Flores is 360 km wide and varies in width from 12 to 70 kilometers. It's an island with impressive volcanoes, nice mountain lakes, grassy savannahs and even some mountain forest. The landscape has a fierce beauty. Nevertheless Flores is one of the least visited islands in Indonesia.
There are 1.4 million people, of which 85 per cent is Catholic. Ethnographically the island is very varied. The traditional religions exist alongside, or are just hidden by Catholicism. The original population consists of Manggarai, Ngadha, Solorese, Soa, Riung, Nage, Keo, Ende, Lio and Sika. The coasts have been the habitat for immigrants from other islands for centuries: Savunese, Bimanese, Buginese and Makasarese; the last three groups are Moslem.
The island is said to be on the border line in the archipelago; the residents of Flores, mainly those in the east, have a dark skin, the curling hair and a firm build which is recognizable among Melanesian populations of the more eastern islands; in the west the Malay influence is still visible. In some faces in East-Flores, you can see the Portuguese blood; the arrival of the Iberian lead to the birth of a race now called 'Black Portuguese'.
There are little written documents about the early history of Flores. It is known that the Chinese traded sandalwood with Timor since the 12th century, but possibly earlier; and the trade route passed Flores. It's not clear whether there were contacts. After they sailed around the Cape of Good Hope and founded a base along the coast of India, the Portuguese continued their expansion to Southeast Asia and they conquered Malacca in 1511. The year after they sent their first big ships to the east, on the look for spices which were worth a fortune in Europe.
Flores didn't have spices, but the Portuguese writer Tom Pires wrote in 1515 that the island was exporting food, among them tamarind, as well as a reasonable amount of sulphur. The sulphur, probably mined around one of the volcanoes on the island, was shipped to Cochin-China (Southern Vietnam) through Malacca.
The captain of a Portuguese expedition to the Spice Islands named the most eastern peninsula of Flores 'Cabo das Flores', Flower Cape, from which the island got it's current name. In early Portuguese writings, eastern Flores (among them Sikka, Larantuka and Solor) were named 'Solor Novo', New Solor, while the area around Ende, was named 'Solor Velho', Old Solor.
Flores had little to offer to the Portuguese in an economical way, but the sandalwood from Timor was precious, and Flores was located strategically along the sea route between Malacca and Timor.
In 1566 the Portuguese built a fortress on Solor which - far from the highly malaria active coasts of Timor - formed a refuge for merchants. It also formed a good location for the ships to wait the change of the monsoon winds.
The Portuguese were accompanied by missionaries and in 1570 there already was a missionary school in Larantuka, East Flores. The traditional traders, Buginese and Gowanese, felt threatened in their trade by the Portuguese, but they were contained by their superior ships and weapons.
Settlement on Ende
When the Portuguese discovered Eru Mbinge (nowadays the island of Ende) at the end of the 16th century, it was a harbor for sandalwood and slaves, where Malay, Arabic and Chinese merchants lived. There also was a weaving industry, since the dry areas east of Ende were producing cotton; the fabrics were used as payment until the end of the 19th century.
The Portuguese built a fortress on Ende, but were forced out by the angry population in 1630. This happened after a strange relationship in which the captain of the fortress, a priest and a local princess were involved. A few survivors settled east of Ende in Paga and Sikka.
The raja of Sikka
The Portuguese succeeded in gaining loyalty of the raja of Sikka, Dom Alesu Ximines da Silva, which was raised by a priest for four years in the Portuguese support place of Malacca. Before he went home he was rewarded with precious paraphernalia, of which some still exist: a golden helmet (with the date 1607), a staff with a golden point, two heavy golden chains, a knife, 70 elephant teeth and a wooden statue of Christ. Da Silva's efficient government, stimulated by the strategic gift of the very precious elephant ivory, lead to a partial hegemony of Sikka and the surrounding area. As a sign of loyalty, the Portuguese flag was raised in Sikka until the end of the 19th century, even during the period of Dutch rule.
The last raja, Dom Sentia da Silva, surrendered his political power after the independence of Indonesia, as well as the other raja's of Flores. His family and descendants still enjoy a lot of prestige and they still are the owner of the rich paraphernalia.
In 1613, a Dutch force lead by Apollonius Scotte started an attack on the Portuguese fortress on Solor. In 1621 the Dutch tried to conquer Larantuka, but they failed: but the Portuguese didn't succeed either in conquering Solor in the same year, which was defended with Islamic aid.
In 1641 the harbor of Malacca came in Dutch hands. Several of the defeated Portuguese fled to Makassar on Celebes to live under the sultan of Gowa and to trade. Others went to Larantuka. In 1667 the military department defeated the sultan of Gowa in the famous battle near Makassar, and Larantuka had to deal with another flood of refugees.
In 1859 the Dutch bought the remaining parts of Portuguese ground on Flores; under the sole condition that the area would remain Catholic. The arrival of the Dutch Jesuit missionaries around 1865 caused a renewed interest in Catholicism. In that time there were only 3000 Catholics left, concentrated in Eastern Flores. A priest told that they found two groups of religious people: 'animist with a sip of Catholicism and Catholics with a substantial part of animism'. The characterization of a later priest was even more cynic: 'baptized pagans'.
In the first place, the Dutch didn't have any reason for controlling Flores strictly. When they saw they couldn't suppress the rising slave trade in Ende, they sent and expedition in 1889, in which the city was destroyed and fifty merchant ships were burned. In 1889, a survey team looking for tin, was banned from the region by angry Florinese. The group returned with a military expedition and left hundreds of death. Tin wasn't found.
The sporadic resistance against the Dutch rule lasted when the colonial government decided to govern over Flores directly. The Catholic raja of Larantuka was the biggest pain-in-the ass, but his ban in 1905 caused a rest to settle over the island. However the colonial government was little loved in Flores, it never caused any big-scale resistance. The mountainous area and the many cultural and linguistic differences prevented the Florinese to coordinate their efforts.
When the island was finally 'pacified' the Catholic mission activity in Central- and West-Flores. In 1917, the first mission was founded in Ruteng, and within one generation West-Flores was completely Christened. This fast conversion was partially caused by the fact that the missionaries allowed the Florinese to maintain their traditions and habits. The many traditions that survived are varied and fascinating. In many areas the bridal treasure is still of most importance; it can consists of money, water buffalos and inherited elephant teeth. Marriage in church or not, the marriage can only be done when the bridal treasure is paid and the traditional rituals have been executed.
At the birth-limitation rules of the government, the church didn't complain. In an effort to improve the local economy, the missionaries (as well as the Dutch government) founded coconut plantations; they introduced the culture of coffee, founded shipping firms and offered health care and education. The role of the church was this big that they were like a state in a state. However their worldly activities nowadays are limited, the church maintains an important place in the economy of the island.