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  • Spencer Low

Living traces of Portuguese influence in the Celebes, Indonesia

I just spent a week holidaying with my family in Manado on the northern tip of Sulawesi, the fourth largest island in Indonesia. Aside from great snorkelling, lots of volcanoes and interesting wildlife like the macaca nigra and spectral tarsier (the world's smallest primate), there were some interesting cultural discoveries for anyone interested in the Portuguese presence in Asia.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! Notice the Portuguese influence?

The first Europeans to come to this part of Indonesia were Portuguese sailors led by Simão de Abreu in 1523. They, and others after them, came from the Moluccas looking for gold, and named the landmass Celebes based on the local name, Sulawesi. The body of water ringed by Sulawesi to the south, Borneo to the west, and the Philippines' Mindanao island to the northeast is still called the Celebes Sea today.

The proximity to the southern part of the Philippines explains why the Spanish were also active in Sulawesi for a while. After much wrangling over the Spice Islands, the Portuguese King John III agreed to pay the Spanish King (and Holy Roman Emperor) Charles V 350,000 gold ducats for the latter to relinquish his claims over the Moluccas with the Treaty of Zaragoza signed on 22 April 1529. Technically, the treaty meant that not just Sulawesi, but even the Philippines were part of the Portuguese domain.

Whereas the Portuguese used the term Celebes with the tonic stress on the middle syllable, the Spanish for some reason prefer Célebes with the tonic stress on the first syllable. This explains why there are two ways of pronouncing Celebes in English: se-LEE-biz or SELL-a-beez. It's interesting to note that the Indonesians themselves pronounce the word with a light stress on the middle syllable.

Despite building a number of forts (a few of which can still be visited), the Portuguese were displaced in the 17th century from what is today Indonesia by the Dutch, who also seized Malacca. Although this marked the end of Portugal's control over the spice trade, the Portuguese cultural influence still runs deep including the national language, Bahasa Indonesia. Based on the Malay language, Bahasa Indonesia shares the same long list of common words borrowed from the Portuguese (check out my post on this topic).


From a culinary perspective, a famous Manado dessert is Klappertaart, meaning "coconut tart" in Dutch, which I can recommend having tried it myself. However, one of the breakfast items I saw on offer was rissoles, which came from Portuguese rissóis.


Spreading the Christian faith was not one of the priorities of the Dutch, as least not until much later, so it's remarkable that the north of Sulawesi around Manado has a large Christian majority. The rest of the island, like the country of Indonesia overall, is Muslim-majority. As you can tell from the photo above, the Indonesian word for Christmas is Natal, exactly the same as in Portuguese (and not Navidad as in Spanish). I wouldn't have realized this if not for the abundant signs with Selamat Natal (Merry Christmas) all over the city.


I'll now take the opportunity to wish readers of this blog the second part of the signs for Selamat Natal, which was dan Tahun Baru. Happy New Year to all of you and see you in 2023! Feliz Ano Novo!

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