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ETHNONYMS: Alifuru (interior of Ceram), Amboynese, Central Moluccans, Moluccans, Orang Ambon, South Moluccans (exiles in the Netherlands)


Identification. The Ambonese most commonly speak Ambonese Malay, live in the Central Moluccas, and are about evenly divided into adherents of Protestant Christianity and Islam. The Central Moluccas (Maluku Tengah) today constitute a subdivision of the province of Maluku in the Republic of Indonesia. Its inhabitants refer to themselves generally as "Orang Ambon," after the name of the most important island and the provincial capital, but various ethnic and island groups use their own appellations, reserving "Orang Ambon" only for the coastal populations of Ambon-Lease and Ceram.

Location. The Central Moluccas are located just below the equator between 3° and 5° S and 126° and 132° E. They encompass the island of Ambon, the Uliasser or Lease Islands (Haruku, Saparua, Nusalaut), Ceram, Buru, Ambelau, Buano, Kelang, Ceramlaut, Gorong, and the Banda Islands. Sizable immigrant populations reside in Jakarta and other large Indonesian cities, and about 40,000 have lived since 1951 as political exiles in the Netherlands. The total land area is about 21,000 square kilometers.

Demography. In 1980 the population of the Central Moluccas was estimated as 554,000, of which 112,000 reside in the provincial capital of Kota Ambon (Ambon City). The average population growth rate is 2.5 percent per year.

Linguistic Affiliation. Originally, various related Austronesian languages were spoken, and they are still spoken in the interiors of Ceram and Bum. These so-called bahasa tanah (languages of the land) are also still widely used in Muslim villages of the coastal regions, but have survived in only a few Christian villages there. The Christians are speakers of Ambonese Malay, a derivative of Sumatran Malay that arrived as a lingua franca at least three centuries before the first Europeans arrived. Most Muslims can speak Ambonese Malay. An increasing number of both groups is also familiar with the national language, Bahasa Indonesia, a form of "standard" Malay and the medium of formal communication.

History and Cultural Relations

The region is both culturally and racially located "on the crossroads" between Indonesia and Melanesia. The most outstanding culture trait adopted from Melanesia is the kakehan, a secret men's society on Ceram, the only such society in the entire Indonesian archipelago. The Moluccas or "Spice Islands" were originally the only place where nutmeg and cloves were found. Already known in ancient Rome and probably much earlier in China, these coveted spices attracted traders and immigrants from Java and other Indonesian islands, as well as Indians, Arabs, and Europeans. Through intermarriage, a wide spectrum of physical types emerged, often varying widely from village to village, and Ambonese culture became a mind-dazzling amalgam of earlier, indigenous cultural traits with concepts and beliefs of Hindu-Javanese, Arab, Portuguese, and Dutch origin. The Ambonese culture area can be divided into two subcultures, namely the Alifuru culture of the interior tribes of Ceram, and the Pasisir culture of Ambon-Lease and coastal stretches of western Ceram. The Alifuru are horticulturalists who practiced headhunting until pacification by the Dutch shortly before World War I. Most Ambonese clans in the Pasisir region trace their ancestry to the mountain regions of Ceram, and Alifuru culture forms the basis of Ambonese culture. Much of Alifuru culture has been destroyed by zealous Christian missionaries from the Pasisir region who could not perceive that much of what they attacked as "pagan" in Ceram was sacred to themselves in Ambon-Lease. This resulted in the paradox that the Christian villages on Ambon-Lease, converted some 400 years earlier, have conserved their cultural heritage better than the recently converted mountain villages on Ceram, which nowadays find themselves in a cultural limbo and in a state of economic depression. While in the Pasisir region Protestant Christianity and Islam dominate the worldview of their respective followers, traditional beliefs and practices (adat ) continue to govern social relationships in both religious communities. The rapid expansion of Islam in this region during the fifteenth century was contained with the arrival of the Portuguese (in 1511), who converted most of the "pagan" population to Roman Catholicism during their century of colonial rule. In 1605 the Dutch replaced them, and remained there until 1950. They turned the Christian population into Calvinist Protestants and instituted a spice monopoly despite the fierce resistance of both Muslims and Christians. In the nineteenth century, after the decline of the spice trade, Ambonese Muslims faded into the background while the fortunes of the Christians became ever more closely tied to the Dutch. As trusted and loyal soldiers, they became the mainstay of the Dutch colonial army (KNIL). Belonging to the best-educated groups in the Netherlands Indies, many were employed in the colonial administration and private enterprises outside their homeland. This pattern of emigration has continued in the postindependence period. Muslims, formerly excluded for the most part from education, are now fast catching up with the Christians and competing with them for jobs. After World War II, most Ambonese soldiers remained loyal to the Dutch and fought with them against the Indonesian nationalists. The Dutch transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia led in 1950 to the declaration of an independent Republic of the South Moluccas (RMS), but this failed. Fearing reprisals from the nationalists, some 4,000 Ambonese soldiers and their families were "temporarily" transferred to the Netherlands in 1951. Because of their steadfast attachment to the RMS ideal, their return became impossible. The resulting frustrations led to a series of terrorist actions, including spectacular train hijackings, in the 1970s. During the entire period of exile, the group has displayed strong separatist tendencies, foiling all attempts of the Dutch to assimilate them. Only recently has there been some willingness toward functional integration.


