Duarte Barbosa’s Description of Timor, the Island of Sandalwood

Medieval Indonesia
9 min readFeb 3, 2022


Timor is one of the largest islands on the eastern side of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, and also one of the driest. Alfred Russel Wallace, who first visited western Timor in 1857, describes the landscape thus:

‘The vegetation is everywhere scant and scrubby. Plants of the families Apocynaceæ and Euphorbiaceæ abound; but there is nothing that can be called forest, and the whole country has a parched and desolate appearance, contrasting strongly with the lofty forest trees and perennial verdure of Maluku or of Singapore’ (Wallace 2008[1890]:141).

Fig. 1 — I took this photo several years ago in West Timor; it gives a pretty good idea of the lie of the land. There are some wetter patches, though, and you’ll find a lot of greenery around people’s houses. I should also be clear that I was in Timor near the height of the dry season.

This landscape and its accompanying dry climate haven’t allowed for the kind of dense human settlement that characterises Java and other islands of western Indo-Malaysia. Parts of Timor register lower annual precipitation than Alice Springs, and much of the landscape has the appearance of arid parkland, particularly in the west (Figure 1). The island’s mountainous interior is profoundly affected by the cycle of the monsoon winds, resulting in a decisive split between wet and dry seasons, and this extreme seasonality has had a significant impact on human habitation and social life: Timor was once well known in the region for its regular famines and their accompanying strife.

Fig. 2 — A little map. Just in case you didn’t know where Timor was. From Google Maps.
Fig. 3 — The islands of Timor and Roti (or Rote). Google Maps.

This ‘parched and desolate’ landscape turns out to be perfect, however, for growing white sandalwood (Santalum album), a parasitic tree whose fragrant heartwood and the oil it produces have been used for centuries in medicine and incense across Afro-Eurasia. Timor is mentioned in several early sixteenth-century European accounts as the sole source of this timber — the only place in the world where true white sandalwood could be obtained. In this article I’d like to look in detail at one of these accounts.

White Sandalwood

We’ve come across sandalwood on the blog a couple of times before. The name is reasonably commonly encountered in medieval texts from China to Morocco — but it is important to recognise that not all sandalwood is white sandalwood.

The words for ‘sandalwood’ in lots of other languages come from the Sanskrit word candana — via Persian, Greek, and Latin in the case of most names in European languages. The Sanskrit word may have come from a Dravidian language of South India, though this is disputed; either way, the most common names for ‘sandalwood’ across Afro-Eurasia all come from Sanskrit, a language of India. Santalum album is not native to India, and it is unlikely that white sandalwood was the original referent of this word. Pterocarpus santalinus, or red sandalwood — a wholly different species in an entirely different genus, one which does grow in India and not in Timor — may thus have been the original sandal tree. Medieval texts often refer to this type of red sandalwood as simply ‘sandalwood’. The Middle English word saundres, for example, typically denotes the red kind (Figure 4).

Fig. 4 — A recipe for “mawmenee” from an early fifteenth-century manuscript of the Middle English cookbook ‘Forme of Cury’. One of the instructions reads: ‘Colour it with sandalwood (saũdres)’. London, British Library, Add MS 5016, f.3r.

Still, white sandalwood was known across medieval Afro-Eurasia; it is sometimes distinguished explicitly in medieval texts, including European ones. (We’ll look at this topic in more detail another time.)

Additionally, while a number of accounts closely associate white sandalwood with Timor, and while there was a significant trade in the stuff from the island, there isn’t much white sandalwood left there these days. In Meto/Dawan, the most widely spoken language in West Timor, white sandalwood is called haumeni (‘sweet wood’); in the title of an interesting article from 2005 on the depletion of Timor’s white sandalwood stocks, the Australian anthropologist Andrew McWilliam used a cross-linguistic pun on this name: Haumeni? Not many.

