Located at the eastern end of the Lesser Sunda Islands, Kisar Island lays well off the beaten track despite being very close to the eastern tip of Timor Island. Like the other South Western Islands to which it belongs it has always been difficult to visit although access has greatly improved since 1996 following the construction of a small airstrip.


Description: Kisar Island from the west

The whole of Kisar Island seen from the west


The Dutch and the Portuguese before them showed little commercial interest in Kisar, although its ruler did persuade the Dutch to establish a small defensive garrison on the island in 1665 following threats from the Portuguese and a surprise raid by the Sultan of Tidore. Under the command of distant Banda and later Ambon, their presence remained purely symbolic and as Dutch interest waned in the late 1700s, the residual occupants of the garrison remained on the island, marrying local women of both Dutch and Kisar descent. Their mestizo offspring formed a separate community, which considered itself superior to the native population. Early attempts by missionaries from Ambon to evangelise the island turned out to be a dismal failure.

Meanwhile in 1721, Fataluku immigrants from East Timor arrived on Kisar and established a small enclave in the region of Oirata. They too kept themselves socially detatched and linguistically segregated from the rest of the island, forming a second self-contained community.

Although Kisar received numerous seaborne visitors during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, it remained relatively isolated, the main points of contact being Ambon, East Timor and the neighbouring culturally similar South Western Islands. Since the 1920s the island has been left to its own devices, apart from three years of barbaric occupation by the Japanese. That isolation continued following Indonesian independence and actually worsened following the invasion of Portuguese Timor by the Republic of Indonesia in 1975.

Whilst the island still remains highly undeveloped it has received increasing political attention since the 1990s and a limited amount of modernisation. Although communications with the outside world are improving, Kisar still retains an air of mystery and fascination.


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Early History
Kisar in the Nineteenth Century
Kisar in the Twentieth Century
The Genealogy of the Rajas of Kisar
The Modern Kisar Economy
The Languages of Kisar
The Ethnography of Kisar



Tiny Kisar Island lays in the eastern part of the Wetar Strait, roughly halfway between the islands of Wetar and Leti. Its location - exactly 25km north of the eastern tip of independent Timor-Leste – is unusual from a geological perspective. It sits midway between the volcanic Inner Banda Arc, encompassing the islands of Lembata, Alor, Wetar, Romang and Damar, and the non-volcanic Outer Banda Arc, encompassing the islands of Sumba, Savu, Roti, Timor, Sermata, Tanimbar, Kei and Seram (Tomascik, Mah, Nontji and Moosa 2013, part 1, 784). The geologist van Bemmelen (1949) concluded that non-volcanic Kisar must be positioned on a western extension of the Leti-Sermata Ridge.


Description: Map showing the location of Kisar

Kisar Island is located at the eastern end of the Wetar Strait


Just 10km wide, Kisar is a roughly square-shaped, dry and rocky island with a strange topography. Ernst Rodenwaldt described it as a gigantic elevated atoll (1927, 2). It is encircled by sparsely vegetated hills that are mostly terraced, although some have steep-sided cliffs facing the ocean. 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.

The seas surrounding Kisar are dangerous and landing can be difficult, especially at the beginning of the rainy season. The whole island is surrounded by a submerged coral reef and is predominantly fringed by low coral cliffs, broken here and there by a few narrow inlets and steep sandy beaches. There are two small ports – Nama on the west side and Jawalan on the east side - both linked to the interior by clefts in the hills.


Description: Cleft on Kisar island, Hans-Peter Grumpe

One of the steep-sided clefts breaking the outer ring of terraced hills
(Image courtesy of Hans-Peter Grumpe, Germany)


Description: Southern part of the eastern coastline of Kisar, Hans-Peter Grumpe

The hills along the southern part of the eastern coastline terminate with steep cliffs
(Image courtesy of Hans-Peter Grumpe, Germany)


It seems likely that the island was once entirely covered in tropical dry and semi-evergreen forest. Today it is mostly denuded apart from a few remnant patches of closed canopy tropical forest, growing in the sheltered rock gullies that are fed by spring water. Kisar’s scrubby savannah grassland is interspersed with tall lontar palms (Borassus flabelifer, locally known as koli palms), kusum or lac trees (Schleichera oleosa), and Acacia (Trainor 2003). Kisar suffers from a long dry season from April to November and is the most arid island in the southern Moluccas. It lacks any surface streams and the only source of water during the dry season is from hand-dug wells (Pohjakas, Livingston and Lubis 1976, 39). The rainy season begins in late November and finishes in March (Sahusilawane, Kembauw and Risyat 2013).


Description: Aerial view of Kisar Island

Aerial view of Kisar Island, showing the outer ring of denuded coral limestone hills carved by gullies and the cultivated interior (Image courtesy of Google Earth)


Description: Topographical map of Kisar Island

Topographical map of Kisar Island, with an elevated periphery segmented by channels
(Image courtesy of Google Earth)


Description: Aerial view across Kisar Island from the northeast

View across Kisar Island from the northeast, showing the road from the airstrip to Nomaha (Image courtesy of yusudasa.script)


Kisar is a geologically recent coral island that emerged from the sea about half a million years ago (Major et al 2013). Rodenwaldt suggested that the atoll Meaterialam, just east of Lakor, provided an example of how Kisar may have looked at an earlier stage in its geological evolution (1927, 2). Kisar has been tectonically uplifted in stages, resulting in a terraced coral landscape. This uplift continues to the present day at the rate of half-a-centimetre per decade. One geologist has suggested that Kisar is one of the finest examples of a terraced island (Molengraaff 1929).


Description: Pulau Meaterialam

Pulau Meaterialam (Image courtesy of Google Earth)


Description: Geological map of Kisar

Geological map of Kisar showing the main terraces, numbered I to V
(from Major et al 2013)


Description: The headland of Manu On

Terracing on the headland of Manu On, which forms the southwest corner of the island


Despite its small size Kisar is densely populated with 14,015 inhabitants spread across nine villages and fifteen hamlets, all located on the inner island (2010 census). The population by Kelurahan was as follows: Lekloor (1,271), Oirata Barat (555), Oirata Timur (1,011), Abusur (803), Kota Lama (833), Wonreli (6,652), Nomaha (640), Purpura (398), and Lebelau (1,852).


Description: Wonreli centre

The centre of Wonreli looking down to the main Pasar Yotowawa with the fish market on the right


The main settlement of Wonreli is located in a low-lying region in the southwest, about 2km inland from the tiny harbour of Nama. The old town of Kota Lama is on the north side of the harbour road, while Wonreli is to the south. Lekloor lies immediately south of Wonreli. Wonreli is a rather scruffy place, with a food and provisions market, a fish market, bank, clinic and some shops and kiosks. It is linked by good roads to the small John Becker Airport at Purpura in the northeast. Merchant ships call into the port of Nama almost daily, mostly delivering cargo. Two ships service Kisar from Surabaya, Ambon and Kupang almost every week (Tamindael 16.03.2012), the crossing from Ambon taking from two to five days depending on the number of stops along the way. A fortnightly Pelni connects Kisar with Leti, Moa, Lakor, Luang, and Tanimbar as well as West Timor. Smaller boats occasionally connect the island to Dili and Atapupu on Timor.

An airstip was opened in 1996. From about 2009 onwards the island was unreliably served by weekly flights from Ambon by Merpati and Susi Air. Following the interruption of the Merpati service in late 2013, Avian Air began operating three flights a week. Today the only air services are provided by Susi Air, which flies a small Cessna to Kisar twice a week from Kupang, and by Dimonim Air, which flies a Cessna from Ambon weekly. The island remains highly undeveloped and, despite the pristine white sandy beaches that line its western fringes, it remains difficult to access and is rarely visited by outsiders.


Description: Villages and roads on Kisar Island

Villages and roads on Kisar Island. Some 62% of the population live in the adjacent settlements of Wonreli, Kota Lama and Lekloor. Note that Lekloor is actually south of Wonreli. (Image reproduced with kind permission of


Kisar is locally known as Yotowawa, Jotowawa or Iotovava in the Meher language (Engelenhoven 2013, 255). Another local name is Daisuli or Yotowawa Daisuli. Yotowawa has been variously interpreted as meaning ‘highland’, ‘remote rocky island’ and ‘sheep island’ (Engelenhoven and Nazarudin 2016, 195). In the colonial literature Kisar has been variously referred to as Kissa, Kissar, Kisser, Kiasar, Keisar, Kisher, Makisser, Makisar and Makissar.

During the Dutch colonial era Kisar was grouped within the Onderafdeeling Zuidwester-eilanden, which were initially administered from Serwaru on Leti but later from Wonreli on Kisar. The Dutch also referred to these islands as the Kleine Oost or Little East (Van Hoëvell 1855, 225), while the Ambonese called them Pulau-Pulau Selatan Daya, the South-Southeast Islands. The British called them the Serawatti or Serwatty Islands, possibly a corruption of Zuidwester.

The Dutch designation South Western Islands arises because these islands lie southwest of the Banda Islands, the centre of VOC spice trade operations in the seventeenth century.

Politically Kisar now belongs to the Kabupaten Maluku Barat Daya, South West Maluku Regency, in Provinsi Maluku. The Regency was established in 2008 with its administrative centre controversially based at Tiakur on Moa Island in the Leti Archipelago, rather than on Kisar. As a consolation, Wonreli became the administrative centre of Kecamatan (District) Pulau-Pulau Terselatan, which encompasses Kisar and neighbouring Romang, including the latters’ islets of Juha, Kital, Laut, Limtutu, Maopora, Mitan, Njata and Tellang. Attempts are underway to enlarge the Kecamatan by incorporating Wetar and Lirang.


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Early History

We know very little about pre-colonial Kisar. According to the oral history of the Oirata, their ancestor Hano'o was the first to settle on the island, having migrated there via the Damar Islands and Timor (Wedilan 2016).

The early history of Eastern Indonesia is still poorly understood – archaeological research in the region is still at a very early stage. Fortunately we do know that Kisar was occupied by Melanesian hunter-gatherers in the late Pleistocene. Archaeologists have discovered 36 caves or cliff-overhang sites on the island, some of which contain hand stamps and miniature wall paintings, as well as a megalithic stone fortress. It is thought that some of these caves were prehistoric shelters long before their walls were decorated with rock art. To date only one cave site has been excavated - Here Sorot Entapa on the south coast of Kisar facing Timor. It appears to have been a temporary shelter that was first occupied around 15,000 years ago, its inhabitants surviving on fish and shellfish (Alifah, Mahirta and O’Connor 2017).

It is possible that the residents came from Timor and were the descendants of the Melanesians who began migrating from Southeast Asia (Sundaland) to the continent of Sahul perhaps as early as 65,000 years ago. Some of these Melanesians settled on Timor - a few of their 42,000-year-old remains have been excavated from caves in East Timor (O’Connor 2007; O’Connor, Barham, Spriggs et al 2010; Malaspinas et al 2016). A much later wave of westward-migrating Papuans might have left the Bomberai Peninsula of West Papua some 6,000 years ago and reached East Timor around 4,500-4,000-years-ago (Ross 2005, 42; Klamer 2010, 24). It is possible that some settled on Kisar. The linguist Geoffrey Hull has proposed that these immigrants spoke an early form of Fataluku and reached East Timor after gradually progressing down the Watubela Archipelago to Tanimbar, Babar, Leti and possibly Kisar (Hull 2004, 65).


Description: Immigration from the Bomberai Peninsula

The proposed route of westward migration from the Bomberai Peninsula to Timor
(Image courtesy of Hull, 2004)


However it is also possible that there was no back migration from Papua and that todays Papuan-speakers on Kisar are the decendants of stay-behind members of the original wave of Melanesian immigrants. Schapper and Huber have more recently concluded that claims relating the link between the Papuan languages spoken in loctions such as East Timor and Kisar and thoise on the New Guinea mainland remain highly speculative (2012, 383).

