The gentleman sitting opposite me was rheumy-eyed, well over 80, with a kindly face. He was wearing brown trousers in thick polyester, a nylon print shirt – half-bold geometric, half-floral – and a black velvet fez. The effect, very 1960s, was reinforced by the plate of pink iced buns that he thrust towards me. “Here you go, my dear. Have a cake.” It wasn’t what I had expected of tea with an Indonesian sultan.
La Ode Muhammad Jafar had been Sultan of Buton for four days, stepping into an office that had been dormant for more than half a century. All over Indonesia, after decades of slumber, local sultanates and kingdoms are being kissed back to life by a political decentralisation that has led to a frenzy of identity creation.
Buton hangs off the southeastern limb of Sulawesi, a misshapen octopus that is Indonesia’s fifth-largest land mass. It is itself a sizeable island, established as an independent kingdom in 1290 under Queen Wakaka, who traced her ancestry to Genghis Khan via Kublai Khan. And it is home to what is said to be the biggest fort in southeast Asia.
Indonesia’s 13,500 or so islands are dotted with forts. Most were built by Dutch merchants to keep other Europeans out of the profitable spice trade. Buton’s fort is exceptional because it was built not by European interlopers but by the indigenous sultans as long ago as the 1630s (the fifth successor to Queen Wakaka converted to Islam).
Locals use the Indonesian word kraton to refer to the fort. That causes confusion domestically; in Java and elsewhere in Indonesia, kraton tends to refer to the sultan’s residence, a palace, more or less, though several of those I’ve seen are far from palatial. But here in Bau-Bau, the main town in Buton, the kraton is a whole hilltop town enclosed by nearly 3km of forbidding walls of dead coral bricks that bulge into lookout towers with every contour of the land. Once essential for spotting the pirates who infested these waters, the towers now provide spectacular views over the busy harbour far below.
Modern Indonesia is notorious for its poor infrastructure. Though it’s the world largest island nation, it has poorer access to ports than landlocked countries such as Zimbabwe, according to the World Economic Forum. The 17th-century fort at Buton suggests that it was not ever thus. It is a hell of an engineering job; the walls spring up to 8m high from a sheer rock face, and they are well-maintained. With sturdy shoes to protect against the scratchy coral, you can walk a long way around the ramparts. Directly below, on the outer side of the walls, goats snatch at vegetation and plastic bags. Beyond them the hill plunges, then flattens into the new town. In the distance, the harbour shimmers under a glowering rainy-season sky.
British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace, passing this way in 1856, described “Boutong” as “a large island, high, woody and populous”, which extended sovereignty over much of the surrounding territory. Typically, though, he was more interested in the natural qualities of the Buton bay than in the politics of its lands.
“After dark, it was a beautiful sight to look down on our rudders, from which rushed eddying streams of phosphoric light gemmed with whirling sparks of fire.”
Though I, too, gloried in the sight of that same phosphorescence as I arrived in Buton on a ferry from central Sulawesi, I was more interested in reports in the local newspaper about the revival of the sultanate.
But no one down in Bau-Bau’s new town seemed to share that interest. When I mentioned it to a motorcycle parts dealer that I met at a coconut juice stall close to the port, I was met with crashing indifference. “Oh, ya, I heard about that,” he said with a shrug. “Games rich people play, eh?” He had no idea where I might find the new sultan.
Up in the kraton, I thought I’d have better luck. Here, people get on with their lives in wooden gingerbread houses built on stilts. The palette is as pleasing as the form: one house might be bright pink with green shutters, its neighbour navy, with arches in midnight blue and carved balustrades in turquoise. Ubiquitous satellite dishes and motorcycles aside, life in this part of town doesn’t seem to have changed that much since the sultanate died out with its previous incumbent in 1960.
Walking with some dignity along one of the neatly-swept streets inside the kraton was a man dressed in the brightly-striped, ankle-length tunic once typical of these parts. He carried an ivory-handled cane and an air of authority; he’d be sure to direct me to the new sultan, I thought. “Try the old sultan’s house,” he said. And he pointed me to a wooden house that was home to the previous holder of that office, who died in 1960. It was not much compared with the sprawling compounds of the sultanates of central Java but it was the only house in the old town with two floors.
