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Portugal in East Timor

Civilization at What Cost?

Ivo Mateus Goncalves[1]

It is more or less one week until East Timor’s government and their people will commemorate 40 years declaration of independence (November 28 1975-28 November 2015) and 500 years of Portugal’s presence in East-Timor.

The theme to mark 500 years of Portugal existence in East-Timor is uncommon in compare to another former colonies. The government refers to this as ‘ Commemoration of Anniversary the Proclamation of Democratic Republic of Timor Leste November 28 1975-November 28 2015 and 500 years of Interaction between two civilizations East-Timor and Portugal and the Affirmation of Timorese Identity, (Comemoração dos Anos de Aniversário da Proclamação da República Democrática de Timor-Leste 28 de Novembro de 1975- 28 de Novembro de 2015 e dos 500 Anos de Interacção entre duas civilizações, Timorense e Portuguesa e Afirmação da Identidade Timorense).

Portugal is no longer regarded as a former colonial power, but has been regarded as old mate that brought and expanded the mission of civilization in East Timor, which led to the strengthening of East Timorese culture. In particular, the East Timorese state focuses on the historical contribution of Catholicism to the development of national identity. The argument that put forward by the government is entail political message, Portugal has been tirelessly on the Timorese side in endorsing East Timor’s quest for independence, therefore is no longer relevant to regard the Portugal as former occupier. Nonetheless, Portugal always claimed that it had no colonies; and that East Timor was the overseas province of a unitary state.

Two faces of celebration will be presented before Timorese in general and the people in the enclave of Oecusse in particular. The 28 of November 1975 is a hallmark of East-Timor history when the leaders and the people behind them declared unilateral independence—with the absence of Portugal colonial administration in their hide out on the island of Atauro— only a week before the massive escalation of Indonesian military invasion December 7 1975. Therefore, East-Timor has the sole right to celebrate one of decisive moment en route to independence.

On the other hand, history has been revealed that Portugal presence in East Timor from the first time they set their foot in Lifau, Oecusse district, when their first instilled their first Captain General in Lifau in the 1600s, was not unfettered. Portugal encountered local political opposition that finally forced them to move to Dili in 1767.

In terms of administration, Portugal ruled the colony directly from Goa and sometimes from Macau. Thus, the longevity of colonial presence those according to varieties of sources taken place for 500 years need to be questioned furthermore.

The driving force behind Portuguese colonialism in East-Timor was the lust for natural resources, spices sandalwood and raw materials to be shipped back to the center in order to enrich the colonial and financing their expedition to another mundo perdido (the lost world). Meanwhile, as Portugal urbanized, East-Timor became “progressively ruralized,” (Shepherd 2014: 76, Chomsky 1993: 14) with a rapid increase in the proportion of the population dependent on agriculture.

However, plundering, slaughtering, and oppression become common feature during the colonial time. In order to dominate indigenes, Portuguese pitted local kings against each other, the role of the liurai (local kings) was reduced to merely serving the colonial administration under the colonial aegis, and the Portuguese authority should endorse the local king that has been elected by the people. Portuguese colonialism put their hand on every aspect of Timorese life, including manipulate the political aspiration of the indigenes. Portuguese must ensure that the local kings, which elected by the people, become ears and eyes of colonial administration and fit into the colonial best interest in the field of economy and politic.

The population was classified racially according to their level of education, income and their background. Practically, civilization only benefited the elites, nearly all indigenous were illiterate, and used fingers or stones or maize grains to count. The mission of civilization was far from reality, given that it was a mission with common objective at forcing the indigenes to work even harder under conditions that favorable, mainly, the colonial administration and a few local kings and chiefs.

Anthropologist Christopher Shepherd put it most succinctly; a tiny group of assimilados had slowly established themselves mainly from the sons of local king and chiefs. They were managed to obtain proper education in the Jesuit run seminary, the assmiliados absorbed themselves with what had now become a group of a few thousand mestizos (mixed blood).

Similar with the school curricula during Indonesian occupation, the history that was taught left no room for alternative views. In school in seminaries, Portuguese geography and language dominated the curriculum. Indonesia introduced their national independence heroes to East Timorese children in every school, as well as the name of the rivers and mountains. Portuguese put into practice the same pattern. Every schoolchild learned which were the cities and rivers of Portugal. Timor was also considered part of Portugal. Strangely enough, they were taught that the highest mountain in Portugal was their own Mount Ramelau of 3,000 meters above the sea.

Slavery loomed large, as farmers were unable to meet the amount of tax that they had to pay. Crimes become so common; some people even plundering the nurseries for seedlings; selling children as slaves. Whores also grew rapidly. In the far-flung, sex could afforded with equivalent to a bunch of coconut. During the nighttime, schoolgirls hand themselves up to troops and the more ‘civilized’ autochthonous women could ply their trade as mulheres de estado (women of the state) to serve Portuguese officials and high-ranking military officers.

Amidst bitter legacy aforementioned, Dr Mario Moreira da Silva, an official from Ministry of Foreign Affairs vehemently praised that, “Timor is an outstanding model of Portuguese colonization.”

