A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE PAST
Our short, yet detailed summary is meant to give you an overview on the unusual circumstances leading to the development of the unique culture found in Raja Ampat today.
A captivating journey through time.
The First Settlers
Bonds With Australia
Papua’s early history is vague and mysterious, but what we can tell with certainty is the arrival of the first people in New Guinea anywhere between 60.000 and 30.000 years ago.
By then, Australia and New Guinea were still connected into a single land mass, Sahul. Southern parts of Raja Ampat - Misool, Salawati and many of the surrounding islands - were part of the continent too. The northern islands of Batanta and Waigeo were joined into a single island, but never had a connection to the mainland.
These early settlers moved on to occupy the entire continent of Sahul and reached even the remotest areas in Papua’s highlands. Then, approximately 10.000 years ago, the rising sea levels led to the separation of New Guinea from Australia. History shows that further contact between the inhabitants of the two hemi-continents was rather sporadic.
If these first groups of hunters and gathers made it all the way to Batanta and Waigeo is still unclear, but there is evidence of their presence on Misool and Salawati.
Seafarers From Taiwan
The Austronesian Migration
Originating from southern China, roughly 9.000 years ago the Austronesian people started their migration South-East. First occupying Taiwan, they rapidly moved further south, leaping from archipelago to archipelago.
Passing the Philippines, Borneo, Sulawesi they finally reached Raja Ampat around 4.000 years ago. Spreading further to settle even the remotest islands in the Pacific, Austronesians still had a remaining presence in New Guinea. This is especially visible in Raja Ampat, where, over millennia, their appearance was followed by long periods of interaction between the Papuan intervals and the new arrivals.
These periods of settling alongside and mixing with the local population resulted in many complex changes in genetics, languages and culture in the entire Raja Ampat archipelago.
Contact With The Surroundings
Early Bounds and Trade Routes
Probably the first written mention of Papua is in the “Negarakertagama”, in which the East-Javanese kingdom of Majapahit claimed rule over coastal New Guinea as early as the 14th century.
In reality however, said document probably mentions no more than a distant trade network connecting the Javanese to Papua, there are no signs showing any direct influence of ancient Javanese kingdoms this far east.
Legend Or Truth
The Four Kings
An Old Bloodline
Legend tells us, around 500 years ago a daughter was born to the guardians of the “Kali Raja” - the King’s River in Raja Ampat. To avoid the shame this would have brought upon them, the river guardians let the newborn float out onto the open ocean on a small raft.
As fortune would have it, the child was washed ashore on an island we know today as Mioskon, where passing seafarers picked it up. The sailors, warriors and explorers from Biak, took the newborn to Numfoor island. There, she grew up and got married to a local chief, with whom she had a son named Kurabesi.
While this story can't be proven, many historical facts give us clues to what actually might have happened. If the newborn child was found on a deserted island
The Neighbouring Sultanate
Tidore's Role And Influence
With the rise of the first influential kingdoms on the Maluku islands, the sultanates of Ternate and Tidore started to be major players in the area. The territorial expansions inevitably led to prolonged conflicts, culminating in a fully grown war between the rivaling sultanates.
During the war of the sultans it was Kurabesi, a skilled warrior and excellent seafarer told to have power over the ancient spirits, who ultimately helped the sultan of Tidore to defeat his enemies. For his service Kurabesi was rewarded with the marriage to one of the sultans daughters, a princess of Tidore.
Together, the newlyweds moved back to settle in Raja Ampat. They had four children together, three sons and a daughter, who moved to different parts of the archipelago. Later, it was those four who were chosen to be rulers over the archipelago by its local population. Up to this day they are remembered as Raja Ampat, which literally translated means Four Kings.
The influence and the close ties the four kings maintained to their mother’s kingdom of origin are still visible today in many places all over Raja Ampat. The population shows a mixture of both, Malukan and Melanesian features.
Discovery And Colonisation
The Dutch East Indies
The first recorded sighting of the Raja Ampat archipelago by European sailors took place in 1526, by the Portuguese navigator Jorge de Menezes and his crew.
Later, with the invasion of the Maluku islands and the Sultanate of Tidore by the Dutch, the Netherlands inherited claim over the Raja Ampat islands from the sultan and, along with the western half of New Guinea, incorporated the archipelago into their colony, the Dutch East Indies.
The Dutch continued to rule, with waning influence, over the entire Indonesian archipelago until the second world war.
The Split From The East Indies
When the Netherlands realised Indonesian independence was inevitable, they hived New Guinea, including Raja Ampat, off the Dutch East Indies and declared it an entirely separate colony.
With the Indo-Europeans likely to be banned from independent Indonesia, the Dutch were looking for alternatives and started to invest into the island for the first time. Up until then, New Guinea had been the single least developed part of the entire colony.
A New Chapter
A New Ruler
Bowing to the ever rising international pressure, in 1962 the Netherlands handed West New Guinea to the United Nations.
In 1963 the United Nations reacted to Indonesia’s claim, backed by the USA, and under the understanding that there would be an "Act Of Free Choice”, which allowed inhabitants to decide upon their future within five years, passed control over to the Indonesian government.
Introduction Of Tourism
Politics, however, had noticeably little effect on Raja Ampat’s people and their way of life until just a few decades ago.
The introduction of tourism had - and has up until today - a huge influence on developments in the area. With the split from Sorong and the establishment of “Kabupaten Raja Ampat” in 2004, a new era got kickstarted in the young province.
While the population of the archipelago’s more remote parts still predominantly self-sustaining with a focus on fishing and small-scale agriculture, other parts have recently developed to depend almost exclusively on tourism.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
The fair distribution of wealth remains to be one of the biggest challenges in Raja Ampat.
While the already high price standard exploded in the past decade, the majority of people, especially outside Dampier Strait, benefit very little from the boom in recent years. Further, ever rising visitor numbers lead to ever increasing pressure on the environment.
Continue to read more about fair and sustainable tourism in Raja Ampat.