Makassar City


It is not a city overly favoured by tourists or travelers. Most guide books recommend that if, because of its strategic position you must go, then to make as hasty exit as possible. Indeed, the earliest written documents speak of the startling aggressiveness of its inhabitants and throughout South East Asia even today, its people are treated with a mixture of fear and respect, for their fearlessness, their abruptness and their trading ability.

Ujung Pandang, or as it was formerly known, Makassar city, is situated on the southern most leg of the ‘orchid island‘ of Sulawesi, just a few hundred kilometres from Borneo to the West and the Moluccas to the East. A rich, deep water port, it has evolved into a fascinating city of diversity and vibrancy and with its immensely powerful history and dynamic local economy , one of Indonesia’s largest and important capitol cities.

The first reliable European report we have on Makassar dates from 1512, the year the Portuguese arrived in search of the illusive source of the lucrative spice trade further to the east. Through painstaking research and much imaginative accounting, the beginnings of the city can be traced back perhaps a hundred years earlier. Prior to this, we enter a prehistory world of myth and tales of the chaos caused by incessant inter tribal wars.

Indeed, even at the enlightened state of ‘kingdom’, it makes interesting reading to trace the legacy of those early kings, often named posthumously by their nature of their death. Thus we have one eminence with the amicable name of ‘throat cutter’, one called ‘he who runs amuck’, another ‘he who was decapitated’, a fourth ‘he who was beat to death on his own staircase’ and a fifth, as though it was unusual, ‘he who died reigning’ — that is, who died a natural death. It all sounds suspiciously like a latter day Rome.

It was not until the coming of the Portuguese that Makassar had any extensive contact with the European world. Fired bricks were not known until this period, neither was a national currency nor written records. However, the Makassans were quickly studies and all this, plus the art of gunpowder manufacture was borrowed from those first colonialists, In return, the Portuguese were granted use of the magnificent harbour; a strategic deep water port perfect for control of the shipping trade to and from the Moluccas, the famed Spice Islands a little further to the east.

Attached to the Portuguese came many Sumatran and Malay traders, bringing with them the new faith of Allah. While the early history of Southern Sulawesi seems one of perpetual anarchy and violence between the two powerful local ethnic groups — the Makassar and the Bugis – with the adoption of Islam and exposure to new European ideas, the character of the people and their leaders formed a new energy and direction.

By the early 1600’s, the Makassans and the Bugis had brokered an uneasy but workable alliance, with Makassar city as their base and a desire to create a new powerful East Indonesian empire. However it was only a matter of time before this alliance was to run afoul of the newest and most powerful European imperialists – the VOC (or, as they are better known to English readers, the Dutch East Indies Company).

So it was that, in 1655, Makassan forces destroyed a Dutch settlement on Butung and took control of that small island off the southern coast. Slowly but surely, the trademark of the VOC in Indonesia, it took five more years but in l660, the Dutch attacked and defeated the new kingdom and brokered a short lived peace. However, the Dutch left without leaving a garrison in Makassar and the local alliance planned its revenge; fitting out a fleet of some 700 ships, armed with over 20,000 men.

It is a measure of the Makassans that, from a splintered primitive kingdom less than 150 years previously, they were able to put together perhaps the greatest documented navy of any period in the history of Indonesia. But alas, to no avail. After a series of rapid conquest and with Makassar on the verge of capturing the Moluccas themselves, the VOC, under Admiral (later Governor) Cornelius Speelman, hit back. Using disaffected elements of the Makassar empire and a large army of Indonesian conscripts, it took three long years of bloody fighting but in the end, the Dutch emerged victors .

For their trouble, the VOC received a monopoly of trade in the port of Makassar and all non-Dutch Europeans were forced to leave the city. Not to be caught again, the VOC established a powerful permanent settlement there and the first great heyday of the Makassans came to an end.

Only to begin again. The effect of the Dutch monopoly, preventing the Makassans and the Bugis from trading in their own city, was remarkable and caused a diaspora not unlike a SE Asian version of the Irish exodus from Ireland 200 years later. For from this great defeat and the impossibility of trading in their home town, the Bugis and Makasans began a large scale emigration to more profitable climes, spurring on the Makassans to become the great adventures and traders they are renown for today.

