West Papua is known as the easternmost island and province of Indonesia, but that name did not exist from the start. Papua has experienced name changes many times. The history of name changes is not only interesting, but also revealing various intriguing aspects in Papua’s relation with Indonesia.
The Early Centuries
The first known mention of Papua is by Greek geographer, astronomer, mathematician, and cartographer from the 2nd century, Claudius Ptolemy. He mentioned an island called “Labadios”, which was what we now call Papua. The more detailed history came from Chinese explorations in around 6th century. A trader called Gao Yu Kuan wrote in his journal that he got spices from an island called Tungki.
Another Chinese trader, Chun Tjok Kwan, visited Maluku and Papua in the 7th century. When Tjok Kwan made another stop in Sumatra’s Sriwijaya Kingdom, the people mispronounced the name “Tungki” into “Janggi”. The name stuck, and the Sriwijaya Kingdom continued referring to the land of Papua as Janggi. The Sriwijaya Kingdom even once presented Chinese emperor with birds of paradise, which were also called Janggi.
The mysterious nature of jungle-covered Papua also attracted Persian and Indian traders. They started sailing to Eastern Indonesia in the 7th century. The Sanskrit-speaking traders referred to the island as Samudranta, “at the edge of the ocean”.
The Majapahit and Tidore Eras
Majapahit and Tidore became the next large kingdoms with relations to Papua. During the golden eras of East Java-based Majapahit Kingdom, the “Sram” people frequently brought “Wanin” slaves from Papua to serve in the kingdom. “Sram” referred to Seram Island in Maluku, while “Wanin” was Onin Peninsula in Fakfak, the latter now known as one of the regencies in West Papua Province.
There were also mentions of Papua in Negarakertagama, an Old Javanese poem from the 14th century by Mpu Prapanca, which was written as a eulogy for the Majapahit king, Hayam Wuruk. The poem referred to Papua as Onin, and there was also mention of Sran/Sram. However, this poem should not be regarded as an actual historical text.
Tidore was the closest kingdom that ever related to Papua. Based in Maluku Island, this Islamic kingdom first sent a fleet of kora-kora (traditional ships) to Papua at the beginning of 16th century. Led by Sultan Ibnu Mansyur, this expedition ended with the addition of several Papua areas and islands to Tidore’s map. During the Tidore era, the name “Papa-Ua” began to come up. The name meant “not integrated” or “not having a king”, while in Malayan, it could also mean “having curly hair”.
European Exploration and Colonialization Era
The first recorded mention of Papua by European visitor was by Antonio d’ Arbau, a Portuguese sailor and explorer who came to the land in 1511. He called it “Ilha de Papo” and “Os Papuas”, following the name was given by the Tidore Kingdom. Other European explorers that used the name Papua were Jorge de Menetes from Spain and Antonio Figafetta, the scribe of Magelhaens.
Alvaro de Savedra, a Spanish explorer and fleet commander who came to Papua in 1528, started using the name “Isla de Oro” when referring to the island, which meant “Island of Gold”. This name enticed more European sailors to come for the gold promise. Another Spanish explorer, Inigo Ortiz de Retes, came to Papua in 1545 and started using the name “Nueva Guinee” (New Guinea). He used the name because the locals looked like the natives in African Guinea.
The name Papua and New Guinea stuck for another two centuries; Papua was more famous among locals in Nusantara (pre-Independence Indonesia), while New Guinea was more popular in Europe. New Guinea and its variation appeared on various world maps.
Irian, and Papua Again
During the 1940s, not long before Indonesia’s declaration of independence, several members of local tribal councils such as Corinus Krey, Frans Kasiepo, and Yan Waromi gathered in Jayapura to discuss the new name for Papua, which must reflect local culture and wisdom. Frans Kasiepo had an idea to call the land “Irian”, which came from Biak words that meant “land” and “hot”. However, in other languages such as Merauke and Ifor, “Irian” could mean “high/elevated land”.
Frans Kasiepo announced the name Irian at Malino-Ujung Pandang conference on 16 July 2946, almost one year after the declaration of independence on 17 August 1945. However, amidst the international pressure and support for Indonesia’s full independence, the Dutch created a puppet country in Papua on 1 December 1961. Despite that, Indonesia managed to reclaim Papua through diplomatic and military missions, and the island was back to the country on 1 December 1963.
Finally, the Act of Final Choice (Pepera) in 1969 saw the official return of Papua to Indonesia. President Soeharto officiated the name “Irian Jaya” for the new province in 1973. The name stuck until reformation era and the downfall of Soeharto, when people demanded that the name Irian changed back to “Papua”. On 1 January 2000, President Abdurrahman Wahid officially changed Irian Jaya to Papua, just like the name given by the Tidore Kingdom.