HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: History and Prehistory of the Mentawai Islands

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND: History and Prehistory of the Mentawai Islands


In much of the information currently available in the popular literature dealing with the Mentawai islands, that is information published in cyberspace as well as in travelogues, the prevailing perception is that the local people (and here they are usually referring to the inhabitants of Siberut) have been isolated through the ages and have only just been “discovered” by outsiders. This is better interpreted as western sojourners having the attitude that since they themselves only found out about this part of the world and its inhabitants recently, then it can only be the case that these people have been known to the “outside” world for a short period of time. Let me dispel this myth in two ways. I will firstly briefly indicate the degree of interaction that the islanders have had with the world beyond their shores dating from the first colonial contacts. I will subsequently briefly deal with the period preceding this, the pre-historical period.

The colonial period had a differential impact on the islands, the southernmost (North and South Pagai) being subject to the major forces of change. However it is important to emphasize that dynamic interaction with the wider world, an interaction not limited to the European presence, had been occurring for some time. The islands have experienced a degree of interconnection with other areas of insular Southeast Asia, both localized and more distant. Nevertheless, the colonial presence set in place the context for change which rapidly accelerated following the establishment of the independent Indonesian nation state.

John Crisp a civilian employee in the service of the English East India Company visited the Pagai (“Poggy”) islands in August 1792, his account of this journey and his findings constituting one of the earliest published document dealing with the islands. The visit, undertaken by means of a vessel chartered at Crisp’s own expense (Marsden 1811:469), was ostensibly due to the “curious fact” that although the islands were so close to Sumatra

which in respect to them, may be considered as a continent, we should naturally expect to find their inhabitants to be a set of people originally derived from the Sumatra stock, and look for some affinity in their language and manners; but to our no small surprise, we find a race of men, whose language is totally different, and whose customs and habits of life indicate a very distinct origin
and who resemble more the inhabitants of “the late discovered islands in the great Pacific Ocean” (Crisp 1799:77). Along with this, their relative proximity to the English Settlement at Fort Marlborough (Bencoolen/Bengkulu) also made knowledge of them desirable. His “curiosity” having been “excited”, off he went.
In this short passage Crisp touches upon the cultural similarities and differences that characterize the cultures of Southeast Asia and much of the Pacific. Despite striking differences amongst cultures to be found in close geographical proximity they all exhibit fundamental cultural and linguistic similarities as members of the Austronesian-speaking major ethnolinguistic group, to which the inhabitants of the Mentawai islands, along with the majority of the cultures of Indonesia, belong (more on this in the section entitled “Prehistory” below).

European interest in the islands, however, was by no means limited to scholarly themes. Crisp (1799:78) also reports that an attempt to establish a settlement and pepper cultivation was made by the English some 40 or 50 years earlier. It failed as a result of the “improper conduct” of the manager although Marsden (1811:468) puts it down to “incessant rains” whereupon those whom he describes as the “officer” and his “men” abandoned the area. Marsden (1811:468) furthermore notes that the settlement referred to by Crisp was in fact on one of the two Sanding islands located just to the south of south Pagai, islands only of interest because of the “long nutmeg” growing wild there and the “good timber”. Logan (1855:274) reports the establishment of another settlement in 1801 on the straits of Sikakap which separate north and south Pagai. However the appointed Resident never actually “took charge”. Instead, a “Malay” directed the operation until the following year when the area was similarly abandoned “after a fruitless expenditure of about fifteen thousand dollars”.

Another Englishman, John Christie, made several visits to the Pagai islands in the interests of exporting timber, the right being granted by General de Stuers, the Netherlands East Indies Resident for Sumatra’s west coast at that time, in 1825 (Logan 1955:276). The Portuguese were aware of the islands although it would appear that they never landed. On a Portuguese chart dated 1606 Siberut was named “Mintaon”—Schefold(1991[1979]:32) reports that it was also called “Matana” arguing a resemblance between these terms and the present name “Mentawai” although in light of the evidence that I assess in my article History and ‘Mentawai’: Colonialism, Scholarship, and Identity in the Rereiket, West Indonesia, it would appear that this designation has its origins with the British—Sipora was named “Goed Fortuin”, and the Pagai islands “Nassau” (Coronese 1986:20).