Peninsular Malaysia, especially the Sultanate of Johore, came under heavy Bugis influence, the Makassans became known and feared as mercenaries as far afield as Thailand and large settlements of both Bugis and Makassans found refuge in island settlements scattered throughout what is now known as Indonesia. Today the proud people of Makassar can be found in all walks of South East Asian life.

But SE Asia was not the only place they walked, or rather, sailed to. It was also around this time that the citizens of Makassar began to make the long trip to Marege, to look for trepang (an asian delicacy) and ornamental sea and tortoise shells. In another l00 or so years, Marege would gain its present name of Australia but at that time the trade was with the Aboriginal inhabitants as the only Europeans in the region were still mostly Belanda (Dutch) centered around the rich spice islands of the Moluccas.

So it is almost without doubt that the first Australians to visit Makassar were Aborigines, working their fare with the honey-skinned traders from the north, sometimes staying on to marry and raise children in that far land. One such aborigine, Manuel from the Uwadge tribe some 80 km east of Darwin, made the trip in his youth and gave this account while an old man, many years later.

“…then came Makasar and here I first met the great “kapalapi’ (fire ships) of the Orang Belandas (white people), What a mass of boats and junks was here, everything in tangled confusion. Large black men toiled over cargo, with holes in their noses as we have, but when I spoke to them in our language, they only shook their heads and laughed.”

“I saw men in loin cloths pulling others around in a little thing that ran on wheels. I saw men and women too, carrying big loads on their shoulders and once I was so fascinated by an old man with a large load that I followed him around for some time to see if he would crumble up under the heavy weight, but he only paused now and then to put a short stick under the load to ease the weight on his back. I saw big stones carved into grotesque shapes; snakes and dogs heads with men’s bodies, big things like cats, large men with ugly eyes and bad faces…”

Although the VOC’s power peaked in the late 17th century, they were by no means a spent force even well into this century, and many of the fine old buildings in Ujung Pandang date from this long colonial period. From Makassar the VOC, like the Portuguese before them, were able to control virtually all shipping between the Moluccas and the European trade routes. While completely ignoring the rest of Southern Sulawesi, the Dutch never again lost control of this port, until they were eventually forced out of Indonesia itself in the Independence war following WW2.

Perhaps the most famous description of Makassar at its VOC ‘best”, was by the renown English naturalist, Lord Alfred Wallace, who spent some months there between September and December 1856.

“Makassar was the first Dutch town I had visited and I found it prettier and cleaner than any I had yet seen in the East. The Dutch have some admirable local regulations. All European homes must be kept well white-washed and every person must, at four in the afternoon, water the road in front of his house. The streets are kept clear of refuse and covered drains carry away all impurities into large open sewers”

“The town consists chiefly of one long narrow street, along the seaside, devoted to business and principally occupied by the Dutch and Chinese merchants’ offices and warehouses and the native shops and bazaars. This extends northward for more than a mile, gradually merging into native houses, often of a most miserable description but made to have a neat appearance by being all built up exactly to the street line and being generally backed by fruit trees.”

Defeated or not, Makassar was still not a city to be taken lightly. Even with such an established base, the Dutch were forced to fight continual and considerable resistance from their independent minded subjects, fighting major battles again in 1856-60 and with skirmishes right up to the early 1930’s. Sulawesi was not an island to succumb easily to colonial rule.

So it is ironic that, in 1942, after nearly 300 years of occupation and barely 12 yrs after the Dutch had finally quelled armed resistance, that they themselves were forced out of the city by a new powerful, if short lived, group of imperialists – the Japanese. Seeking to secure the Makassar Strait between Kalimantan (Borneo) and Sulawesi, the invaders from the north had little interest in Makassar itself, preferring to base themselves in the nearby island of Halmahera. When the Japanese surrendered to the Allies three years later, their presence in Sulawesi was marked by one fact only — that they, an Asian people, had defeated the all powerful Dutch.

