Suanggi – The Dreaded Witches of Maluku in the Early Modern Period

The neighborhood children in Masohi used to warn me about the various ghosts and monsters lurking in the dark. They shared stories of beasts as tall as the palm trees, the ghost of a mother searching for her children, and a host of other setan (devils) and hantu or spok (ghosts) [1]. They advised me to avoid venturing out of my house at night as I would certainly be prey to the dreaded suanggi, a man-eating vampire/witch with the ability to possess its victims or transform into any animal or person. These children reckoned that, as a young single man and an obvious outsider, I would likely be targeted by such an evil and deceptive creature. Perhaps, they were just trying to scare me. 

The view outside my backdoor in Masohi (2012-2013).

From 2012 to 2013, I was teaching English in the town of Masohi in eastern Indonesia’s Maluku province. Located on the island of Seram [2], Masohi is a purpose-built sub-provincial capital with government offices, schools, a market, and a hospital. Nevertheless, most of Seram is either rural or sparsely inhabited with dense rainforest and/or tall mountains. The majority of people live along the coast. My house was located in a quiet neighborhood on the edge of town, a stone’s throw away from the bay. At night, the neighborhood was incredibly dark and eerie noises emanated from all directions. I suspected I was mostly hearing the calls of various birds, bats, and rodents. Sometimes, it was just the wind. Still, it was tempting to imagine those ghosts and devils encircling the area or waiting for us in the nearby farms or forests. 

Since beginning graduate school in 2014, I have read through many primary sources on eastern Indonesia extending as far back as the early sixteenth century. These primary sources are overwhelmingly Portuguese and Dutch and, accordingly, reflect the perspectives of those European colonists, sailors, administrators, and missionaries who arrived in the region and recorded their observations. And, much to my surprise, some of these documents mentioned a few of those familiar creatures, namely the suanggi [3].

Suanggi-related folklore is found across much of eastern Indonesia and, as other scholars have observed, the presence of these suanggi tales roughly corresponds with the historical spheres of influence of the clove-producing North Malukan sultanates, namely Ternate and Tidore [4]. While the Malukan Malay suanggi is the most widely-used name for the creature, in other areas, locals refer to it as gua (Buli), menaka (Lamaholot), and polo (Ende) among others. Moreover, the word suanggi appears to be a cognate with aswang, the name of a similar supernatural creature in the Philippines. 

Geographic extent of the terms suanggi and aswang.
Modified map from The Empty Shell by Nils Bubandt (pg. 27)

Understandably, given how dispersed suanggi stories are, it is nearly impossible to provide a definitive description of the creature which includes all of its regional variations. In his book The Empty Seashell, anthropologist Nils Bubandt sums up suanggi or the gua, as they are known in Buli, Halmahera, where Bubandt conducted his research, as “human beings—fellow villagers, neighbors, family, or friends—whose greed has forced them into an alliance with a gua spirit. They appear to be ordinary humans, but sometimes, especially at night, they turn into gua: witches, cannibals, shape-shifters.” (Bubandt 2014, x) In regional folklore, suanggi are often able to shapeshift into various animals and they possess the ability to possess people or even inanimate objects. It should also be emphasized that suanggi are not exclusively female, unlike witches in Western folklore. Anyone could possibly be a suanggi.

Importantly, a common characteristic is the suanggi’s need to eat the human liver, which across Indonesia is the vital organ that is believed to be the center of the body or the seat of emotion much like how the heart is viewed in Western culture. This cultural distinction possibly caused confusion for European observers, who generally wrote that the suanggi ate hearts (hart in Dutch or coração in Portuguese) rather than livers [5].  In other tellings, the suanggi may eat additional organs or drink blood.

The earliest European accounts of suanggi come from the Portuguese who were based in present-day North Maluku province in the early to mid-sixteenth century. Immediately after the Portuguese first arrived in 1512, they became deeply involved in regional diplomacy and conflict, initially maintaining an alliance with the Sultanate of Ternate, one the region’s primary clove-producing polities. In one exciting episode, recorded in Fernão Lopes de Castanheda’s History of the discovery and conquest of India by the Portuguese (1551), Antonio de Brito, the notorious first Portuguese governor of Ternate (1522-1524), led a Portuguese-Ternatean assault on the rival Sultanate of Tidore. In preparing for this attack, Antonio de Brito received a force of twelve suanggi (soanghe) from Grambocanora, an allied town. (Castanheda VI 1924, 255-256) These “devil-men” (homens diabo) were claimed to be able to turn invisible. Understandably, de Brito was unsure about these claims. As such, he ordered one of the suanggi to be chained and guarded overnight. To de Brito’s amazement, the chains were empty the following morning. However, despite this obviously useful ability possessed by the suanggi, de Brito chose not to use them in attacking Tidore so that the sultan of Tidore could not accuse him of using “diabolical arts” (arte diabolica). 

