the Dutch, the division cutting through a domain, a clan or even through lineages. War alliances are still remembered and the names of ancestors who received compensatory parcels of land after a victory are to be found in the genealogies (See Duggan 2011).

In June 1756, more than 100 years after their first contact with Savu, the VOC signed formal treaties with each of the five domains (negeri) of Savu: Seba, Mesara, Menia, Dimu and Liae. The rulers were Jara Wadu of Seba, Hili Haba of Dimu, Dimu Kore of Mesara and Kore Rohi of Liae. Their names can be traced in the Savu genealogies. The text of the treaty, known as the treaty of Paravicini, stipulates that the VOC will offer protection to the population and as compensation will receive agricultural products and manpower. Its purpose was, in fact, to provide the VOC with manpower (soldiers and ‘slaves’), and to prohibit any trade with other countries. For this, a representative was posted in Savu. However, only two VOC representatives stayed on Savu in the following 100 years.

Beach of Seba

Beach of Seba where Captain Cook bartered muskets for food supply in 1770. Rocks of Bodo, the place of residence of the fetor Manu Jami

Captain James Cook on the Endeavour met one of them, Johann Christopher Lange, when he called at Savu in September 1770.  Cook met with the raja of Seba, Lomi Jara, and ‘an old raja’ who appeared to be the fetor (Second Regent) Manu Jami, son of the offensive fetor Jami Lobo, well remembered in Seba and Menia.

Settlements of Savu people in West Timor and Flores (since 18th C), and in Sumba (19th C) were created by the establishment of garrisons of Savu soldiers serving the Dutch. After the island opened to Dutch influence in the 1860s (at the time of another important figure of Seba, Ama Nia Jawa) the population was decimated twice by smallpox (1869 and 1888) and once by cholera (1874). (See Fox 1977: 166; 1996: 222).

After some people converted to Christianity in the early years of Portuguese and Dutch times, Christianisation and education developed at a slow pace on Savu compared with islands like Roti, Timor or Flores.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the raja of Seba became the raja of Savu, thus giving him supremacy over all other states. The rajas of the other domains on the island were demoted and given the title of fetor or ‘Second Regents’. After Independence, the island was divided into two districts (kecamatan), West Savu covering the former domains of Seba, Mesara, Menia and the island of Raijua, and East Savu covering Liae and Dimu.

After autonomy was granted to the provinces (Regional Autonomy Law of 1999 or RAL, implemented in 2001), Raijua became a kecamatan. On Savu new kecamatan were created corresponding to the domains of pre-Independence times: Seba or Sabu Barat, Mesara or Hawu Mehara, Liae, Dimu and a new kecamatan Sabu Tenggah was formed (see map of Savu). This allowed for the creation of a new Kabupaten Sabu-Raijua in 2008 and a Bupati, Tobias Uli was nominated. The first elected Bupati, Marten Dira Tome, took his office in January 2011. The most noticeable changes observed since the creation of the Kabupaten are the daily flight connections to Kupang, the provincial capital,  24 hour-electricity in the vicinity of Seba, an extension of the harbour of Seba, and improved infrastructures, especially in the villages of Dimu.


For references see Bibliography