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About Sulawesi

Once known as the Celebes and an important part of the “Spice Isles” along with the Moulccas and other neighbouring island groups, Sulawesi is a largely mountainous island with a tremendous expanse of coastline and a rich variety of peoples.


The  "K" shape of the main island developed over 15 million years ago as the eastern portion that is the “<” of the ‘K” separated from New Guinea and collided with the western portion bending it in the middle.  

Over 20% of the island is above 1000 metres and the highest mountain is Mt Rantepao (3450 M) in Tana Toraja, South Sulawesi.  There are 11 active volcanoes in the north where the seabed north of Toli Toli and east of Minahasa is sliding under the northern arm of Sulawesi. Other active fault lines stretch from Palu south to Koro, through Lake Matana and near Luwuk.

The total land area of 227,000 sq km (a little smaller than England and Scotland combined) is divided into fsix provinces. No point on the mainland is more than 90km from the sea and most is within 50km. The provinces include more than 110 smaller islands that are larger than and the northernmost island is only 90 km south of the Philippines and the southernmost island is 2000 km south of that.

Coral reefs occur around most of Sulawesi and, while much of it has been  damaged by bombing and other destructive practices, there are a number of remote and largely undisturbed areas around Tukang Besi and the Togians.

Sulawesi has considerable mineral resources, with large gold deposits in the north and one of the world’s largest nickel mines at Soroako on the shores of Lake Matana in Central Sulawesi. Oil and gas fields have been discovered but are as yet largely unexploited. Buton island has Asia’s largest deposit of natural asphalt.

Flora and Fauna

Alfred Russell Wallace was the first to observe that the Indonesian archipelago is inhabited by two distinct sets of wildlife. The “Wallace line” as the boundary between these two very different sets of wildlife is known, runs between Borneo and Sulawesi and between Bali and Lombok. To the west of the line one will find orang utan, elephant, rhino and tiger while none of these animals are found to the east of the line.

Sulawesi is noted for its peculiar fauna.  Of 127 native mammals, 62% are unique to Sulawesi.  Excluding the 62 species of bats, this number rises to 98%. Some 34% of Sulwesi’s non-migratory birds are unique, the second highest proportion in Asia after New Guinea.

The largest mammal is the dwarf buffalo. There is also a unique “pig deer”, which is a distant relative of the hippo, has a snout and tusks like a pig but hooves that are not cloven and a more complex stomach more like a cow than a pig. There are four tail-less monkeys that probably made it across from Borneo many years ago and two species of cuscus.


As no land bridge existed between Sulawesi and the Asian continent during the last ice age it appears the humans arrived in Sulawesi only some 30,000 years ago.

These hunter-gatherers largely gave way to “immigrants” of Southern Mongoloid origin some 4000 years ago.  The present inhabitants speak Austronesian languages introduced via Taiwan and the Philippines at that time.

Through bronze and iron ages, trade with other Asian neighbours increased as evidenced by 2000 yr. old Vietnamese artefacts found on the island but Sulawesi was not as influenced by the Indians as was Java or Bali and there are no temples or shrines.

In more modern times the peoples of Sulawesi became grouped into feudal kingdoms the most powerful of which in the 15th century was the Bugis kingdom of Luwu known to be great seafarers. Luwu’s economy was based on trade of resins, gold, slaves and nickel and iron and her capital at Palopo.

The Bugis king of Bone defeated Luwu in the 16th century and subsequently Bone fell to Gowa in 1644 century.  The king of Gowa, whose capital was Makassar, had embraced Islam around 1605 and proceeded to forcefully convert the other major Bugis kingdoms (except Luwu, which had accepted Islam in 1603) and Islam became the “official religion.”

In the 1650’s the fight between the Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish over lucrative trading routes, came to Sulawesi. The Spanish established a fort in Manado in 1617 and their attempts to introduce Catholicism led to the local chiefs asking the Dutch for aid.  By 1657 the Dutch had taken control of North Sulawesi as well as the Moluccas. 

The importance of Makassar as a transhipment port in the spice trade had grown through the 16th century and by 1641 the English, Portuguese; Danish and Indian Gujarati factors had their spice trading headquarters here. The Dutch knew they needed to break Makassar and formed an alliance with the Bugis king of Bone and attacked Makassar in 1666.  In 1667, European traders were banned from the city and the Dutch given the fort at Ujung Pandang. The Makassarese refused to accept defeat and fighting broke out again in 1669, when the city of Makassar was destroyed. The Dutch fort was unsuccessfully besieged in 1739 and yet another rebellion took place in 1778 when Makassar was again devastated.

By the late 18th century Dutch influence in the region had weakened and for a short time between 1811 and 1816 the British occupied Makassar and Manado. Even after the Dutch returned they still actually rules only in Makassar and Manado until the early 20th century when they resolved to subjugate the entire island resulting in heavy fighting particularly against the fierce Bugis, who were finally defeated in 1906 with the loss of many lives. Even the remote Tana Toraja was captured at that time opening up the inland areas to protestant missionaries who had not had much success among the coastal Islamic populations. Conversion to Christianity started in Toraja in 1913 but had little success for more than 20 years.

The 35 years of Dutch rule saw the construction of roads and irrigation works and a central administration was established.

The Japanese invasion of Sulawesi started in January of 1942 when both the Dutch community and the Indonesian independence committees (some of whom had taken control pre-empting the Japanese arrival) were swept aside.  Australian troops arrived in Makassar on September 21 , 1945 to accept the Japanese surrender one month after Sukarno had “declared” Indonesian Independence.

Fighting broke out when the Dutch took back administrative control in January 1946 culminating in one of the bloodiest Dutch campaigns anywhere in Indonesia. More than 3000 people were killed by Dutch troops in the first three months of 1947.

While the Dutch eventually handed control to Indonesia on 17th August, 1950, most of Sulawesi was wracked by struggles for power and money and the Government of Indonesia controlled only the main cities. Various rumblings through the 50’s resulted in martial law being declared in 1957. Manado was bombed by the Indonesian military in February 1957 and invaded on June 26th but resistance in the North did not finally end until 1961.

Resistance in the South was finally overcome in 1965 and with the incoming “New Order” Suharto Government in 1966 thus began the first period of peace in Sulawesi since 1941.

The People

Over half of the approximately 14 million population inhabit the cities, fishing villages and fertile plains and valleys of the South while around 1 million cluster around Manado and the adjacent Minahasa district in the North.

Makassar is the largest city with a population or around 1.2 –1.5 million.

Sulawesi has a rich ethnic, cultural and religious diversity with scores of distinctly different groups. The most well known ethnic groups include the Bugis of South Sulawesi with population of around 4 million, the Minahasans of North Sulawesi ( 1 million) Makassarese and Mandarese (half a million each) and the Torajan (about 350,000).

While the National language, Bahasa Indonesia, is very widely spoken and official language taught in schools, the local languages are widely spoken at home and bear no resemblance to Bahasa Indonesia, and in many cases to each other.

The Sulawesi population is approximately 80% Sunni Muslim, 17% Christian and 3% Buddhist and other.  Islam in Indonesia is typically very flexible with the many local historical practices associates with the ancestors, spirits of the earth, rice and sea, and various rites of healing, marriage and the blessing of homes, babies, boats etc. 

The Christian Torajan people also incorporate many ancient rituals and beliefs within their religion as exemplified by the elaborate death rituals performed in this unique part of the world.


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