Map of North Maluku and Central Maluku

More often in the records, Portuguese administrators and Catholic missionaries observed that a great many cases of disease and death were attributed to the works of suanggi. In their chronicles and letters, the Portuguese colonists and missionaries recount numerous instances in which North Malukan sultans, raja, ministers, and commoners were supposedly targeted by suanggi, who sought to usurp their positions, take their wealth, or coerce them into arrangements that were favorable to the suanggi. The suanggi would secretly cause their targets to fall deathly ill with their magic. Then, once their target had passed away, the suanggi would come to consume the deceased’s liver. In the event that an important figure, such as a raja or minister was sick and incapacitated, armed guards were placed around their residences. This was done to prevent the suanggi from entering the ill person’s quarters and consuming their organs. (Jacobs 1971, 80-81) Commoners may have had family members and well-meaning neighbors play the same role. Seventeenth century Dutch administrators and merchants recorded the same practice in their colony in Ambon in Central Maluku. (Niemeijer and van den End 2015 I I, 53; Knaap 1987, 23)

Considerable effort was taken to uncover the identity of and eliminate the suanggis who attempted to kill North Malukan royalty. According to the same sources, a suanggi may be identified by the targeted individuals through a dream. That is, if the targeted individual envisioned someone in their dream, that person was very likely the suanggi who was causing their illness. (Jacobs 1974-1984 I, 578-579; 688-689) In these cases, the accused suanggi would be executed and their blood would be used to treat the sick person targeted by the suanggi. Some sources were suspicious of this practice. For instance, the writer of the 1544 Treatise of the Moluccas, who scholars believe to be Portuguese administrator António Galvão, stated his belief that rulers and ministers accused their rivals and enemies of being suanggi for political gain. (Jacobs 1971, 80-81)

Although the accusations of suanggi within the royal palace and the ministers’ residences warranted special attention from the Portuguese and later Dutch administrators, the suanggi likewise tormented the region’s commoners. The fear of suanggi was so great that it may have partially contributed to the adoption of Islam or Christianity by certain communities. In a 1564 letter from Ambon, Jesuit brother Manuel Gomes wrote that the erection of a cross in Nusaniwe by Jesuit missionary Fr. Fernão Alvarez and some local residents was believed to help fend off suanggi.(Jacobs 1974-1984 I, 448) According to two other missionary letters, one in 1570 and another in 1609, some communities in Bacan concluded that the Portuguese and the missionaries were unaffected by the magic of the suanggi because they had been Christian for so long. (Jacobs 1974-1984 I, 578-579; Jacobs 1974-1984 III, 101-102) Due to a lack of resources, it is difficult to know if Muslim preachers in the area encountered the same circumstances, but it is a possibility. 

One thing that is abundantly clear from the records is that hatred or fear of suanggi was intensely strong throughout the region. Mobs allegedly formed at the mere rumor or accusation of someone being a suanggi. In the 1620s, the Dutch East India Company senior merchant in Ambon Artus Gijsels complained that most of the justice carried out in their colony concerned accusations of suanggi among the locals. (Knaap 1987. 23) Moreover, in many cases, the punishment was not limited to the accused suanggi. Family members and associates were often subject to retribution as well. Most often family members of suanggi would be ostracized from the greater community and people would avoid entering into relationships or marriage with them. (Niemeijer and van den End 2015 I I, 53; Knaap 1987, 23) In more severe instances, entire families could be exterminated. In the 1560s, Gabriel Rebelo, a Portuguese chronicler in Ternate, recorded one such event, relayed to him by a local informant, in which a past king of Jailolo and his chief minister had many suanggi and their relatives, totalling 136 people, executed. (Sá 1954 III, 290) This is possibly an exaggerated figure, but nonetheless illustrates the weight of such an accusation.

