The coup in Lisbon on 25 April 1974 brought the beginnings of modern political life to the ancient and backward Portuguese colony of Timor, with its 600,000 inhabitants. Timor is strategically located at the south-eastern extremity of the Nusa Tenggara Archipelago, or Lesser Sundas—that part of Indonesia closest to Australia. Both Indonesia and Australia have displayed great interest in the future of Portuguese Timor, with indications of a deal whereby Indonesia would assimilate the Portuguese half of the island (the other is already Indonesian) in return for special concessions to Australian capital. The overthrow of the Caetano regime in Portugal had a contradictory and muffled impact in Timor. For some months the old Governor continued to rule, though in the new situation Timorese political associations could begin to form. On 20 October the Overseas Co-ordination Minister, Dr Almeida Santos, paid the first visit to Timor by a Portuguese Minister in twenty years. Santos chose the occasion of his first public address to a crowd of 15,000 in Dili, the capital, to launch into an extraordinary evocation of the Portuguese colonial mission: ‘We Portuguese become extremely emotional when a Portuguese man leaves Lisbon, crosses the earth, and can still find Portugal at the other side of the world. What a fatherland and what a people!’ The faces of the conservatives relaxed while the newly emergent nationalists stared in disbelief as the supposed ‘voice of 25 April’ rose above the mixed cries of ‘Viva Portugal’ and ‘Fascista’ from the crowd, to declare: ‘We are a small people . . . (but) indeed enough to populate the world. We went through the unknown; we fought at Ceuta; we sprinkled the coasts of Africa and Asia with factories; we reached China and with incredible boldness promoted an ecclesiastical province of Portugal. Always daring, always unsatisfied, always human, we have traded, we have Christianized, we have made friends . . . so strong was the root planted in Timor, so noble the idea and so valid the work, the Portuguese presence resisted everything . . . When, in past or recent times, others wanted to take our place, occupied by right of discovery and presence, there have been Timorese who sacrificed their lives, refused to betray their hearts and fought so that Timor could remain Portuguese. And I would say that it will go on being Portuguese on account of its historical tradition, its culture and its feelings, no matter what organic changes take place in its political structures.’ footnote1 On 18 November a new Governor, Colonel Lemos Peres, arrived in Timor promising self-determination for the island. A national independence movement was already beginning to take shape but, as we shall see, 400 years of Portuguese colonial rule have bequeathed formidable problems for it to resolve.

The island of Timor was ‘discovered’ by Portugal in the general expansion of European mercantilism into Asia in the early sixteenth century. Prior to this, it was tied into the pattern of trade between Java and China—sandalwood to China, beeswax to Java’s batik industry and slaves. The first sighting of the island is believed to have been by one Rui de Brito in 1514. However, it remains unclear when, where and by whom the first Portuguese footholds were made in the Sundas. The first Portuguese settlement in Timor was by Dominican friars at the little sandalwood port of Lifau in Oe Cussi, now only an enclave in the Indonesian (formerly Dutch) half of the island. Portugal was soon drawn into the Spanish kingdom and hence into war with England and Holland. Its expulsion from Asia by military means began and the Dutch invaded colony after colony. Hostilities reached Timor in 1613 and continued almost uninterruptedly for the next three centuries.

In their struggle against the Dutch, the Portuguese and their train of Dominican friars found allies amongst the Topasses, or Black Portuguese, an emergent group of mesticos in the eastern archipelago who, for a over a century, were a formidable force both in trade and in combat. Two clans of Topasses established themselves at Lifau and for a period became very rich and powerful. ‘The Topasses set themselves up in the style of native princes; they commanded the allegiance of native chiefs as vassals; and some of them earned the title of “Captain of the South” from the Portuguese Viceroy of Goa. They happily conspired with the Dominicans against the Dutch, as well as against the white Portuguese, the native chiefs and each other. Throughout the seventeenth century, the complex conflict continued and the sandalwood trade flourished. Trade flourished to such a degree, in fact, that the once thick stands of sandalwood were seriously depleted. Sandalwood being a semi-parasitic growth which has never been re-established once the original balance of nature had been upset, Timor’s major resource was swiftly dissipated. The trade was to continue on up through the nineteenth century . . . As its wealth diminished, however, its strategic significance rose. To the Portuguese, Timor came to represent an area of last retreat within the once extensive Pacific empire which they were by that time in the process of losing’. footnote2

Colonialism in its early days had a profound impact on the Timorese social structure; however, many of the developments during this period still require historical investigation. Large parts of the island remained out of the grip of either the Dutch or the Portuguese and the strength and ‘legitimacy’ of chiefs fluctuated with the alliances of convenience they could forge with whoever offered them an attractive proposition. footnote3

The question of the ‘legitimacy’ of various chiefs remains politically important today, but as a study by Glover shows, it is not a simple one. ‘In the past, shifting alliances between sucos (a group of six to ten villages under a chief) threw up kingdoms, whose rulers claimed some sort of authority over broad tracts of territory. These states were ephemeral and depended on the personality and energy of the rulers. In the sixteenth century Pigafetta mentions four kings in Timor, by 1700 there were said to be two empires in the island, Belu in the east and Serviao in the west, but by the mid-nineteenth century Castro lists forty-seven kingdoms in the Portuguese half of the island alone. It seems probable that changing patterns of trade in Timor were partly responsible for the growth and decline of these kingdoms. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were periods of busy trade in sandalwood and those chiefs who could organize labour and deliver cut wood to the coast would have gained a near monopoly in the cloth, iron tools and guns traded into the island. Trade declined in the eighteenth century, the Dutch and the Portuguese claimed a greater share of what business there was, and the empires seem to have broken up into petty chiefdoms comprising no more than 3,000 to 4,000 people each.’ footnote4

Under pressure from the Dutch, the Portuguese shifted their headquarters from Lifau to its present site at Dili in 1769. Timor was originally governed from Goa, and then from Macao until 1896, when an autonomous Governor was appointed to Dili. This rule was briefly interrupted during the Napoleonic Wars when Britain occupied both sections of the island. After it was benignly handed back in 1816, a century-long boundary dispute broke out between the Dutch and the Portuguese. By the early twentieth century, however, colonial domination of the island had begun to stabilize. The Portuguese broke the eastern half up into ten districts (conselhos), established minute administrative, clerical and military structures, and delegated local authority to the chiefs—removing those who were unco-operative, replacing them with compliant ones. The last major indigenous threat to Portuguese rule came in 1912 when one of the most powerful kings, Don Boaventiue, came close to occupying Dili. In the ensuing bloody campaign it has been claimed that over 2,000 Timorese, including Don Boaventiue, were killed.

After centuries of despoliation and wars, Portuguese Timor quietly slipped into a political and economic limbo. This tranquility was interrupted by the catastrophic occupation of the island by the Japanese during the Second World War, which left 40,000 Portuguese Timorese dead, the rest of the population close to starvation, the economy in ruins and the town of Dili completely razed. As elsewhere, the Japanese occupation had weakened the hegemony of European colonialists, sparking off small sporadic revolts by individual chiefs who, as in earlier times, were quickly replaced by the Portuguese. Neither the Portuguese nor the Timorese were in any position to launch a meaningful reconstruction programme, and with the social explosion in neighbouring Indonesia, the Portuguese were not prepared to gamble on the future of Timor. Thus for the next fifteen years, while Dili was being shabbily rebuilt, little attempt was made to revive agriculture and the Timorese languished in squalor and backwardness.