It still remains a mystery of how and when the first maritime Austronesian-speakers arrived in the Timor region. After examining the distribution of two types of ceramics, Anderson (2005) proposed two major migration routes from southern China as far as Maluku: Neolithic I passed through Vietnam, Malaysia, Sumatra, Java and Sulawesi while Neolithic II passed through the Philippines and Sulawesi. These migrations were not agriculturally driven but reflected advances in seamanship and changes to wind patterns. This idea has resonated with linguists who have suggested that the Neolithic II expansion from the Philippines to Sulawesi subsequently split into two main paths – one to Halmahera and northern Papua, the second to Seram-Ambon and Timor (Tryon 2008, 37).

The limited archaeology available to date suggests that the spread of Austronesian-speaking people into the Timor region was not as simple as these models suggest (Spriggs 2003, 65). Recent archaeological work in East Timor shows an evolution in material culture, with the pre-Austronesian population already making innovations such as shell fishhooks and drilled shell beads over 16,000 years ago, advances possibly encouraged by inter-regional trade (O’Connor 2006, 74-87). Wilhelm Solheim (1996) had previously suggested that there had been increasing maritime interaction over this period, leading to the exchange of people, commodities and ideas across the breadth of Island Southeast Asia.


Description: A shell fish hook from East Timor

A complete Pleistocene shell fish hook from a cave site in East Timor
(Image courtesy of Professor Sue O'Connor)


The main shift in material culture along the north coast of East Timor occurred around 4,000 to 3,600 years ago, with many open settlements being suddenly abandoned. The remains of pottery and domestic animals make their first appearance in cave sites shortly afterwards - around 3,500 years ago (Spriggs, O'Connor and Veth 2003). These and other changes point to a rapid influx of Neolithic settlers who had arrived by sea and were already proficient in making ceramics (O'Connor 2015, 38). Their economy was not based on agriculture but on fishing, foraging and trade. Archaeology cannot tell us the language they spoke, but it is presumed that it was a dialect of Austronesian.

These immigrants left their mark in both East Timor and on Kisar in the form of a rich legacy of small cave paintings. Surveys of Kisar Island conducted in 2014 and 2015 discovered rock art in 28 coastal cave or cliff sites, art that bears striking similarities to examples previously identified in East Timor. The breadth of common features has led archaeologists to conclude that even at this early date, the two islands were connected by a shared ideology (O'Connor et al 2017). Although cave art is very difficult to date, a few of the rock paintings depict dogs, indicating that they must have been made after dogs were introduced into the region around 3,500 years ago. While some of the earliest may have been made around this time, it is likely that most date from the Bronze Age, which began around 2,500 years ago.

Some of the Kisar paintings show people in small boats, confirming that the artists belonged to a culture with seafaring skills. Others show people involved in various activities: pounding something like rice or corn, holding a shield and perhaps a weapon, and walking in a procession or dancing.


Description: Cave paintings from Jawalan

Cave paintings from Jawalan, Kisar Island:
A person in a small boat with a steering oar; two people pounding a mortar and another with a shield and possible weapon; and four people in a procession or dancing
(Images reproduced with the permission of Professor Sue O'Connor, ANU)


Many depict mysterious star-like roundels and sun bursts, a few associated with images of people. Professor Sue O'Connor, interprets these patterns as copies of motifs from imported Dong Son bronze drums, many of which have tympana incised with similar sun burst roundels. She suggests that these graphics point towards the existance of a social elite which emerged less than 2,500 years ago, its prosperity built on inter-island trade - bartering local produce, perhaps even spices, in return for bronze drums and other presige items (O'Connor et al 2017).


Description: Cave paintings from Kisar Island

Spiked roundels and sun bursts painted in two caves north of Jawalan
(Images reproduced with the permission of Professor Sue O'Connor, ANU)


Evidence that the South Western Islands were connected to an extensive Southeast Asian trade network, that was clearly in operation between 2,500 and 1,500 years ago, comes from local finds of the very same ancient Bronze Age drums. Two of the largest and most beautiful Heger Type I bronze kettle drums were found on Leti and Luang during the 1700s, and a further two were found on Koer Island in the Kei Archipelago (Van Heekeren 18 and 29-33; Imamura 2010, 42). They have been assigned to the late first millennium BC or early first millennium AD. In 2014 another bronze Dong Son drum thought to be over 2,000 years old was discovered at Baucau in Timor Leste (vietnamnet 03.12.2015).


Description: Remains of a bronze drum on Luang

Remains of an old bronze drum on Luang
(Jonge and Dijk 1995)


Description: Bronze drum on Alor

A Heger Type I bronze drum found in 1972 at Kokar on the north coast of the Bird's Head Peninsula on Alor Island (Museum of One Thousand Mokos, Kalabahi)


The view that Neolithic fisher-foragers swiftly spread through Island Southeast Asia roughly 4,000 years ago was challenged some time ago by the Australian linguist Geoffrey Hull. He controversailly proposed that the supposedly Austronesian material culture so far identified on Timor may have actually been that of Bomberai-speaking settlers who had migrated westwards from Western Papua, the ancestors of the present day Fatulukus (Hull 1998, 168). Hull argued that Austronesian culture had indeed been introduced from Sulawesi, as Anderson had proposed, but had arrived much much later than was previously thought.

His theory attempts to explain the origin of the languages spoken on Timor and the surrounding islands and may highlight the way in which Austronesian-speaking immigrants from Sulawesi arrived on Kisar. The Kisaric languages spoken on Kisar and Romang belong to the Timorese group of languages, which Hull has shown are closely linked to those from South Eastern Sulawesi – more specifically from the islands of Muna, Buna and the Tukang Besi Archipelago (Hull 1998,149-53). The precursors of the Kemak, Tokode, Idate and Mambai dialects, spoken in western and central East Timor, may have originated from the Muna and Buton Islands, while the Tetum, Galoli and so-called Kawamina family of dialects (Naueti, Waimaha, Kairui, and Midiki), spoken in central and eastern East Timor, may have initially migrated from the Tukung Besi Islands to Wetar and from there to the South West Islands and Timor (Hull 1998, 149-153; Hull 2000, 158; Palmer 2015, 68).

While the Austronesian languages may have arrived in north Sulawesi about 4,000 years ago, Hull proposes that they did not reach Kisar and Timor until very much later. Hull hypothesises that following an invasion by the Wolio people of Southwest Sulawesi, displaced Austronesian-speakers from the Muna and Buton Islands migrated through the Ombai Strait to reach the Dili region of East Timor. Not long afterwards, immigrants from the Tukang Besi Islands reached Wetar Island before dispersing southwards to East Timor and eastwards to Kisar and the other South Western Islands (Hull 1998, 150-151). The latter abandoned their homeland because of its harsh natural environment, overpopulation and possibly famine, and were able to do so because of their remarkable seafaring abilities (Donohue 1995, 517 cited by Hull 1998, 139). Hull believes that they arrived close to and no later than the eleventh century AD. Prior to their arrival, the inhabitants of Wetar, Kisar and the other South Western Islands spoke only non-Austronesian dialects.


Description: Migration of Timorese Languages

Proposed migration route of Austronesian Timorese languages into the Timor region
(Modified from a map by Chandra Jayasuriya)


In the thirteenth century, Hull believes that the East Timor region received later immigrants from Central Maluku, probably as a result of the exploratory voyages of aristocrats from Ambon. Their arrival led to local Austronesian dialects becoming heavily infiltrated by Ambonese (Hull 2001, 101; Hull 2004).

Surprisingly Hull’s radically conflicting ideas seem to have stimulated little reaction from the archaeological establishment. Obviously Hull's dates need to be treated with immense caution in the absence of supporting physical evidence. However the linguistic connection he has uncovered may provide us with an important insight into how some aspects of Austronesian culture, such as weaving, reached Kisar and the other South Western Islands.

Kisar has since received further immigrants from many of the surrounding islands. Tradition distinguishes two groups of inhabitants across the South Western Islands: the landowners -  descendants of the original population, and the ‘boat-owners’ - later migrant clans who arrived from Timor, Kei or Luang (Engelenhoven 1998, 30). The immigrants from Luang are regarded as being especially influential and responsible for the ‘umbilical cord’ or way-of-life on these islands. Local legends also suggest that the Luang ‘umbilical cord’ was responsible for developing an active, long established inter-island trading network called Nuspaikra-Rapïatatra (variously called the Conducted Islands and Arranged Lands, Guided Islands and Conducted Lands, or Guided Islands and Ordered Continents), which stretched from Kisar in the west to Babar in the east, encompassing Roma, Leti, Moa, Lakor and Luang (Engelenhoven 1998, 30; Engelenhoven 2004, 43). Each island had its own exclusive product that it could export to the other islands but they could not export back. For Leti this was distilled palm wine, arka, while for Luang it was sea fish and reef products (Engelenhoven 2010).

By the tenth century northern and central Maluku had emerged as an important centre of the spice trade. Malay and Javanese merchants shipped nutmeg and mace from the Banda Islands and cloves from Ternate and Tidore to the Srivijayan port of Palembang. From here Arab, Persian and Indian traders shipped them westwards (Meilink-Roelofsz 2013, 15). It seems unlikely that the Arabs or Indians ever sailed directly to Maluku, although the Chinese seem to have done so during the late Yuan era, 1300-1368 (Donkin 2003, 146 and 155; Ptak 1992, 29-32). After the fall of Srivijaya, Malacca emerged as the main entrepôt for the spice trade. The Javanese and Malay spice traders sailed to the Banda Islands via Bali or Lombok, hugging the north coast of the Lesser Sunda Islands before heading out into the Banda Sea north of Wetar, Romang and Damar. To reach Ternate they sailed to the north of Borneo and Sulawesi. They had no interest in isolated Kisar and the other South Western Islands, which offered no significant commercially exploitable resources (Van Dijk and De Jonge 1991, 21).

Muslim merchants - Arabs, Gujaratis and Bengalis – had already introduced Islam to Malacca and north Sumatra by 1200 (Ricklefs 2008, 4). By the fourteenth century Islam had spread to Brunei, Malaysia and East Java. Shortly afterwards the rulers (kolano) of the Spice Islands progressively adopted Islam under the influence of Javanese merchants trading from Ambon (Sluglett and Currie 2015, 53). The kolano of Tidore may have been the first to convert, while the kolano of Ternate Island converted around 1465 (Chauvel 1990, 17). Banda adopted Islam in the 1470s, Bacan in 1512 and Jailolo in 1534. The Sultanates became known as the Kie Raha or four mountains. With the arrival of Islam came firearms and an increase in military power. Over time the Sultanate of Ternate gained a stranglehold on the clove trade, extending its influence westwards over much of Sulawesi. Meanwhile the Sultanate of Tidore extended its influence over a large region of Central Maluku, ranging from south of Halmahera and Bacan Island to East Seram and the Raja Ampat Islands (Gin 2004, 849).

Meanwhile the first Europeans – the Portuguese – arrived in Maluku, although their presence lasted less than a century and their culture and religion left little mark on the islands. After conquering Malacca in 1511, Alfonso de Albuquerque dispatched three small ships to explore Maluku, which reached Banda, Ambon and Ternate the following year. By 1513 a trading fleet from Portugal began visiting the Spice Islands annually. The Portuguese built a fort on Ternate in 1523 and started another on Banda in 1529, although the latter was never completed due to local resistance. Claims that the Portuguese built fortifications on Kisar and Aru are not correct (Jong and Dijk 1995, 25; Moore 2003, 80). During their sojourn the Portuguese had no interest or interaction with Kisar. Their occupation of Ternate turned out to be troublesome and in 1575 they were expelled and forced to relocate to Ambon.

In 1568 the Protestant Dutch Provinces, led by William of Orange, began their long struggle against Spanish Habsburg rule. After uniting in 1579 they declared independence from Spain in 1581. Meanwhile the Spanish, having conquered Portugal in 1580, besieged and took the important trading centre of Antwerp in 1585. Its wealthy merchants fled north where the Dutch welcomed them with open arms (Emmer 2003). With their maritime power rapidly expanding, the United Provinces began to look for trading opportunities beyond Europe, thus bringing them into conflict with the Portuguese trading empire. Between 1597 and 1602, 65 Dutch ships sailed to Asia - an average of 13 ships per year (Emmer 2003). Within a decade they would displace the much weaker Portuguese from Maluku.

The Dutch priority was Banda, a group of ten small islands, the sole source of nutmeg and mace. When the first Dutch vessel arrived in 1599 it was naively welcomed by the Bandanese who wanted rid of the Portuguese. The latter were no match for the Dutch. Two years later a small flotilla of five Dutch ships destroyed a fleet of 28 Portuguese ships off Bantam, West Java. The Dutch began to establish themselves in Maluku, seizing the Portuguese forts of Tidore and Ambon in 1605. The Sultan of Ternate treated the newcomers as an ally, offering an exclusive supply contract in exchange for military support. The Dutch soon began building their own defences, commencing Fort Oranje on Ternate in 1607 and Fort Tolukko in 1611. The Portuguese fort on Solor first fell in 1613.


Description: Dutch attack at Bantam

Dutch ships led by Admiral Wolfert Harmensz attacking Portuguese vessels off Bantam in 1610 (Anon 1614, Koninklijke Bibliotheek)


Description: Map by Arnoldi di Arnoldi, 1602

The geography of the East Indies was still only partially understood at the beginning of the 17th century. Detail from the map of the Flemish cartographer Arnoldi di Arnoldi, Siena, 1602. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.)


On Banda they built Fort Nassau in 1609 and Fort Belgica in 1611, persuading local leaders to enter into exclusive supply contracts for their spices. Irritatingly the local producers continued to trade with others, including the English, despite various punitive attempts to stop them. In 1620 the frustrated Dutch unleashed a violent campaign of suppression. The VOC Governor-General, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, led a fleet of 19 VOC and 36 indigenous vessels against the Bandanese, executing 48 of their leaders and sending the families of the orang kayas into exile. After destroying the coastal villages the Dutch moved inland besieging local strongholds. At the end of the conquest it is estimated that only about 1,000 of the original 15,000 inhabitants of the Banda Islands remained (Loth 1995). The Dutch consolidated their hold on the islands with the construction of Fort Hollandia in 1624.

The nutmeg plantations were divided into perkens (orchards) and rented to Dutch immigrants who became known as perkeniers. The latter were obliged to sell their entire harvest to the VOC at fixed prices, using their income to buy provisions and slaves, each perken being entitled to a certain number of slaves depending on its size, also supplied at a fixed price. The latter were readily available from Timor, 500km southwest of Banda, thanks to its incessant inter-tribal wars. They were supplied by local Topasses, Black Portuguese, who claimed exclusive rights over Timorese exports, and were shipped to Banda by Bugis and Makassarese merchants as well as by the Sultans of Ternate and Tidore. The inhabitants of Kisar were drawn into the lucrative trade in spices and slaves with the nearby islands of Damar, Nila, Serua and Moa, supplying distant Malacca and later the white Portuguese enclave at Lifao (modern Oekusi) on Timor (Riedel 1886, 402).

These activities put Kisar on a potential collision course with the Topasses while the wealth of its aristocracy may have brought the island to the attention of the Sultan of Tidore. The latter held sway over southern Halmahera, Bacan, the Raja Ampat Archipelago and other islands to the south, many of which were obliged to pay tribute in the form of slaves. In 1643 Tidore (some sources mistakenly say Ternate) staged a long distance kora-kora (traditional canoe) raid against Kisar and Romang. The attackers met little resistance on Kisar and returned with five hundred prisoners and heavy loot of gold, silver and other jewels (Riedel 1886, 402).

As far as the deteriorating situation with Timor is concerned, the records are sparse. Nevertheless it seems that Kisar was increasingly at risk from an attack by the Portuguese (Rodenwaldt 1927, 18). To make matters worse the rulers of Kisar had even attacked a Timorese ship and captured a cache of gold (Rodenwaldt 1927, 18).

Local legends suggest that the Kisarese responded to his threat by seeking assistance from the Dutch on Banda (Engelenhoven and Nazarudin 2016). Unfortunately different clans hold different accounts, which are hard to substantiate. The people of Wonreli believe that their leader (named Pakar) sailed to Damar where, accompanied by local nobles, he continued to Banda Neira to meet with the VOC. The people of Abusur claim that a Kisarese noble called Perlakuloho and his brother sailed to Pantar and on their return met with a Dutch vessel between Wetar and Kisar. The Dutch were running short of water and the Kisarese invited the captain to anchor at their island. A similar account proposes that a Kisarese chief named Loimuluwere sailed to Alor to seek Dutch assistance (Engelenhoven and Nazarudin 2016).

Whatever the story, the Dutch did eventually make contact with the island. In July 1665 the VOC brig-of-war Loenen, captained by Nicolaes Jan Blinne, arrived on the west coast of ‘Makisser’ (Parry 1981, 323). Local oral narratives suggest that the crew first went ashore at Kiasar Beach and later moved to a safer anchorage at Nama (Engelenhoven and Nazarudin 2016, 208). It is said that the Dutch misunderstood two native landowners, Horsair and Mutasair, and assumed that the name of the beach - Kiasar – was actually the name of the island.


Description: Kiasar Beach

Fishing boats on beautiful Kiasar beach, which looks directly out to East Timor


Kisar was subsequently recorded by a variety of names in the journals of the Resident of Banda, such as Kiasar, Kesser, Makisar and Kissar. On 11 July 1665 Jan Blinne signed a VOC contract with chief Cornelis Pakar, the head of the Meher-speaking Hihileli clan. The Dutch recognised Pakar as the island chief, bestowing him with the title orang kaya - meaning head man, although some mistakenly transliterate this title as rich man. He was issued with letters of appointment and presented with a silver-topped rottingknoppen walking stick - a symbol of his authority. As a result of a misunderstanding or clerical error, the ruling family's name of Pakar was transcribed as the Dutch surname Bakker (Engelenhoven 2016).

In return for Dutch protection Raja Cornelis Bakker contracted to supply the VOC with slaves, spices and other local produce. Work began on the construction of Fort Delfshaven on a hill just north of the modern capital of Wonreli, a tiny rectangular block-house measuring just 24m by 16m. The work was completed on 7 August 1666 (Riedel 1866, 402). The Raja's domain of Wonreli was relocated next to the fort - a settlement that eventually became known as Kota Lama or Old Town (Engelenhoven 2016). There was initially no intension to man the fort with a garrison as this was considered too expensive. The Loenen returned to its home port of Banda in the same year.


Description: The remains of Fort Delfshaven

The ruins of tiny Fort Delfshaven. This important site has been despoiled by the construction of an office for the Kepala Desa of Kota Lama in its centre


Description: The remains of Fort Delfshaven in 1925

Fort Delfshaven was more complete at the time of Ernst Rodenwaldt's visit in 1925


Kisar seems to have responded by acquiring slaves for the VOC directly from East Timor, thereby angering the Topasses (Boxer 1947, 11). In 1688 the Topass leader at Larantuka, Antonio Hornay, retaliated by sending a flotilla of 12 ships to attack Kisar and Leti. According to Dutch reports 200 people, mainly women and children, were killed, 400 more were taken as slaves, their cattle were slaughtered and their gold and other valuables plundered (Aritonang and Steenbrink 2008, 90). The Resident of Banda, Jacob Kops, responded promptly. In May three VOC ships arrived at Leti and unsuccessfully attempted to scuttle the Topass fleet. Under the threat of attack by gunboat, the Topasses agreed to release their captives but managed to slip away the following day under the cover of darkness (Hägerdal 2012, 168).

One of the VOC vessels involved was the very same Loenen that had visited Kisar in 1665. It sailed on to Kisar, where on 16 May 1668, the 1665 contract with the VOC was renewed (Engelenhoven and Nazrudin 2016). Jan Blinne was assigned to the island as its first sergeant (Rodenwaldt 1928, 20). A garrison named Fort Vollenhoven was constructed just behind Nama Beach, having a rectangular layout measuring 45m by 42m. The Resident of Banda sent 16 VOC troops and two corporals under the command of Rous Abner Leutnan to man it (Maluku Bersatu 02.12.2013). Meanwhile the orang kaya Cornelis Pakar extended his authority by appointing his two brothers, Norimarnu and Poru, to rule over Romang and Leti.


Description: Fort Vollenhaven

The remains of Fort Vollenhaven, strategically located behind Nama beach, the main anchorage for the whole island


Description: VOC Inscription

A carved inscription of the VOC, now on display behind the Raja of Kisar's house at Lewkloor


The third Anglo-Dutch War, which lasted from 1672 to 1674, interupted VOC trade and its expansion was temporarily stalled. In reality the southern Moluccas, located far to the south of the Spice Islands, had little economic value and were an unimportant backwater.

In 1684 Kisar was shaken by heavy earthquakes and in 1686-87 suffered a severe ten-month drought (Boomgaard 2001, 210, 212 and 214). In 1714 it was decided to reduce the Dutch garrison to just a corporal and six European soldiers. They faced an undemanding future.

At some time after 1710, the Portuguese governor on neighbouring East Timor introduced levies on his colonial subjects, causing much discontent. Small groups began to immigrate to the neighbouring South Western Islands, some arriving on Wetar and Kisar. However some had probably already reached Kisar before that date to escape Portuguese persecution. According to a 1714 report of the Governor-General of the VOC, immigrants from Timor had already been living in the village of Oirata on Kisar for some time. They had fled from Timor following several skirmishes, after which their villages had been attacked with weapons and destroyed by fire (Coolhaas 1979, 81-2). Some later secretly returned to Timor. The VOC authorities in Banda initially pressurised the local orang kayas, including Raja Bakker, to return the immigrants, although they had few resources to do so. However some of the migrants on Kisar were subsequently forcibly repatriated. A later VOC report noted that in 1719 three vessels from Timor had appeared on Kisar carrying  93 Oiratas. Thay had previously gone back to Timor but had returned because of further Portuguese oppression. Their remaining companions on Timor had been killed by the Portuguese or sold off as slaves (Coolhaas 1979, 486).

It seems that this time the immigrants managed to avoid deportation and settled in the region of Oirata, where their descendants can still be found today. Oirata is a Meher word meaning brackish-water (Josselin de Jong 1937).

Riedel reported that the Oirata immigrants had fled from the Fataluku-speaking area of 'Loikera' (Loiquero on the eastern cape of Timor) but mistakenly dated their arrival to the year 1721 (Riedel 1886, 403). This date has been subsequently reiterated by the Encyclopædie van Nederlandsch-Indië and by respected scholars such as Antoinette Schapper and Aone van Engelenhoven. Ernst Rodenwaltd reported that the Oirata came voluntarily to Kisar even later – in 1728, clearly a complete misunderstanding (Rodenwaldt 1927, 6).


Description: Remains of the old village of Manheri

The ruins of Manheri, the origiinal settlement of Oirata Timur


Description: Map of the Isles Moluques, 1748

Tiny Kisar appears as ‘Hissen’ on a 1748 map of the Isles Moluques, by Georges-Louis Le Rouge, Paris


The fourth Raja and orang kaya of Wonreli, Koholouk Johannis Bakker, ruled Kisar from 1732 to 1752 (Rodenwaldt 1928, 39). After the Dutch rescued 327 Kisarese who had been captured by pirates from Flores – probably Topasses – two VOC merchants, Jan Willem de Koning and Goelenus van Oordt, renewed the VOC contract with the orang kaya of Wonreli in 1752 (Riedel 1886, 403). In return for loyalty to the Dutch, exclusive trading rights, and a commitment to return escaped slaves, the VOC promised to build new fortifications and plant teak, sappan and other trees on the island. In 1773 a Dutch Resident, Pieter Koutenberg, was placed on the island and in 1777 Fort Vollenhaven was modernised and enlarged with 8 cannons (Rodenwaldt 1927, 27).


Description: Dutch VOC cannon from Fort Vollenhaven

One of the Dutch VOC cannons recovered from Fort Vollenhaven


Description: The pyramid overlooking Nama beach

A navigation beacon built as a stepped pyramid of coral stones above Nama harbour. It was supposedly constructed by the German Professor V. Fechler in 1774


However Maluku was becoming an increasing financial burden on the VOC (De Jong 2013, 8). By 1783 only nine Dutch soldiers were stationed on Kisar, under their commandant Johannes Willem Joostensz. In time they all took local wives – five married women of Dutch blood and four took wives who had mixed Dutch/Maluku parentage (Elkington 1922). Their mixed-race children would become the first in a long line of Indo-Eurasians who would become known as the Mestees of Kisar. Many of the island’s inhabitants today have surnames that relate back to these early Dutch settlers such as Bellmin-Belder, Caffin, Coenradi, Joostenz, Lander, Lerrick, Peelman, Ruff, Schilling, van Delsen, and Wouthuysen. Some hold the name Bakker and are the decendants of the first Christian orang kayu, Cornelis Bakker. According to local residents, it was around this time that Immanuel Church was constructed at Lekloor, close to Wonreli (Wawa-Daisuli 2013; Maahury 2015). Rodenwaldt suggests the church was constructed between 1793 and 1796 when Sergeant Johann Hartog held the position of postholder. Watakee Lenny Corlentji Bakker, the eldest sister of the eleventh Raja of Kisar, states that the church was finished in 1778, having been built using a mortar of lime and chicken eggs.

Under attack from Naploeon in 1795, the House of Orange fled to Britain. King William V instructed the governors of his overseas territories to place their colonies under British rule. In 1796 the British, under Admiral Rainier, took control of Ambon and Banda, restoring them back to the Dutch after the Peace of Amiens in 1803. How this affected Kisar is unknown, apart from the fact that the British continued to pay the wages of the postholder and soldiers.


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Kisar in the Nineteenth Century

Two commissioners, J. W. Joostensz and Ambrosius Linde, returned to Kisar in April 1803 to take back Dutch control. On 2 July they signed the very last contract between Holand and the orang kaya of Kisar (Riedel 1886, 403). The last officer in command, Pieter Lerrick, retired that year. He had previously married a local girl and was given permission to stay on the island. Linde only held the position of Resident until the end of 1803. He was suceeded by three further Residents in succession – Cornelis Molenbroek, J. W. Joostensz and Claas Delmar – all of whom appear to have been fairly ineffective.

In 1810 Kisar again came under effective English rule following French annexation of the Netherlands. The garrison, which was then manned by one sergeant, two corporals and 16 to 18 soldiers, was dismissed.

When the Dutch resumed control in 1817, Laurens van Yperen was sent to Kisar from Ambon to become the new Resident but the former members of the garrison were not reinstated (Rodenwaldt 1927, 32). However Ambon was in the process of supressing a local rebellion and was looking for financial savings. When van Yperen died in the following year, the Resident of Banda decided to recind the position of Resident of Kisar entirely, not just because of cost but because the Dutch had no further interest in trading with the island (Rodenwaldt 1927, 33). In 1819 the former Resident, Claas Delmar, was brought out of retirement and with Sargeant Mohsenbekker briefly returned to Kisar to wind up the late Resident’s affairs. They appear to have been given a hostile reception by some of the local mestizos and feared an attack on their brig. After their departure, the governance of the island was left in the hands of the native orang kayas. The members of the former garrison remained on the island at Kota Lama along with their mestizo families (Riedel 1886, 403).

Following the closure of the Dutch garrison we obtain a much better picture of life on Kisar – thanks to the reports of a sequence of European visitors. They all indicate that Kisar was a relatively prosperous and fertile island compared to its neighbours.

In 1821 the German botanist Professor Casper Reinwardt travelled to Ambon via Kisar (De Jong 2013, 15). He observed that although Kisar was frequently afflicted by drought and famine it had an abundance of pigs, poultry, and vegetables, and that the population possessed very good houses, which were better than those on the islands in the vicinity, as far as he could see by sailing past them (Vriese 1858, 369-373). This was in sharp contrast to the dire misery and poverty that was visible everywhere on Wetar (Vriese 1858, 371-373). In March 1823 Joseph Kam, a missionary on Ambon, briefly visited Kisar and Leti, where he conducted church services and undertook numerous baptisms and marriages (Kam 1825). Kisar was also visited by the Dutch missionary Adrianus Johannes Bik during his tour through the South Western Islands in 1824.


Description: The church at Lekloor

The church at Lekloor on Kisar drawn by Adrianus Johannes Bik, 1824
Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, Leiden


Description: The ruins of Immanuel church, Lekloor

The ruins of Immanuel church, Lekloor, today


Description: The old church bell

The old broken church bell at Lekloor


In June 1825 Lieutenant Dirk Kolff, the commander of the Dutch brig Dourga, visited Kisar during an expedition through the Moluccas – possibly a reaction to the establishment of a British trading post on Melville Island off the north coast of Australia the previous year. He was accompanied by the Protestant missionary Joseph Kam. Kolff made his landing on the beach close to the ruins of Fort Vollenhoven (Kolff 1840, 46-56; Earl 1837, 369-373). During his four-day visit he only had time to explore the chief village, a half-hour walk inland along a shaded valley. He called it Marna, a misunderstanding - it was actually Wonreli, the seat of the island's ruling nobility or marna. Kolff was impressed by the industrious villagers, considering them far in advance of the people of Ambon. Enclosed by a stone wall and growing hedges, 'Marna' was neatly laid out with a range of wooden buildings, all surrounded by neat gardens planted with maize, cabbages, tobacco, sirih and vegetables. However maize and rice was imported from Wetar. Large herds of cattle and livestock grazed in the nearby valleys. A high proportion of the villagers were Christians. The village possessed a large Protestant church, 90 feet in length, and a school with an Ambonese teacher. All of the children under nine or ten years of age assembled to learn Malay and the rudiments of Christianity. However the former Dutch Resident’s house was in need of repair. Kolff discovered that the Kisarese maintained a brisk trade with the surrounding islands. With no safe harbor or anchorage, the islanders launched their trading jonkos – large wooden prahus of around 20 tons in berth – from the beach.

The Dutch Protestant Mission operating out of Ambon and Kupang was committed to promote Christianity across the South Western Islands. The Dourga had brought the German-Swiss missionary J. J. Bär to Kisar who, in 1828, was joined by A. Dommers (Nederlands Zendelinggenootschap 1860, 139). By 1832 some 1,300 of the island’s 6,000 population had been baptized (Nederlands Zendelinggenootschap 1860, 144). In 1833 the settlement of Wonreli and the church were badly damaged by fire. According to W. R. van Hoëvell, the damage was not completely repaired until 1848 (1855, 226).

For a brief period Kisar became of interest to the British, who were trying to create a trading post on the north coast of Australia. In 1824 they established Fort Dundas at Port Cockburn on Melville Island, but quickly moved to the healthier location of Fort Wellington on Raffles Bay in 1827 (Scott 1933, 234). Surrounded by sterile soil and savage natives, the British were forced to obtain their supplies of food and livestock from far away islands such as Savu, Rote and West Timor. In 1838 the British relocated again, this time to Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula. Anxious to develop British trade across the Torres Strait, the trade representative George Windsor Earl sailed from Port Essington on an exploratory trading voyage to Timor and the South Western 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.

Earl discovered that the island was governed by two brothers, one ruling the descendants of the Dutch and the other the natives, while each village was ruled by an orang kaya. All of these rulers belonged to the noble marna caste, while the bulk of the population consisted of the buah or commoners and budah or slaves. Out of a population of 7 to 8,000, the number of Protestants amounted to 1,700, out of which 500 were of Dutch descent. Although the islanders were occupied with agricultural duties during the rainy season and first part of the dry season, they spent the rest of the year voyaging in their prahus to the neighbouring islands, trading their weavings, cotton, agricultural produce, livestock, tortoiseshell and beeswax for cottons, iron, ceramics, hardware, weapons and beads. At the same time Kisar was something of a local entrepôt, being visited by merchants from Makassar, Ambon and Banda (Earl 1841, 109-114).

From Kisar, Earl continued to Leti, Moa and Lakor, returning to Kisar to obtain provisions for Port Essington. The Kisarese were keen to trade and within 48 hours the British were under weigh 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.'

Kisar was briefly visited by Captain Gordon Bremer on H.M.S. Britomark the following year (Port Essington, Asiatic Intelligence 1840). Earl returned in 1841 aboard H.M.S. Beagle on its third voyage to Australia at a time when Kisar was suffering a famine because of the failure of the rice crop after a long drought (Stokes 1846, 247). After reaching one of the highest points on the island, Stokes observed that: ‘Every part exhibited abundant signs of industry and cultivation, although parched up from want of rain’. The severity of the drought had challenged the faith of the Christian believers who interpreted it as a punishment by their old gods for deserting them. Despite having delivered a cargo of rice to the island, the missionary J. J. Bär had been forced to retreat to Ambon, terminating the Dutch Protestant Mission (Stokes 1846, 248). Despite his efforts most of the converted islanders had remained broadly indifferent to the new religion (Riedel 1886, 403; De Jong 2013, 25).

The missionary Dr Wolter Robert Baron van Hoëvell must have reached Kisar in 1848 during his tour of the South Western Islands (van Hoëvell 1855, 225-229). Despite being mountainous and poor in timber, he found the island fertile and well cultivated, the main crop being local maize (djagong), followed by rice, beans and many fruits. It supported buffalos, sheep, goats, pigs, many chickens and horses. The nobility ruled over many peasant farmers and stam or slaves, some 300 of the latter working for the Raja. Slaves normally belonged to the eldest son of each family and were never sold. Out of a population of 7,000 there were now 1,450 Christians and 250 mestizos. The chiefs, however, retained their 'pagan' beliefs and 'heathen' feasts were celebrated in the ancestral villages on the hill tops, where the idols were kept. These costly events involved sacrifices, eating, drinking and dancing.

Van Hoëvell judged Kisar to be the wealthiest of all the South Western Islands as a result of the considerable amount of trade conducted with the neighbouring islands. For example, cotton sarongs were supplied to Wetar and Romang. The Kisarese also traded their textiles, ironwares and other products to Bandanese and Makassarese merchants who arrived between October and January every year. Occasional whaling boats also called in to reprovision with Kisarese livestock.

Since its abandonment by the Dutch, Fort Vollenhaven was neglected and in a miseable condition, while Fort Delfshaven at Kota Lama was even worse. Yet the house of the former Resident was still standing and could be made habitable again without much outlay.

Between 1852 and 1854, Kisar was visited by Assistant Resident Bosscher, who found that despite the absence of any Dutch administration the island was at peace and unopressed by Buginese or Makassarese traders (Eijbergen 1862, 180; Rodenwaldt 1927, 35). The islands chiefs belonged to the marna nobility and the Christian population numbered 1,008.


Description: A drawing of a Meher village on Kisar, undated

An undated drawing of a Meher village on Kisar. Courtesy of Watakee Lenny Corlentji Bakker, the eldest sister of the 11th Raja of Kisar, Hairmere Philipus Zacharias Bakker


The Ambon official W. F. C. van Helsdingen also visited in mid-1855 and was folowed by the Kontroleur H. C. von Eijbergen, who came twice in 1859, again in 1860 and finally in March 1862 (Eijbergen 1864a, 200; Rodenwaldt 1927, 35). Kisar was then ruled by Raja Bakker who Eijbergen names as Fillipus on one visit and Johannes on another. Johannes was actually the eldest son of Hairmere Filippus Bakker but forfeited the right to the title of Raja by marrying a mestizo girl. Beneath the Raja were seven orang kaya, each responsible for their own domain – Wonreli, Lekloor, Lewerau, Lebelau, Nomaha, Purpura and Oirata. While the size of the total population was unclear (it was said to be 7,000 in 1859), there were 245 people of European descent spread across twelve families. Of the 1,310 Christians, 961 had been baptised. The number of school children was a mere 106 and the master complained about their poor attendance. Fortunately the island had benefitted from an abundance of rain in 1861. The Kisarese were sailing their large prahus as far west as Kupang, as far east as Tanimbar and as far north as Banda (Eijbergen 1864a, 197).

Around 1863 there was conflict, known as the Sweet Potato Leaf War, between the residents of Lekloor and the Oirata - supposedly caused by Oirata cattle grazing on Meher crops (Engelenhoven 2016, 205-206). However the underlying motive may have been Wonreli’s desire to establish Meher authority over the Oirata community.

In 1864 Kisar was visted by the Governor of Maluku, Wilkens, and once more by the missionary J. J. Bär (Rodenwaldt 1927, 36). The Governor was told that the mestizos wanted to leave the island, for either Ambon or Holland. However Wilkens had other ideas – with the recent abolition of slavery he hoped he might get them to become free workers on Banda. In the event, nothing transpired. In 1867 Kisar suffered a cholera outbreak, claiming 300 lives. When the warship Vesuvius called at the island during the following year the epidemic had not yet been extinguished. In 1871 both Kisar and Moa were affected by smallpox. The Resident of Ambon, Luitjens, visited in 1872, by which time the deathtoll in the South West Islands had reached 5,000 (Rodenwaldt 1927, 36). Ambon responded by moving the local administration from Kota Lama to Serwaru on Leti Island (Engelenhoven 2016).

J. G. F. Riedel, the next Resident of Ambon, visited Kisar in 1880, 1881 and twice in 1882. At that time the population stood at 9,806, spread across twenty hamlets and six domains. Of these 1,389 lived in the domain of Oirata and, speaking a different language, did not mix with the rest of the island’s residents. Another 222 were the descendants of the garrison of Dutch, German and French soldiers, while the number claiming to be Christian stood at 1,814 (Riedel 1886, 400-401). Staged conflicts between the domains (negari) were apparently common, sparked by disputes such as failures to pay fines (Riedel 1886, 424).


Description: A distorted map of Kisar (from Riedel 1886, 400-401)

A distorted map of Kisar (from Riedel 1886, 400-401)


By this time the mestizo population had lost sight of its former European culture, having abandoned its Christian faith in favour of pagan customs and no longer understanding the Dutch language (Baron van Höevell 1890, 216; Elkington 1922). The mestizos complained to Riedel that the Raja Zacharias Filippus Bakker had behaved in a presumptuous manner against them, treating them as slaves. Riedel formally warned the Raja that if he continued to treat the mestizos in this manner he would be deposed. The Dutch were in the process of installing postholders on Wetar, Leti and Damar and Riedel suggested hiring a Wijkmeester (district master) for the mestizos of Kota Lama.


Description: A house in Abusur

A house in Abusur (Riedel 1886, plate XXXVIII). Houses with gable finials embellished with Nautilus shells indicated differences in social status (Domenig 2014, 392).


Riedel provides little information about inter-island commerce apart from noting that the majority of trade was with Portuguese Timor (Riedel 1886, 401). However this was a time when merchants from Makassar, based on Banda, were actively trading with the South Western Islands, exchanging large quantities of cloth (including Indian basta cloths) for livestock and reef products on Babar, Wetang, and Luang (Van Dijk and De Jong 1991, 23). It would have been remarkable if they had not also traded with Kisar.

As a result of Riedel’s visit, the mestizo population was transferred in 1882 from the authority of the Raja of Kisar to that of Cornelis Caffin, a specially appointed warden (kapala kampong) who was directly accountable to the postholder of the department of Leti (Colonial Report 1883). A new missionary, the Reverend N. Rinnooy, was dispatched from Ambon in an attempt to re-introduce Christianity. In 1895 a small chapel located next to Immanuel Church caught fire, destroying all the old Bibles, hymn books and church records (Rodenwaldt 1927, 9).

The subsequent Resident of Ambon, G. W. W. C. Baron van Höevell (the nephew of the minister Dr W. R. Baron van Hoëvell), visited Kisar in 1887 when the population stood at 9,296. He noted that with the exception of Wonreli, Abusur, Kota Lama and Pura Pura, which were all located in the valleys, all of the other villages were located on the tops of the highest hills and were protected by reinfocements (1890, 215). The latter were all abandoned and served as places of retreat in times of war. The mestizo population of Kota Lama numbered 281 and now under the authority of its own district master enjoyed a similar status to the citizens of Ambon. With a new school master and the new missionary installed in Wonreli, the mestizos were beginning to recover from their previous wretched state. Despite their past problems, they remained a fertile minority and there was no shortage of European children at the new school.

During the year of Höevell’s visit, an English schooner on its way from Port Darwin to Timor to purchase horses called in at Kisar to replenish its water supplies, a rare event that only occurred once every three or so years (1890 232).

It must have been later in 1887 that another major land dispute erupted between Meher-speaking Wonreli and the Oirata-speaking community, with the former invading the latter and taking numerous heads (Jacobsen 1896, 120-121; Rodenwaldt 1928, 40). As a consequence, the troublesome Raja Zacharias Filippus Bakker was exiled to Moa. He was succeeded by Jesajas Bakker, the tenth Raja of Kisar, who ruled until 1915.

As a result of Baron von Höevell’s visit some mestizos were later encouraged to move to Kupang with the offer of jobs and education. Some twelve houses were constructed in Kupang for their use. Those who accepted numbered around 120 (Elkington 1922).

In 1891 the Catholic pastor, Dr. J. G. de Vries, made a short tour of the South Eastern and South Western Islands aboard the Governor of Ambon's steamship, the Havik, which finished at Kisar (Pleyte 1896, 347). A large proportion of the population, including the mestizos, held pagan beliefs, worshiping the sun, the moon and the earth as well as many minor gods and idols, making offerings of fish and betel nut. The culmination of the religious year was the annual seven-day purka or idol festival held around an enormous tree in the ceremonial village. De Vries appears to have reacted aggresively against these beliefs, smashing some of the sacred stones belonging to the inhabitants of Wonreli.


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Kisar in the Twentieth Century

Continued contact with Ambon may have been the cause of a severe outbreak of smallpox on Kisar in 1901. Three years later, medical examiners were sent to the island to check the health of the mezisto children and concluded that they were mentally backward and physically degenerated. This may have stimulated efforts to further improve conditions on the island. When the Australian physician John Elkington examined the mestizo children in 1921 he found them healthy, concluding that they had benefited from recent government efforts to improve the local food supply (Elkington 1922). In 1908 the island suffered an exceptionally severe storm, during which the entire tree population of the island was destroyed. Some 60 islanders were killed and all of the homes of the mestizos were flattened (Elkington 1922; Rodenwaldt 1927, 9). As a result the mestizo population lost all of their family bibles and most of their historical records, including a register compiled by the missionary J. J. Bär.


Description: A village on Kisar

A village on Kisar in about 1900
(Image courtesy of Leiden University Library)


Gerret Rouffaer spent time on Kisar in 1910 during his tour of Timor and the South Western Islands and seems to have conducted a geographical survey, delineating the island’s six domains.


Description: Dutch map of Kisser   Description: Dutch map of Kisar Island, 1910

Left: An inaccurate map of Kisar Island. The pencil corrections are thought to have been added by Gerret Pieter Rouffaer in 1910.
Right: A map probably draughted by Rouffaer while on Kisar (Hayes 21.06.2016)


In 1912, responsibility for the South West Islands was transferred from Ambon to the Resident of Timor based in Kupang. At the same time the local administrator (Gezaghebber) and the local missionary were transferred from malaria-infested Leti to malaria-free Kisar (Rodenwaldt 1927, 38). Kupang referred to the archipelago as Klein-Timor ‘Little Timor’ (Engelenhoven 2016).

Wijnand Nieuwenkamp arrived at Kisar on 30 May 1918 on board the Canopus from Kalabahi but departed two days later for Wetar. After anchoring in the vicinity of the large white-washed pyramid in Nama Bay he went ashore at Fort Vollenhaven and travelled up the gorge to Wonreli. It was quiet and had a large, square, gloomy-looking church and a few ‘very unimportant’ houses. He sketched the nearby hillside covered with large isolated boulders, which was grazed by a few herds of goats. He had arrived with the Assistant Resident of Kupang who was making arrangements for some of the mestizo families to move to Kupang, where they could receive schooling and be retaught the Dutch language.


Description: Pyramid in Nama harbour

The pyramid in Nama harbour, sketched by Wijnand Nieuwenkamp on 30 May 1918


Description: Landscape near Wonreli

Landscape near Wonreli, sketched by Wijnand Nieuwenkamp on 1 June 1918


Kisar was affected by the world-wide influenza epidemic of 1918 and in the following year suffered yet another drought and famine. Emotions were already running high when the church minister’s wife in Wonreli, Nyora Wattimena, announced that she had had visionary dreams that the day of Judgement was almost nigh (Middelkoop 1960, 112; Peters 1973, 43-44). It sparked an escalating spiritual revival movement which, by 1921, had got out of hand. Groups of believers were roaming the island attempting to evangelise the population. People were challenged to repent and completely confess their sins. Those whose confessions were judged inadequate were attacked, kicked and beaten (Brookes 1977, 8; Van den End 1987, 102). After two people were murdered - one in Tara and one in Huru – the Dutch authorities quickly intervened and suppressed the movement (Wiyono 2001, 275). In 1925 Immanuel Church was once again destroyed by fire and all the Bibles and hymn books were lost (Rodenwaldt 1927, 7; Engelenhoven 2016).

In 1925, Augustus Filippus Bakker, the only son of the late Raja Jesajas, was officially named the eleventh Raja of Kisar. However being still only 16 years old, the Rajadom was temporarily administered by an elderly relative. Yet again, Immanuel Church was destroyed by fire and all the Bibles and hymn books were lost (Rodenwaldt 1927, 7; Engelenhoven 2016).

The German tropical physician Ernst Rodenwaldt, a protégé of Eugen Fischer, came to work on the island on behalf of the Dutch East Indies health service at about this time. In Europe there was increasing interest in the so-called science of eugenics and the mixed-race blue-eyed mestizo population of Kisar offered an ideal case study. Yet while many considered interracial breeding harmful, Rodenwaldt found that on Kisar, racial mixing had produced a heathy race and detected no harmful effects of inbreeding. He also thought that the mestizo women had preserved the tradition of Dutch cleanliness thanks to their admixture of white blood. Despite problems with the local water supply, they and their clothing were much cleaner and neater than those of the natives.

Rodenwaldt provides us with a good description of the island at that time. Availability of water during the driest part of the year, July to November, was a major problem and in some dry years people were forced to leave the island. Women living in the eastern villages had to travel several kilometres to obtain water from deep wells dug into the beds of small dried-up streams. The main diet of maize was supplemented by beans, casava and introduced rice, along with bananas, mangoes, pineapples and local oranges. Sugar and toddy was obtained from palm juice. Fish was eaten frequently and the island supported a wide range of livestock - large goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, buffalo, chickens, ducks and pigeons (1927, 6).

From 1912 to 1926 Kisar had been supervised by the Resident of Timor but from 1926 its administration was transferred back to the Resident of Ambon. Wonreli had a school with four classes and there were smaller schools in almost all the other villages. The island was visited once a month by a steamship from the Koninklijke Paketvaart-Maatschappij, which exported small amounts of copra, livestock and fruits.

On 31 October 1930 Kisar was briefly visited by the Snellius Oceanographic Expedition, led by P. M. van Riel. Because of bad holding ground, their vessel – HMS Willebrord Snell – was only able to anchor off Wonreli for ten hours, just long enough for their geologist Philip Kuenen to conduct a brief survey of the island’s geomorphology. The expedition recorded that the island had an arid and melancholy appearance because there had been a terrible scarcity of water for the previous two years (Riel 1937, vol. 1, 140).



The Governor General of the Dutch East Indies and his wife being carried back to the GSS Rigel during their visit to Kisar in 1934


In 1934 the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies, Bonifacius Cornelis de Jonge, and his wife briefly visited Kisar during their inspection of Borneo, Sulawesi and Maluku. The Batavian-born Dutch administrator, Willem Fedor Pieter Ockerse, arrived in Wonreli with his family in the same year to take up a two and a half year assignment as overseer of the South Western Islands (Ockerse and Blaney 2011, 32).

Despite decades of work by ministers from the Protestant mission on Ambon, the majority of Kisarese still maintained their traditional ancestral beliefs. Although the number of claimed Christian converts had risen since the turn of the century, it still represented only around one third of the island’s population:

Year ca. 1720 ca. 1823 ca. 1897 1937
Christians Population (mainly Protestants) 409 200 2,537 3,533
(Source: Aritonang and Steenbrink 2008, 404)

However Raymond Kennedy, who spent time in the East Indies (but not Kisar) during the early 1930s, reported that only 10% of Kisar’s 9,000 inhabitants were Christian (Kennedy 1943, 26).

In February 1942 Japanese troops landed at Dili in Portuguese Timor and on the southwest coast of Dutch Timor. A small Australian and Dutch defence force waged a ten-month guerrilla campaign against the Japanese, but by December the invaders had gained the upper hand. The Australians were evacuated by sea. One small detachment of Australians even retreated to Kisar on a local prahu (McLachlan 2012, 207). The Japanese occupation of East Timor was brutal and those who had supported the Australians suffered greatly. It has been estimated that by 1945 some 40,000 to 70,000 East Timorese had been killed by the Japanese or died from starvation, disease or malnutrition (Salmon 24.04.2012).

The Japanese also occupied tiny Kisar, where they also treated the islanders most cruelly (Steijilen 2002, 391 and 437). Many men were enslaved and shipped to Timor to work as forced labourers, while village chiefs were forced to select young women on behalf of the brutal Kenpeitai (military or secret police) to be sent to Timor to work as sex slaves in military brothels. It was difficult for the Japanese to maintain supply lines to remote Kisar and Timor (Dunn 2006, 104). They therefore requisitioned large amounts of agricultural produce from local farmers (one report mentions 90%), eventually giving rise to mass starvation (Steijilen 2002, 391).

On 17 August 1945, two days after the official Japanese surrender, Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesian independence in Jakarta. In September, as British troops were arriving on Java and Sumatra, the Australian army, supported by a contingent of Dutch East Indies administrators including the returning controleur, A. H. Ruibing, took control of Ambon (Chauvel 2014, 182 and 201). The South Western Islands were soon back under Dutch administration. On Kisar the son of the Raja of Wonreli, Hairmere Filippus Zacharias Bakker, returned to the island and, despite some local opposition, finally succeeded his father in 1947-48 (Kuno 2005).


Description: The Raja's residence, Wonreli

The Raja’s residence in Lekloor, just south of Wonreli, built in 1922


The Dutch hoped to consolidate their control over the East Indies by creating a new federal structure to decentralise power. They began in December 1946 by forming the new state of Eastern Indonesia, Negara Indonesia Timur (NIT), which was governed from Makassar and included Bali, Sulawesi and all of the islands further east (Ricklefs 2008, 276). The Daerah Maluku Selatan (DMS or South Moluccan Council) was established in Ambon and immediately fell under the control of nationalist politicians.


Description: Negara Indonesia Timur

The Dutch state of Negara Indonesia Timur, formed in 1946 and dissolved in 1950
(Wikipedia Creative Commons)


Holland’s plans were eclipsed by events on Java, where the nationalist movement had transformed into a military struggle. The Dutch retaliated and launched major military offensives against the Republicans on Java and Sumatra, the first in 1947 and the second at the end of 1948, resulting in widespread international condemnation. Under intense pressure from the USA, the Dutch finally negotiated a settlement with the Republican movement.

The Netherlands transferred sovereignty to the Republic of the United States of Indonesia on 27 December 1949. However this was not well received in south Maluku, especially Ambon, where many Moluccans were uncomfortable about NIT being incorporated into an independent, mainly Islamic Indonesia ruled by leftists on Java. Many of these dissidents were Christians who had worked closely with and for the Dutch administration and military and distrusted the Muslim Javanese. At the same time the Indonesian republicans despised the Moluccans as collaborators and usurpers. Events reached a head in Ambon on 24 April 1950 when a faction of local leaders rashly declared independence from Indonesia and the formation of the Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS), which encompassed the South Western Islands. After failed negotiations, Indonesian Republican forces landed on Ambon, Seram and Buru in July and by December had gained control of the region.

Meanwhile in Jakarta, Sukarno – who wanted to centralise not decentralise power – abolished the sixteen federal states only recently created by the Dutch, including NIT. The federal repubic was converted into a unitary state ruling over ten newly formed provinces. Kisar and the other South Western Islands suddenly found themselves an unimportant and low priority backwater in the largest province of all, an enlarged Maluku stretching 1,300km from west to east and 1,200km from north to south. They would henceforth be governed from Ambon. Their prime point of external contact reverted to Portuguese East Timor and in 1953 their leader Raja Hairmere Bakker relocated to Dili to take up a role in the local administration.

Sukarno eventually imposed his own system of regional government in 1958, which resulted in Maluku Province being divided into four Kabupaten: North Maluku, Central Halmahera, Central Maluku and Southeast Maluku, the latter incorporating the South Western Islands. Raja Hairmere Bakker returned to Kisar, where he was reluctantly accepted back as the island’s symbolic head, although he no longer wielded any political power. When the Republic of Indonesia invaded newly independent East Timor in 1975, Kisar became even more isolated, especially during the war that followed.


Description: Old house at Abusur

A traditional Meher house at Abusur, built in the 1960s


The one bright light was the discovery of gold and copper deposits on neighbouring Wetar, which led to the start of commercial mining in 1986 by an Indonesian-Australian-Dutch joint venture (Brosius, Tsing and Zerner 2005, 372). This prompted Jakarta to think about opening up South West Maluku and improving its infrastructure. On Kisar primary schools were opened in the main villages and a secondary school was established in Wonreli. Following the death of Raja Hairmere Bakker in 1992 his title eventually passed to his eldest son, Wanamau Jhon Jesajas Bakker, who was inaugerated as the twelfth Raja of Kisar in 1997.



A video clip of the inaugeration of the Twelfth Raja of Kisar at Lewkloor in 1997


In 1995 a very limited electricity supply was installed at Wonreli and in 1996 John Becker Airport was constructed at Purpura with a 800-metre airstrip, permitting the landing of small aircraft. Following Suharto’s resignation in 1998, the decentralisation of political power became a priority and the new Regency of Maluku Barat Tenggara (West Southeast Maluku) was established in 1999. Communication links to Kisar began to improve further. The harbour at Nama was modernised with a new jetty and a radio link was established with Ambon.


Description: Approaching the tiny port of Nama

The Port of Nama viewed from the south


Description: The dock at Nama

Passengers and produce waiting to board K. M. Sabuk Nusantara 49 for the overnight voyage to Lirang and West Timor


Further devolution occurred in 2008, with the South Western Islands separating from Maluku Barat Tenggara to become the new Regency of Maluku Barat Daya – the objective being to accelerate the economic development of this long neglected region. Controversially, the administrative capital would not be at Wonreli on Kisar but at Tiakur on Moa Island in the Leti Archipelago, a completely undeveloped location. In the meantime, the first Regent or bupati, Jacob Patty, would operate from the interim capital of Wonreli. As a consolation, Wonreli would become the administrative centre of Kecamatan (District) Pulau-Pulau Terselatan, encompassing Kisar and neighbouring Romang.

That same year the Orion, a small Australian cruise ship, began to visit Kisar on its annual cruise to Bali. In 2009 work started on a water reservoir and a number of village wells. The Sail Banda tourism initiative led to pressure to extend the Purpura airstrip to 1,300 metres so that it could accommodate larger ATR 82 aircraft. In the event it was actually extended to 950 metres in 2010. As a consequence Merpati began a weekly service linking Kisar to Ambon. Meanwhile ships from Ambon, Kupang and Surabaya were docking at the port of Nama.


Description: The John Becker airstrip

The extended John Becker airstrip at Purpura


Description: The John Becker airport terminal

The John Becker Airport terminal


In 2011, Barnabas Orno was elected bupati of Maluku Barat Daya Regency. Despite accusations of corruption amounting to IDR 16 billion in 2014, he was re-elected for a second term in December 2015.


Description: Inaugeration of Orno Barnabas

Regent Orno Barnabas (left) and his Deputy Benjamin Thomas Noach being sworn into office by the Governor of Maluku on 26 April 2016 (Image courtesy of


The Merpati flight from Ambon ceased in early 2014 and was briefly taken over by Avian Air. Unfortunately the route proved to be unprofitable. In 2015 Susi Air commenced a service from Kupang but this too was soon terminated. Fortunately Susi Air has recently resumed its twice-weekly service to Kisar, while Dimonim Air is flying to Kisar from Ambon. Meanwhile PT Pelni operate a fortnightly ferry service out of Kupang using the K. M. Sabuk Nusantara 49. This links Kisar to Wettar, Leti, Moa, Lakor, Sermata, Babar and Tanimbar. In recent years the road system on Kisar has been significantly upgraded to a high standard. Crucially in Wonreli, a new generator provides a 24-hour electricity supply.


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The Genealogy of the Rajas of Kisar

The historiography of the royal family of Kisar is recorded in the Buku Tembaga or Copper Book. Such books seem to have originated from the Dutch bound compendiums of formal embossed letters given to local rulers throughout the East Indies to confer their legitimate titles (Hagen 2015, 164). During the reign of the fifth Raja, Hairmere Filippus Bakker, a handwritten genealogy of the Rajadom was inserted into the Kisar Buku Tembaga and seems to have been subsequently regularly updated.

The first ruler of Kisar to be recognised by the Dutch was Cornelis Bakker. According to the records of the Raja's descendants his correct name was Pakar, but this was transcribed as the Dutch surname Bakker in the 1665 contract with the VOC. His father Lakalaij had two wives, Riakeri and Lokomau. His first wife gave birth to two daughters while his second wife had three sons: Cornelis, Norimarna and Poru. As the eldest son, Cornelis Pakar became the rightful head of the ruling Meher-speaking Hihileli clan.

All the later Rajas combined the name of their father with at least one Melanesian name and one Christian name.

It is important to emphasise that none of the Rajas of Kisar were mixed race mestizos. Kisar society distinguishes between two main Bakker clans. The ‘Black Bakkers’ are the descendants of the Rajas of Kisar and their legitimate wives, the latter selected from other local noble clans. As such the Black Bakkers retain their legitimacy as the island's rightful ruling family. The ‘White Bakkers’ on the other hand are the offspring of Raja Bakker V through his illicit relationships with a local commoner and a mestizo from Banda (Engelenhoven and Bakker 2016).

