views updated May 23 2018


LOCATION: Indonesia (Moluccas)
POPULATION: Over 800,000
LANGUAGE: Ambonese; Ambon Malay
RELIGION: Christianity; Islam
RELATED ARTICLES: Vol. 3: Indonesians


No later than 40,000 years ago, the first humans entered the Moluccas, the same basic stock that would go on to settle Papua New Guinea, the Melanesian islands, and Australia. However, with the exception of parts of Halmahera (including the important former sultanate on Ternate), the present population of the Moluccas ("Maluku" in Indonesian) speaks Austronesian languages brought by farming and seafaring people from Sulawesi beginning 4,500 years ago. In physical terms, the Ambonese and other Moluccan groups represent a mixture of the aborigines and these newcomers.

Produced exclusively in the Moluccas until the late 18th century AD and traded as far as Syria as early as the 18th century BC, cloves first came into high international demand during the Han dynasty in China and the Roman Empire in the West. Traders en route between the north Javanese ports and the clove-trading sultanate of Ternate (Muslim since the 15th century) made stopovers at Hitu on the north coast of Ambon island. A year after capturing Malacca in 1511, the Portuguese sent an expedition under Antonio de Abreu to the famed Spice Islands, landing at Hitu. They set up a fort there in 1522, from which Hitu Muslims (with Ternatan aid) were to drive them in 1575. In the meantime, however, the first conversions to Catholicism occurred in 1538, to be greatly augmented by the work of St. Francis Xavier in 1565 (three decades later, 50,000 converts are recorded).

After their expulsion from Hitu, the Portuguese transferred to the south coast where they established the fort that would become Kota Ambon (Ambon City). This the Dutch captured in alliance with the Hitu Muslims in 1605, desecrating the Catholic churches and deporting the "white" and "black" (mestizo) Portuguese. The single-minded Dutch pursuit of the spice monopoly led to the notorious massacre of English traders in 1623 and to the hongi tochten, annual sweeps to locate and destroy spice trees (and growers) outside the monopoly areas. Cloves were permitted to grow only on Ambon, no longer on Ternate and Tidore. The Dutch pressed Ambonese men and boats into service on the hongi tochten, offering villages land rights in proportion to their contribution.

The spice monopoly made Kota Ambon a rich town, the "Queen of the East" beside which Batavia and Manila were said to pale. Fond of European dance and dress, the local notables shared this wealth and some of the power, joining a representative council in the archipelago at the side of Dutch East India Company officials. As coffee, tea, and sugar came to overshadow spices in the 18th-century European market, the city began to decline. In any case, the British occupation of Ambon from 1796 to 1802 released cloves for cultivation elsewhere.

The Ambonese played a prominent role in the expansion of Dutch power in the archipelago, forming half of the colonial military (KNIL) and a disproportionate percentage of the bureaucracy. Priding themselves on their loyalty and discipline, Ambonese soldiers received higher pay and rations than non-Ambonese; the Javanese called them "dogs of the Dutch" and "black Dutchmen." From the 1880s on, Ambonese (as many as 10% by 1930) migrated to fill jobs as soldiers, clerks, and minor professionals for which Ambon's educational system, the best in Netherlands Indies, qualified them. Christian Ambonese in particular felt more tied to the Dutch than to other "native" peoples.

Strategic to both the Japanese and the Allies, Ambon, especially Kota Ambon, was devastated in World War II. After the war, Christian Ambonese, having identified more with the Dutch than with other "native" peoples, tried to set up an independent nation, the Republic of the Southern Moluccas (RMS), waging a guerilla war against the Indonesian national army until the capture of the RMS president in 1956. After the 1950 transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia, the Dutch government brought ex-KNIL soldiers to refugee camps in the Netherlands; with their expectation to return home to fight for the RMS frustrated, the soldiers and their families continued as a neglected minority in the "mother country." It was only after some Moluccan youth resorted to terrorism in the 1970s that the Dutch government focused its attention on the problems of this 40,000-strong community, beginning programs for bicultural education and job procurement.

Under the New Order regime (1966–1998), the government policies promoting the emergence of a Muslim technocratic elite in the country as a whole as well as the largely spontaneous, non-government-directed influx of Muslim transmigrants into Maluku (especially Bugis and Butonese from their poorer provinces) threatened the fragile balance in the region between Christians and Muslims, heretofore evenly matched in numbers (a situation almost unique in Indonesia). Christian Ambonese, whose high education level gave them dominance in the bureaucracy, resented the Muslim newcomers from Sulawesi for taking increasing control over the regional economy (though they had not begrudged local Christian Chinese their economic power). Moreover, Christian Ambonese feared they would be pushed out of the bureaucracy by increasingly educated and increasingly numerous Muslims, who for their part saw the Christians as continuing to shut them out of positions of power in the province.

Post-Suharto democratization and decentralization intensified competition and tension between the two groups; hostility erupted into mass inter-ethnic/inter-religious violence, beginning in Kota Ambon (initially only between Protestant Ambonese and Muslim transmigrants but eventually involving Catholic and Muslim Ambonese) and then spreading to other parts of the province and to neighboring North Maluku. News of the conflict provoked many Muslims in other parts of Indonesia. Mass rallies in Jakarta called for jihad in Maluku, thousands of Laskar Jihad vigilantes streamed into the province to fight Christians (even as the Ambonese themselves, Christians and Muslims, were becoming tired of the violence), and anti-Christian/Chinese and anti-Hindu/Balinese rioting broke out on Lombok. The conflicts in Maluku and North Maluku ultimately killed 3,000-4,000 people; these constituted the worst episode of collective violence in Indonesia since the 1965–1966 anti-leftist massacres, surpassing even the Dayak-Madurese conflict in Kalimantan in 1997. The "Maluku wars" displaced between 123,000 and 370,000 people, comparable to the numbers displaced by Indonesia's far more murderous 1975 invasion of East Timor. Since hostilities subsided in 2002 after a peace accord, Kota Ambon, heavily devastated by the fighting (including its state and Christian universities), remains segregated along religious lines (with people not being able to return to their homes if they are not of the majority religion of their neighborhood), but commerce and other contacts have resumed between Christians and Muslims.


For Indonesians from outside the region, "Ambon," including the island, the city, and the people, is the "Moluccas," hence, anyone hailing from any of this diverse array of islands is likely to be called an "Ambonese" (orang Ambon). However, in the strict sense, the Ambonese ethnic group comprises the populations of the islands of Ambon, Haruku, Saparua, and the western portion of the much larger "mother island" of Seram. The two "peninsulas" of Ambon Island itself, Hitu and Leitimur, were once separate islands but are now linked by an extremely narrow isthmus. The long bay formed by the joining of the two land masses provides excellent shelter for ships, and it was on the southern shore of the bay that the city of Ambon (Kota Ambon) rose. The relatively high precipitation level and the quality of the volcanic soils favor agriculture, although much of the land is too steep for cultivation. Off the long stretches of beach are coral reefs that, however, have in many places been ruined by people fishing with dynamite or digging for sand to make cement.

The population of Ambon has grown very rapidly: in 1971, Central Maluku counted 378,870 people; by 1980, Ambon island alone had 651,000 inhabitants. In 2005, the two regencies corresponding to the Ambonese homeland plus Ambon city had a combined population of nearly 700,000. The growth of Kota Ambon appears even more dramatic when one considers that the population of 234,000 (up from 209,000 in 1980 and 80,000 in 1959) must squeeze into 4 sq km (1.5 sq mi) between the shore and the hills, with only some relief from reclaiming land from the sea and building houses up the hillsides.

Since colonial days, when they were disproportionately represented in the military and bureaucracy, the Ambonese have settled in cities throughout the archipelago, particularly Makassar and Jakarta. In addition, there are 40,000 Ambonese in the Netherlands, mostly former soldiers of the KNIL (Dutch colonial army) and their families who came for "temporary" refuge after Indonesian independence.


A member of the Central Malayo-Polynesian branch of the Austronesian language family (and thus more distant from Bahasa Indonesia than the languages of Madagascar and the Philippines), the Ambonese language is closely related to dialects in West Seram and, on a higher level, groups with the Austronesian languages in Timor.

At the end of the colonial period (1950), Dutch was widely known in Kota Ambon. As the city has always attracted migrants and sojourners from elsewhere in the archipelago, the dominant language, however, has been a version of the Malay lingua franca, Bahasa Melayu Ambon. Malay in its local variant, as well as Bahasa Indonesia, is displacing the indigenous speech.


A Christianized origin myth places the first people on the slopes of Mount Nunusaku in western Seram. There they lived in abundance until the Fall (as in Genesis), when they scattered to Ambon and other islands.

The short British occupation during the Napoleonic Wars produced two heroes whose resistance to the reimposition of Dutch rule earned them national honor. Thomas Matulessy, a.k.a. Pattimura, had served the British as a sergeant major before leading an uprising against the returning Dutch. The daughter of another rebel leader, Martha Christina Tiahahu, continued her father's struggle after his death and, when captured, refused to inform on her co-rebels; she eventually starved herself on the way to exile on Java.

An example of a ghost story is the legend of Soya Atas village. The daughter of the head of the village fell in love with a Dutch official. Because of her father's disapproval, she drowned herself. Her ghost is said to kidnap foreign men or small babies; the victims disappear, only to be found after a few days either dead or in shock. Only a drink of water given by the present head of the village can revive them.

In order to deter thieves, farmers put up matakau figures in their fields suggestive of a curse (e.g., a grasshopper symbolizes stomach pains like an insect crawling about inside the body). The owners of young coconut trees have the church council pray for their protection; a potential thief knows that theft will lead to misfortune.


The Ambonese divide almost evenly into Christians (51%) and Muslims (49%). Except for five mixed villages, the rest (42) are either exclusively Christian or Muslim. Traders from Ternate and the north Java coast introduced Islam to Hitu (north Ambon) well in advance of the Portuguese, who in turn brought Catholic missionaries such as St. Francis Xavier. The Dutch uprooted these early Catholic communities. Conversions to Protestantism (the Dutch Reformed Church) accelerated only in the 19th century.

Indigenous beliefs focusing on ancestral spirits remain strong, though they coexist more harmoniously with Islam than with Protestantism. Village halls (baileu), which formerly one could enter only after asking permission of the spirits dwelling there, contain a mystically charged stone (batu pamali) used as an altar for sacrifices and other offerings. In some places, the heads of goats slaughtered in Islamic rites are placed on the stone in the baileu, alongside skulls from previous years. When getting wood from the forest for a school, church, or the baileu itself, one hangs the head of a sacrificed goat from an old baileu pillar. Before the Dutch forbade the practice, the taking of human heads was crucial to traditional rituals, including weddings (as part of the bride-price).

Coexisting with Muslim and Christian religious authorities, the mauweng mediates between humans and ancestral spirits, particularly in rites for success in agriculture. This folk religious specialist also heals the sick by employing divination techniques to learn the underlying cause of disease, i.e., what is displeasing the ancestors (modern medicines are considered effective only for treating symptoms).

Since the 1863 abolition of the clove monopoly deprived village heads of the basis of much of their power, in Christian villages, ministers (always originally outsiders to the village) have challenged their authority. The mauweng have supported the village heads, but the balance tends now to favor the minister.


In villages, the most important festival is the cuci negeri, the annual village cleansing. The baileu, as well as every house and yard, is thoroughly cleaned; one family's failure to do so would invite fatal illness or crop failure for the whole community. Village leaders make speeches to the ancestors who established the baileu, the springs, and the holy places and pray to God to grant well-being. Eating, drinking, and general merrymaking follow the ceremonies. In Soiya, however, scheduling the cuci negeri for the Friday before Christmas reduces the scale of the celebration.

Seven days after Idul Fitri, the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, young men in Mamala village strike each other with rattan brooms (consisting of the sharp central spines of pine fronds) until they draw blood. The wounds disappear after the application of a locally made coconut oil.


There are three ways to get married: by proposal (kawin minta); by elopement (kawin lari or lari bini); or by the man's "moving in" (kawin masuk).

For kawin minta, a young man first informs his family of his choice for a bride. His famili (all his paternal and maternal relatives) gathers to discuss arrangements for the bride-price, the wedding ceremony, etc. Once agreed, they send a delegation to the young woman's parents asking for a time when they can issue the marriage proposal. The man's kin sends a spokesperson at the time set by the woman's kin. After paying the customary forms of respect to the woman's kin, giving the young man's full name (including those of his family and clan) the spokesperson of his kin negotiates the amount of the bride-price and other arrangements with the young woman's kin. The bride-price must be paid in full before a Christian or Muslim wedding ceremony can be held; otherwise, the ancestors will be offended and may cause death to the couple's children. The slowness of the woman's father in accepting the man's side's terms often results in a postponement of the religious ceremony and in the birth of children out of wedlock, a situation very unsatisfactory to Christian authorities.

Marriage by elopement avoids all these negotiations and, thus, is by far the most popular form of wedding. The young man may prefer this method in order to avoid rejection, or his family might prefer it in order to spare themselves the shame of a refused proposal. Although the woman's kin do not prefer elopement in principle, they sometimes agree to it beforehand as a way for them to reduce the bride-price without losing face. The young man's brothers or friends help him to "abduct" his bride and carry away all her clothes and other things. If the young woman's family knows beforehand, the young man leaves a letter in a white envelope on the girl's bed explaining in flowery language who has taken their daughter and that she is safe. After a week in hiding, the young woman is brought to the young man's house for the wedding rite and feast. During the feast, the bride offers around a tray of cigarettes and drinks to show that she is officially a wife. All friends and neighbors are invited so that the marriage will be public.

While generally it is the bride who comes to live with the groom's family, under the third type of wedding, kawin masuk, the groom moves in with the bride's family. He may choose this if his own family cannot afford the bride-price (in which case he himself must work for his in-laws in lieu thereof), if his family does not approve of the match because of differences in status between the sides, or if the woman is an only child and the man must join the woman's clan.


Before the Dutch, related lineages originating in Seram formed soa, headed by an upu who was assisted by a military commander (malessi) and a religious leader (mauweng). Under Ternatan hegemony, soa formed federations (uli). Ambonese also applied the Javanese terms for "state" (negeri) and "king" (raja) to their own villages and village headmen.

The Dutch abolished these federations, replacing them with a system of independent villages run by councils (saniri). The highest council was the Saniri Rajapatih, consisting of the village head and the soa heads. The next lower council, the Saniri Negeri Lengkap, added to the above the various village officials: the tuan tanah, an expert on traditional land inheritance law; the panglima, formerly a military leader; the kewang, forest police; and the marinyo, the town-crier. Finally, the Saniri Negeri Besar included all adult males but was convened very rarely, usually only for village-head elections. In recent times, the once-hereditary village headmanship has become largely ceremonial, with the soa heads rotating de facto governing duties among themselves.

While the distinction persists between a village's "original inhabitants" (the descendants of the village founder, as such the village elite) and "newcomers," Ambonese society recognizes many translocal organizations. Every village belongs to either the Patasiwa or the Patalima faction, a division tracing back to the manipulations of the Sultan of Ternate and referring to federations on either side of the Mala River on Seram. More significant is the pela, an alliance linking two villages, often very distant and of different religions. The allies draw blood with knives and dip the bloody knives in water. They seal an oath of alliance by drinking the water containing each other's blood. The villages provide famine relief to each other and refuge in war; a Muslim village will contribute funds to its pela partner's Christian church and vice versa.


While traditional dwellings were built on wooden piles, contemporary Muslim and Christian houses sit on the ground. These houses have a square floor plan with an open veranda (dego-dego) in the front. The frame consists of tree trunk sections or wooden beams, while the walls are made of plaited sago-palm leaf (gaba-gaba). As most houses lack windows, the steep roofs have holes in the corners to release smoke. Sometimes there is a room in back serving as a kitchen. The houses of village leaders are in the European style, partially brick with windows and separate rooms inside.

