An Ambonese Account on the Arrival of the Portuguese

There are relatively few local non-European written sources on the history of Maluku and Ambon in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that themselves can be traced to those centuries. The seventeenth century Malay-language Hikayat Tanah Hitu written by the Hituese imam Rijali is one of those few written sources.

Composed while Rijali was in exile in Makassar in South Sulawesi between 1647 and 1653, the Hikayat Tanah Hitu narrates the history of Tanah Hitu, an emerging polity on the northern coast of the island of Ambon (a hikayat is a form of Malay literature that roughly corresponds with the word “chronicle” or “epic” in English), from some time in the fifteenth century when the area was settled by four migrants groups up until Rijali’s exile to Makassar. The four groups being from Gorom, Seram, Jailolo, and East Java. The first three of which are in present-day Maluku and North Maluku provinces. While the early chapters are focused on the establishment of those migrant groups and the ascendance of four perdana (“premiers” or community leaders) from those groups, the majority of the work concerns the tremendous upheaval that the region experienced from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth centuries. During this period, conflicts and turmoil emerged as the area experienced Hituese political consolidation (historian Z. J. Manusama referred to it as a sort of “proto-state formation”), Islamization, the introduction of clove production, the arrival of the Portuguese, the expansion of Ternatean influence from North Maluku, and the entrance of the Netherlands East India Company.

File:AMH-5624-NA Map of the island of Ambon.jpg
A map of Ambon by mapmaker Johannes Vingboons (ca. 1660)
Ambon is made up of two peninsulas: Leihitu or Hitu is the larger northern peninsula. Leitimor is the smaller southern peninsula. The two peninsulas are joined by very slender isthmus. To the west of the isthmus is Ambon Bay. The colored areas on the northern coast of Leihitu very roughly correspond with the Tanah Hitu of Hikayat Tanah Hitu.
(Image: Nationaal Archief)

The following excerpt, which I have chosen to translate, recounts the arrival of the Portuguese in Ambon in 1512 and their resettlement away from the core of Hitu, which occurred some time between 1523 and the late 1530s. As this is just one chapter, many of the events that occurred during those decades are either simplified or absent. However, the excerpt is important in that it illustrates the first impressions that some Ambonese may have had of the Portuguese. Some time after the conclusion of this chapter, the relations between the Portuguese and the Hituese soured tremendously and violent conflicts continually erupted between the two sides. These conflicts would come to include expeditions by the Ternateans, some Javanese, and, eventually, the Netherlands East India Company. Rijali describes it as a holy war. Obviously, Rijali’s account reflects a Muslim Hituese perspective.

Page from Hikayat Tanah Hitu. Copy made some time between 1653 and 1662. Leiden University Library, Cod.
Or. 5448, f. 24v. (Image: “A Jawi Sourcebook”)

In preparing this translation, I have used the transliteration of the Hikayat Tanah Hitu provided by Hans Straver, Chris van Fraassen, and Jan van der Putten in their Historie van Hitu (2004), which in turn builds on the work of Z. J. Manusama. The original text is written in Malay and uses an Arabic-derived script know as Jawi. I do not know how to read Jawi…yet. The three scholars provide a Dutch translation of the manuscript. When I encountered a Malay word or phrase that I was unfamiliar with, I referred to their Dutch translation. It is also worthy of mention that Malay would not have been the first language for most seventeenth century Ambonese people, but by that time it had already been established as a language of trade, diplomacy, literature, and learning across the region.


‘Alkissah XII: The Coming of the Portuguese

I now tell this story. At one time, a boat from Saki Besi Nusatelo embarked for the Pulau Tiga Sea to catch fish (1). Later, the crewmembers came and brought news to perdana Jamilu (2), saying, “We encountered a boat in the Pulau Tiga Sea. In all of our lives on this world, we have never seen people who look like these people. Their bodies were white and their eyes were like those of a cat (3). We then inquired about them, but they did not know our language and we did not know of their people.” Then Jamilu replied, “Go and bring them here.”

They went back and brought them to the negeri (4) to perdana Jamilu. He asked them, “Where do you come from and what is the name of your negeri?” They responded, “We come from the negeri of Portugal and we wish to trade. We arrived here because we were lost and did not know the way. Then we fell upon a nearby piece of land and our ship was caught in a reef in the Pulau Burung Sea (5). We left our ship and boarded a lifeboat (6) with the intention of returning to Portugal, but our pilot was not familiar with the area and we turned back around. What could we do? Fortunately, we are here.” Afterward, they were given a place where they could build a house (7).

After some time, they requested that half of them stay and wait at their house and half of them bring news of their condition to their superior (8). Thereupon, they arranged for a ship to come every year with the arrival of the west monsoon (9), without interruption. Thus, the market of Hitu became bustling and the whole island of Ambon became famous.

