Skip to content

Sago Palm: A Representation of People from Maluku, Indonesia

30 August, 2013

by Veronica Escalante, who is doing the Master of Applied Anthropology and just returned from fieldwork in Ambon where she focused on children’s narratives about the religious other.

Over the last decade, Moluccans have given fuel to their age-old reputation for being rough and inclined to bellicosity, due to a protracted regional conflict between Christians and Muslims since 1999. This reputation has a long history but has emerged with new force throughout Indonesia since the conflict. Also people in the region employ this stereotype to explain the violent clashes in this out-of-the-way province of the nation. In contrast, traditions of siblinghood such as pela and current local efforts at reconciliation challenge the stereotype. While aggressive behaviours and attitudes can often be observed in the region, acts of kindness and support are just as visible. A representation of this dualism in the behaviours and attitudes of Moluccans is the sago palm, which has a hard trunk covered by spines on the outside and a soft white inside, from which people make a starch that is the base for sago porridge (papeda), a traditional staple.

Sagu palm

The waitress came over and saw the four-month-old baby lying in her mother’s arms, smiled and bent over to kiss him on the forehead. The mother welcomed the gesture and started chatting about how she had been. The waitress only knew the mother from the coffee shop, but by looking at them interacting you would have thought they were family or at least very close friends. This type of interaction between people is not uncommon in Ambon. The anthropologist Bartels (1977), among others, has described mechanisms of support that occur in the region. The most well known is the communal practice of pela. This tradition comprises alliances between villages that are sealed by drinking each other’s blood, and through which the villages swear to protect and support one another. Such practices established a sense of community that was further strengthened by handing down historical narratives of siblinghood within Maluku and by songs such as the popular song titled Gandong (‘brotherhood’).

While these practices have attracted considerable interest from academics (Huwaë 1995; Sholeh 2013), little has been said about the new stereotypes of Moluccan character that have emerged since 1999 conflict. Because of the riots and people’s attempts at reconciliation, Moluccans acquired at least two new narratives about their character: the first is of being a bellicose and conflict driven people; the second tells about a strengthened identity of kinship. While both narratives existed before the conflict, they have been partly reaffirmed and, at the same time, taken on slightly new meanings. Both descriptions of Moluccans can be related to the behaviour of people in the region as well as to their attitudes towards conflict and reconciliation. These behaviours have lead to the idea that there is a contradiction or dualism of Moluccan character. Jack Manuputty, a pastor and peace activist in Ambon calls this the dualism of Moluccan character. It is similar to the binary relation between land and sea, anger and joy. Stanley Ferdinandus, founder of the local NGO Heka Leka ( refers to sago trees as being a key symbol of this dualism.

Moluccan character in daily behaviour

Narratives of Moluccan identity as violent are apparent in everyday occurrences. In a recent research trip to Ambon it did not take me long to learn about the reputation people from the Moluccas have in Indonesia, and even between themselves, as being untameable people. An informant whose family served in the Dutch colonial army described that this notion was already common even before the Dutch colonised the territory. She described how her grandparents told her that people from the Moluccas were actually recruited by the Dutch to serve in the military and work as security because of their belligerent nature. Similar ideas are still common in Indonesia. For example, an informant from Sulawesi who moved to Ambon when she was 18 years old described to me how she did not want to live there because of this reputation of the Moluccans. She thought that Moluccan men were stubborn, aggressive, and rough. To many outsiders this stereotype is easily confirmed by the way that Moluccans talk and move. They tend to be loud and make relatively excessive arm movements. As a newcomer one may see such gestures as expressing anger and next wonder why people would be so upset. On the streets, almost without exception drivers of vehicles continually honk their horns, and ignore transit lanes and traffic lights. However, when getting to know people they appear to be very warm, hospitable, emphatic, and kind.

Mutual support and empathy in Ambon go way beyond common courtesies. For example, while I was there, everyday someone would accompany me to where I wanted to go and help me with translations while not accepting any financial compensation I offered. Moreover, people would often invite me to eat and sleep in their houses. They even went out of their way to take my husband fishing while I was doing research. On a daytrip with some friends from Ambon to Saparua Island we encountered a couple of tourists from France. My Ambonese friends invited them to stay in their house on the island free of charge, showed them around all of the twelve villages there, and even organized activities in and around Ambon during the following days. These kinds of courtesies are not only offered to foreigners but are part of everyday actions between Moluccans. For example, in the urban neighbourhood of Galunggung the Holle family hosts free English classes for all kids in the neighbourhood twice a week. During Ramadan they even invite lots of children to break the fasting in their home.

