Australian Consulate-General
Makassar, Indonesia

Makassar: 412 Years Young and Still Growing

On the 9th November 2019 the City of Makassar celebrated its 412th birthday. According to a useful guidebook produced by the city government for the 412th birthday celebrations, on this date in 1607 Friday prayers were conducted for the first time in mosques in the kingdoms of Gowa and Tallo. This event signified the adoption by the two neighbouring kingdoms of Islam as the official religion. The site of these two kingdoms is now the modern city of Makassar, and this date is celebrated today as the city’s birthday.

Makassar comes from mangkasara, the name of the ethnic group that occupies the southwest corner of the South Sulawesi peninsula. Makassar already had a long history as a trading centre in the eastern islands. Rice grown in Sulawesi passed through Makassar in exchange for spices from the Moluccas islands, goods from China, India and the Middle East. Following the conquest of Malacca (a major trading hub on the west coast of the Malay peninsula) by the Portuguese in 1511 many Malay traders moved to Makassar; and over a century later when the Dutch won Malacca off the Portuguese in 1641, Portuguese traders moved to Makassar. According to local scholars, in the 17th century Makassar was a cosmopolitan city with a population of over 100,000 people, making it then the 20th largest city in the world. In 1669 the Dutch East Indies Company (the VOC), in alliance with the Bugis, Ternate, Buton and Maluku kingdoms, defeated the Gowa-Tallo Sultanates. The war lead to the destruction of the great Sombo Opu fort, capital of Gowa, and the devastation of the city of Makassar. The population fled. By the middle of the 18th century the population of Makassar was still only around 5,000 people.[1]

Following the conquest of Makassar the Dutch controlled trade throughout the eastern islands for the next 273 years, until the Japanese occupied Indonesia in World War II. In the 1730s the Dutch allowed Chinese ships to enter the port of Makassar and around that time sailors from Makassar began venturing to the shores of northern Australia in search of teripang (sea cucumber – a delicacy in Chinese cooking), pearls and turtle shell and other valuable commodities. The Makassans paid the indigenous communities in the north of Australia for the rights to take these commodities with knives, tobacco, alcohol and rice. In Makassar they on-sold the processed sea-cucumber and other goods to Chinese traders for good profits. This celebrated trade lasted until the early 20th century (see my blog for more on this trade).

The city’s 412th birthday celebrations were held on a Saturday morning in the Karebosi arena in the centre of the city. I arrived on time at 7.30am and the crowd was already filling the arena, but the senior guests didn’t turn up for another hour – so I spent my time talking with various local luminaries, and watching the colourful crowd as it grew. Everyone was dressed in traditional costumes. Men were wearing gold and black “songkok to Bone” caps: the larger the gold ring on the cap the more senior the wearer’s position. Colourful sarongs and silk jackets completed the costume: city government officials wore purple and provincial government officials wore bright blue jackets. The women wore silk sarongs, brightly coloured blouses and hijabs; women not wearing hijabs had decorated their hair with gold flowers.

I met Pak Mike Terusi, one of Makassar’s few full-time artists who specialises in painting Torajan scenes: he was there to receive an award from the Mayor for service to the arts. I also talked to the band that was setting up left of stage: around 35 young members of the city government Civic Police Force dressed in black, yellow and red uniforms were standing in the hot sun behind xylophones, and carrying trumpets, a couple of tubas, and drums.

Things got underway as the Governor of South Sulawesi, Prof Dr Nurdin Abdullah, and the Mayor of Makassar, Dr Iqbal Suhaeb, arrived with their retinues. The Governor and his wife Ir Liestiaty Nurdin, sat in middle of the front row; Mayor Suhaeb was on the Governor’s right; then me; then on my right was Mr Aksa Mahmud, founder of the Bosowa Group of companies and one of Indonesia’s most senior businessmen. To Mr Mahmud’s right was the chair of the Makassar city parliament, Mr Rudianto Lallo.

The inspektur upacara or “ceremony commander” approached the Governor and in military style announced the ceremony was ready to begin. Governor Abdullah stood and commanded proceedings begin.

The first part was the speeches: Governor, Mayor and the Chair of the Makassar city parliament. They reported on progress in developing the city, noting achievements and also things that still needed to be done. Governor Abdullah donated 27 ambulances to the city government, and said he wanted people to stop parking their cars on the footpaths. Mayor Suhaeb honoured former Mayors and pledged to make Makassar “clean, comfortable and stable”. He said Makassar’s economy was growing at 8.6 percent, well above the national average of 5 percent. Inflation was at a low 3.1 percent, and the city had won 204 awards over the past year. The Chair of the local parliament summarised Makassar’s history and noted that Mayor Suhaeb was the city’s 18th Mayor since the position had been established during the Dutch colonial period. Then the Mayor presented awards to leading civic figures - including Mike Terusi, the artist.

But the fun started after this when the Civic Police band started playing. They were fantastic, full of energy, playing local and national pop songs, and making everyone want to get up and move. The drummers were jumping all over the tiny stage on which they played, contorting into weird positions from which they hit their drum skins. They band was definitely the highlight of the event, and Mayor Suhaeb was so moved he got up and announced that he would donate Rp25 million (about A$2,500) towards the band. Everyone cheered.

As the event concluded everyone crowded around the stage to get their photos taken with the Civic Police Band, including the VIPs.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          November 2019


[1] Today the city and its urban fringe in Maros and Gowa regencies, has a population of around 1.8 million people.