The tree doesn’t grow particularly quickly and it’s finicky about conditions, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that Santalum album is now considered ‘Vulnerable’ to extinction by the IUCN. It is even illegal to export the timber from India, where the trees were transplanted some centuries ago.

The Book of Duarte Barbosa

At the beginning of the sixteenth century, however, when the first European expeditions arrived in island Southeast Asia, a considerable quantity of white sandalwood was being exported from Timor. This trade is mentioned in several European accounts from this period, particularly accounts written after the first Portuguese expedition to the eastern islands of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago in 1512.

In this post I’d like to look at one fairly short such account by one Duarte Barbosa, a Portuguese clerk working in India who wrote a book on Asian geography and commodities in around 1516. This book is known rather unimaginatively as O Livro de Duarte Barbosa — ‘the book of Duarte Barbosa’ — and it is surpassed as a source in most respects by Tomé Pires’s ever-so-slightly earlier A Suma Oriental (1512–1515). Barbosa’s description of Timor is nonetheless concise and to-the-point. I have translated the text below; you can find the complete Portuguese text of this section, as well as some other brief notes on Timorese sandalwood in the original languages, on my Patreon page.

The translation below is based on the text in the standard edition of Barbosa’s Livro by Maria Augusta da Veiga e Sousa (2000:391–393). There is an older English translation of Barbosa’s Book by the orientalist Mansel Longworth Dames for the Hakluyt Society (1921), but the versions of the text he was working from were somewhat inaccurate and incomplete and there are some errors in the section on Timor (pp.195–196 in vol. II). Longworth Dames was also the sort of translator whose central aim is to make every old text sound like the King James Version of the Bible. (He translated vacas as ‘kine’, for example.) I hope I have been able to improve on his version here.

Here is Barbosa’s description of Timor, ‘the island of sandalwood’. The sentences in italics are considered dubious by the editor and are not found in the earliest versions; the numbers in bold brackets refer to notes below the translation.

Of Timor, the Island of Sandalwood

It is sixty leagues from Java to the island of Timor (1); the route goes east and a quarter southeast. Between these islands are many others, so close together that they seem to be solid land. From the sea we saw one of them — [it was] very tall, and from its top it threw so much fire that the embers reached the sea; it is called Guvoape (2). And besides these are many others, and all are [oriented] east and west; they are inhabited by people but nothing is known about them because they have no shipping. And having passed those, you turn to the point called the Cape of Flores, and Timor is on from there.

Here are great currents and very dangerous seaways, where many junks are lost. (3)

The island of Timor has a king and language of its own; [the king] is a heathen like all the people of the country. (4)

Here grows all the white sandalwood (5) that the Muslims greatly value, and in India and Persia large sums are expended on it, and there’s great trade in it out to Malabar, Vijayanagara, Khambhat, and Hormuz.

And the ships of Melaka that go there looking for it bring only iron goods to trade (6): iron, axes, hatchets, knives, cleavers, swords, and painted cloths from Khambhat and Pulicat, and they bring porcelains and small beads and tin and lead and mercury, and for these things they load sandalwood and honey and wax and slaves, and a lot of money is made on all of this. (7) And likewise they take some silver that they find in these islands. (8)


(1) ‘Timor’ is not a local name. It comes from the Malay word timur, meaning ‘east’.

(2) ‘Guvoape’ seems to be a corruption of gunung api (literally ‘fire mountain’), the Indonesian/Malay word for ‘volcano’. (This connection is obscured in some manuscripts; Longworth Dames’s translation has Oçape here.) There are indeed a few volcanoes en route to Timor from the west, although Timor is not itself a volcanic island. (It’s really a piece of crust from a formerly submerged part of the Australian plate; a lot of the rock on the island is ancient coral, and visibly so.)

(3) Junks were enormous locally built Southeast Asian ocean-going ships, vessels much larger than those sailed by the Portuguese at the time. Barbosa says elsewhere that entire families lived aboard Javanese junks from birth to death.

