Thursday, June 25, 2009

14. The Legendary War Hero from Biak

(A Legend from Biak and Raja Ampat Islands, Papua and West Papua)

He Defeated the Enemy of the Sultan of Tidore with Just a Single Arrow, Married His Beautiful Daughter, and Became His Vassal.


Centuries ago, the island groups that lie between Halmahera, an island in North Moluccas, and the western tip of the present-day West Papua, were not named the Raja Ampat Archipelago – the Four-King Archipelago. They were named Sup Amber, the Foreign Land, by the Biak seafarers. Centuries ago, the present-day Papua and West Papua were called Kawasa Or I Sar, Land of the Rising Sun, also known as the Gold Land.

Later, the island groups were called the Raja Ampat Archipelago. Then, the natives living on the islands and in the mainland of Kawasa Or I Sar were called the Papuans.

How and why did all these changes happen? The legend of Gurabesi, the illustrious war hero from Biak, reveals the answer.

The Hero and His Men

Centuries ago, Gurabesi and a crew of twenty Papuan paddlers traveled in a large, outrigger canoe from Sup Amber to the West. They rowed and sailed along myriads of islands and coral reefs that unraveled the great sea currents between Halmahera and the Land of the Rising Sun. Gurabesi did not worry about traveling to the West. He and his crew had already freed Sup Amber from the superiority of the Sawai people of Halmahera. Before that decisive battle, the Sawai people settled everywhere in the archipelago; then, they were defeated by the strong arms of the Biak hero.

Gura Besi was originally from the island of Biak. In the old times, the Biak people were famous and brave seafarers who voyaged even to East Java. Then, they settled in various places along the east, west, and south coasts of the Gold Land. Following the spirit of that time, Gurabesi also took a long voyage to the West and settled with his clan and tribal members in Sup Amber.

Long before they settled there, Gurabesi’s forefathers held their looting raids on the islands of Ceram and Ambon. They were the Vikings of the Geelvink Bay. Traces of their raids were discovered hundreds of years later in the harta, the valuable goods, which their descendants used to pay traditional dowries and fines. These were the loots of the great Biak seafarers who fearlessly traveled toward the West.

One thing that made Gurabesi a great war hero was his great strength whose source was a magic wood. When he knocked the side of his large canoe with the magic wood, the canoe glided rapidly through the thundering and foaming sea. In such a way, he and his tribal members ventured a life of adventures.

During their voyages, Sekfamneri, Lord of the Utopia, did not hesitate to test their fortitude. When the wind died away in the middle of the sea, the sea looked as smooth as a mirror and the sky above them was bright, but the sun was searing them. The crew was terribly sweaty and thirsty. So thirsty were the paddlers that their tongues lay in their mouths like dry shark fins. Their bamboo sheaths containing drinkable water were almost empty and they could not tell when these painful situations would end soon. So, they desperately held the bamboo sheaths on their heads and searched for the last drops of water. Then Sekfamneri knew how great their fortitude was, stopped the test, and let the rain pour down.

But it was not the type of rain that raged off and passed them by. It was a sudden downpour only to their canoe. They had to get as much water as they could before the downpour stopped. So, they spread their sail and caught the cool humidity of the rainwater with their bamboo sheaths until they foamed and overflowed.

However hard their test of courage was, it was not as great as the later deeds of Gurabesi. He showed them how to break through the enemy’s defense, how to gather food, and how to find the way to the Sultan of Tidore, the powerful king in North Moluccas in those days.

Becoming an Ally

When the great hero and his men arrived at the sultanate, they found out that the kingdom had already been thrown into disarray. A fierce war had already broken between Tidore and Jailolo, another kingdom in Halmahera, North Moluccas; the war had ravaged both sultanates.

The Sultan of Tidore was known as a powerful ruler. He was supported by a strong army: brave and fearless fighters who had often brought victory and glory to his sultanate. But at this time, he was at his wits’ end. He needed strong arms to restore the peace of his people. Unfortunately, he missed them at this critical moment, and he did not know what to do to maintain stability and order in his sultanate. No wonder he was frightened by this desperate need and uncertainty of the future of his sultanate. From being frightened, he became panic-stricken when he got the news that a big attack that targeted his kingdom was expected to happen soon.

Soon, the news came true. The sultan and his people got terrified when they noticed that the white canoe sails from Jailolo were approaching them from the sea.

Just at that critical moment, the canoe Gurabesi and his crew were rowing hit and scoured the sandy beach of Tidore. The war hero jumped on the shore and stepped on land.

How amazing was the difference in the demeanor among the Tidorese, their sultan, and Gurabesi! While they showed great anxiety, he showed great composure. Just as he heard how terrifying the situation was, he reported himself to the sultan. So imposing was he that he savored of respect from the king and his people. Then, he stood face-to-face with the sultan. The king and his people noticed that white shells were strung together around his neck and chest and glittered on his dark skin. His appearance before them became more than flesh and blood could bear when they also noticed that the yellowish-gold feathers of the bird of paradise were stuck in his curly hair. They waved along with the beautiful obeisance he paid to the sultan in which he said, "Jow, jow! Hail, hail, Lord!”

The sultan immediately knew for sure that he was dealing with grandeur. So, he was not ashamed at all to make Gurabesi an ally to overcome his great anxiety.

“I trust you as my ally,” he said. “With your support, we will defend this kingdom.”

The great trust given to the great hero made his chest swell with pride and made his dark eyes sparkle. In that trust, he nosed a great adventure out.

Suddenly, the sultan got nervous. His hands trembled. While pointing to the sea with his right hand still trembling, he said to Gurabesi, “Look at the approaching fleet over there at the horizon. Our enemy must be there and we must do something quickly to get rid of them.” His voice also trembled; but when he looked at his ally, he was amazed at how composed the war hero was. As a hero who talked less but did more, he did not comment on the king’s fear. Instead, he held his palm against his eyes to enable him see more clearly and cast his eyes over the horizon to examine the strength of the enemy fleet.

“Is the fleet strong?” asked the nervous sultan.

Gurabesi shrugged. The fleet was still far away; so, he could not tell how many war canoes and fighting men it had. His shrug was a gesture that he hoped would answer the sultan’s question correctly.

But the sultan who did not expect such an indirect answer then became aware that he had not known his ally well. In his haste to find the strong helping hands of Gurabesi, he had forgotten the rule of getting to know his ally better before he closed a deal with him. Sensing that it was not too late to amend his neglect, he began to give more attention to the strong, imposing, and dark-skinned hero from the Land of the Rising Sun.

What amazed him was his great self-control at the time everybody else, including himself, were trembling from fear, frightened, panic-stricken. Look at him! While he and his people were very afraid of the terrifying enemy still approaching them from the horizon, Gurabesi calmly scanned the enemy. The sultan wanted to know more about him.

“Who are you?” he asked.

It was not in the blood of this man of action to talk much. But this time, he had to because the man asking the question was a powerful king and his ally.

“I am Gurabesi, His Excellency. I am from Sup Amber.”

“I certainly have heard of it,” said the sultan. “It is the land with the high mountains and the innumerable islands.”

But the sultan was shrewd enough not to reveal the slave hunting carried out there on his behalf. It was the land where he had slaves robbed and sold at the slave offices in Tidore. So, he kept silent about this issue.

Another thing that amazed the Sultan of Tidore was the great power of Gurabesi. Did he get it from his strong arms, his “big heart,” or his audacity that kept his head erect?

“Tell me, how is it that your power is so great?” he asked.

The war hero who was not used to speaking much did not answer the sultan’s question. He did not stare at him either. To him, action spoke louder than words; so, he was waiting for the right time for actions.

The perceptive sultan quickly understood the habit of this man of action. So, he did not press him for an answer to his question.

There was a cape in Tidore that gave a natural protection, including against attacking enemies from the sea. To be able to attack Tidore, the enemy should circle the cape.

The Jailolo fleet suddenly appeared and circled the cape. Frightened women and children ran for their lives. The fighting men of the Tidore fleet were wavering between battling the enemy and escaping it by sea. The nervous sultan did not know what to do in this tense situation.

Why were they terrified by the enemy? The Jailolo fleet and their fighters had been recognized for their superiority. Such superiority made the courage of Tidorese raiders sink away and made their hands hang down limply.

If no action is taken to overcome the fear, the sultan reasoned, then the power and glory of Tidore will sink soon – for good. No, I have to show courage and inspire courage to my fighters so that we can defeat the enemy.

So, he took the bull by the horns. To Gurabesi, he begged, “Please, choose my side with your strong men and fight against my enemy. If you win, I will reward you with all that you desire, including my beautiful daughter, Boki Taibah, as your wife.”

This time, it was show time for Gurabesi. He responded indirectly to the sultan’s plea: he straightened his back, knit his eyebrows, and winked at his paddlers who were also raiders. Then, he took an arrow, grabbed his magic wood, struck it along one side of the arrow points, and held his bow ready. This was the hero bow, the bow whose bowstring only the strongest shooter could draw to its farthest span.

The Amazing Sea Battle

The Tidorese fleet was still ready on the beach. All the fighters, including Gurabesi and his raiders, were waiting for the order from the sultan.

“Pull you canoes to the sea!” the sultan shouted. “Attack the enemy – now!”

All the fighters pulled the war canoes to the sea. Gurabesi’s raiders rowed their large canoe so hard and fast that it moved quickly to the front of the Tidorese fleet; while rowing toward the enemy, the dark-skinned but strong paddlers sang war songs to uplift their fighting spirit.

Then, the Jailolo fleet spread itself to make a siege movement. The fighters were impatient for battling their enemy; so, they rowed their canoes so fast that the vessels shot through the blue sea toward the approaching Tidorese. Both warring parties would soon kill and loot one another.

Gurabesi noticed their maneuvers and suddenly saw his lucky star.

“Row faster!” he shouted to his paddlers.

They were able to speed up their canoe to its maximum speed.

Gurabesi then pointed to the left flank and his fellow-fighters moved with a sharp turn to the side of the battle arena. He needed such a turn to keep themselves at a safe distance from the arrows of the Jailolo shooters.

At such a position, he noticed that the whole fleet from Jailolo formed one line of attacking canoes. It was an ideal formation for him to begin his deadly attacks.

Gurabesi noticed that the leading canoe of the Jailolo attackers had a foreman in it. He was standing at the bow, was holding a chopping knife in his hand, and was waving it furiously above his head while dancing wildly and yelling to his fellow-fighters to uplift their fighting spirit.

Because the war canoes from Jailolo were aligned in one straight position, this alignment also formed a straight line of fighters from one canoe to another. Gurabesi would make a clever use of this stupid formation to kill his enemy with only one arrow! The killing would start from the foreman.

Sensing what was up for grabs, he jumped up from his canoe, held his bow firmly, put the arrow whose points he had struck with his magic wood, and drew the bowstring. His muscles swelled and his body bent forward. Then, he drew the bowstring to the farthest span, and let the spanned bowstring hurl the magically powered arrow. The unique arrow flew so fast that it made a muffled rumbling sound like that of a gong.

The wonderful arrow buzzed to the dancing and yelling foreman on the first Jailolo canoe, hit him, pierced his body, and killed him on the spot. But the arrow speed was so stupendous that it also killed from the second Jailolo fighter behind the dead foreman to the last fighter in the same canoe. Not only that. The magically laden arrow also flew with the same velocity from the second enemy canoe to the last and pierced the bodies of the Jailolo fighters one by one, and killed them all. No dead men could steer the Jailolo war canoes. So, they drifted aimlessly to the approaching Tidorese fleet. They were amazed at the way Gurabesi killed the sultanate’s enemy with just one arrow. For some time, there was a sense of awe and admiration for the great hero; then, the plentiful loots left by the enemy killed diverted their attention from the hero. They tugged the unmanned war canoes from Jailolo to Tidore. The victory for Gurabesi and Tidore was perfect.

Becoming a Vassal

So, the hero of the sea battle that day was Gurabesi. In the evening of the same day, Boki Taibah, the beautiful princess of the sultan, was carried to Gurabesi’s canoe.

But the courageous hero had to wait for several days before he could leave with his bride to Sup Amber. The sultan would like to talk some important matters over with Gurabesi. So, both the father-in-law and his son-in-law met.

