Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

On the Contemporary Uses of Colonial History and the Legitimation of Political Status in Archipelagic Southeast Seram

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

On the Contemporary Uses of Colonial History and the Legitimation of Political Status in Archipelagic Southeast Seram

Article excerpt

When the independent government of Indonesia succeeded the Dutch East Indies as the sovereign administration of the Moluccas, the graded titles awarded local potentates by the colonial regime were officially abolished and replaced with a uniform title of kepala desa or lurah. However, in both formal and informal relations between individual rulers and polities, and between those polities and local representatives of the Indonesian government, certain titles were semi-officially retained, the most prominent of which was raja. But as if to make such a concession palatable under the new egalitarian dispensation, all local rulers and village heads were permitted to style themselves raja, even if they had not been so designated hitherto. Despite these changes, the ranks and statuses of a precolonial era had been effectively "frozen" by incorporation within the colonial system, and have continued to play a part in the self-identification of local political leaders and their domains, and in the discourse of rivalry between them ever since. This paper addresses the problem of why this should be so, and how, in particular cases, arcane political distinctions reified through colonial structures of authority, together with a rhetoric drawing on completely local constructions of history, should be seen as a proper means of representing and articulating modem political disputes. As such, it should be situated in the context of other recent work on the representation and use by ethnic groups and their leaders of the past in the political present, and of the intermeshing of local tradition and nationalist ideology, in outer island Indonesia.(1)

Administration and Space in a Maritime District

The data evaluated here are drawn exclusively from what at the present time is the local administrative sub-district (kecamatan) of Seram Timur, part of the regency (kabupaten) of Maluku Tengah, within the province of Maluku, with its capital at Ambon. Since I shall be referring to a number of traditional polities now constituted as village-clusters, and since the dimensions of distance and space are germane to an understanding of the degree of political autonomy displayed by different domains and the relations between them, it is probably just as well to establish some fairly precise locational indicators. The geographic and demographic measures upon which I rely are for 1982, the most recent available, and are drawn from the Statistik Tahunan Kecamatan Seram Timur for that year, and in some cases those preceding it. In my experience these annual statistical digests are not as accurate as one might hope, but I believe in this context the data to be not so wildly off the mark that when aggregated they are likely to present a particularly distorted picture.

The kecamatan of Seram Timur lies between 3 and 4 degrees south and 129 and 130 degrees east [ILLUSTRATION FOR FIGURE 1 OMITTED]. It has a land boundary on the main island of Seram with the sub-district of Bula to the north and Werinama to the west. To the south lies the watery emptiness of the Banda sea, and to the southeast the Kei archipelago within the district of Maluku Tenggara. To the east and northeast is the separate province of Irian Jaya (Indonesian New Guinea). The sub-district of Seram Timur occupies approximately 55,000 square kilometres on both land and water, using the officially-demarcated sea-boundaries for the purposes of computation, but a mere 1,196.8 square kilometres of land surface. From Gah in the extreme northwest to Teor in the extreme southeast is 236.3 km. By way of comparison, this is greater than the distance between the mid-point of the sub-district and the administrative centre of the kabupaten at Masohi on mainland Seram (230 kin), and almost as far as the provincial capital of Ambon to the west (318 km).(2) More revealingly, the average size of even rural districts in central and eastern Java is around 77.7 square km with a population density in excess of 500 persons per square kilometre. …

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