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  • Spencer Low

The Portuguese role in the history of Bali

Mystical Bali is often called the Island of the Gods, apparently because of the abundance of temples there. As I was reminded on a recent short holiday there, the population is predominantly Hindu, a reflection of Indonesia's ancient history. As the Hindu-Buddhist empire of Majapahit was breaking up in the 15th century amidst the advance of Islam, aristocrats and the intelligentsia fled from Java to Bali and bolstered the Hindu religion on the island. The last exodus to Bali of artists, dancers and musicians steeped in Hindu culture took place in 1478.

The 1515 map of Francisco Rodrigues showing Bali as "Bllaram" to the east of "A grande ilha de Java"

Bali's first encounter with Europeans took place in 1512, when a Portuguese expedition led by António de Abreu and Francisco Serrão sailed from Malacca in search of the Spice Islands. Afonso de Albuquerque had conquered Goa in 1510 and then Malacca in 1511, each time finding out that the source of many of the spices that they sought was always farther east. Albuquerque entrusted Abreu with the mission of reaching the Moluccas, and four ships including the Santa Catarina set sail from Malacca with Malay pilots. Francisco Rodrigues was a Portuguese pilot on one of the ships, and as an able cartographer he produced what was the first European map showing the island of Java as well as Bali (Bllaram), Lomboquo (Lombok) and Sumbawa (Ssimbawa). The ships docked at Bali but not much is known about what happened then (Bali at the time was splintered into multiple independent kingdoms). The expedition successfully reached the Banda Islands where the Portuguese were able to buy enough nutmeg, mace and cloves to fill their ships. Abreu returned to Malacca in December 1512, starting a tradition of bi-annual trading expeditions to the Moluccas.


As Bali itself was not a significant producer of spices, it was initially of little strategic importance to the Portuguese. In 1585, however, a plan was somehow hatched to build a fort and trading post on the island. The ship sent to do this crashed into the reefs of the Bukit Peninsula in the south of Bali, where today's famous surf spot Uluwatu can be found. Five Portuguese survived and were taken into the service of the Dalem, the King of Gelgel.


12 years later in 1597, a Dutch expedition led by Cornelis de Houtman arrived in Bali. Houtman claimed the island as Jonck Holland, or ‘New Holland’, and this marked the start of another chapter in Balinese history. Interestingly, Houtman was accompanied by a certain Jan the Portuguese, whose Indonesian mother was said to be from Mataram. Jan played the key role of interpreter, which suggests that some of the Dutch crew could speak Portuguese. The Dutch were hospitably received by the very curious local king, and were peppered with questions about world geography. One morning, they were taken by surprise when the king presented Pedro de Noronha, one of the five Portuguese survivors from the 1585 shipwreck. Originally a merchant from Malacca, Noronha shared a bit about his life story and asked the Dutch for the latest news about Portugal. He explained that he had at first been eager to get back to Malacca, but was now happy living in Bali with his local wife and their two children. This might have inspired two members of the Dutch crew, Emanuel Roodenburg and Jacob Claaszoon. When the Dutch expedition left Bali, these two deserted and stayed on in Bali, each marrying a local woman. More than four hundred years later, this reluctance to leave Bali still rings true for many Europeans...


As a postscript, I should add that the Dutch were not able to exert full control over Bali until the 1900s, even though they were the colonial masters of what is today Indonesia. This partly explains the depth of traditional culture on that magical island.

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