The Demography of Ambon in the Seventeenth Century: Evidence from Colonial Proto-Censuses

By Knaap, Gerrit | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, September 1995 | Go to article overview

The Demography of Ambon in the Seventeenth Century: Evidence from Colonial Proto-Censuses


Knaap, Gerrit, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


In modern Indonesia the demographic study of the population has become a major field of academic interest. The reason is obvious: the endeavour to develop the nation's economy in order to give every citizen a proper standard of living and to guarantee this in the future, bears a strong relation to the size of the population and the desire to stem the tide of excessive population growth. Demographic studies are only recent and the same is true for the statistical material with which these studies work: censuses at a national level and regular registrations of births, marriages and deaths at the basic local level. In Indonesia the first, still imperfect, censuses date from the final decades of the nineteenth century, while regular registration of births, deaths and marriages for the indigenous population has only taken place from the 1930s onwards.(1)

Although the collection of statistical data is relatively recent, throughout the nineteenth century colonial governments in Southeast Asia, including the Dutch in Indonesia, were already trying to establish overviews of the populations they ruled. The history of this sort of information for Java has been told most thoroughly by Peter Boomgaard.(2) Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, there are a few areas in Southeast Asia for which information of a demographic nature, based on estimates and/or proto-censuses, is available for a much earlier period.(3) The Ambon Islands or the "Province of Amboina", as the colonial authorities used to call the greater part of present-day Maluku Tengah, is the most outstanding example of this. This particular information dates back to the seventeenth century, not taking into account a few rudimentary estimates about the number of Christians reported in sixteenth century Portuguese sources.(4) Other areas in Southeast Asia, for which there is a reasonable amount of information available, are Luzon and the Visayas in the Philippines. However, in this case the material concerns periodic enumerations of taxpayers.(5) Consequently, for the moment the Ambon Islands might be considered to be the only area in Southeast Asia where there is an opportunity to make a reconstruction of the general demographic history of the indigenous population prior to 1800. Although no clear-cut guarantee can be found for the reliability of the proto-censuses, their uniqueness gives them at least an important intrinsic value for understanding the demographic history of Maluku. The Maluku case can tell the researcher more about the demographic situation of early modern Southeast Asia, which was not as static as is often thought. However, it should be stressed that the statistics are of such a nature that it is impossible to gain insight into such issues as age at marriage, proportion marrying, family size, birth-rates and death-rates.

The Dutch called the proto-censuses for the Ambon Islands zielsbeschrijving, i.e., "description of souls". They began to draw up and tabulate these lists on an annual basis around 1670 and probably continued to do so until the end of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, only a small collection has survived in the archives, but among those still preserved there happens to be a complete series for the years between 1671 and 1695. This article will attempt to analyse the evidence from the proto-censuses of that period.(6) It is divided into three parts. In the first of these, the sources themselves and the method of analysis will be discussed. Then, attention will be paid to the general outcome of the research, in particular as far as growth-rates and population densities are concerned. Finally, a few remarks will be made about the demography of Amboina over a much longer perspective and comparisons will be drawn with general developments elsewhere in Southeast Asia, in particular with Java.

The Sources: Description, Limitations and Possibilities

Between 23 May and 7 June 1667, Cornelis Speelman, Superintendant and Admiral of the "Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie" (VOC), paid a visit to the Province of Amboina. …

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