With few exceptions, the monoreligious villages range in population from 200 to 6,000 persons. Originally located for defensive purposes on steep mountain ridges, most were forced by the Dutch to relocate to the coast. The tightly clustered houses are often strung along one or more roads running parallel to the beach on a narrow strip of fairly flat land between the sea and mountains. The most prominent feature is either a large church or a mosque. There are two styles of housing. The first is the traditional wood-frame house with dirt floors, walls made from the stems of sago leaves (gaba-gaba ), and thatched roofs also made of leaves of the sago palm (atap ). This style is increasingly being replaced by concrete houses with plaster walls and corrugated iron roofs. The square spaces surrounding each house are usually meticulously free of any growth except for fruit- and nut-bearing trees and palms, some of which spread shade. Mostly along the beach there are rows of coconut palms. The land owned by each village is located beyond, in the mountains.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Horticulture is the basis of subsistence. A variety of tuberous plants (yams, cassavas, taros) are grown in family gardens (kebon ). Sago, growing unattended in swampy regions, continues to be an important staple. Rice, a prestige staple, is almost exclusively cultivated by Javanese transmigrants on Ceram, but the quantity produced is far from sufficient to cover demand and thus most rice is imported. In tracts of lands with mixed growth of perennials (dusun ), a number of fruit and nut trees, as well as cloves and nutmegs, are grown. These spices are the major cash crops, followed by copra. The main source of protein is fish, caught individually or communally, supplemented by some domestic animals and small game. Commercial fishing and lumbering (mostly on Ceram) are almost exclusively done by foreign companies, usually Japanese, sometimes in conjunction with local enterprises.

Industrial Arts. Only a few specialists are found in villages. Handicrafts are very scarce. Two villages produce low-grade pottery and one engages in metallurgy. Aside from subsistence activities, manual labor is despised, particularly among Christians. Both men and women prefer white-collar jobs as ministers, teachers, administrators, and clerks. Muslims also engage in trading, but most industrial and commercial activities are in the hands of the Chinese, some Arabs, and Muslim immigrants from other parts of Indonesia. A sizable Butonese minority performs most low-level tasks.

Trade. Some villages own cooperatives and/or small stores. Muslim peddlers also visit Christian villages. Markets are found only in Ambon City and a few smaller regional trading centers. Women bring home-grown products to these markets for sale or to supply established merchants.

Division of Labor. Men are seen as providers and perform the more hazardous occupations of fishing and hunting, as well as the heavier tasks in horticulture and house and boat building. Women are responsible for the household but also participate in garden work and fishing near the beach, and do most of the trading.

Land Tenure. Population growth has led to increasing land pressure on Ambon-Lease. Ill-defined boundaries give rise to continuing intra- and intervillage disputes that frequently result in violent clashes. Village land is divided into uncultivated forest land (ewang ) and dusun. The former is for joint use, while the latter is divided among various clans, which have the right of usufruct. The dusun is inalienably owned by the village. It reverts back, to be redivided, in the case of a clan's extinction. Indonesian laws make it possible for more and more land to become individual property that can be bought and sold. Recently much of this land has been bought by nonvillagers, mostly Chinese. Land pressure has led to organized and spontaneous migration from Ambon-Lease to Ceram, where land is still plentiful. The Indonesian government has also appropriated Ceramese village land for transplanted Javanese peasants, which has caused increasing tension.


Kin Groups and Descent. Whereas in the interior of West Ceram matrilineality is still found, every village in the Pasisir region is made up of a number of patrilineal clans (mata rumah ). Several clans form a soa, originally a distinct ward. Each soa has a headman (kepala soa ) who represents its clans in the village council. Clan exogamy is no longer universally practiced owing to the adoption of either Christian or Muslim conventions regarding incest. Clan descent is traced to a common ancestor, commonly the man who was the first to arrive at the present locality in ancient times. The clans consist of a number of households (rumah tangga ), the closest economic and emotional support units. A third important kin group is the famili (i.e., one's kindred on both the father's and mother's side, which, like the clan, provides support in crisis situations and helps to defray costs on ritual occasions). In recent times, a shift toward bilaterality can be detected, particularly among Christians; it is most pronounced among the exiles in Holland.

Kinship Terminology. Cousin terms are as in the Hawaiian system. The social emphasis on age is reflected by the relative ages of people indicated by most kinship terms.

Marriage and Family

Marriage. Polygynous marriage has been known in Alifuru society, but today monogamy is practiced not only universally among Christians but also, with very few exceptions, among Muslims. Arranged marriages still occur, but usually the youngsters choose their own partners. There are two basic types of marriage: (1) by formal request of the groom's family (kawin masuk minia ), and (2) by elopement (kawin lari ). The former is considered more honorable and is more common among the relatively prosperous exiles, while the latter is overwhelmingly practiced in the Moluccas because of disagreements with the parents over the choice of partner and/or to avoid the high expenses of a formal wedding. Kawin manua is a form of marriage in which the groom enters the clan of his wife, either to assure her clan's continuity or because of an inability to pay the bride-wealth. The conjugal ties are extremely strong and usually the newlyweds establish their own household shortly after being married. Residence is commonly patrilocal. Divorce is rare.

Domestic Unit. The nuclear family, averaging about ten persons, is the minimal unit, with aging grandparents, grandchildren, single aunts and uncles, cousins, and foster children added on. Membership in the household requires sharing of the workload.

Inheritance. Property is inherited by the surviving sons. Unmarried daughters continue to "eat off the land" belonging to their natal families.

Socialization. Infants and small children are raised by parents and older siblings, as well as by other household members. Upbringing is strongly authoritarian and physical punishment is common after a child grows beyond the toddler stage. Emphasis is placed on filial piety, family allegiance, and respect for elder people. Collectivism is valued above individualism.

Sociopolitical Organization

The province of Maluku is headed by a governor who is directly appointed by the president of Indonesia and is commonly of non-Moluccan origin, as are those holding other key positions. The other offices on the provincial level and below are occupied by Moluccans, but they, like the provincial parliament, have only limited political power.

Social Organization. Traditional Ambonese society is democratically organized to a degree. Elevated status is only afforded by the clan that has the hereditary right to the office of village chief and to religious officials. Furthermore, academicians are highly respected. In postindependence times, however, the status of all these persons has been declining. Status distinctions made between original clans and those that arrived later in a village are also waning.

Political Organization. Within Ambonese society proper, the villages constitute the largest organizational units, each tying separately and directly into the regional components of the national governmental superstructure. They are self-contained and autonomous, dealing with each other as if they were independent ministates. Villages are governed by a council of hereditary office holders headed by the village headman (raja). Orders of the Indonesian government to open the councils to anyone chosen in free elections, including non-Ambonese, have been met with great resistance.