In 1824 the Treaty of London, designed to restrict Dutch and British spheres of influence to Sumatra and the Malay peninsula respectively, was signed, although it was some time before this led to any practical consequences in relation to the islands. The British withdrew from Bengkulu and the Dutch declared the islands along with Nias, Batu, and Enggano to be under their sovereignty (Coronese 1986:22). Nevertheless the Dutch did not change their attitude significantly, since Singapore and Penang merchants had been complaining that their trade was being restricted by Dutch tariffs. Not wanting conflict with the British, the tariffs were dropped. Dutch expansionist activities were, accordingly, confined for the time being to Bali, Nusa Tenggara, Kalimantan, and Sulawesi (Ricklefs 1981:135). The Mentawai islands were thus forgotten for the next forty odd years.

By 1857 the Dutch had begun to move in Sumatra again in an effort to upstage what was evidently growing interest from other powers in, particularly, Aceh which had, by the 1820s, already become the producer of half the world’s supply of pepper and therefore a valuable prize. Important in this resurgent expansionism also was a growing liberalization in Dutch commercial policy (Ricklefs 1981:135). In 1858 the north eastern coastal principalities of Siak, Deli, Serdang, Langkat, and Asahan had all signed treaties with the Dutch thereby accepting Dutch authority. Similar moves were afoot to establish authority in the Batak areas (Legge 1980:92).

It is not surprising then that H.A.Mess, the Assistant-Resident for the Pesisir Selatan-Painan area just south of Padang who made a visit to the islands, states that prior to 1864 the ‘Mentawai’ islands, contrary to the 1824 declaration, did not officially fall within the jurisdiction of the Netherlands East Indies. Thus in order to forestall possible new moves by the British in respect of the islands off Sumatra’s west coast, that is Batu, Nias, Enggano, and the Mentawai islands, these were all officially brought under the umbrella of Dutch sovereignty on the 10 of July 1864 (Mess 1870:342). Mess writes about the responsibilities of the government towards the inhabitants who “live as they did in the distant past”, and who have “no knowledge of God’s wishes”. These “uncivilized” people would benefit from the anticipated influx of both native Indonesians and Europeans and would thus constitute a suitable course of action as a response to “God’s will”. He also notes the potential for coffee, cocoa, and rice plantations (Mess 1870:342). Coronese (1986:24-25) also points to the entry in the Netherlands East Indies Encyclopedia (Graaff & Stibbe 1918) which mentions the sending of troops to the islands in order to put an end to local plundering of trading vessels in the vicinity. Indeed a military post was subsequently set up in the strait of Sikakap, separating North and South Pagai. In 1893 a military presence was established on Sipora under the command of a Malay who was eventually expelled by the locals (Coronese 1986:27). In sum, however, colonial involvement in the islands was minimal.

Nevertheless, with the implementation of the “Ethical Policy” at the beginning of the twentieth century colonial involvement in the islands, in line with most other areas falling within the sphere of influence of the Netherlands East Indies, increased greatly as the administration expanded and consolidated its position. A military post was built on Siberut and in 1904 a district commandant took up a permanent position there, the main job being to prevent the ongoing plundering of trading vessels (Persoon 1987:161).

But the innovation that would have the most far reaching consequences was the establishment of a mission station on the south coast of North Pagai on the Sikakap straits. This was set up by the German Royal Missionary Society on the request of the colonial authorities in the interests of facilitating ‘development’ (Persoon 1987:161). The first missionary, August Lett, took up residence in 1901 but was killed eight years later when mediating a confrontation between a detachment of colonial troops, who were attempting to carry out what Hansen describes as “registration”, and the local people in Talu Pulai village on north Pagai. This procedure had been in operation for some time (Hansen 1917:19) resulting in, in another instance, sporadic skirmishes with Taikako village between 1902 and 1908 when hostilities ceased (Sihombing 1979:95). It took until 1915 to gain the first convert. The following year efforts were extended to Sipora and Siberut, with a mission station eventually established in 1932 at Maeleppet (Sihombing 1979:97).

In the post-World War II period on Siberut, under the auspices of the newly established Indonesian administration, Catholic Italian missionaries established a centre of operations in Muara Siberut. However, it was the post-Independence Indonesian administration itself that was to effect the most radical change. Over the following decades the local populations living in dispersed House groups (uma) were collectivized into a number of villages within administrative districts set up by the new government. The general aim of policy here was to combat “backward” (primitif) “thinking and practices” in order to promote “development” (pembangunan), which remains the major goal today, although the policy of resettlement has been relaxed in the case of those groups that prefer to spend most of their time away from the settlements in which most people dwell. The idea behind this program is that such change can be more easily accomplished through breaking down this dispersed form of social organization and having people living together where they would be more easily contacted by government officials.

Apart from colonial contacts it is clear that there have been on-going interactions between local populations and seafearing others. Francis (1839) reports the existence of trade between the inhabitants of the Mentawai islands and Chinese and Malays from Sumatra, trade that no doubt predates the coming of Europeans (See also Marsden 1986[1811];Veth 1849;Crisp 1799; Neumann 1909; Schefold 1989).


An understanding of the prehistory of the Mentawai islands comes from placing them in the context of the prehistory of insular and mainland Southeast Asia as a whole. As a part of Southeast Asia it is unconvincing to posit that stasis and isolation are the primary characteristics of the history of the Mentawai islands prior to their entry into the written, and therefore by definition, historical record. Southeast Asia was an especially dynamic area for several centuries immediately prior to European incursion. (For an authoritative portrait and analysis of the nature of social, cultural, political, and economic dynamics of Southeast Asia, I refer the reader to the work of Anthony Reid [1988/1993]).

The dynamism connecting and integrating the various societies and political centers throughout Southeast Asia has waxed and waned over time. Nevertheless this “connectivity” has been a key feature. Reid has identified the mid 15th century as the beginning of a particularly dynamic period of almost two centuries of prosperity, growth and expansion characterized by increasingly centralized polities and a cosmopolitan outlook on the part of the locals. In the 17th century, however, this began to break down due to a complex interaction of various factors. One of these was the European presence, particularly the Dutch East India Company. Details aside, the important lesson in this is that rather than being the catalyst in the connection of previously isolated societies with the “outside” world, the European impact actually resulted in fragmentation and a descent into political and cultural isolation by societies and polities that had hitherto been very much in contact with a range of societies, both nearby and further afield.

In relation to the Mentawai islands, not a great deal of archaeological work has been carried out and therefore a detailed knowledge of the area’ prehistory is yet to materialize. But from what work has been done it is clear that it is unreasonable to argue that this area has been completely isolated from the historical currents that have moved through the rest of Southeast Asia. Although Indic, and later Islamic, influences had little or no impact upon the Mentawai islands, Schefold (1989) argues that from the first millenium BC there has been sustained contact with outside influences. Evidence for this can be found in the form of “Early Metal Age” or “Dongson” cultural elements which were absorbed into existing structures. Whilst the legacy of such influences on the Mentawai islands is scant (and yet to be conclusively linked to this cultural/material complex), they are most visible in various aesthetic forms (cf.Shefold 1991:23-29). Schefold observes, however, that it is remarkable how little impact these influences had on the cultural integrity of the islands as a whole.

Concerning the origins of the indigenous inhabitants of the Mentawai islands, we do not need to go all that far back when contextualised within the broad time span of human evolution. In the mid to late Pleistocene (the period 1.6 million years to around 10, 000 years BCE) rising sea levels separated the islands from the Sumatran mainland, prior to the appearance of modern humans (Homo Sapiens) in this part of the world, c. 500,000 BCE.

At around 4000 BCE a migration of indigenous peoples began out of the island of Formosa (currently known as Taiwan)(1). These people were the ancestors of almost all the inhabitants of the Malayo-Polynesian region, a region which is bounded by the outlier islands of New Zealand, Easter Island, the Hawaiian islands, Taiwan, and Madagascar off the east coast of Africa. Almost all of the inhabitants of this region speak languages termed “Austronesian”, languages which can be all traced back to an originary “proto” language spoken by these early travellers.

During the period 3000-2000 BCE, the decendents of these early immigrants made their way through the Philippines, to Sulawesi (formerly Celebes) and into Northern Borneo. In the period 2000-500 BCE they moved into and spread throughout Sumatra via Java (as well as Eastwards into Oceania). These were the ancestors of the various societies and cultures found throughout Sumatra in the present, including the indigenous inhabitants of the Mentawai islands. Given the slow rate of expansion it is not unreasonable to put an approximate date on the arrival of the ancestors of current populations as being nearer to 500 than 2000 BCE. As it stands it would seem that migration to the islands was from the north through Siberut south to Sipora and the Pagai islands, and not from the east, homeland to the Minangkabau, or the south via Enggano (directly south of Bengkulu), thus further delaying the time of arrival of the first inhabitants on the islands(2). This finds further support in the mythology of the people amongst whom I worked on Siberut. Ancestral origins are almost universally traced to Simatalu (3), a region defined as existing on the northwest or west coast of Siberut. Subsequent ancestral movements are to Terekan some 20 odd km inland from the north coast of Siberut and then further south. Anecdotal evidence comes from non-indigenous migrants to the island who remark that the local language reminds them of the Batak language (spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of the lake Toba region of North Sumatra).

