Prior to the colonization of East Timor by the Portuguese and Dutch in the second half of the 18th century, the island was a trading hub for Chinese and Indians dealing slaves, wax, honey, and sandalwood. A great number of lives were lost during the WWII, which saw battles rage on the island, with decolonization taking place roughly three decades later. Independence didn’t last long as East Timor was quickly declared a province of Indonesia, marking the start of a brutal period of occupation that lasted until 2002.
The road to East Timor’s independence has been long and hard. The country was first taken by the Portuguese in the 16th century, as it attracted a wealth of traders who were after more than just the country’s abundance of sandalwood. Early explorers discovered small princedoms and chiefdoms on the island, which historians believe have been inhabited since antiquity (around 40,000 years ago), as evidenced by pre-historic sites and archaeological digs, particularly in the famed Nino Konis National Park.
The Portuguese declared their occupation of East Timor in 1769, just as the capital city of Dili was established. The country was treated like a neglected trading post until late in the 19th century, when minimal investments on infrastructures, education and healthcare were introduced. Coffee was not seen as a significant export crop until the mid-19th century. The Portuguese rule was assertive, abusive and exploitative.
Timorese resistance began to rise during the start of the 20th century, when the faltering economy of Portugal forced it to extort more wealth from the colonies. Just as the resistance was gaining momentum, WWII broke out and East Timor found itself under Japanese occupation. The Battle of Timor waged by Timorese volunteers and Allied forces took the lives of 40,000 to 70,000 locals. After the war, the Portuguese reclaimed control of the country.
The 1974 Portuguese revolution instigated East Timor’s decolonization. Independence was declared in November 1975. However, this only stirred fear within the Indonesian government, who were harboring an autonomous communist state within the archipelago. A full scale military invasion was launched later that year, and a few months after, Indonesia declared the newly freed country its 27th province.
The Indonesian rule seemed to be no better, marked by abuse, violence and senseless deaths from illness, hunger and conflict-related quarrels. The Dili Massacre (Santa Cruz Cemetery Massacre) sparked an even stronger resistance against the Indonesian occupation, which eventually lead to East Timor’s fight for independence. Today, East Timor is recognized as an independent democratic republic. The country celebrated its 10th year of freedom by putting up a resistance museum to commemorate the success of their efforts against the oppressive Indonesian government.
Because of the country’s long period of colonization and diverse prehistoric ancestry, its culture is a reflection of a wide range of influences, from Malay to Portuguese, Austronesia, Catholic, and many indigenous tribes. Roman Catholicism has a very strong hold on the East Timorese, making the nation one of only three predominantly Catholic countries in Asia (the others being the Philippines and Armenia). Literature is also an important facet of the East Timorese cultural identity, as is weaving - a tradition still intact after generations.
Music is closely associated with the country’s independence movement, as people used songs and anthems to build up the referendum. Aside from folk, East Timorese are also into pop music genres like hip hop, rock and roll and reggae. The Festival of Culture and Food of Timor Leste is an annual event that should not be missed.