The living of the Holle family with children from the neighbourhood breaking the fasting together

The living of the Holle family with children from the neighbourhood breaking the fasting together, Ramadan 2013

The Sago Palm

The apparent dualism in the character of Moluccans can be symbolised by the sago palm. The sago palm has spines from stem up to the outer branches. Looking at the tree you would not dare to come near it, much less touch it. However when you cut the tree and split the trunk you will find that it is very soft inside. The inside is filled with starch that is used for making sago porridge, a popular staple in the region. With the recent conflict came a narrative of Moluccan identity that may be represented by the sago trees. The conflict began in 1999 and was officially ended in 2003 but violent clashes and bombings still occurred until 2011. The conflict generated a common perception of Moluccans of being prone to conflict. Even though scholars have examined the multiple political and economic reasons for the conflict (Von Benda-Beckmann. 2007: 284; Bertrand, 2001: 58-88), as well as the external interventions that maintained the conflict (Stern 2003: 63-84), the conflict generated clear divisions between Christians and Muslims and new visions of these communities (Turner 2003: 258).

People from the two religions now live completely segregated and there is a constant fear that the conflict may resurface not so much because of religious differences but because of the belligerent character of Moluccans. For example, the notion that Moluccans are a fierce people is also very popular among youth. While asking young child soldiers involved in the 2011 violence about the reasons of their involvement, Jacky Manuputty, a local pastor and peace builder, was told: “You had your turn to fight, now it is ours”. However, conflict also made it necessary to strengthen the idea of brotherhood and the meaning of kinship for forging a sense of community. The dream of peace and return to traditional practices of pela and gandong began to flourish during and after the conflict. However, pela and gandong took on new meaning as alliances between the two religions (Bartels 2003: 14). The intention of achieving a Moluccan brotherhood after the conflict can even be discerned in the musical productions of youth. They created songs referring to unity in identity, such as Satu Darah, meaning ‘One Blood’.

The aim of achieving unity is not exclusive to ethic Moluccans but expands to embrace people who are not ethnically Moluccan to avoid the ethnic discourse that was present in the beginning of the conflict in 1999. One example of the efforts to include non-ethnic Moluccans is in the adaptation of pela to soa as described to me by the Baileo Maluku Network. While pela only applies to people who are ethnically Moluccan, the village of Paso generated a similar alliance called soa with people who were not ethnically Moluccan. Similarly, efforts to bridge the now segregated Muslim and Christian groups also demonstrate the importance of siblinghood in Moluccan identity. For example, the organization Heka Leka that facilitates various activities to unite people from both religions recently joined seven groups of children both Christian and Muslims to celebrate Ramadan. The Centre for Interreligious Dialogue is doing similar efforts with teachers, government officials and youth. These efforts include overnight stays at each other’s houses, giving experiences of siblinghood a whole new meaning.

A reconciliation initiative comprising an inter-religious market

A reconciliation initiative comprising an inter-religious market

The contradiction of a reputation of violence and brotherhood as the main attributes of the people from Maluku is present in conflict and attempts for peace. Just as a sago tree, when observing recent actions of Moluccan people, on the outside all we see is the conflict, but deeper probing reveals the vulnerability of a people who dream of brotherhood.

The culture of Moluccans is neither violent nor peaceful; it does not reflect conflict or brotherhood – it is both. Moluccan behaviour resembles the sago palm, which can harm and injure, while the glue found inside the trunk can unite people of all ethnic groups and religions. The narratives that define Moluccan identity have changed since the conflict of 1999. Not only have they contradicted the belief of Gandong being at the centre of their behaviours, giving way to a discourse of bellicose Moluccans; but they have also generated the possibility of the emergence of a discourse of Moluccans as peace builders and brothers. Their recent history has reshaped the way in which they are seen and understood, generating a new horizon of possibilities of actions of violence and kinship.


Bartels, D. (1977) Guarding the Invisible Mountain: Intervillage Alliances, Religious Syncretism and Ethnic Identity among Ambonese Christians and Moslems in the Moluccas. Ithaca: Cornell University

Bartels, D. (2003) ‘Your God is No Longer Mine: Moslem-Christian Fratricide in the Central Moluccas (Indonesia) After a Half-Millennium of Tolerant Co-Existence and Ethnic Unity’, in: A State of Emergency: Violence, Society and the State in Eastern Indonesia. Sandra Pannell, ed., pp. 128-153. Darwin: Northern Territory University Press

Turner, K (2003), ‘Myths and Moral Authority in Maluku: The Case of Ambon’, Asian Ethnicity, 4, 2, p. 241, Academic Search Premier, EBSCOhost, viewed 26 July 2013.

Von Benda-Beckmann, F. and von Benda-Beckmann, K. (2007) Social security between past and future: Ambonese networks of care and support, Berlin: Lit Verlag.

Bertrand, J. (2001) ‘Legacies of the Authoritarian Past: religious Violence in Indonesia’s Moluccan Islands’, Pacific Affairs. Ontario: University of Toronto, pp. 57-85

Stern J. (2003) ‘Demographics’ in: Why religious militants kill: Terror in the Name of God, New York : Ecco, pp. 63-84

Huwaë, S. (1995) ‘Divided Opinions About Adatpela: A Study Of Pela’, Cakalele, Vol. 6 (1995), Pp. 77–92


Sholeh, B. (2013) ‘The Dynamics of Muslim and Christian Relations in Ambon, Ea  Indonesia’, International Journal of Business and Social Science Vol. 4 No. 3; March 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: