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.

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 a surprise raid by the Sultan of Tidore. Under the command of distant 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 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.

Although 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 Modern Kisar Economy
Languages 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: 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. 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. 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, 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, 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 lontar palms, kusum or lac trees (Schleichera oleosa), and Acacia (Trainor 2003). Kisar suffers from a long dry season 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).


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: 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). It 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: Geological map of Kisar

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


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).

The main settlement of Wonreli is located in a low-lying region in the southwest, about 2km inland from the tiny harbour of Nama and linked by road to the small Jhon Bakker airstrip at Purpura in the northeast. Two merchant 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. 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. 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.


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, Lekloor and Kota Lama.
(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 Kisser, Kissa, Kiasar, Makisser and Makisar.

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

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. Local legends say the island was first colonised by immigrants from mainland Timor, as well as Sermata and Moa (Riedel 1886, 401). However these movements probably relate to more relatively recent migrations.

We do not know when and how the first modern humans reached Kisar but it is possible that they were part of the Melanesian migration from Southeast Asia (Sundaland) to the continent of Sahul via the Lesser Sunda Islands some 60 to 40,000 years ago. 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). Alternatively they could have been westward-migrating Papuans who 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).

We are also unclear about how the first Austronesian-speakers arrived. Recent archaeological work in East Timor does not show an abrupt change in material culture that can be attributed to the sudden arrival of Neolithic farmers. The pre-Austronesian population were already making shell fishhooks and drilled shell beads some 10,000 years ago, advances possibly encouraged by inter-regional trade (O’Connor 2006, 74-87). The earliest ceramics, attributed to the arrival of seafaring Austronesians, date from 4,000 to 3,600 years ago (Spriggs et al 2003, 58).


Description: Remains of a bronze drum on Luang

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


A few Bronze Age finds suggest that the South Western Islands were already linked into a trade network that encompassed mainland Southeast Asia some 2,000 years ago. 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 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 and were probably made in southwest China or north Vietnam (Calo 2008, 208-224; Imamura 2010).

Since that time Kisar received a second wave of Austronesian-speaking immigrants, possibly from Sulawesi. The Kisaric languages spoken on Kisar and Roma belong to the Timorese group of languages, which the linguist Geoffrey Hull and his colleagues believe are closely linked to those from South Eastern Sulawesi – more specifically from the islands of Muna, Buna and Tukang Besi (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, they do not seem to have reached Kisar and Timor until very much later – the eleventh century AD (Hull 1998, 150).


Description: Migration of Timorese Languages

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


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 Hapsburg 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.

As early as 1601 a small Dutch flotilla of five ships destroyed an entire fleet of 28 Portuguese ships off Banten, West Java. The Dutch moved eastwards, seizing the Portuguese forts of Tidore and Ambon in 1605. The Sultan of Ternate welcomed the newcomers as an ally, offering an exclusive supply contract in exchange for military support. The Dutch soon began building their own defences, constructing Fort Oranje in 1607 and Fort Tolukko in 1611, both on Ternate. On Banda they built Fort Nassau in 1609, Fort Belgica in 1611 and Fort Hollandia in 1624. The Portuguese fort on Solor Island first fell to the Dutch 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.)


Just like the Portuguese, the VOC had no commercial interest in the South Western Islands. However they were soon drawn into that region thanks to the Sultan of Tidore. In 1643 Tidore (some sources mistakenly say Ternate) staged a long distance kora-kora (traditional canoe) raid on both Kisar and Romang. They met little resistance on Kisar and returned with five hundred prisoners and a heavy loot of gold, silver and other jewels (Riedel 1886, 401). Local legends suggest that the Kisarese responded by seeking assistance from the Dutch (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. On 11 July 1665 the VOC brig-of-war Loenen, captained by 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. 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 Blimme 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 - literally rich man - and presenting him with a silver-topped rottingknoppen walking stick. In return for Dutch protection he contracted to supply the VOC with slaves, spices and other local produce. Work began on the construction of Fort Delfshaven close to the modern capital of Wonreli. The work was completed on 7 August 1866 (Riedel 1866, 402). Chief Pakar's domain of Wonreli was relocated next to the fort - a settlement that eventually became known as Kota Lama or Old Town (Engelenhoven 2016). The Loenen returned to its home port of Banda in the same year.


Description: The remains of Fort Delfshaven

The remains of Fort Delfshaven (Image courtesy of Kabupaten Maluku Barat Daya)


Kisar seems to have responded by acquiring slaves for the VOC directly from East Timor, thereby angering the Topasses (Black Portuguese) who claimed exclusive rights over Timorese trade (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 Blimme was assigned to the island as its first sergeant (Rodenwaldt 1928, 20). A garrison named Vollenhoven was constructed on Nama Beach at Cape Madalasar and 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 two of his brothers, Norimarnu and Poru, to rule over Roma and Leti.

Following the third Anglo-Dutch War, which lasted from 1672 to 1674, VOC 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 emigrate to the neighbouring South Western Islands, some arriving on Kisar as early as 1714 (Coolhaas 1979, cited by Hägerdal 2012, 336). The VOC authorities on Banda initially pressurised the local orang kayas to forcibly repatriate the immigrants. However in 1721 three boats from Loiquero on the eastern cape of Timor arrived at Kisar, containing some 500 Timorese who mostly spoke Fataluku – the single most common Papuan language on Timor (Riedel 1886, 403). They included 93 men from the village of Oirata on Kisar. Having previously emigrated to Timor they had decided it was an opportune time to come home (Hägerdal 2012, 336). It seems that this wave of 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).

The fourth Raja and orang kaya of Wonreli, Koholouk Johannis Bakker, ruled Kisar from 1732 to 1752 (Rodenwaldt 1928, 39). It seems that as a result of a clerical error, the ruling family's name of Pakar had been transcribed as the more Dutch-sounding Bakker (Engelenhoven 2016). 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.


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.


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 Pakar. According to local residents, Immanuel Church was constructed at Lekloor, close to Wonreli, also in 1783 (Wawa-Daisuli 2013; Maahury 2015).

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. Governance of the South Western Islands became the responsibility of Josua van Yperen, based on Kisar (De Jong 2013, 15). The very last contract between the Dutch and the orang kaya of Kisar was signed by the commissioners J. W. Joostensz and A. Line on 2 July 1803 (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.

The mixed-race European-Kisarese community on Kisar today is actually descended from sixteen European soldiers who served on the island during the 1700s (Engelenhoven 2016). While some were Dutch others were German, Swiss, French and English. However some islanders believe that they are descended from crew members of a ship that was stranded on Kiasar beach in the sixteenth century although there is no evidence to support this belief.

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Kisar in the Nineteenth Century

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

Resident van Yperen died in 1816 (Hoëvell 1855, 225) and in the following year Kisar was returned to the Dutch under Commandant Johannes Willem Joostensz. By then Kisar had ceased to have any strategic importance and in 1819 the outpost was abandoned. It seems that relations between the Dutch and the islanders had not been friendly – Reinwardt mentioned in 1821 that two of the previous Residents had been killed by poison and the last had been threatened (De Vriese 1858, 369). Despite this, most of the garrison requested to remain on the island at Kota Lama (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, in 2012
(Image courtesy of Matt Dearden)


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, described as Marna, a half-hour walk inland along a shaded valley. Nevertheless 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 Wettar. 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 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). However according to Bosscher there were only 1,008 Christians on Kisar in 1852. In 1834 Willem Fedor Pieter Ockerse was posted to Wonreli in 1834 as overseeer of the South Western Islands (Ockerse and Blaney 2011, 32).

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). In any event, the local church had been destroyed by fire in 1833 and was not completely rebuilt until 1848 (Hoëvell 1855, 226).

Visits by Dutch officials remained infrequent but did take place in 1856 and 1859 (Eijbergen 1862, 200).  In March 1862 the South Western Islands were visited by the Dutch official Von Eijbergen. Kisar was then ruled by Raja John Bakker. Beneath him 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. There were 1,310 Christians, of whom 961 had been baptised. The number of school children was a mere 106 and the master complained about their poor attendance. The islanders were sailing their large prahus as far as Kupang in the west, Tanimbar in the east and Banda in the north (Eijbergen 1862, 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 some believe it was really motivated by Wonreli’s desire to establish Meher authority over the Oirata.

Increasing contact with the outside world may have been the cause of epidemics of cholera and small pox in 1867 and 1872. Ambon responded by moving the local administration from Kota Lama to Serwaru on Leti Island (Engelenhoven 2016).

When J. G. F. Riedel, the Resident of Ambon, visited Kisar in 1882 the population stood at 9,806, spread across twenty hamlets and the same six domains. Of these 1,389 lived in the domain of Oirata and, speaking a separate Papuan languge, did not mix with the rest of the island’s residents. Some 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 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, Wetan, and Luang (Van Dijk and De Jong 1991, 23). It would have been remarkable if they had not also traded with Kisar.

During the 1880s the Resident of Ambon, G. W. W. C. Baron Van Höevell, took an interest in the mestizo population of Kisar. By then they had abandoned the Christian faith and had lost their Dutch language (Ellington 1922). A headman was appointed to the community and a new missionary, the Reverend N. Rinnooy, dispatched in an attempt to re-introduce Christianity. Some mestizos were offered jobs and education to encourage them to move to Kupang, where some time later twelve houses were constructed for their use. Those who accepted numbered around 120.

In the meantime there seems to have been another major land dispute (known as the Tuber Leaf Battles) between Meher-speaking Wonreli and Oirata-speaking Oirata, with the former invading the latter in 1887 and taking numerous heads (Jacobsen 1896, 120-121; Rodenwaldt 1928, 40).


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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 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 a severe storm, during which the family bibles of the mestizo population were destroyed (Elkington 1922).


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

An early and inaccurate Dutch map of Kisar Island. The pencil corrections are thought to have been added by Gerret Pieter Rouffaer, who travelled to Timor and its surrounding islands in 1910. He probably draughted the second map. (Hayes 21.06.2106)


In 1912, the South Western Islands became a dependency of the Residency of Timor based at Kupang. They were given the name Klein-Timor ‘Little Timor’ (Engelenhoven 2016).

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 in Wonreli the church minister’s wife, 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 (Engelenhoven 2016).


Description: Landscape near Wonreli

Landscape near Wonreli, sketched by Wijnand Nieuwenkamp in June 1918


In 1927 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. 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.

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).

In 1934 the Batavian-born Dutch administrator, Willem Ockerse, arrived in Wonreli with his family 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:



ca. 1720

ca. 1823

ca. 1897


Christians Population (mainly Protestants)





(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 Philipus 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 Wonreli
(Image courtesy of Kabupaten Maluku Barat Daya)


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, which included NIT.

Kisar and the other South Western Islands suddenly found themselves an unimportant and low priority backwater in the enlarged Indonesian province of Maluku, which would henceforth be governed from Ambon. Their prime point of external contact reverted to Portuguese East Timor, and in 1953 their leader Raja 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.

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 1987 his title passed to his eldest son, Johannis J. Bakker, the twelfth and current Raja of Wonreli.

In 1995 a very limited electricity supply was installed at Wonreli and in 1996 an 800-metre airstrip was built at Purpura, pretentiously named John J. Bakker Airport, 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

Approaching the tiny port of Nama from the west
(Image courtesy of Hans-Peter Grumpe, Germany)


Description: The dock at Nama

Passengers and produce (including Kisar oranges) waiting for the arrival of K. M. Bukit Siguntang from Kupang in 2010 ( (Image courtesy of Hans-Peter Grumpe, Germany)


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 J. Bakker airstrip

The extended John J. Bakker airstrip at Purpura


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 has been terminated. Today the island can only be reached by the occasional charter flight.


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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.

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).

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.

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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Languages of Kisar

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



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, built around the ruins of Fort Delfshaven, just south 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


All of the languages of Southwest Maluku are 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.

As previously mentioned, the Australian linguist Geoffrey Hull has pointed out that 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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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).

Kisar society distinguishes between an aboriginal and a migrant population, the latter using traditional narratives to define their place and function within the island's 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).

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).

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.

In the Meher-speaking territory, clans are grouped into domains that are governed by a single chief clan (marna), which is assisted by allied noble clans (wuhru, alternatively wuhur or bur). The remaining clans are the commoners (anan, alternatively stam) and form the bulk of the community (Engelenhoven and Nazrudin 2016). Some commoner clans originate from slaves (aka or akaa) who were either captured during tribal wars or purchased. There are twenty noble and commoner clans and three servant clans composed of former slaves (Rodenwaldt 1928, 20).

The mestizo population of Kota Lama who are locally referred to as Walada (Dutch) are the one exception and are not grouped into clans. Their township is not a traditional domain, but rather a dependency of Wonreli (Dahoklory et al 2010, 4).

In the Oirata-speaking villages the population is divided into seven clans known as pada or soa: Hano’o, Selewaku, Pamodo, Hunlori, Audoro, Ira Ara and Asatupa. 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 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 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. Renes noted in 1977 that up to one generation ago, the three noble families were strictly exogamous. However his information, obtained through an intermediary, was not correct. On Kisar people identify two Bakker clans. The Black Bakkers are descended from legitimate marriages with local noble clans and consequently retain noble rights including succession. The White Bakkers on the other hand are the descendants of King Bakker V and his illegitimate affairs with a local woman and a mestizo from Banda (Engelenhoven 2016).

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 a transformation 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). The Kisarese have been important goldsmiths for centuries, fashioning gold jewellery from Dutch gold ducats or British gold sovereigns. They 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.