A French perspective of 17th-century Makassar

Nestled among the collection of antiquarian books at ISEAS Library is a small nondescript volume titled Description historique du royaume de Macaçar: divisee en trois livres (“Description historique”). A travelogue by Nicolas Gervaise, it was originally published in French in 1688 and later translated into English and published in 1701 as An historical description of the Kingdom of Macasar in the East-Indies, in three books (“An historic description”). At 334 years, this volume from 1688 is one of the oldest items in the ISEAS Library collection.

Title page of ISEAS Library’s copy of Description historique. On the flyleaf: “Ex Biblioteca Ferdinand Lampiney D. De Pugey”

Makassar is located on the southwestern part of the island of Sulawesi (earlier also known as Celebes), and is now a major city in Indonesia. The author of this volume is one of the many Europeans in the 17th to early 20th centuries who penned descriptions and travelogues of cities and regions in Southeast Asia.

Born in Paris, Gervaise (c. 1662-1729) was a French Catholic missionary who had been attached to the mission in Siam for four years where he met two princes of Makassar [i]. His account of his time there, Histoire Naturelle et Politique du Royaume de Siam, was published the same year as his work on Makassar [ii].

On his return to France, he was accompanied by the two princes, named in his book as Loüis Daën Rourou and Loüis Dauphin Daën Toulôlo [iii]. While it is unknown if Gervaise actually travelled to Makassar, it seems likely that these princes were sources for at least some of the information in his book [iv].

Gervaise refers to the main city of Makassar as Mancasara (as it is known in the Makassarese language) and describes it as ‘certainly the largest, the most beautiful, and the best fortify’d’ [v]. The importance of Makassar’s trading port, ‘Jompandam’ or Ujung Pandang, was already well-established in that period:

“On ne sçauroit s’imaginer combine ce Port leur eft avantageux, & les richesses qu’ils y amassent; car outre l’Or, la Soye, le Coton fin, le bois d’Hebene, de Sandale, de Calambouc, de Calamba & d’autres pour les teintures, que les habitans leur donnent à fort bon marché, & souvent en échange pour des draps d’Europe, & du fer qui leur manque: c’est encore un entrepost tres avantageux pour leur commerce, à cause du voisinage de plusieurs Etats, avec lesquels ils peuvent trafiquer tres-utilement.”

(p. 57, Description historique)

“It cannot be imagin’d how advantageous this Port is to ‘em, and what Riches they heap together there: For besides the Gold, the Silk, the fine Cottons, the Ebony, Sanders, Calambouc, Calamba, and other Woods that are proper for dying, which the Inhabitants sell ‘em very cheap, and frequently exchange for European cloth, and Iron which they want, ‘tis also a Post most advantageous for their Trade, by reason of the Neighbourhood of it to several States, with which they traffick very beneficially.”

(p. 30, An Historical Description.)

Fort Rotterdam in 2008. The fort is situated on the site of Ujung Pandang, an earlier Makassarese fortification[vi]. Photo by Gita Kurnia on flickr.

Gervaise gives a brief history of the Makassarese Sultanate and intrigues between the Makassarese court, the Dutch, and the Bugis that eventually led to the presence of a Makassarese community, including the above-mentioned two princes, in Siam [vii]. An account of the conflict between the Makassarese, the Dutch, the Portuguese, and the Bugis after the arrival of the Dutch in the mid-17th century is captured in the book [viii], with a siege of the port described as follows:

“…Two of the biggest Ships belonging to that Fleet [carrying the Flag of Holland], stood in with the Shoar, and landed some Companies of Batavian souldiers, who had Orders to joyn the Rebels of the Province of Bouguis. They were follow’d by five or six more, that notwithstanding the Resistance of the Portugueses, fell upon the Fortress. It was guarded indeed by Portugueses and Macasarians that wanted neither Resolution nor Courage, but could not long hold out against so great a Number of Enemies. …”

(p. 39, An Historical Description.)

In addition to commercial interests, there was also a religious aspect to the competition for Makassar, notably between the Portuguese Jesuits in China and the Dutch:

“’Tis true that the Jesuits were sensibly concern’d at the Defeat of the Portugueses, not only for the loss of any merchandize of their own, but because they saw themselves disappointed in all their hopes of settling the Roman Catholick Religion in Macasar, and for that they saw the Dutch would take the advantage of theirs and the Absence of the Portugeses, and make themselves Masters of the Kings favour.”

(p. 33, An Historical Description)

Although the French were not heavily involved in this morass, the English translation of Gervaise’s work had some less-than-complimentary words for the Dutch (who were based in Batavia at the time), as can be seen in the last line of the book’s summary page:

Summary page from the 1971 reprint of the English translation of 1701.

Gervaise also presents detailed descriptions of particular aspects of the geography, customs and religion of Makassar, including the flora and fauna of the region. It is a sign of how far globalisation has come since then that this was Gervaise’s description of a fruit that is now so well-loved the world over:

“Les Figues y sont beaucoup plus sucrées qu’en France. L’homme le plus robuste ne l’est pas assez pour en porter une seile grappe, ou paquet. Les Portugais les appllent Bananes, & les gens du Païs, onty: ells ne song guere plus grosses que nos figues blanches, mais beaucoup plus longues; il s’en trouve qui ont prés d’un pied de long.”

(p. 31-32, Description historique)

“Their Figs are sweeter and fuller of Sugar than those in France. A very strong Man can hardly carry one Cluster. The Portugueses call ‘em Bananes, and the Natives of the Country, Onty. They are no bigger than our White Figs, but much longer; insomuch that there are some which are near a Foot in length.’

(p. 17, An Historical Description)

“The Portugueses call ‘em Bananes, and the Natives of the Country, Onty” (p. 17, An Historical Description). Photo by Ahnaf Piash on Unsplash

In an era when travel was fraught with danger, travel writings like these provided an increasingly literate population with opportunities to learn more about the wider world. Read in the present day, these writings continue to inform modern day audiences of the historical perspectives that have shaped and continue to shape the region and its society.

The original French edition is part of ISEAS Library’s antiquarian books collection, while reprints of the English translation are available in the Library’s open stacks.

[i] John Villiers, The natural and political history of the Kingdom of Siam (Bangkok: White Lotus Co., 1998), xiv. ISEAS Library call no.: DS576 G35 1998

[ii] The English translation by John Villiers is available at ISEAS Library as The natural and political history of the Kingdom of Siam (see note i above).

[iii] Nicolas Gervaise, Description historique du royaume de Macaçar: divisee en trois livres (Paris: Chez Hilaire Foucault, 1688), 9. ISEAS Library call no.: SCR DS646.4 G38

[iv] Geoffrey C. Gunn, History without borders: The Making of an Asian World Region, 1000-1800 (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011), 98. ISEAS Library call no.: HF3790.8 G97

[v] Nicolas Gervaise, An historical description of the Kingdom of Macasar in the East-Indies, in three books (1702; repr., London: Gregg International Pub., 1971), 56. ISEAS Library call no.: DS646.4 G381

[vi] Leonard Y. Andaya, The heritage of Arung Palakka: a history of South Sulawesi (Celebes) in the seventeenth century (The Hague: Nijhoff, 1981), 106. ISEAS Library call no.: DS611 K82 V. 91

[vii] Gervaise, An historical description, 50-51.

[viii] Gervaise, An historical description, 33-44.

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