“Now that you will have a royal princess as your wife,” the sultan said, “I hope the bond between you and me will last long. Let the coastal people in Sup Amber know that you have returned on behalf of the Sultan of Tidore whose people now include them. Every year, they should return this grace by bringing in to me valuable goods such as turtles, pearls, big canoes, and . . . slaves. Tell your people that from now on they belong to the powerful Moluccan sultanate of Tidore. And I appoint you as the first king in the Land of the Rising Sun.”

And so it happened. On behalf of the Tidore kingdom, Gurabesi went back to the Gold Land to rule as the first native vassal of the kingdom over his people. For the first time, Sup Amber became a part of the sultanate.

But Gurabesi proved not to be an effective ruler for the Tidore sultanate. For some time, his rule was not more than the encouragement he gave to his people to pay their tributes to the sultan. The native islanders he ruled over were unimpressed by his performance. But they soon carried out their duties when a small fleet from Ternate, a part of the Tidore kingdom, arrived in Sup Amber every year and reinforced Gurabesi’s rule.

What happened when the tributes were not paid off? The sultanate gave a terrifying example that sent his message forcefully and clearly to those who neglected their yearly duties: whole groups of people were dragged to Tidore. Years later, the silent witnesses of these kinds of disciplinary retributions were discovered at the graveyards of Tidore and Ternate.

The Tidorese then called those dark-skinned natives living in Sup Amber and in the northwestern coasts of the Gold Land the pua-pua, the curly-hair people. It was a name that later became “the Papuans” and included other natives living in the Gold Land. It was under the last mentioned name that the Papuans made themselves known to the outside world.

A man of action in war time, Gurabesi seemed not to have been aware of Tidore’s real politics. It was the politics of taking advantages of his rule as its representative. So, what was he actually up to? He dreamed of power and a great kingdom. To make his dreams come true, he had his “palace” built on Waigeo, the largest island of Sup Amber, and lived there with Boki Taibah, his wife. But his life and power were sustained by the glory of his past and the people’s fear of Tidore.

Who and what was the great Sultan of Tidore Gurabesi had dealt with and become an ally of in the sea battle against the Jailolo fighters? He was Ciliaci who ruled over the sultanate at the end of the fifteenth century. He was mentioned in the history of Tidore sultanate as the first sultan who embraced Islam.

To a certain extent, he owed his greatness to the celebrated war hero from Biak. Gurabesi’s heroic deeds opened not only the port of Tidore but also that of Islam.

The Four-King Archipelago

Gurabesi and Boki Taibah who had lived in their “palace” then got four sons. All of them were born from eggs and immediately became adults.

Under the rules of these princes, Sup Amber was divided into four kingdoms. The Raja Ampat Archipelago, the Four-King Archipelago, has ever since that time gotten its name from these four kings.

Biak people had a strong sense of tribal bonds and impetus for adventures as well as for settlements outside their home island. Gurabesi, who was from Biak, was not an exception to these sense and driving forces. Living with his four sons and beautiful wife as rulers in Sup Amber, he persuaded his tribal members from the far-away island of Biak to move to the four kingdoms. Following their “call of nature”, they took long voyages and settled in the archipelago.

Like their great hero, they also rowed and sailed to Tidore to pay tributes to the sultan. The king honored them by giving them the title of “Sengaji”. Using this honorary title back in the Raja Ampat Archipelago, they served as intermediaries between inhabitants of the hinterland in the archipelago and Tidore. Traces of these Biak people can be easily noticed from the Biak language or a variant of it still spoken on the islands and from family names that bear their Biak origins: Mamoribo, Sauyai, Rumbewas, and some others.

Conversions and Foreign Power

Gurabesi and other Biak people in the archipelago who encountered the Sultan of Tidore and his people were originally pagans. They did not know about and believe in Allah of Islam or the Christian Trinity. For centuries, they had been exposed to Islam; so, a part of them were later converted to Islam. Others embraced Christianity that arrived on the islands early twentieth century.

The influences of the Tidore sultanate on the archipelago and later along the northwestern and north coasts of the mainland and other islands signify something important. For the first time in their history, a foreign power came and dwelled among the people of the Land of the Rising Sun.

Copyright © 2008. Published with permission from the author.

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