400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing

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400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing
The cakalele of Namasawar on Banda. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

IO – After Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen quartered and beheaded the 44 orang kaya or chieftains of the Banda Islands, the VOC burnt and demolished villages and pursued the fleeing inhabitants on most of the islands. Coen blockaded the islands so that the inhabitants could not obtain food or escape. Some did manage to escape to places where they had old trading partners who were sympathetic to them and there they tried to put up a resistance against the VOC but they did not succeed. Some escaped and settled in places such as Goram in Seram, the Kei Islands and Tanimbar where their descendants may still be found today.

What happened in Banda was a horrendous extermination of human life either directly or indirectly by the VOC. Thousands of Bandanese died of starvation, exposure and sickness. Some were so desperate to escape the VOC troops that they leaped to their deaths from cliffs. There is a  cliff on Banda Besar called Karnoepel. The beach below it was once referred to as Pantai Karnoepel or Karnoepel Beach. Des Alwi, the old Orang Lima Besar or Chieftain-in-Chief of the Banda Islands explained when he was alive, that karnoepel derives from the word knorpel meaning cartilage or grist, for so many bones kept being unearthed on that beach through the years. Knorpel is in fact a German word. At the time Germany as a country did not yet exist and the VOC had many men serving from areas now part of Germany.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing
Portrait of Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587-1629). Artist unknown. Photo credit: Unidentified painter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Bandanese who were captured or who surrendered to the VOC were made slaves and mostly sent to Batavia. Later in Batavia 13 orang kaya were quartered and beheaded after being accused of planning to kill Coen, burn Batavia and escape back to Banda. Eventually about 600 Bandanese, mainly women and children were sent back to Banda because the new Dutch plantation owners did not know how to cultivate the nutmeg and needed the Bandanese to show them what to do. Archaeologist Peter Lape who has spent time in Banda on archaeological digs estimates that about 90 percent of the population of Banda were killed, enslaved or deported during Coen’s conquest of the islands. Historians Vincent Loth and Charles Corn estimated that at the time the population was about 15,000 Bandanese. This would mean that roughly a thousand Bandanese remained of the original population.

Most of the surviving Bandanese were as in most wars, women and children. It seems likely that the women of Banda were the ones faced with the task of dealing with a very traumatized population of Banda survivors. If we look at the small clues left behind in the Banda adat and in Bandanese oral traditions it appears that they were determined not only to find healing for the survivors but also to try to find a way to ensure that Banda society and culture endured. Despite the carnage and trauma, the women of Banda were continuing the fight of their men.

The Bandanese did not leave a written tradition. However, there are signs of the role women most likely played. One is the great respect and acknowledgment that the Banda adat gives to women, especially the mama lima or women elders. As will be seen before an important dance begins the dancers beri somba or will give obeisance not to the chieftains or men of the community but to the important women of the community namely, the mama lima and mai-mai (young girls who are dancers and helpers in the adat) . Des Alwi also explained that it is also from the women that permission had to be sought before the important ceremony which precedes the cakalele known as upacara buka kampung or the ceremony to open the village, could be performed for they were the ones that saved the Banda people and the Banda culture.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing
A view of Neira and a smoking Gunung Api as seen from Lontor by Adrianus Johannes Bik in 1821. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

Before going further, it is important to note that in Banda as in most villages and especially tribal communities all over Indonesia there exists what is known as the adat namely, the ancient customs and traditions of the community. Make no mistake however, for the adat is not only for the poor or common people it is also found amongst the nobility in the royal palaces of Indonesia.

In most parts of Indonesia, the adat is an oral tradition and a living process in the sense that it is not static as each generation makes changes to the adat, either adding new elements or discarding some older ones in trying to adjust the adat to new influences, events and technology. In this they perform a balancing act between what is sacred and intrinsic to the adat and therefore may not be changed, and what may be adjusted.