Villages usually consist of houses grouped closely along a main road, though houses may also be separated by fenced yards. Each village includes a baileu, the village head's house, a church or mosque, the clergy's house, and small shops.

In Kota Ambon, in addition to buses, becak pedicabs provide the most common means of transport; the city has more than 2,000 becak that, not all being able to share the streets at a single time, are divided into three color-coded groups (red, white, and yellow). Of the local boat types, the patakora from Ternate is regarded as the best. Big boats (jungku and orambi) carry merchandise to Kota Ambon.
Maluku province has a Human Development Index (combining measures of income, health, and education) of 69.2 (2005 score), almost as high as Indonesia's national HDI of 69.6. Kota Ambon's HDI is considerably higher at 76.2, while the two surrounding regencies, Central Maluku (a portion of the earlier province of that name) and Western Seram, have lower HDIs (respectively, 67.7 and 64.8). Maluku has a higher HDI than all the nearby provinces other than North Sulawesi. The closest, North Maluku, at 67, has one of the country's lowest. However, this is despite the fact that Maluku's GDP per capita is only US$3,637, among the lowest in Indonesia (US$9,784 for West Sumatra, US$8,360 for North Sulawesi, but US$6,293 for Central Java and US$6,151 for West Nusa Tenggara). Kota Ambon's GDP per capita (US$5,699) was higher, but still rather low. In 2000, the province's rate of infant mortality stood at 60.63 deaths per 1,000 live births (though only almost half this in Kota Ambon).


Perhaps under Muslim and Christian influence, kinship is patrilineal as expressed, for instance, in newlywed couples' residing with the groom's family.

A household includes parents, unmarried children, and married sons with their wives and children. An individual belongs to a clan (rumah tau, matarumah, or fam) of patrilineally related kin who has a name and possesses rights to titles (political office), land, and sacred stones and springs; one must marry outside the clan. Women join their husband's clan (unless she is an only child, in which case the man joins his wife's clan). The rumah tau has a meeting house built by the clan founder containing weapons, cloth, and other heirlooms, which are under the hereditary stewardship of a clan leader.


Elements of traditional Ambonese clothing preserve influences from 16th century Portuguese fashion. While younger women wear bright pink, yellow, and blue Western-style dresses to church, older women wear long black dresses with long sleeves and a highly prized sash made of beads.


As the sago palm grows abundantly in the local swamps, sago-palm starch is the staple; rice supplements sago-palm starch but does not displace it. A 6- to 15-year-old tree can be cut down for food. The preparer beats the tree core to loosen the flour-rich fibers. These are then washed and squeezed through a filter to obtain the starch, which is formed into squares (tuman). The tuman are either grilled or made into a thick porridge (pepeda).

Other foods are bananas and papayas, available all year round. Freshly grilled fish is served with colo-colo, a sauce of chopped onions, chili, and tomatoes. Kohu-kohu is a pungent salad of shredded tuna meat, bean sprouts, onions, and cabbage. Also eaten with a spice mixture are laor, seaworms who come to shore to breed in March and April. Local menus do not announce it, but black dog is also cooked. From the sap of the lontar palm, local people distill wine (moke).


Since the 19th century, when Christian missionaries built schools, Ambon has enjoyed one of the highest education levels in the archipelago. This has allowed many local Ambonese to migrate to other parts of the country as office workers. In 2005, Maluku province's level of literacy stood at 96.16%, very high by Indonesian national standards and comparable or superior to provinces with much higher GDPs per capita. (See also the article entitled Indonesians. )


Throughout Indonesia, the Ambonese are famous for singing (Western-style) music. Cassettes of local songs and singers are popular nationwide. Traditional instruments include the tifa (a single-membrane drum) and the ukulele. The latter forms part of the kroncong ensemble, a sentimental Portuguese-derived musical style, one of whose cradles was Ambon. Bamboo flutes are also played; orchestras of bamboo flutes open church services. Famous dances are the lenso and the cakalele (a war dance).


