Historyscapes in Alor: Approaching indigenous histories in eastern Indonesia

PhD defended at: 

Linnaeus University

Author: 

Emilie Wellfelt

Defended: 

2016

This thesis deals with history and history-making practices in Alor, a small island in southeastern Indonesia. As in all of Indonesia, the people of Alor have experienced European colonialism, and after independence, a period of centralised, authoritarian rule under the New Order (1965-1998). This regime focussed heavily on Indonesia as a united entity, and history was an instrument used in building the nation.
Democratisation and decentralisation reforms after 1998 saw interest in formulating the history of the region, village or group rather than the nation blossom. My research took place in the history boom of the 2000s when recording history was
a task of urgency for many in Alor. A theoretical and methodological challenge rose from the observation of two different approaches to history, each with separate understandings of what ‘history’ is and what its sources are: ‘academic history’ and
‘indigenous history’. Academic history is concerned with time and dates; indigenous history emphasises spatiality and place. Academic history tends to rely on archival sources and is concerned with establishing chronologies of events. By contrast,
indigenous history in Alor is based on oral sources, objects preserved locally, and stories rooted in the landscape. Indigenous histories may include non-human actors like dragons or sea-people living in underwater villages. In academic history, such accounts are discarded as legends or myths of no relevance to history. In this thesis, the ontological gap between these two modes of history is central. I argue that indigenous stories reveal much about historical experiences. The realism claimed by academic history is just another human construct of the past.
In the thesis, I develop the idea of a ‘historyscape’ as a methodological tool for handling indigenous histories displaying a wealth of narrators, stories and themes relating to the past. ‘Historyscapes’ is a term which unites conceptual and geographical understandings of an area or realm. A historyscape is shaped and marked off from other areas by stories and perceptions about, as well as experiences from, a shared past.
Applied to Alor, the historyscape methodology reveals geographies based on the manner groups and areas connect to each other through key stories. For Alor, I establish four historyscapes. In each, an initial place-oriented reading of indigenous sources is followed by a chronological reading, in which the sources of academic history are included. The juxtaposition with academic history mainly shows the manner in which the colonial powers (Dutch and Portuguese) related to different parts of Alor at different times. From these sources periods of friction between colonial and indigenous are highlighted. The four historyscapes in Alor show variations in historical experiences within short distances, but also commonalities found across a new story-geography.

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