The Banda oral adat traditions have been passed from generation to generation and although the general concept is the same each village has its own slightly different version both of the stories told and in the variations in dances and ceremonies. Not only that but through the passage of time in a village or community the adat itself in that village also slowly changes with each succeeding generation.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing
Des Alwi, former Orang Lima Besar of Banda. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

For this article I am relying on qualitative research conducted via interviews through a period of about 30 years with members of the adat of different villages in Banda who have since died. The most important of these was Des Alwi Abu Bakar, the Orang Lima Besar of Banda until his death in 2010. Des was a very important source of information as he had a direct line of oral traditions and memories through his grandfather, Said (Tjong) Baadila who was Kapitan Orang Lima of Banda (a similar title to Orang Lime Besar) at the turn of the 20th century and through him to his great-great grandfather Said Aidit who was also the Orang Lima of Banda in the 18th century. All three of their graves lie together in the Alwi family plot in the main Muslim cemetery in Neira. This cemetery is a hauntingly, lovely place of small, untidy graves and beautiful old frangipani trees. Wistful and calm, shrouded with memories of the past.

Let us try to imagine the situation of the surviving women in Banda. Their people were very traumatized after the VOC decimated so much of the population and enslaved the survivors. They could obviously not protest to the VOC but had to accept their fate in silence. However, such pain and grief needs a form of expression in order to find healing so, what they did was to change the cakalele dance in Banda by placing the story of the massacre of the 44 chieftains of Banda into the dance.

Most people who know something about the cakalele dance say that it originates from the Moluccas although it is also found all over Papua (such as in the Raja Ampat Islands, for example). In fact, it exists in many parts of eastern Indonesia as in the Minahasa in Sulawesi for example where it is known as tari kabasaran or in Alor which is part of Nusa Tenggara Timor. It is found of course, all over the Moluccas in such varied places as Ternate, Ambon and Seram.

The cakalele is basically a war dance performed to accompany warriors either before or after a battle. In the different areas of Indonesia where it is performed, the cakalele usually consists of 5 to 30 dancers. Des Alwi said that after the Massacre, the women of Banda asked the VOC if they might continue their ancient customs and traditions including the cakalele dance. He said that the VOC granted them this right but with the proviso that the number of dancers be limited. This suggests that before the Massacre the Banda cakalele very likely consisted of more than 5 dancers.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing
The gong Sembilan. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

The cakalele however, had elements in it already from ancient times when it really was still a war dance that included spirit possession or trance dancing and ancestor worship. In Ternate the word caka means spirit and lele means rampage. The dance is also said to be a form of honouring and respecting the spirits of the ancestors and thereby obtaining the blessings and guidance of the ancestors. Even in ancient times however, it was more than a dance to ignite in men the courage and spirit to fight, for in some places it was also used to bring back the warriors from the wars. It is apparently not the only place in Indonesia that has used trance dancing to help soldiers or warriors deal with post-conflict traumatic stress. All these elements would have been available to the women of Banda who survived the VOC depopulation of the islands to help them bring healing to what must have been a deeply traumatized people.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing
The hulubalang tengah of Ratu, Andi Manuhutu. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana(private collection)

As in other areas, in Banda the cakalele was also originally a war dance. However, only in Banda was the cakalele later transformed from a war dance into a dance drama in which the Bandanese told the story of the Massacre, making the Banda cakalele unique and unusual. The Banda cakalele is also considered to be a more aristocratic form of the cakalele compared to the cakalele performed elsewhere as can be seen from the more elaborate costumes in Banda and from the fact that it is not just a war dance but has evolved into a dance drama. Also, the musical instruments used in Banda are more sophisticated. Whereas in the other cakalele dances the musical instruments used for the dance are tifa drums, bamboo flutes and conch shells (that are blown), in Banda the cakalele uses a form of gamelan known as the gong sembilan or nine gongs and the tifa drum. It is an indication of the prosperous society that Banda once was because of their monopoly of the nutmeg trade.