At that time, perdana Jamilu was given the title “Kapitan Hitu” (10) and an agreement was made where, if ships arrived, a gift of textile would be given to Kapitan Hitu. Each year, the custom was upheld. There was no argument therein at that time and Kapitan Hitu enjoyed fame from Ambon to Portugal. As such, the king of Portugal bestowed upon him two names, the first Kapitan Hitu and the second Dom Jamilu (11).

Over time, in accordance with the will of God the Almighty, their goodness, which was rewarded by the Lord, the Generous, gave way to wickedness. On one occasion, they became drunk and plundered and rioted in the marketplace. This was reported to the magistrate and the religious leader, the latter of which stated, “the crimes of these men should be fined with their lives.” The four perdana said, “The words of the magistrate and the religious leader are correct, but we should forgive them, for it is already well-known that we treat them well. Consequentially, if we do evil too, what will become of our name as it is heard by others? It is best that we move them to another location, different from our own negeri.”

They were moved to the other side [of Leihitu] (12), to a place where they would get along well, where the negeri did not have religion and continued to drink much alcohol (13). They shared the same food and drinks (14).

That was the way of the four perdana. At that time, there was no thought of what was to come later.’



(1) Saki Besi Nusatelo are three small islands off the northwestern coast of Ambon. While Rijali’s states the boat was setting out to catch fish, the 1544 Portuguese account Treatise on the Moluccas refers to these fishermen as pirates (coçairos: “corsairs”). Being a fisherman and engaging in piracy are not mutually exclusive so both accounts may be correct. This event took place in early 1512.

(2) Jamilu was the perdana, or head, of the migrant group from Jailolo in North Maluku that settled in Hitu.

(3) People in Maluku and the surrounding area overwhelmingly have dark brown eyes. The comparison of Portuguese eyes to cat eyes likely refers to their varied eye colors (light brown, green, hazel, etc…).

(4) The term negeri does not have a corresponding term in English. The term itself comes from the Sanskrit nagara originally meaning “town” or “city”. The terms nagara and negeri also can refer to “capital”, “state”, or “polity”. In Ambon, the term negeri generally refers to a town or village and its surrounding area that historically functioned as a polity. Negeri often have a king and they engaged in regional diplomacy. The Dutch administrators in the area adapted the term into the Dutch language as negorij. Here the negeri refers to Hitulama in Tanah Hitu.

(5) In either late 1511 or early 1512, three Portuguese ships under the command of António de Abreu set out from Melaka, which the Portuguese had conquered in August 1511, in search of the Banda Islands, a group of small islands southeast of Ambon that were world’s only source of nutmeg prior to the nineteenth century. On the return journey, one of the ships, captained by Francisco Serrão, was shipwrecked near a reef in the Banda Sea. Subsequent journeys would follow similar paths with ships heading east from Melaka in present-day Malaysia to Ambon and the Banda Islands and then returning to Melaka.

The Banda Sea is located south of Ambon. Prior to the nineteenth century, the Banda Islands (so small that they are difficult to see on the map) were the world’s only source of nutmeg.
(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

(6) In Malay, a sampan is similar to a dugout canoe. Here, Rijali must be referring to a lifeboat, junk, or dinghy attached to a Portuguese carrack (nau).

(7) According to Portuguese sources, this appears to have occurred in 1521.

(8) Their superior would presumably be in Melaka.

(9) The west monsoon season in Ambon corresponds with winter in the northern hemisphere. Portuguese ships during this time typically ported in Ambon in February and May.

(10) The word kapitan comes from the Portuguese word capitão (“captain”). In the Portuguese Empire, a capitão was simultaneously a regional administrator and military commander. A capitão was appointed by the Portuguese king and under the viceroy in Goa.

(11) The Portuguese word dom (don in Spanish) is an honorific title that roughly means “lord”.

(12) The Portuguese moved from the north coast of Hitu to the south coast of Hitu on Ambon Bay. This new settlement was across the bay from Leitimor, the southern and smaller peninsula of Ambon. Some sources indicate that this occurred in 1523, when the Portuguese first initiated contacts with those negeri. Other sources suggest that the Portuguese continued to reside in Hitu in some capacity until the late 1530s. Rijali does not provide a year. In 1576, the Portuguese would again relocate their primary settlement in Ambon across the bay on the northern coast of Leitimor with the construction of their fort Nossa Senhora da Anunciada (“Our Lady of the Annunciation”), which later developed into Kota Ambon, the island’s primary city. The Netherlands East India Company captured this fort in 1605, renaming it Fort Victoria.

File:Gezicht op Ambon Rijksmuseum SK-A-4482.jpeg
A 1617 sketch of Ambon by David de Meyne with a portrait of Dutch governor Frederik de Houtman. The Netherlands East India Company’s newly acquired Fort Victoria is drawn rather disproportionately.
(Image: Rijksmuseum)

(13) Rijali’s statement that the negeri “did not have religion” (“tiada beragama”) really means that those negeri did not practice Islam. In the sixteenth century, many if not most Ambonese people continued to practice forms of animism. It is among these non-Muslim negeri that the Portuguese and, later, Dutch Christianization efforts would find success.