The genealogy of the Rajadom was first published by Ernst Rodenwaldt in 1927:


The Rajas of Kisar
  Raja From To
First Cornelis Bakker

He had two wives, Hurieij and Daunwahau, each of whom bore him a son: Maulewen Frederik, the eldest, and Pairara Cornelis, the youngest. Both were signitories to the 1686 treaty.
Second Maulewen Frederick Bakker

He had two sons, Leijbokodaij Filippus and Kowoteri Johannis.
Third Leijbokodaij Filippus Bakker

No information about him except that he has a son, Koholonku Johannis.
Fourth Koholonku Johannis Bakker

Appointed Raja at the age of 38. His wife was Elizabeth Alexander. His son was Hairmere Johannes Filippus. He was a signatory to the fourth VOC treaty of 18 October 1743.
1732 1752
Fifth Hairmere Johannes Filippus Bakker

He had two wives, Leonara Marihe, who was a Boer commoner, and Johana Sualje, a mestizo. Their descendants are known as the 'White Bakkers'. After commiting manslaughter in 1782, he was exiled to Banda but died on the voyage there.
1769 1782
Sixth Frederik Maulewen Bakker

He was the grandson of Kowoteri Johannis, the second son of Raja Maulewen Frederick Bakker. When he died his son, Zacharias Utanmere, was still a child.
1783 1792
Seventh Zacharias Utanmere Bakker

He was appointed Raja under the tutelage of older relatives. He became a capable Raja who knew how to deal with the Dutch authorities in Banda, supporting them on Ambon in 1817 during the supression of the Saporoea insurrection. His first wife, Elizabeth Norimarna, was a noble and bore him a son, Hairmere Filippus. However on Ambon he abducted and married a local mestizo girl, Wilhelmina Jansen.
1795 1826+
Eighth Hairmere Filippus Bakker

His wife, Adriana Marcus, bore him two sons, Johannis and Utanmere Zacharias. The eldest son, Johannis, married a mestizo girl and forfeited the right to the title of Raja.
Ninth Utanmere Zacharias Filippus Bakker

He was accused of mistreating the mestizo community and was suspected of assisting the Portuguese in Dili. After initiating a small war with the Oirata, the Dutch exiled him to Moa in 1887.
Tenth Jesajas Zacharias Bakker

The Dutch considered him a loyal and capable ruler. B. H. Tersteege, the civil Gezaghebber of Damar erected a monument to praise his merits on Wonreli market. When he died in 1915, his son, Augustus Octavianus Hairmere Filippus, was only about 8 years old, so the Rajadom was temporarily administered by an elderly relative.
Eleventh Augustus Octavianus Hairmere Filippus Bakker

After being educated in Makassar, he was named the eleventh Raja of Kisar in 1925. He was still only about 18 years of age.

(Source: Rodenwaldt 1927, 38-42)

A somewhat different and more up-to-date genealogy was kindly prepared on our behalf by Watakee Lenny Corlentji Bakker, the eldest daughter of Johannis Jesajas Bakker, the twelfth Raja of Kisar. It seems that some details of Rodenwaldt's listing are not correct:

The Rajas of Kisar
  Raja From To
First Cornelis Bakker

His first wife, Huriey, had one son called Maulewen. His second wife, Daunwahan, also had one son called Sonray.
Second Maulewen Frederick Bakker

His wife, Lalutaihala Andiara, had two sons, Loisakolay and Kowoteri, and one daughter, Lililewen.
1686 1710
Third Loisakolay Philipus Bakker

His wife Riiserne Hea had one son, Koholouk. In 1715 the Raja provided military support to the VOC in one of their conflicts.

1710 1732
Fourth Koholouk Johannis Bakker

His wife Paramoko had a son, Hairmere.
1732 1752
Fifth Hairmere Philipus Bakker

His wife Johanna Swalyo had two sons, Gerrith and Johannis, and two daughters, Anna and Elisabeth.
1769 1782
Wakil or Deputy Raja Maulewen Frederik Bakker

His wife Loulemaha had two sons, Utanmeru and Wanamau, and two daughters, Pinaikowo and Heliwahan.
1783 1792
Sixth Utanmeru Zacharias Bakker

His wife Tewelaluna Elisabeth had three sons, Hairmere, Maulewen and Pakar, and two daughters, Carolina and Citerina.
1792 1826
Seventh Hairmere Philipus Bakker

His wife Daunwahan Adriana had three sons, Kowoten, Pakar and Utanmeru, and one daughter, Riiserne Hea.

Eighth Utanmeru Zacharias Bakker

His wife Wohokawi had two sons, Wanamau Jesajas and Maulewen Frederik, and one daughter, Daunwahan Adriana.
1882 1889
Nineth Wanamau Jesajas Bakker

His wife Riikeri Carolina Poeroe had one son, Haimere.
1895 1915
Tenth Hairmere Agus Octovianus Bakker

1923 1941
Wakil or Deputy Raja Wanamau Jesajas Bakker

His wife, Elina Paulina da Costa had three sons: Hairmere Philipus Zacharias, Wanamau Jesajas and Maulewen Frederik, and five daughters: Pimitan Angganita, Wohokawi Dina, Masa Elenora, Riikeri Carolina and Duduporo Zusana.
1941 1946
Eleventh Hairmere Philipus Zacharias Bakker

His wife, Doisila Josephina Paays had two sons: Utanmeru Zacharias Cornelis and Wanamau Jhon Jesajas, and four daughters: Watakee Lenny Corlentji, Loulemaha Alike Elisabeth (who died in 1962), Houlemaha Alike Elisabeth and Consonsai Ellen Elina.

1946 1992
Twelfth Wanamau Jhon Jesajas Bakker

His wife, Maria Anthonieta Ribeiro, was childless. The Raja died on 7 October 2007.
1997 2007



The Tenth Raja of Kisar, Hairmere Agus Octovianus Bakker, who was still a young man at the time of his inaugeration



The Eleventh Raja of Kisar, Hairmere Philipus Zacharias Bakker


Description: Wanamau Jhon Jesajas Bakker as a young man

The Twelfth Raja of Kisar, Wanamau Jhon Jesajas Bakker, as a young man


Description: Wanamau Jhon Jesajas Bakker

The Twelfth Raja of Kisar, Wanamau Jhon Jesajas Bakker, with his young nephew, Haimere Edwin Bakker


The next and thirteenth Raja of Kisar will be Hairmere Edwin Philipus Zacharias Bakker, the son of the late Raja's brother. He is currently a student in Yogyakarta and will graduate next year. The date of his inaugeration is yet to be agreed.



Hairmere Edwin Philipus Zacharias Bakker at Duta Wacana Christian University, Yogyakarta. He is next in line to become the Thirteenth Raja of Kisar



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The Modern Kisar Economy

Despite living on a remote, dry, and relatively barren island, the people of Kisar have developed a productive and diversified agricultural economy. Some 80% of the population are farmers, some of whom also engage in fishing. At the same time their island remains highly undeveloped and poverty is high – 57% of the residents of MBD are classified as poor. Many still have no access to a convenient supply of clean water or to electricity. In Wonreli, water is pumped from wells and distributed to individual households by lorry.


Description: Water distribution

Water being delivered by truck in Kota Lama


Roughly 30% of the land is cultivated, mainly within the island’s central bowl (MBD Statistical Bureau 2011). The primary agricultural cash crop is corn (maize), which is traditionally planted twice a year (Jesajas and Tumiwa 2013). However in parts of Oirata it is planted three times a year – in April, September and December with the harvests in July, December and March (Sahusilwane, Kembauw and Matulessy 2011). December is considered to be the best time to plant corn - after the start of the rainy season, which lasts for less than two months.

Farmers gain advance warning of the start of the rainy season by looking for the appearance of the Pleiades or Seven Sisters in the east during November and December (Jesajas and Tumiwa 2013).  From the brightness of the stars, their apparent sizes, and the positions of the brightest stars in the cluster they can fairly accurately forecast the likely level of rainfall. Put simply:

big, bright Pleiades = heavy rainfall = big corn harvest
small, dim Pleiades = light rainfall = small corn harvest

Later in the year the appearance of the Pleiades in the west during July and August indicates the arrival of the driest part of the season (Jesajas and Tumiwa 2013).

The secondary cash crops are coconuts and Kisar oranges. The latter are usually shipped to Ambon or Kupang, a two-day voyage in normal weather (Herin 28.04.2016). Other local products include green beans, mung beans, red beans and black beans, cassava, sweet potato, kelor and peanuts. Sago is harvested from palms that were planted around Purpura Lake by immigrants from East Luang (Jesajas and Packham 2003). During the dry season from August to November, the islanders tap sugar palm (Borassus sundaicus), locally known as koli or ko’o, which grows abundantly on Kisar. This is fermented to produce brown sugar and arak, the latter yielding a quick source of cash (Jesajas and Packham 2003).


Description: Koli palms on a Kisar hillside

Koli palms grow profusely on the outer ring of limestone hills


The most common form of livestock is the goat – the island has the largest population of goats in Maluku, which run wild in the fields surrounding the villages. A local breed of sheep also thrives on the island and provides an important source of organic fertilizer for the corn crop. Reciprocally the corn by-products such as the fresh leaves, stems and straw are used as sheep feed (Salamena, Malle, Lautupierissa and Siwa 2014). Kisar sheep are shipped to Timika in Papua using the regular ferry from Surabaya (Herin 28.04.2016). In 2011 the population of goats and sheep reached 26,750, accounting for roughly 52% of all livestock (Jesajas and Tumiwa 2013). The remaining 48% of livestock consists of chickens, buffalo and domestic pigs, the latter being raised in the villages. In addition to being a source of food, income, and manure for maintaining soil fertility, livestock has a ritual value in the form of the bridewealth exchange.


Description: Water buffalo

A small herd of buffalo in Oirata Timur


Description: Fishing boats

Fishing boats at anchor in Nama harbour


Fishing is a supplementary activity, especially for villagers who live near the coast. Inshore fishing takes place from canoes, but bamboo fish traps are used in deeper water. Fish yields are good during the hot dry season, but are much more limited for villages on the east side of the island during the easterly monsoon (Jesajas and Tumiwa 2013).

Although weaving is still widely practiced on the island, women mainly produce textiles for their own use or for sale within their own communities. They are very rarely sold outside of their own region (Anon 2016, 77).


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The Languages of Kisar

Four languages are spoken on Kisar Island: Meher, Oirata or Woirata, Melayu Tenggara Jauh, and Indonesian.

Oirata clan leaders claim that at some time in the past their ancestors formed a treaty with the Meher-speaking people to divide the island, with the Meher occupying the western half and the Oirata the eastern half. This treaty was known as the wossi in Oirata and the possi in Meher, meaning oath.



Meher, sometimes called Kisar but locally referred to as Yotowawa, is the predominant native language of the island, spoken by almost 90% of its inhabitants. Meher is also spoken in two villages on neighbouring Wetar (Hinton 1990), a further two on Roma (Steven 1991), as well as by the large Kisar community living in Ambon (Christensen 1992). Meher is also used by the mestizos who live in the Kota Lama (Old Fort) settlement, extending eastwards from the ruins of Fort Delfshaven, directly north of Wonreli.

Meher is an Austronesian language, classified as belonging to the South Western group of the South Maluku Sub-Family of Austronesian languages:


Description: South Maluku language classification after Chlenov 1976

South Maluku language classification after Chlenov 1976


Many linguists have regarded the languages of Southwest Maluku to be descendants of Central Malayo-Polynesian through Proto East-Timorese. They dispersed throughout the region in three offshoots: the Wetar languages, the Babar languages, and the so-called Luangic-Kisaric languages and dialects (Engelenhoven 1998). The latter include the Luangic languages of Leti, Moa and Lakor in the Leti Archipelago, Luang and Sermata in the Sermata Archipelago and Wetan in the Babar Archipelago, plus the three Kisaric languages of Kisar, Roma and Damar.

However the Australian linguist Geoffrey Hull has shown that the Timoric languages are not a southerly extension of the Central Malayo-Polynesian languages of Central Maluku but a mix of Western Malayo-Polynesian and Papuan brought into existence by the arrival of immigrants from Sulawesi (Hull 1998, 167). Meher is closely linked to the Kawamina family of Austronesian dialects spoken in central and eastern East Timor, which in turn may have originated from the Tukung Besi Islands of south eastern Sulawesi. Hull suggests that there was a southeastern migration from Sulawesi through the Tukung Besi Archipelago to Wetar, with the language finally reaching Kisar and Timor around the eleventh century AD (Hull 1998, 150).