The house is now a private museum. As I climbed the stairs, an elderly gentleman emerged. His back was slightly hunched, the effect of having one leg much shorter than the other. The stumpier leg withered to a half-foot that bent not at the ankle but only at the toes. It was a disability I don’t recall seeing anywhere else but I’d by now seen it four times, in and around the kraton area, which may say something about the bloodlines in these parts. This man was a self-appointed caretaker of the museum, the son of one of the retainers of the old sultan.
The house is a delicious period-piece, a hymn to the provincial elite of post-independence Indonesia. Women with bobbed haircuts and Jackie O sunglasses are frozen on the walls in black and white, laughing in front of the grand palaces of Europe; they jostle for space with urbane, Brylcreemed men shaking hands with the fathers of independence, Dutch governors, the great and the good. Ornate tea-sets sit in glass-fronted cabinets. Velveteen armchairs are graced with antimacassars, crocheted protection from greasy hair, which draw their name from the trading port of Makassar, on Sulawesi’s southwestern limb, which supplied coconut oil and other conditioning ingredients.
In display cases, beautiful silver betel nut sets were jumbled with porcelain figurines of shepherdesses, spears, shields, kris daggers, coins. I stopped to look at a Portuguese-style helmet, a child’s reproduction in golden plastic. The caretaker took it out and handed it to me and my arms strained unexpectedly; it weighed about 8lb. It was a 16th-century original, taken from a Portuguese seafarer. “It’s a shame, isn’t it?” said the caretaker. “We took it to Java for the All-Indonesia Kraton Festival, and they spray-painted it to make it match their cardboard ones.”
The caretaker hobbled around after me as I noted down genealogies and pored over letters from forgotten politicians. I felt badly, and said I was happy to visit the museum by myself. “No, no, it’s my pleasure. I love having visitors,” he said with a beaming smile. “Sometimes I sit here for two or three days and no one comes.”
Among the independent kingdoms and sultanates that made up island southeast Asia for much of the region’s history, Buton was significant because it dominated an important sea lane. It was unusual, too, for being rather democratic. A council of elders could replace an overweening sultan. Twelve out of Buton’s 38 rulers were replaced because they got too big for their boots, and sultan number eight was actually hanged. In the end, though, Buton went the way of most of the archipelago’s kingdoms: their leaders signed up for the “protection” of the Dutch colonial government that spread grasping tentacles from its base in Java. Though they were allowed to wear the costumes of office, the sultans now danced to a tune called by white bureaucrats.
The fathers of Indonesian independence loathed these marionette rulers, and allowed them to wither. As ageing sultans died in the second half of the 20th century, the sultanates died with them. Only the two sultanates of Central Java managed to hang on, mostly because of the revolutionary credentials of the Sultan Hamengkubuwono X of Yogyakarta. When the old sultan died in 1988, I went to his son’s coronation. He didn’t seem that revolutionary, this businessman who later tried to become the presidential candidate for the conservative Golkar party; to this day, he keeps a posse of albino dwarfs in court for good luck.
He was crowned around the middle of President Suharto’s 32 years in iron-fisted power. Since Suharto’s fall from grace in 1998, Indonesia has undergone a radical decentralisation that has fertilised a revival of sultanates and kingdoms all over Indonesia. At the tail-end of the Suharto years, when the Sultan of Surakarta invited his neighbour Hamengkubuwono XI over for an All-Indonesia Festival of Kratons, it was a largely local affair. By 2012, when it was the newly revived sultanate of Buton’s turn to host the festival, 120 sultans or kings showed up, each wanting to promote the glories of their micro-kingdoms.
Interestingly, it was not the sultan – an avuncular retired judge whom I finally found holding court with a group of local worthies on the veranda of his modest bungalow in the lower town – who presided over the kraton festival. It was the local mayor, whose nose had been put out of joint by the council of elders’ choice of sultan – the mayor had wanted a man who backed his own political party. But the mayor, as a local politician, could not pass up the photo opportunity afforded by hundreds of rulers parading in their finery, many twirling golden umbrellas, along with thousands of retainers in imitation Portuguese helmets – with just one, from Buton, sweating under the weight of the real thing.
Elizabeth Pisani is author of ‘Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation’, published by Granta (UK) and WW Norton (US)
Photographs: R Heru Hendarto, Elizabeth Pisani