(4) ‘Heathen’ is not a particularly positive-sounding word, but there isn’t a better way to translate the Portuguese word gentio, which was used largely indiscriminately for Hindus, Buddhists, and adherents of other non-Abrahamic religions. Any kings there may have been in Timor at this time are unlikely to have been Hindus and almost certainly followed their own local religions. Several languages are spoken in Timor, incidentally, including some non-Austronesian ones.

(5) The claim that all the white sandalwood in the world came from Timor is encountered in other accounts of this period. Tomé Pires, the Portuguese apothecary, says that ‘the Malay merchants say that God made Timor for sandalwood, Banda for mace, and Maluku for cloves, and that this merchandise is not known anywhere else in the world, only there’ (2018[1515]:221). Antonio Pigafetta, who travelled on the first circumnavigation of the world (1519–1522), says something similar. (I have put both of these texts in the original on Patreon for paid subscribers.) It probably isn’t true; S. album trees had probably been transplanted elsewhere some time earlier. But it does seem that the best white sandalwood did indeed come from Timor.

(6) Iron and steel implements were still important trade goods in Timor centuries later. The aforementioned famine-related social strife meant that weapons were in demand and, as Timorese men were expected to take heads in battle, sword blades and other edged weapons were highly valued. If I remember correctly, H. G. Schulte Nordholt says in his Political System of the Atoni of Timor (1971) that the people of Timor could not forge their own steel and had no metallurgical traditions. That might be an exaggeration, though.

(7) Wax and honey are mentioned in other accounts, including, interestingly, the description of tribute from the eastern islands of the Indo-Malaysian archipelago at the Majapahit court in the Malay historical work Hikayat Raja Pasai (composed somewhere between 1428 and 1448). Pigafetta also mentions wax as a Timorese export.

(8) This sentence is not in the earliest forms of the text, and Longworth Dames’s version even has ‘pepper’ here instead of silver. (Pepper did not grow in Timor at the time.) Tales of precious metals in Timor’s interior, and of Timorese mountains made of valuable ores, have a long pedigree, however. Wallace tells a now well-known story concerning the quest of the Portuguese governor in Dili to explore and exploit a supposed mountain of copper somewhere to the south.

The important thing about this account is that it intends to describe the situation that prevailed when the Portuguese arrived — and therefore, probably, the situation that had prevailed for some time before they got there. This text was written in the early sixteenth century, but we have to assume that the description is essentially applicable to the fifteenth as well, and in broad strokes even earlier than that.

That’s all for today. There will now be a new article on the Patreon page every Tuesday and Thursday.

This article also has a companion piece on Patreon. If you liked this article and would like to see more like it, you can sign up for my Patreon account here. You can also donate to my Ko-Fi account here to make a one-off donation. All subscriptions and donations are greatly appreciated. Thank you for reading!

Dr A. J. West — Leiden, 2022.


Barbosa, Duarte. 2000 [1516]. O livro de Duarte Barbosa. Edição crítica e anotada. Volume II. Prefácio, texto crítico e apêndice. Maria Augusta da Veiga e Sousa (ed). Lisbon: Ministério da Ciência e da Technologia. Insituto de Investigação Científica Tropical.

Longworth Dames, Mansel. 1921. The book of Duarte Barbosa. Volume II. London: Hakluyt Society.

McWilliam, Andrew. 2005. Haumeni, not many. Renewed plunder and mismanagement in the Timorese sandalwood industry. Modern Asian studies. 39(2):285–320.

Pires, Tomé. 2018 [1515]. A suma oriental. Rui Manuel Loureiro (ed). Lisbon: Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau.

Schulte Nordholt, H. G. 1971. The political system of the Atoni of Timor. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.

Wallace, Alfred Russel. 2008 [1890]. The Malay archipelago. Singapore: Periplus Classics.



Medieval Indonesia

Posting about ancient and medieval Indonesia, up to ~1500 CE. Mainly into 14th & 15th century stuff, but earlier is fine too.