While the culturally-specific characteristics of the suanggi seemed strange to the Portuguese and Dutch in the region, the concepts of the sorcery and witchcraft as well as the strong desire to persecute those accused of practicing those diabolical arts would not have been foreign to the Portuguese and Dutch colonists and missionaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Witch Hunts were common in Europe during that period. Meanwhile, the Portuguese and Dutch who resided in this part of the world often compared the suanggi to their own witches. In their records, they used the term suanggi interchangeably with feiticeiro and bruxa, tovenaar and heks, the terms for sorcerer and witch in Portuguese and Dutch, respectively.  The use of these terms can sometimes be confusing as the Portuguese and Dutch frequently used the same terms for pre-Chistian/pre-Islamic religious leaders. Thus, in some passages, context is needed to determine if they are talking about the horrifying suanggi or if they are talking about an animist priest or priestess. Nevertheless, the inclusion of suanggi in their records reveals how widespread the belief in and fear of suanggi was in this region. It also provides another subject in which to explore the cross-cultural interactions between the local populations of this region with the European colonists and Christian missionaries. 

Tales and rumors of suanggi are still present in eastern Indonesia, although maybe not to the extent that they were in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Their continued popularity is evident in the fact that those neighborhood children in Masohi still drew upon suanggi as the subject of their imaginations. Periodically, a story of someone being accused of being a suanggi appears in local newspapers and the internet is filled with countless videos of alleged suanggi sightings. I am personally uninterested in investigating the veracity of these claims. Rather, when I lived in Masohi, I found a familiar joy hearing those children’s suanggi stories. They reminded me of the ghost stories I heard when I was young. As an academic, I was excited to see them in the historical records as well. 

Notes

[1] Generally, in Malay and Indonesian, the word for “ghost” is hantu. In Ambonese Malay, the variety of Malay spoken in Ambon and the surrounding islands, they often use the word spok from the Dutch word spook (pronounced like the English word “spoke”). On a related note, the English words “spook” and “spooky” also derive from the Dutch word spook

[2] The name of the island Seram is indigenous to the area. However, funnily enough, the word seram in Malay/Indonesia coincidentally means “scary”, “spooky”, or “horrifying”. This was often brought to my attention by Indonesians outside of Maluku who half-jokingly warned me to stay safe from all of the ghosts, demons, and ilmu hitam (“black magic”). 

[3] There are many different ways in which suanggi is spelled in these documents. Some variations of the spelling are “soanga”, “suanga”, “suangue”, “joanga”, “soanghe”, and “çuanga” in the Portuguese sources, and “zwangie”, “swangie”, and “soewangie” in the Dutch sources. 

[4] In their scholarship, the noted anthropologists of eastern Indonesia F. A. E. van Wouden, James Fox, Roy Ellen, and Nils Bubandt have discussed the spread of suanggi folklore across the area. In 1983, Wouden introduced his idea of suanggi complex which warranted further investigation. The observation that the spread of the suanggi myth correlates with the spheres of influence of Ternate and Tidore was brought to my attention in the notes of Nils Bubandts’ The Empty Seashell. (Bubandt 2014, 26-28)

[5] The heart/liver issue still arises in translating between Indonesian and other languages. The Indonesian word hati is often translated into English as “heart” for ease of communication, even though it technically refers to the liver. This occurs in literature, music, and poetry. The actual word for “heart” is jantung, but you would never hear that in a love song or poem. Using the word jantung would make the listener or reader imagine an actual heart in a medical context. I was originally taught that hati meant “heart” and it was not until much later that I was finally informed that hati actually referred to the liver. 

Primary Sources

Castanheda, Fernão Lopes De. Historia Do Descobrimento & Conquista Da India Pelos Portugueses. 3rd Ed. Revista E Anotada Por Pedro De Azevedo.. ed. Coimbre: Impr. Da Universidade, 1924.

Jacobs, Hubert. (ed.). Documenta Malucensia. 3 vols. Rome: Jesuit Historical Institute, 1974-1984.

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.

Knaap, G. J. (ed.) Memories Van Overgave Van Gouverneurs Van Ambon in De Zeventiende En Achttiende Eeuw. Rijks Geschiedkundige Publicatiën. Kleine Serie ; 62. ‘s-Gravenhage: Verkrijgbaar Bij M. Nijhoff, 1987.

Niemeijer, Hendrik E. and Th. van den End (ed.) Bronnen betreffende Kerk en School in de gouvernementen Ambon, Ternate en Banda ten tijde van de Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), 1605-1791. Amsterdam: Huygens ING, 2015. 

Sá, Artur Basílio De. Documentação Para a História Das Missões Do Padroado Portugês Do Orientel: Insulindia. 6 vols. Lisboa: Agência Geral Do Ultramar, Divisão De Publicaô̧es E Biblioteca, 1954.

Secondary Sources
Bubandt, Nils. The Empty Seashell: Witchcraft and Doubt on an Indonesian Island. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2014.

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