Most people continue to obtain a living by agriculture, which involves slash-and-burn cultivation of tubers and peanuts. The Dutch brought potatoes, which remain a minor crop, grown on mountain slopes. Other crops are coffee, sugarcane, cassava, maize, and fruits (bananas, mango, mangosteen, durian, and gandaria, the last having medicinal value). Coconut production satisfies regional consumption. Farmers grow tobacco for their own use under the eaves of their houses, where they can benefit from rainwater coming off the roof; the leaves are dried on the roof itself. Although a Dutch clove monopoly no longer confines clove cultivation to Ambon, the spice continues to be grown, requiring little work from the farmer but yielding a substantial profit on the market (as an ingredient in Indonesian-made cigarettes, kretek). Farmers sell their surplus crops to obtain money for taxes, school fees, and daily necessities that they cannot produce themselves.

People hunt for deer, wild boar, and cassowary birds using traps that may endanger unwary humans. Fishing by hook, harpoon, and net also adds protein to the diet.


Children's toys include hoops from old bicycle wheels and stilts from palm trunks. Billiards is a popular pastime. Children play in the early evening, as the afternoon is too hot.


See the article entitled Indonesians.


"Paintings" (usually intricate still-lifes of flowers) are fashioned from thin slices of mother-of-pearl. Large models of boats made entirely of cloves and wire are common souvenirs. Embroidered baju kurung (long shirts) are also produced. The woodcarvings and ikat (tie-dyed) cloth available in Kota Ambon generally come from the more traditional Tanimbar islands to the southeast.


See the article entitled Indonesians.


Maluku's Gender-Related Development Index (combining measures of women's health, education, and income relative to men's) is 62.6, somewhat higher than Indonesia's national GDI of 59.2 (2002 scores). The province's Gender Empowerment Measure (reflecting women's participation and power in political and economic life relative to men's), however, is 51.8, rather lower than the national GEM of 54.6. Kota Ambon itself, however, has a GDI of 71.3, higher than Jakarta's (which is the highest among the country's province-level administrative divisions) and a GEM of 59.4, higher than North Sulawesi's (which is number one among province-level administrative divisions). This contrasts sharply with the immediately surrounding province of Maluku Tengah, which has a GDI of 54.1 and a GEM of 34.3.


Bertrand, Jacques. Nationalism and Ethnic Conflict in Indonesia. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Data Statistik Indonesia. (November 9, 2008).

Harsrinuksmo, B. "Ambon, Pulau." In Ensiklopedi Nasional Indonesia, vol. 1. Jakarta: Cipta Adi Pustaka, 1988.

Jonge de Nico, ed. Indonesia in Focus: Ancient Traditions—Modern Times. Meppel: Edu'Actief, 1988.

Kamsteeg, A., Marianne Hehuat, and Han Hehuat. Ambon nu, Ambon sekarang. n.p.: J. H. Kok-Kampen, 1984.

Klinken, Gerry van. "The Maluku Wars: 'Communal Contenders' in a Failing State." In Charles A. Coppel, ed., Violent Conflicts in Indonesia: Analysis, Representation, Resolution. London: Routledge, 2006.

LeBar, Frank M., ed. Ethnic Groups of Insular Southeast Asia. Vol 1; Indonesia, Andaman Islands, and Madagascar. New Haven, CT: Human Relations Area Files Press, 1972.

Loveband, Anne and Ken Young. "Migration, Provocateurs and Communal Conflict: The Cases of Ambon and West Kalimantan." In Charles A. Coppel, ed., Violent Conflicts in Indonesia: Analysis, Representation, Resolution. London: Routledge, 2006.

Muller, Kal. Spice Islands: The Moluccas. Berkeley: Periplus, 1991.

Subyakto. "Kebudayaan Ambon" (Ambonese culture). In Manusia dan kebudayaan di Indonesia (Man and Culture in Indonesia, edited by Koentjaraningrat). Jakarta: Djambatan, 1975.

—revised by A. J. Abalahin


views updated May 08 2018


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.