In conclusion, it is true that compared with other parts of the Indo-Malay archipelago where cultural and linguistic exchange has been occurring amongst groups over long periods of time, the various groups located across the Mentawai islands have had minimal contact with societies and cultures beyond their shores. However, contact during the colonial and post-colonial periods and its concomitant consequences accelerated processes of change that have affected different regions to greater or lesser degrees. To hold, therefore, that the contemporary inhabitants of the Mentawai islands are somehow “primitive” relics of a bygone era that have only recently, or are only now, opening up to the rest of the world and beginning to change is a position not well supported by the available evidence. Current events are but a continuation of a gently accelerating modern historical trajectory.


(1) For a detailed discussion of these issues, see Bellwood (1985). See also Bellwood, P., Fox, J.J., Tryon, D. (eds)(1995).
(2) In a subsequent publication, Bellwood (1995) dates the arrival of Austronesian speakers in Java at around 500 BC, which would further put back the arrival of the ancestors of the contemporary inhabitants of Sumatra, and latterly, the Mentawai islands. See also Schefold (1989).
(3) See Schefold (1989) p.3.

References Cited

Crisp, J. (1799) “An account of the inhabitants of the Poggy Islands lying off Sumatra”. Asiatick Researches. 6:77-91.

Bellwood, P. (1985) Prehistory of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago. Orlando, Fla : Academic Press.

Bellwood, P. (1995) “Austronesian Prehistory in Southeast Asia: Homeland, Expansion and Transformation.” In Bellwood, P., Fox, J.J., Tryon, D. (eds)(1995) The Austronesians: historical and comparative perspectives. Canberra: ANU.

Bellwood, P., Fox, J.J., Tryon, D. (eds)(1995) The Austronesians: historical and comparative perspectives. Canberra: ANU.

Coronese, S. (1986) Kebudayaan Suku Mentawai. Jakarta: Grafidian Jaya.

Francis, E.A. (1839) “Kort beschrijving van het Nederlandsch grondgebied ter Westkust van Sumatra”. Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch-Indië. Zalt-Bommel, Nijmegen, Bussum, Den Haag, Amsterdam. pt.1: 203-220.

Graaff, S. de & Stibbe, D.G. eds. (1918) “Mentawai Islanden”. Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indie. Vol. 2. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Hansen, B. (1917) “De eerste kerstening der Mentaweiers”. Tijdschrift voor Binnenlandsch Bestuur. 52:19-31.

Legge, J.D. (1980) Indonesia. Sydney: Prentice-Hall.

Logan, J.R. (1855) “The Chagalelegat, or Mantawe Islanders”. Journal of the Indian Archipelago and Eastern Asia. 9:273-305.

Marsden, W. (1986 [1811]). The History of Sumatra. London: Oxford University Press.

Mess, H.A. (1870) “Bijdrage tot de kennis der Mentawai-eilanden”.Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië. 4:339-363.

Neumann, J.B. (1909) “De Mentawei-eilanden”. Tijdschrift van het Koninklijk Nederlandsch Aardrijkskundig Genootschap. 26: 181-213.

Persoon, G. (1987) “Local leaders on Siberut: A creation not yet completed”. In P. Quarles van Ufford. ed. Local Leadership and Programme Implementation in Indonesia. Amsterdam: Free University Press.

Ricklefs, M. (1981) A history of modern Indonesia : c. 1300 to the present. London: Macmillan.

Reid, A. (1988/1993) Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680. New Haven: Yale University Press. Volume 1. The Lands Below the Winds ; Volume II, Expansion and Crisis.

Schefold, R. (1989) “The Origins of the Woman on the Raft: On the Prehistory of the Mentawaians”. In W. Wagner ed. Mentawai: Identität im Wandel auf Indonesischen Aub eninseln. Bremen.

Schefold, R. (1991) Mainan Bagi Roh: Kebudayan Mentawai. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka.

Sihombing, H. 1979. Mentawai. Jakarta: Pradnya Paramita.

Veth, P.J. 1849. “De Mentawei-eilanden ten westen van Sumatra”. Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië. 11:201-213.

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J0hn McGuirl July 24, 2013 at 7:07 pm

Any more insight into the traditional culture of the Mentawains? Nuances in culture, economy, & sociology of, etc. al.


Glenn Reeves July 31, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Not these days John. I have moved on in a number of ways and leave it up to others to pursue that in the future.