No one could denied that between East-Timor and Portugal as former colonial power have strong relations—especially if we trace back to the ties between colonial authority, traditional power holder and the sacred house. It has been widely believed that mostly sacred house in East-Timor stored the heirlooms which consist of Portuguese flag, helmet and gun. That object has been hailed as possessed certain magic that only the owner of sacred house can touch and offering ceremony on certain occasion. In some cases, the local king delivered the gun and Portuguese flag as a sign of peace and settling dispute between colonial authority and indigenes.

According to National University of Singapore based political scientist Douglas Kammen, the heirlooms often become the source of conflict. Prior to popular consultation in 1999, the head of administrator in Liquica district ordered his follower to abduct, hacked cut in to pieces the old man named Maukuru who was been accused of stored the colonial paraphernalia in his secret house (Kammen 2015: 144-145).

However, Portuguese have the reason to argue that Timor-Leste is Portugal’s young brother. Timorese people often look at the foreigner, especially the white people as ‘the lost brother’ who had returned to the homeland in search of their own origins, a seeker after a treasure that they had long held in keeping (Traube 1986: IX).

In fact of the matter, in 1950 the official number of assimilado stood at 54, on the other hand many thousands of the 435,000 autochthonous remains intact in the rural and urban areas. In 1975, prior to Portuguese departure only five percent out of total population of 750,000—before Indonesia military invasion— were literate.

Some elites that made their way to Catholic run seminary in the outskirt of Dili (Dare) become the backbone of early clandestine movement which led to formation of political parties such as FRETILIN and UDT.

The Portuguese colonialism has been well known for its climate of terror, notably the suppression against the pre-nationalist movement such as Manufahi Rebellion of 1911-1912, the Viqueque Rebellion and colonial repression of 1959 only few to mention.

It was a common feature in every colonial conquest when religion has been utilized as a means to dominate and to win heart and mind of the natives. The Portuguese introduced Roman Catholicism to East- Timor by 1515. It was the 1556 arrival of the Dominican friar, Antonio Taveira, which officially marked the commencement of a more widespread missionizing effort. The local king played pivotal role in converting the East-Timorese to have faith in Catholicism (Molnar 2010: 18).

The Catholic followers was increased sharply after Indonesian military invasion which reaching 98 percent. Catholic Church and their clergies, their tireless effort in championing the cause of East-Timorese against the oppression and brutality of Indonesia occupation. For the common people, Church is only safe place for them to seek refuge, protection and spiritual comfort.

In 1974, the wind of change swept over Portuguese colonies in Africa continent such as Angola, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau and Cape Verde. The Timorese elites smelled this political climate, those, obtained advance education from the Jesuit Seminary along with another fellow that has pursued their higher education in the colonial empire. They formed the political parties in East-Timor with broad range of perspective; political transition before independence is fully achieved, completely breaking the chain with colonialism and integration with either Indonesia or Australia.

When the political parties came into being, meanwhile the incursion into East Timor territory by Indonesian military was in motion. When short-lived civil war was broke out between UDT and FRETILIN, Portuguese colonialism and their administration took refuge in the island of Atauro. They did not come to assume their responsibility to expedite the decolonization process even though Timorese interim government, that has just sworn in on 28 of November 1975 during the unilateral declaration of East Timor independence, still recognize Portuguese and its administration allowed their flag in front of the government palace and the official car that belong to the Governor parking at the same spot.

In the end, the US and Australia endorsed Soeharto proposal to invade Timor-Leste. On December 6, Soeharto met with US President Gerard Ford and Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger. Soeharto finally secured their approval and on December 7 1975, Indonesian military launched massive scale of invasion from air, land and sea.

Portuguese Governor Lemos Pires and his entourage kept silent on Atauro, and then jumped to the vessel that provided by Australia and fled to their homeland. The colonial regime has gone, but their bitter legacies remained, along with its Catholic religion.

The pendulum swing back, when Portuguese first arrived in East-Timor, they brought with them the religion to conquest the native. After Indonesia military invasion, Timorese people and their leaders expressed their longing for Portuguese, in the name of culture (luso tropicalism) and the similarity in faith (Catholic). All of a sudden, cruelty and barbarism that committed by Portuguese colonialism has been ignored for the sake of “mission civilisatrice.” The ‘holy mission’ at the expense of too many lives, economic exploitation, racism, slavery, plundered and looting. Therefore, civilization at what cost?



Chomsky, Noam (1993) YEAR 501: The Conquest Continues, South End Press-Boston.

Kammen, Douglas (2015) Three Centuries of Conflict in East Timor, NUS Press.

Molnar, Katalin, A. (2010) Timor Leste: Politics, history and culture, Routledge London and New York.

Shepherd, Christopher (2014) Development and Environmental Politics Unmasked: Authority, participation and equity in East Timor, Routledge London and New York.

Traube, Elizabeth, G. (1986) Cosmology and Social Life: Ritual Exchange among the Mambai of East Timor, University of Chicago Press.


[1] Historical researcher, base in Dili-Timor Leste.