‘The Forgotten Islands’ lie in Indonesian waters to the north and east of Timor on this map. In September our vessel the Ombak Putih will be visiting Kisar Island on our East Indies Exploration 2017 voyage with SeaTrek.
Just 10km wide, Kisar is a roughly square-shaped, dry and rocky coral island with a strange topography. It has been tectonically uplifted in stages which has left a terraced coral landscape around its margins. The highest terrace stands about 130-140 metres above sea level. This outer ring of hills is segmented by steep clefts providing access to the interior where the majority of the islanders live. The inland part of the island is hilly, the highest elevation being 240m-high Gunung Taitulu/Daitilu located in the northern half of the island. A number of lagoon-like depressions separate this central region from the outer ring of terraced hills.
A cliff terrace behind the port of Nama on the west coast (Photo by Hans-Peter Grumpe)
The Dutch East India Company (VOC) first established a small defensive garrison on the island in 1665 and the mixed-race European-Kisarese community on Kisar today is actually descended from sixteen European soldiers who served on the island during the late 1700’s (Engelenhoven 2016). Under the command of distant Ambon, their presence on Kisar remained purely symbolic and when Dutch interest waned the residual occupants of the garrison remained on the island, marrying local women of both Dutch and Kisar descent.
The remains of the VOC Fort Delfshaven
VOC Insignia found on The Forgotten Islands (Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory)
The mixed-race children of the Dutch soldiers would become the first in a long line of Eurasians who would become known as the ‘Mestees of Kisar’. These families tended to intermarry in order to retain much of their Dutch heritage and many of the island’s inhabitants today have surnames that relate back to these early Dutch soldiers such as Bellmin-Belder, Caffin, Coenradi, Joostenz, Lander, Lerrick, Peelman, Ruff, Schilling, van Delsen, and Wouthuysen. Some hold the name Bakker and they are the decendants of the first Christian leader of Kisar named Pakar.
The German physical anthropologist Ernst Rodenwaldt studied this community in detail and published his book Die Mestizen auf Kisar in 1927, which documents the history of these families and remains a valued heritage document for the ‘Mestees of Kisar’.
Die Mestizen auf Kisar (Photo – Geert Snoeijer)
In 1918 the famous Dutch artist W.O.J. Nieuwenkamp visited Kisar and produced this drawing of its terrain and showing its large sheep or goat population.
In 1838 the British Government of New South Wales established Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula in the now Northern Territory. Anxious to develop British trade across the East Indies, the trade representative George Windsor Earl sailed from Port Essington on an exploratory trading voyage to Timor and the South Eastern Islands that very same year.
His first view of the south coast of Kisar on 20 July 1838 was positive: It certainly presented a most picturesque appearance: the summit of every hill was crowned with a village of neat thatched houses, shaded by large trees; each village being surrounded by a wall formed of stones piled on one another to the height of about 8 feet. The steep sides of the hills exhibited numerous herds of buffaloes, goats, and sheep; while between the hills we occasionally had a glimpse of the interior, which appeared to be in a high state of cultivation. The fertile hills were richly planted with rice, sugarcane, yams, sweet potatoes, tobacco, cotton and numerous vegetables, while the chief fruits were mangoes, breadfruit, melons, oranges, lemons and plantains.
George Windsor Earl was here to obtain provisions for the newly established outpost at Port Essington. The Kisarese were keen to trade and within 48 hours the British sailed with 20 bullocks, 120 sheep, 60 pigs, a number of fowls, 3 tons of yams, with fruit, cocoa-nuts, plantains, etc., all of which had been purchased by goods which cost at Sydney less than £50 Sterling. However Port Essington failed to attract settlers and almost ten years later the settlement was deemed unsustainable. Before its closure in 1849, British scientist Thomas Huxley wrote that Port Essington was “most wretched, the climate the most unhealthy, the human beings the most uncomfortable and houses in a condition most decayed and rotten”.
The photographic exhibition held by Geert Snoeijer in Jakarta
As the descendants of Dutch soldiers stationed on the island, the mestizos considered themselves superior to the endemic population and tended to inter-marry. Consequently they retained numerous physical characteristics, such as skin colour, hair type, hair colour, and eye colour, which distinguished them from the native population. In early 2017 a photographic exhibition by Geert Snoeijer was held in Jakarta entitled ‘The Forsaken Children of the Compagnie’.
Carola Joostenz – photo by Geert Snoeijer
Anna Siane Kaipatty-Lerrick – photo by Geert Snoeijer
Cornelis Wouthuysen – Photo by Geert Snoeijer
The ‘Mestees of Kisar’ are proud of their heritage and after Indonesian Independence in 1945, the invitation by the Dutch Government to come to the Netherlands confirmed their Dutch identity. Nevertheless, because they stressed their Indonesian identity, most of them did not want to leave the island.
My thanks to Randall Rutledge who contributed to this blogpost.
David Richardson contributed significant material to this blogpost and has an extensive study of the history and culture of Kisar on the Asian Textiles website:
Geert Snoeijer organised the exhibition of his photographs in Jakarta and more details are on his website:
Details of the East Indies Exploration 2017 voyage can be found on the SeaTrek website