The Japanese handed over control to the newest group of Australian ‘tourists’ – a branch of the Australian army known as the ‘Makassar Force’. Staying some five months and with a mandate to restore peace and to oversee a smooth transition back to colonial government, typically, the Australians were harassed by the locals, who had no wish to return to colonial rule but instead had the grander vision of a united Indonesian state on their minds.

Eventually, the Makassar Force managed to bring the resistance under control, but not without a counter-demonstration for the edification of the rebels. In the presence of some 400 Makassans, Australian machine-gunners cowed the locals with a display of force, using their weapons to clear the scrub from a wooded knoll some 2,000 metres distant. As always, our subtlety has been our greatest asset

When the city was “handed” back to the Dutch, Makassar briefly became capital of the new ‘Dutch East Indonesia’ sub-state. Basically a last ditch attempt by the Dutch to retain at least some control over their former Indonesian holdings. However, the power of the Colonialists had been broken and by 1950, Sulawesi joined Sukarno and Hatta in the new Independent nation of Indonesia.

In typical Makassan style, there were again rebellions, this time over disagreements with the Central Government in Jakarta and in 1957 and the early 1960’s large reserves of government troops were sent to Sulawesi to keep the peace.

In the early l970’s, Makassar was renamed Ujung Pandang after the original name of what is now Fort Rotterdam, in the centre of the city. Perhaps an attempt to erase the stigma of the colonial era or a more general attempt to erase the history of rebelliousness, for the past 20 years Ujung Pandang has played down its aggressiveness and has concentrated on the economics of funneling the huge wealth of Southern Sulawesi through its magnificent port.

Today, Ujung Pandang is a bustling city of around l million people, mostly Bugis and Makassans but with a fair representation of all Indonesian people, It is the world’s largest rattan centre, the gateway to the famed tourist destination of Tanah Toraja to the north, a large exporter of timber, gold, coffee and minerals, the transport hub of Eastern Indonesia and a renowned fishing centre.

Strolling along its narrow dirty alleys or riding down its wide paved thoroughfares, beset on every side by clamorous becak (rickshaw) drivers, it is not hard to lose sight of the vibrancy of its history and its people and, besides the huge Dutch mansions and the coins of 20 nations in its antique shops, Ujung Pandang could be just another bustling Asian city struggling hard towards the glories of modernity.

And in many ways, so it is. Virtually ignored by travelers, isolated by its long distance from the central authorities in Java, beset by torrential downpours in the winter months of December to April and blighted by the poverty of its working classes, Ujung Pandang had the same problems as any number of mid-range Asian cities. But considering its people, its industriousness and that long history of struggle, it is certain that Ujung Pandang will continue to grow and dominate the economic life of Eastern Indonesia.


  • The age of Reconnaissance – JH Parry (pgs. 190-201.)
  • The Development of Indonesian Society – ed. Harry Aveling.(pgs. 24 – 29)
  • Gotong Royong : Hubungan Makassar — Marege – Uni. Hasanuddin, Ujung Pandang (paper)
  • Australia in the War of 1939-45 – The Japanese Thrust, Wigmore (pgs 490-491)
  • Australia in the War of 1939-45 – The Final Campaignso Long (pgs 570 – 577).
  • Nusantara – Bernard HM Vlekke (p95 148-153 / 54 – 57).
  • The Malay Archipelago – AR Wallace (pgs. 2l8-223/ 408-413),
  • Indonesia – Donald Fryer and James Jackson (pgso l4-l5/ 38-45)°
  • The Farthest Coast – ed, CC MacKnight (pqs. 180-185)“
  • History of the Indian Archipelago — John Crawford (pgs 379-390)
  • Brimming Billabongs – WE (Bill) Harney (pgs, 30-34)°
  • Groote Eglandt /revg edition) – Keith Cole (pgs 37-39)
  • Ethnic Groups of Insular South East Asia (Vol° 1)- edq FM Lebar
  • Natural History Nov. 1976 (periodical).‘Spirits of the Makassae’ by Shepard Foremano
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