History of Foreign Exploration and Colonialism in West Papua

European army - historyonthenet.com
European army - historyonthenet.com

History of foreign exploration and colonialism in Indonesia is inseparable from what happened in West Papua. This province has been a curious subject of many foreign traders, explorers, and colonial troops. Aside from the brief mention of Papua (“Labadios”) by Greek geographer and cartographer Ptolemy, the next foreign explorations to this area only happened several centuries later

While the first traders and explorers simply came to trade (such as the Chinese in between 6th and 10th century, and later Indian, Persian and Arabian), the early traces of colonization efforts started when the Europeans came.

The Coming of First European Explorers

European army - historyonthenet.com
European army – historyonthenet.com

Portuguese explorer Antonio d’ Arbau was often mentioned as the first European explorer who visited Papua. However, the international world mostly credited Jorge de Menezes, the Portuguese Governor of the Moluccas (Maluku). In 1526, before he arrived in Ternate to rule, his ship landed on Biak (Cenderawasih Bay) to avoid monsoon. When he encountered the locals, who had curly hair and dark skin, he called the area Ilhas dos Papuas, referring to the Malayan word “Papa-ua”, which meant “curly hair”.

Menezes mostly spent his time in Maluku, and being sent back to Portugal in 1530 after several years due to various atrocities he committed against the locals. Two decades after that, the Spanish started to come, trying to claim many areas in Eastern Indonesia for the King of Spain. Yñigo Ortiz de Retez came in 1545, hearing the news about the supposedly gold-rich land of Papua. He landed at the mouth of Mamberamo River, claiming the land for the Spanish king, and called it Nueva Guinee or Nueva Guinea.

Retez was later captured and imprisoned by the Portuguese, but another Spanish explorer came to claim the land. Luis Váez de Torres came to Papua in 1606, bringing two large ships to the Southeastern and Southwestern parts of New Guinea Island. His crew often clashed violently with the locals, but he continued his journey to reach Seram, Halmahera Sea, and continue to Manila.

The Coming of the Dutch

Dutch army - ald.gov.au
Dutch army – ald.gov.au

Despite the early attempts of explorations and claims by the Portuguese and Spanish, most of the areas of New Guinea (including West Papua) were unexplored by the Europeans. Many of the areas were still uncharted, and the populations were not meticulously listed. The Kingdom of Tidore, an Islamic sultanate based in Maluku, had a large influence over West Papua during the 15th and 16th century.

In 1605, the Dutch sent its first fleets to Maluku, as a part of Dutch East India Company (VOC) efforts to occupy the spice-rich lands. Although the ruling Tidore never actually put West Papua under their control, the VOC still claimed the sovereignty over the area, insisting that it acted as a protector over the Tidore. After losing the partnership with Spain, Tidore adamantly resisted the Netherland kingdom’s attempts to rule over Eastern Indonesia.

The VOC finally allowed the Tidore Kingdom to exercise sovereignty toward West Papua by signing a treaty in 1660. The treaty acknowledged Tidore’s influence among the inhabitants of Papua (then New Guinea). However, the treaty forbade all European countries except the Dutch to come to Papua.

The situation reversed in 1814, when the power of Netherland kingdom grew in Indonesia. Ternate and Tidore kings formally acknowledged Netherland’s sovereignty over the west coast of New Guinea. In 1824, the Dutch and British held a treaty to divide areas in Indonesia among them. West Papua, along with Sumatra, Java, Sulawesi, and Maluku fell to the hand of Netherland kingdom.

On 24 August 1825, the Dutch formally declared West Papua as their land, and called it Nederland Nieuw Guinea.

Before and After World War II Era

Round table conference - 2.bp.blogspot.com
Round table conference – 2.bp.blogspot.com

The 1961 New York Agreement resulted in the United Nations to temporarily hold West Papua through its temporary executive authority. In 1969, the act of free choice (Pepera referendum) resulted in the return of West Papua to Indonesia. 

Starting 1898, the Dutch opened new cities in Papua, such as Mnukwar (Manokwari) and Fakfak, followed by Merauke in 1902. The Dutch also launched a military expedition to map all West Papua areas. On 7 March 1910, the Dutch planted their first flag in Hollandia, now known as Jayapura, the capital city of West Papua.

The US had its first expedition to Papua in 1926, together with the Dutch. After 1930, more Dutch people came from Netherland to Papua, mostly joined Dutch offices to help with the administrations. The Dutch also built new cities and explored Papua’s natural resources, including gold and oil. The coming of Dutch migrants caused tensions, because the locals felt that they were put as the second-class people.

The coming of Japan helped to weaken the Dutch’s position in Indonesia, although Japan quickly surrendered after it suffered great losses in World War II. When Indonesia finally declared independence on 17 August 1945, the newly-formed country demanded that all the formerly-occupied lands be returned. However, the Dutch still wanted to hold West Papua, which prompted Indonesia to launch series of diplomatic and military efforts to reclaim the land.