There are eight adat villages in the Banda Islands and of these only two follow the Moluccan patasiwa tradition of nine. The remainder of the villages follow the patalima traditions where everything of importance is calculated in fives. So, for example in Seram, five antique Chinese plates are paid as bride price and 5 meters of red cloth are paid as punishment for an infringement of the adat.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing
A kapiten darat from the Ratu cakalele on Banda. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection).

In the patalima villages of Banda the cakalele dance consists of five dancers. At the centre stands the hulubalang tengah. He is the commander and represents the orang kaya or chieftains of Banda. He leads the dance. In the past the dancer would most likely have been one of the orang kayas or his descendants. Des Alwi explained that after the Massacre and deportations there were probably no orang kaya left on Banda. Only children or very young boys remained from the orang kaya families. So, only young boys were available to dance the part of the hulubalang. Consequently, the hulubalang is usually the smallest dancer.

The costumes may vary a little from village to village in Banda so the description here is of the costumes of the cakalele of Ratu village. The hulubalang wears a cloth headdress which is similar to headdresses worn by cakalele dancers in other parts of the Moluccas. However, the Ratu hulubalang dancer always has a black, long tailed bird-of-paradise attached to his headdress. He wears a black velvet European style jacket and pantaloons that reach to his knees. He holds a pedang or machete and a black shield known as a sawalaku.

On either side of the hulubalang stands the commander of the sea forces or kapitan laut and the commander of the land forces or kapitan darat. They wear European style 16th or 17th century helmets on each of which is a yellow bird-of-paradise. These are known as kapsete. In other areas outside of Banda cakalele dancers do not wear such helmets but simply the cloth headdress similar to the one worn by the hulubalang tengah in Banda. The kapitans would have been the champions and are always the largest and strongest looking dancers. In Ratu village they also wear European style jackets and pantaloons however, these are made of satin and cotton. They carry lances with cassowary feathers and pedangs or machetes.

400th anniversary of the Banda Massacre Part III: The cakalele, becomes a dance of healing
A milisi from the Ratu cakalele. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana (private collection)

On either side of the kapitans stand the milisi or militia men. They wear cloth headdresses with yellow birds-of-paradise attached to them. Their clothing is similar to that of the kapitans and like the hulubalang they carry machetes and shields

When the costumes of the Banda cakalele dancers are compared to those of cakalele dancers from other villages, it becomes clear why the Banda cakalele is considered the most aristocratic. Although the costumes of the Minahasa cakalele is quite elaborate, in many other areas cakalele dancers simply wear grass skirts or loin cloths. Also, the bird-of –paradise is a symbol of prosperity and power and the Banda cakalele may not be performed without this accessory.

There is another very important element of the Banda cakalele dance drama that should be noted as it plays an important role in the psychological healing and survival of Banda culture. It is this:

Behind the cakalele dancers stand five men carrying bamboos with branches and leaves to which are tied pieces of cloth or rags and these bamboos remain throughout the dance. They represent the body parts of the 44 orang kayas of Banda who were beheaded and quartered by the VOC and whose body parts were then impaled on bamboos. According to Des Alwi when he was a boy his grandfather Said (Tjong) Baadila who became the Kapitan Orang Lima of Banda in 1909, used to tell him that when he was a boy his grandfather Said Aidit who was Kapitan Orang Lima in the 18th century, told him that when he was a boy the bits of cloth tied to the bamboos of the cakelele were still from the original clothing of the 44 orang kaya of Banda massacred in 1621. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Next week’s article discusses how the women used the cakalele dance and rituals for Banda’s healing and psychological implications.

If you enjoyed reading this article you may also enjoy by the same writer:

Part I: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-i-the-bandanese-and-meaning-of-nutmeg-for-europe/

Part II: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-ii-the-role-of-jan-pieterszoon-coen-and-the-voc/

Part IV: https://observerid.com/400th-anniversary-of-the-banda-massacre-part-iv-the-healing-and-survival-of-a-society-and-culture-after-the-massacre/