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    NIAS HISTORY

History of Nias Island

Early history

Warrior chieftain from South Nias (Tropen Museum)

Warrior chieftain from South Nias (Tropen Museum)

Nias Island is positioned near one of the main cross roads of South East Asia and has a long history of interacting and trading with other cultures. The first written account of Nias comes from a Persian merchant who in 851 AD visited Nias Island, noticing that the local people wore lots of beautiful gold jewellery and had a penchant for headhunting.

Niasans sold their produce to passing traders in exchange for precious metals and textiles. With the emergence of the slave trade in the eleventh century, peaceful trading and cultural exchanges became rare. Slave traders, mainly from Aceh, regularly raided Nias Island in search of slaves. Nias people withdrew from the coasts and build their villages in the interior on top of fortified hilltops.

When slaves became a commodity, the chieftains of Nias also became involved in the trade, selling captured enemies in exchange for gold. For a long time the people of Nias lived in a state of perpetual conflict, defending themselves against slave raiders or engaging in intertribal warfare.

In between the fighting, Nias warriors often practiced headhunting. Heads were vital components in ceremonies, such as the funeral of an important chief.

Colonialism

When the VOC (Dutch East India Company) arrived in Indonesia, Nias Island was known to the Dutch as source of slaves exported to Aceh and Padang. In 1669 the VOC started trading with Nias Island. Initially they traded only in produce, but as this was not profitable enough they soon got engaged in the slave trade. Slaves from Nias were bought by the Dutch to be used on farms owned by the VOC in Sumatra. In 1693 the VOC established its first base on Nias, in Gunung Sitoli, where they built a harbour and store houses.

In 1740 the VOC left Nias for good as the companies influence in Southeast Asia was veining. 1776 the English arrived and took over the trading post at Gunung Sitoli but soon abandoned it as it was not profitable enough. Eventually the Dutch assumed control of the island again in 1825. Their control only reached the immediate area around Gunung Sitoli and there were many uprisings and revolts against the Dutch, particularly in the south.

The first missionary, E.L. Denninger arrived in Nias in 1865. He is widely credited with bringing Christianity to Nias. The first 30 years saw very slow progress, as it was almost impossible to travel safely out of Gunung Sitoli. In 1900 the Dutch sent a large army contingent to Nias to finally secure the areas outside of Gunung Sitoli. Full control of the whole island was only established in 1914, one of the last areas to be ‘pacified’ by the Dutch in all of Indonesia. From this point onwards, Christianity spread rapidly across the island, and particularly so in the North.

One of the lasting impacts of Dutch colonialism was the breaking up of the traditional village structure. Traditionally Nias villages where built on hilltops for defensive purposes. The Dutch constructed a road network on the island and decreed that local people had to live next to these roads. This had two purposes; goods from outlying districts could effectively be transported back to the capital of Gunung Sitoli and Dutch soldiers could easily reach villages in case of rebellions.

World War II

Japanese WW II Bunker overlooking Toyolawa Beach on the North Nias west-coast.

Japanese WW II Bunker overlooking Toyolawa Beach on the North Nias west-coast.

During World War II Japan occupied Indonesia, known then as the Dutch East Indies. Nias Island was taken by the Japanese without a fight in April 1942. Initially, most Indonesians welcomed the Japanese as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. This sentiment changed as people on Nias had to endure many hardships to support the Japanese war effort. Bunkers and fortifications were built around the island in preparation for an allied invasion. Some very interesting war relics can be seen to this day on the west coast of North Nias. Ambukha hill was used as a look out for the west coast, and the Japanese constructed a command centre here. A few kilometres to the north two bunkers were built overlooking the expected allied invasion site at Toyolawa beach. When Japan surrendered in August 1945, it took several weeks before the news that the war had ended reached the island.

Independence

Indonesian Independence was declared 2 days after Japans unconditional surrender. Due to its isolation, it took 7 weeks for the news to reach Nias. Local Nias leaders immediately declared loyalty to the new Indonesian republic. As there was no Dutch on the Island at the time Nias was spared from the fighting that took place in many other places of Indonesia. During 1947 a Dutch ship bombarded Gunung Sitoli and some other places on Nias, but there was no ground fighting.

After Indonesian Independence, Nias Island was largely ignored by the central government in Jakarta. It was the poorest and least developed regency of North Sumatra Province. No real effort was made by the central government to develop the island.  The interior of the Island had very little infrastructure and many villages could only be reached by foot.

Tourism

First tourists on Nias were surfers

First tourists on Nias were surfers

In 1975 some Australian surfers came to Sorake in the south of Nias and found one of the best surfing waves in the world. This was the beginning of tourism on Nias, but due to the remoteness of the island and lack of infrastructure it never really developed beyond being a destination for hard-core surfers.  For a while in the 80’s and 90’s small cruise ships visited Nias, and passengers were taken to traditional villages in the south. As the rest of Indonesia, Nias experienced a small boom in the 90’s and some infrastructure projects took place on the Island. But the North was still a very remote area, with few functioning roads. Development on Nias came to a stand till during the Asian financial crisis of 1998, as flights and ferries to the island were cancelled and the budding tourism industry stopped in its tracks. Nias was largely a forgotten backwater of Indonesia until two natural disasters changed the Island forever.

 

2004 Tsunami & 2005 Earthquake

Exposed coral reef at Tureloto in North Nias. The landmass in this part of the island was uplifted 2 to 2.9 meters during the 2005 earthquake.

Exposed coral reef at Tureloto in North Nias. The landmass in this part of the island was uplifted 2 to 2.9 meters during the 2005 earthquake.

The Boxing Day tsunami hit Nias Island on the 26th of December 2004. Situated on the northern tip of the island, North Nias Regency bore the brunt of the destruction. Many houses along the coast were swept away and fishermen lost their boats. But only three months later a much worse disaster would be inflicted on Nias.

On the 28th of March 2005 a massive 8.7 earthquake struck just north of the Island. Many buildings collapsed resulting in more than 800 dead and thousands injured. Infrastructure across the island was severely damaged and many communities were completely cut off.

Apart from the obvious loss of life and destruction, the earthquake also changed the landscape of the Island. Due to the land uplift caused by the earthquake the whole island was tilted on its side. On the northwest corner of the island uplifts of up to 2.9 meters were recorded. This caused dramatic changes to the coastline; islands increased up to ten times in size and new islands appeared where none had been before. On the west coast the waterline was now between 100 – 300 meters further out, while on the east coast the waterline had moved inland a few meters. Some beaches disappeared completely while new ones were created elsewhere. The effects of the land uplift can clearly be seen to this day, especially on the west coast where some pre-earthquake beaches are now several hundred meters inland.

Rebuilding Nias

The months after the earthquake were very difficult for the people of Nias. Every single bridge had collapsed and the ports were badly damaged. The majority of the population were completely cut off and were stuck in their villages without services and supplies. Repeated aftershocks terrified the population and many fled their homes along the coast. Many of these people ended up living in camps in the interior of the island under very primitive conditions. Others managed to trek to Gunung Sitoli, and from there evacuated to the mainland.

New and old bridges across Muzoi river. The old one was destroyed during the 2005 earthquake.

New and old bridges across Muzoi river. The old one was destroyed during the 2005 earthquake.

One of 1500 Canadian Red Cross houses built across North Nias.

One of 1500 Canadian Red Cross houses built across North Nias.

Due to the Boxing Day Tsunami three months earlier there was a huge international emergency operation underway in nearby Aceh province. When the impact of the earthquake in Nias became known, disaster relief organisations were already at hand to help. Emergency personal from many countries quickly travelled to Nias to provide assistance.  Once the immediate rescue operations were over by the end of 2005 the reconstruction-phase began. Between 2006 and 2010 many international and Indonesian organisations put in an enormous effort to re-build Nias.  Organisations like the Canadian Red Cross, Acted and Caritas were based in North Nias and sent permanent staff to live and work there. This was the first time foreigners had stayed in North Nias since the Dutch and missionaries left. Funds and technical assistance flowed into North Nias like never before. Working side-by-side with foreigners and Indonesians, local people became exposed to the outside world. As a result North Nias took a great leap forward in its development.

North Nias today

During a nationwide drive for greater regional autonomy in Indonesia, it was decided to split the administration of Nias Island into four regencies and one city. North Nias Regency was inaugurated on 26 May 2009. This meant that many important decisions would be made locally rather than in far off Jakarta or Medan

As a result of the massive rebuilding effort, the infrastructure in North Nias is better today than it ever was before the earthquake. One of the most remote corners of Indonesia is now well and truly connected to the rest of the country, and it is possible to travel comfortably from Medan in Sumatra to Lahewa in North Nias in a few hours.

Young people now have access to better education on Nias as well as on the mainland. Many people who left the island after the earthquake are now returning with education and work experiences from other parts of Indonesia, helping North Nias to improve and develop.  North Nias is still lagging behind in many areas, but since the earthquake and the rebuilding, the northern part of the island is now catching up with the rest of Indonesia.

Although still lagging behind the rest of Indonesia, young people on Nias today are healthier and better educated than ever before.

Although still lagging behind the rest of Indonesia, young people on Nias today are healthier and better educated than ever before.

For more in-depth information visit the History page of the Nias Heritage Museum.

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