(14) Rijali states that the Portuguese and these other negeri enjoy alcohol and the same foods. The food here likely refers to non-halal foods like pork. This point emphasizes that the people (or really leaders) of Hitu are Islamized or Islamizing as opposed to the Portuguese and those animist negeri.


Alkissah XII:

Alkissah dan kuceriterakan yang empunya ceritera: sekali
perastawa sebua perau Saki Besi Nusatelu ke laut Pulau Tiga
mengambil ikan. Maka ia dating membawah khabar kepada
perdana Jamilu, demikian katanya: ‘Ada kami bertemu sebua
perau di laut Puluh Tiga. Selamanya umur kami hidup dalam
dunia, bulum lagi melihat rupa manusyia bagai rupa orang itu.
tubuhnya putih dan matanya seperti mata kucing. Lalu kami
tanya kepadanya, ia tiada tahu bahasa kami dan kami pun tiada
tahu bangsyanya.’ Maka kata perdana Jamilu: ‘Pergilah engkau
bawah ia kemari.’ Maka kembali pula bawah ia datang ke negeri
kepada perdana Jamilu. Lalu ditanya kepadanya: “Darimana

dan apa nama negerimu?’ Maka ia menyahut: ‘Ada pun kami
ini datang dari negeri Portugal dan kehendak kami bedagang.
Sebab kami datang di sini kami sessat tiada tahu jalan. Maka
kami jatuh pesir ke tanah sebelah dan kapal kami pun tekarang
di laut Pulau Burung. Maka tinggal kapal kami, naik kepada
sampang endak pulang ke negeri Portugal. Tetapi malim tiada
tahu, maka kami datang kemari. Apatah daya, untung kami di
sini.’ Lalu diberinya tempat membuat rumahnya ia duduk. Hatta
berapa lamanya maka ia memohon setengah duduk menungguh
rumahnya dan setengah membawah khabar kepada orang
besarnya. Hatta datang musim barat, maka menyuruh kapalnya
datang gennap tahun tiada berputusan lagi. Jadi ramai bandar
di tanah Hitu dan termasyhur sekalian tanah Ambon. Kepada
zaman itulah maka digelarnya kepada perdana Jamilu ‘kapitan
Hitu’ namanya dan berjanjian apabila datang kapalnya, maka
diberinya masara persalin kepada Kapitan Hitu. Gennap tahun
diadatkan selamanya, maka suatupun tiada hujat dalamnya
pada ketika itu dan termasyhur nama Kapitan Hitu dari negeri
Ambon sampai negeri Portugal. Maka raja Portugal digelarnya
dua nama, suatu Kapitan Hitu, kedua Don Jamilu Namanya.
Hatta datang lama dengan lamanya serta kehendak Allah taala
yang kebaikannya itu dibalaskan oleh Tuhan Yang Mahamurah
datang kejahatannya. Sekali perastawa ia minum mabuk, lalu
berampas-rampasan serta

haru-biru dalam pasar. Maka disampaikan kepada hukam dan
penghuluh agama, maka kata penghuluh agama: ‘Salah orang
itu melainkan sampai nyawanya.’ Maka kata keempat perdana:
‘Bennar kata hukum dan penghuluh agama, tetapi ampun
dahuluh kepadanya, karena sudah termasyhur kita membuat
baik kepadanya. Kemudian kita membuat jahat pula, apa hal
nama kita didengngar oleh orang? Baik kita pindahkan dia kepada
tempat yang lain, jangan sama senegeri kita.’ Maka dipindahkan
dia ke tanah sebelah kepada tempat yang baik ia duduk, daripada
negeri itu tiada beragama dan lagi banyak minuman anggur.
Seperkara lagi sama makanannya dan minumannya. Itulah hal
keempat perdana. Pada ketika itu tiada dikira-kirakan kepada
hari yang kemudian.



Gallop, Annabel Teh Gallop, et al. “A Jawi Sourcebook for the Study of Malay Palaeography and Orthography”, Indonesia and the Malay World, 43:125, 13-171; 2015.

Heuken, Adolf. “Be my Witness to the Ends of the Earth!”: The Catholic Church in Indonesia before the 19th Century. Jakarta: Cipta Loka Caraka, 2002.

Jacobs, Hubert. (ed. & trans.) A Treatise on the Moluccas (c. 1544). Sources and Studies for the History of the Jesuits ; v. 3. St. Louis, Mo.: Jesuit Historical Institute; St. Louis University, 1971.

Straver, Straver, Christiaan Frans Van Fraassen, Jan Van Der Putten, and Netherlands Steunpunt Edukatie Molukkers, Utrecht. Historie Van Hitu : Een Ambonse Geschiedenis Uit De Zeventiende Eeuw. Utrecht : Landelijk Steunpunt Educatie Molukkers, 2004.

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