SUPPLIERS, KNOWLEDGE BROKERS, AND BROTHERS IN ARMS Portuguese aspects of military innovation in Makassar

Tristan Mostert

The early seventeenth century saw the attempts of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to become the sole European power with access to the Moluccas and to the clove and nutmeg originating there. Makassar, a trade entrepot on South Sulawesi and the capital of the Sultanate of Gowa, increasingly became the centre of resistance against the Dutch monopolistic policies.1 Over the course of the seventeenth century, it became a harbour where European and Asian traders alike would come to buy their spices and trade other high-value goods. While Makassar was on the one hand a proud bandar, or free harbour, it also participated in the political and military scramble for the Moluccas, expanding its political influence there and thus preserving its continued access to these spices. This made Makassar both a trading port of choice and a valuable ally to other powers in the region, both Asian and European, which gave it a strong impetus and the necessary channels for rapid military innovation. It was able to use its position as an international port with extensive economic and diplomatic contacts to procure military technology and expertise.

This chapter explores the Portuguese role in Makassar’s military development, focusing on three aspects. It looks into Makassar’s fort-building practices, which have long been recognized as extraordinary for archipelagic Southeast Asia and have often been qualified as inspired and actively supported by the Portuguese. It then explores the role of Portuguese intermediaries in access to European weapons and military expertise in general. Finally, it investigates the Portuguese community of Borrobos that developed on the north side of Makassar from the 1640s onwards and that was ultimately allowed its own defences within Makassar in the face of imminent Dutch threat.

Background: European rivalries in Makassar at the start of the seventeenth century

In the first years of contact between the VOC and Makassar, relations were friendly, but in the second decade of the seventeenth century, they increasingly soured as the VOC developed its monopolistic policies, forcing other traders out of the spice-producing regions of the Eastern Archipelago. The subsequent conflict between Makassar and the VOC has often been explained in economic terms. Anthony Reid’s works on Southeast Asia, for example, often feature Makassar as an example of the kind of cosmopolitan trading port that for him defined what he termed the “age of commerce” in Southeast Asia. In his monumental work Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, as well as several subsequent studies, Makassar is presented mainly as a bandar, an open and cosmopolitan port town, and he contends that it was this open character that caused conflict with the VOC.2

However, the conflict also had strong political dimensions, which have received less scholarly attention. Makassar was the capital of a powerful state, the dual kingdom of Gowa-Tallo, which stood at the head of a federation of principalities that were loyal or subservient to them. This state encompassed large parts of South Sulawesi by the early seventeenth century. As it rose to become a powerful state, it also steadily expanded its diplomatic relationships. In the late sixteenth century, the karaeng of Gowa had made active efforts to build up diplomatic ties in the Moluccas and Timor and with Mataram, Banjarmassin, and Johor. In 1605, the Makasar nobility and, in the following years, the entire state converted to Islam, giving further impetus to Makassar’s diplomatic contacts and its rise as an international trading port.2 In the early seventeenth century, it was expanding its political influence and power overseas beyond South Sulawesi, for instance to the island sultanate of Buton (near Southeast Sulawesi) and the Moluccas. Here it became a rival to the interests of the North Moluccan sultanate of Ternate and its new European ally, the VOC, in terms of both political power and control of the spice trade, which the Dutch sought to monopolize. The initial cordial relations between the VOC and Makassar broke down in 1615.J

For the English East India Company (EIC) and the Portuguese, this conflict between the Dutch and Gowa-Tallo provided an opportunity. The Portuguese were forced out of the Moluccas in the first few years of the seventeenth century; the English completely withdrew in 1623. They instead started buying their spices in Makassar. The Malay and Makassar traders using Makassar as their base successfully continued their trade in cloves and even markedly expanded it as cloves started selling at a premium because of the Dutch attempts at monopoly.

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