Oirata is a Papuan (non-Austronesian) language that is very dissimilar to Meher and is only spoken by the 1,500 inhabitants of Oirata Barat and Oirata Timur in central southeast Kisar. It is essentially a dialect of Fataluku, the single largest non-Austronesian language spoken in East Timor, mainly used by 35,000 speakers in the district of Lautem.


Description: The Papuan Languages of Timor and Kisar

The Papuan Languages of Timor and Kisar
(From Schapper 2012, 372)


The Oirata community arrived in Kisar in 1721, having fled from Loikera on the north coast of the Fataluku-speaking area of East Timor (Riedel 1886, 403). Local people sometimes call their language Maaro, the family name of the first clan that migrated to Kisar from East Timor (Grimes 1992). The northern Fataluku dialect is claimed to be, at least partly, mutually intelligible with Oirata (Schapper 2014, 3). However Oirata has many Meher borrowings in its lexicon (Nazrudin 2015).

Oirata is linked through Proto Timor-Alor-Pantar to the Trans New Guinea Phylum. Geoffrey Hull has argued that Fataluku-speakers reached East Timor as part of an early migration from the Bomberai Peninsula of West Papua, involving a south western movement through the islands of Kei, Seram, Roma, Kisar and ultimately Timor (Hull 2004, 65).

The Meher and Oirata communities on Kisar have been separated by what Engelenhoven describes as ‘language apartheid’ (2016, 202). Today the majority of Oirata speakers cannot understand Meher and use Melayu Tenggara Jauh as a lingua franca. However the Oirata claim that their grandparents’ generation was very fluent in Meher and used that as a lingua franca in the past (Nazrudin 2015).


Melayu Tenggara Jauh

MTJ is a local variety of Malay that was probably introduced by the Protestant mission of Ambon in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is frequently used in trade dealings with the East Timorese. In the Oirata-speaking region it is used more commonly than Indonesian.


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The Ethnography of Kisar

Unlike many other parts of Indonesia, the people of the South Western Islands have received little attention from cultural anthropologists. On Kisar most of the attention has been focussed on the minority mestizo and Oirata communities.

Ernst Rodenwaldt, an expert in tropical hygiene, made a study of the physical characteristics of the mestizos of Kisar, the results of which were published as De Mestiezen op Kisar in 1927. As the descendants of Dutch, German and French 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. Rodenwaldt recorded the complicated history of inter-marriages in great detail and included some limited ancillary ethnographic information about the island.

Jan Petrus Benjamin De Josselin de Jong, Professor of Ethnology at Leiden University, travelled through eastern Indonesia from February 1933 to February 1934. He visited Buru, Wetan, Moa, Wetar and Kisar, collecting linguistic and ethnographic information that would be helpful in planning future research. Having only a limited time, he spent his days on Kisar studying the language of the Oirata community and recording their myth of origin. In his subsequent 1937 publication Oirata, a Timorese Settlement on Kisar, he only included a brief ethnological analysis of their social organisation.

Filomeno Simão Jacob Abel also investigated the Oirata community for her 1994 M. Phil. and 1997 D. Phil. at Oxford University, examining their genealogies and social customs. More recently Aone van Engelenhoven, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at Leiden Univestity, has been researching the languages, oral traditions and narratives of the South Western Islands, including Kisar.

Although the population of Kisar is sharply divided into two ethno-linguistic groups: Meher and Oirata, they generally share the same tangible and non-tangible culture, including the same songs and story telling (Engelenhoven and Nazarudin 2016). The one exception is in their style of house building (Pattipeilohy 2013).

In the Meher-speaking territory the population has traditionally been stratified into the nobility or marna, the peasant farmers, known as wuhru or alternatively wuhur or bur, and the slaves or stam. In the nineteenth century the latter seem to have been of two types – the laskar who were saleable first generation slaves and the stam who were not (Crab 1862, 100). In the past the marna appear to have been more numerous. Rodenwaldt found that the marna were grouped into one clan, the wuhuru into twenty clans and the stam into three clans (1927, 20). On the basis of the island’s physical anthropology, he believed that the Melanesian wuhuru were the autochthonous population of Kisar, whereas the marna, being smaller and having straighter hair, were immigrants – most recently from Luang but earlier probably from the northwest of the archipelago (see the findings of Geoffrey Hull in the History section above). The stam were chiefly from Timor, having been purchased or captured during tribal wars. The status of the stam did not improve following the abolition of slavery – they simply became known as anak piara (nursing children) rather than slaves.

Today there is still just one single chief clan, the marna, which is assisted by allied wuhrhu clans. The remaining clans are the commoners (stam or alternatively anan) and form the bulk of the community (Engelenhoven and Nazrudin 2016). Some of these commoner clans were formerly slave clans.

The Oirata community is stratified into the marna, wuhur (alternatively wuhuru or wuhru) and the atan or atana, meaning servant or slave (De Jong 1937, 11-12). Compared to the Meher community, the number of marna lineages is disproportionately large, while in some communities the atan are absent or relatively small. In the village of Oirata Timur the wuhur are divided into two groups, one of which formerly belonged to the atan caste. It seems that over time a significant number of lineages have been able to promote themselves to a higher caste than the one that they originally belonged.

Kisar society distinguishes between the aboriginal and the migrant population, the latter using traditional narratives to define their place and function within the island society (Engelenhoven 2003, 51). Families in both ethno-linguistic communities are grouped into clans that are categorized into four origin groups:

  • clans whose ancestors were autochthonous (indigenous) to Kisar
  • clans originating from Timor Island
  • clans originating from the Kei Islands (Southeast Maluku)
  • clans originating from Luang Island (central Southwest Maluku).

The indigenous clans are generally acknowledged as the traditional landowners within each of their own ethno-linguistic groups. The immigrant clans are known as ‘boat-owners’ (Engelenhoven 1998). Clans are normally divided into four semi-independent lines of descent, called houses (De Jonge and Van Dijk 1995, 46). Descent is patrilineal (Engelenhoven 2010, 64). Each clan contains one or more clan houses that represent the existing lineages within that clan. In Kisarese folklore a clan is normally referred to by the name of its most important clan house.

The royal clan of Hihileli-Halono based in Wonreli has the highest status on the island and provides the chief of all the Meher-speaking clans (Engelenhoven and Nazrudin 2016). This is probably why the Dutch installed the chieftain Pakar from the Hihileli clan as the Raja or ‘King’ of Kisar Island in 1665. He was subsequently baptized as Cornelis Bakker (Rodenwaldt 1928: 38-39). In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the marna had accumulated enormous wealth from inter-island trading in the form of gold crowns, masks, chains, plates, discs and half-moons. It was the existence of this gold treasure that had attracted the attention of the Sultan of Tidore in 1643. Rodenwaldt was amazed by the treasure store or pusaka of the Raja of Kisar, although much of it was destroyed in the 1925 fire.

The mestizo population of Kota Lama who are locally referred to as Walada (Dutch) are the one exception and are not grouped into clans. The term Walada is derived from an older term Wolanda, which is a distortion of Bolanda/Balanda, itself a distortion of Hollander (Rodenwaldt 1927, 37)! The mestizo township is not a traditional domain but rather a dependency of Wonreli (Dahoklory et al 2010, 4). At the time of Rodenwaldt’s visit the mestizos were led by an elder who was subservient to the Raja of Kisar.

In the Oirata-speaking villages the population is divided into seven clans known as pada: four in Oirata Timur (Hano’o, Hunlori, Pa'umodo and Selewaku) and three in Oirata Barat (Asatupa, A'udoro and Ira Ara) (De Jong 1937, 5). Membership is based on patrilineal descent. Each of these seven clans is subdivided into a number of houses or lineages known as kodo, each of which belongs to one of three marna or social levels: the ratu or nobility, the rurin kaka (big brother) or offspring of ratu who have married down, and the rurin no’o-no’o (little brother) commoners and former slaves (ata). Thus the largest Hano’o clan has six ratu lineages, four rurin kaka lineages and 14 rurin no’o-no’o lineages. There are 101 lineages in total. In De Jong's time the lineages were strictly exagomous whereas the clans were not.

The combined domains of Oirata Barat and Oirata Timur are managed by a traditional council of five members, which is metaphorically described as a boat in which each member plays a specific role. The two master chairs are occupied by the landowning Sorulewen house of the Hano’o clan and the Ho’oren house of the Asatupa clan. The helmsman’s chair is taken by the So’o house of the Hano’o clan; the chair for the hand bailer is assigned to the Ho’oren house of the Asatupa clan; while the final chair for the pilot is taken by the Resiara house of the A’udoro clan.

In the past, marriage between clans was asymmetric, following the tradition of the circular connubium that was widely practiced throughout eastern Indonesia (Renes 1977, 225). At the same time, marriage on Kisar could only take place between clans of the same status (Adat dan upacara perkawinan daerah Maluku 1977). Marriage was normally patrilineal with the bride moving to her husband’s village. As in many other regions of eastern Indonesia, the preference was for a young man to marry his mother’s brother’s daughter (Renes 1977, 226).

This was clearly a problem for the single ruling Hihileli clan of the Meher-speaking community. It was resolved by means of a patrilineal system of fixed asymmetric alliance linking the three noble clans (essentially lineages) of Kisar, Leti and Moa (Renes 1977, 225-30). The Bakker (also known as Pakri) family of Kisar would send their daughters to be married into the ruling Norimarna family on Leti. The Norimarna family would marry their daughters into the ruling Pooroe family on Moa, and the Pooroe family would marry their daughters into the ruling Bakker family on Kisar. Rene noted in 1977 that up to one generation ago, the three noble families were strictly exogamous. Since then there have been several marriages within the Hihileli clan.

On Kisar customary law dictates that marriage between different social castes is forbidden – a rule that applies to both the Meher- and Oirata-speaking communities (Bennendyk 2016). The couple involved are seen to be disrespectful to their respective parents and extended families. Despite this such marriages do occur, especially in the villages of Wonreli, Abusur, Yawuru and Lebelau. In such cases adat demands the imposition of a significant fine, known as a molu pair, on the errant couple. This consists of 30 pieces of gold, 30 swords, 30 textiles and kebayas, and the staging of feasts. If the offense occurs between a noble and a commoner, the fine is doubled.

As H. C. van Eijbergen found in 1862, the mestizo population predominantly married among themselves and only very rarely with the local nobility (Eijbergen 1864b, 137).

George Wilken, the important nineteenth-century Leiden anthropologist, believed that certain social customs on Kisar suggested that it had transformed from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society (Wilken 1912, 157). For example, a father’s sons inherit in a patrilineal society but his sister’s sons inherit in a matrilineal society. If a man has no sons on Kisar, his sister’s sons have priority over his brother’s sons. Likewise the offspring of two sisters are forbidden to marry, a feature that is generally found where matriarchy exists in its purest form. The offspring of two brothers are also forbidden to marry. However the offspring of a brother and sister are allowed to marry.

Another feature of marriage on Kisar is that when a woman gives birth her husband is prohibited from engaging in agricultural work for several months.

On Kisar the bridewealth consists of gold in the form of earrings, or gold moons and plates, along with swords and textiles (de Jong and van Dijk 1995, 120). Three Kisarese mestizo families – the Caffins, van Delsens and Wouthuysens – have been important goldsmiths for centuries, fashioning gold jewellery from Dutch gold ducats or British gold sovereigns. However their craft seems to have become extinct around the start of the twentieth century (Rodenwaldt 1927, 6). The native island population, on the other hand, was never involved in goldsmithing. The Kisarese also forged swords (klewangs) from imported objects of iron – Reinwaldt mentioned the production of sabres from iron hoops in 1821 (Vriese 1858, 370).

Similar combinations of gold, swords and textiles are required for the settlement of customary fines concerning violation of marriage castes, adultery, elopement, pregnancy out of wedlock, theft, etc. (Bennendyk 2013).

It is clear that the above piecemeal observations are far from ideal. The fascinating peoples of Kisar Island deserve a more up-to-date and rigorous study by modern cultural anthropologists.


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This webpage was published on 4 January 2017.