Social Control. Villagers still try to avoid the involvement of the police and other governmental authorities in dealing with internal problems. The fear of punishment by the ancestors, who are the founders and guardians of the social value system (adat), is still the most effective prevention of social transgressions. Gossip, public embarrassment, and threats of ostracism are effective devices of social control.

Conflict. In the past, warfare was extremely common and intervillage fighting is still a quite frequent occurrence, resulting in casualties and burning of property. Violence is also common in intravillage fights.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Ambonese, who generally consider themselves devout Christians or Muslims, have given their respective faiths a certain ethnic exclusivity over the past centuries, which formerly manifested itself in the nonadmittance of fellow believers from other ethnic groups to their churches or mosques. They further indigenized the two universal creeds by syncretizing them with the prior traditional belief system based on ancestor veneration, creating a system in which God is in charge of the universe and salvation and the ancestors are responsible for the proper working of society. Beyond that, the Ambonese succeeded in syncretizing Christianity and Islam, creating an ethnic religion, Agama Nunusaku, which makes it possible for Christians and Muslims to maintain harmony and a common ethnic identity. However, while the harmonious relationships, reinforced by the pela alliances, continue to be maintained on the village level, urban religious and political leaders on both sides are attempting to "purify" their respective faiths, leading to a slowly widening rift between Christians and Muslims. Aside from God, whom both Christians and Muslims perceive as the same, the ancestors play the most important role. They are beseeched for blessings, propitiated after transgressions, and invited to all family and village ceremonies. A variety of indigenous Christian and Islamic devils and evil spirits is believed to cause illness and other harm to humans.

Religious Practitioners. The well-organized Moluccan Protestant Church (GPM) allows both men and women to enter the ministry. No such regional organization unites the Muslims, among whom the religious officials are chosen on the community level; in Muslim villages the various offices are often still hereditary. Most villages still have adat "priests" who deal with matters concerning the traditional belief system. The orang baruba (healers) cure ailments that Western-style physicians are unable to affect (i.e., those caused by sorcerers [swangi] and evil spirits).

Ceremonies. Both Christians and Muslims follow the religious calendars of their respective creeds but some of the ceremonies have taken on a distinct Ambonese meaning and flavor. This is especially true for the life-cycle rituals. No longer universally performed are such traditional ceremonies as the periodic renewal of the roof of the village council house and the cleansing of the village.

Arts. Music, singing, and dancing are the art forms in which Ambonese excel. Aside from traditional dances (e.g., the cakalele, a fierce war dance), a number of European dances have survived since Portuguese times among both religious groups. Singing is an integral part of every social occasion and most developed among Christians, who pride themselves on their church choirs. Many leading pop stars and musical groups in Indonesia are of Christian-Ambonese origin, and in Holland Ambonese soloists and bands gained recognition beyond the boundaries of the exile community.

Medicine. Illness is attributed to natural causes, ancestral punishment, and evil forces. Home remedies are used in less serious cases. Generally, Western-style physicians are consulted first and traditional healers are visited if no cure is forthcoming or at the advice of a physician.

Death and Afterlife. After the funeral, one or more rites are conducted to entice the spirit of the deceased, which hovers around its former home, to leave for the abode of the dead. It is generally believed that the spirit will remain on earth until the Last Judgment Day. Christians and Muslims bury their dead.


Bartels, Dieter (1977). "Guarding the Invisible Mountain: Intervillage Alliances, Religious Syncretism, and Ethnic Identity among Ambonese Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas." Ph.D. dissertation, Cornell University.

Bartels, Dieter (1988). Moluccans in Exile: A Struggle for Ethnic Survival. Leiden: Center for the Study of Social Conflict, University of Leiden.

Cooley, Frank L. (1962). Ambonese Adat: A General Description. New Haven: Yale University, Southeast Asia Studies.

Jensen, Adolf E. (1948). Die drei Ströme: Züge aus dem geistigen und religiösen Leben der Wemale, einem Primitiv-Volk in den Molukken. Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz.


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