Medieval New Guinea?
New Guinea is an enormous and extremely diverse island. It is home to more languages than any comparably sized section of the Earth’s surface, broken up into dozens of primary language families. It has some of the world’s largest unbroken stretches of tropical rain forest and some of its mountains, at nearly 5,000 metres in height, play host to glaciers barely 400 kilometres from the equator. New Guinea is the second biggest island on the planet — after Greenland, an island that just doesn’t seem like an island to me — and one of the most peculiarly biodiverse places anywhere. It has jungles but no native monkeys; aside from rats, pigs, dogs, and humans, all introduced species, all the [update: terrestrial] mammals on the island are marsupial and not placental.
And the island of New Guinea was also the place where some of our most important and delicious food crops were domesticated, including a species of taro, one of sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum, the most common type), and several tree crops including candlenut (aka kemiri, Aleurites moluccanus), breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), and most banana species or cultivars (Musa spp.). The origins of the banana are tricky to unravel because most commonly grown types are clones of hybrids, but the greatest diversity of banana types is nonetheless found in New Guinea and they seem to have spread out from there. Evidence for extremely early horticulture is known from a number of sites, most famously the UNESCO World Heritage site of Kuk Swamp in the Wahgi Valley (PNG).
So: an interesting and important place for humankind.
But one that is difficult to get to know. The populous highland valleys in the middle of the island were not known to the outside world until the 1930s and they are still remarkably remote. European colonialism, restricted almost entirely to the coasts, only began towards the end of the nineteenth century. The island has no native tradition of writing and oral history is at the very least limited in reach, so anything that happened in New Guinea more than a couple of centuries ago is known exclusively through linguistics and archaeology, neither of which is particularly well-developed. There aren’t even very many European accounts from the ‘Age of Discovery’, and those that we do possess are cursory and discuss only the coastal regions, as you might expect.
But of course New Guinea isn’t an isolated speck in the middle of a vast ocean; it is a huge landmass whose western coasts abut a large number of islands of historical significance. The inhabitants of some of these islands — Ternate in particular, only a few hundred kilometres west of the so-called Bird’s Head — were literate in Malay by the time Portuguese explorers arrived in the region in the early sixteenth century. In fact, aside from the Tanjung Tanah manuscript that I mentioned in the last post, the oldest manuscript in Malay is a letter sent to Manuel I of Portugal in 1521 by the Sultan of Ternate. It is assumed by most researchers — including Leonard Andaya, whose World of Maluku (1993) is the most complete account of early Maluku (‘the Moluccas’) in English — that parts of western New Guinea were linked politically to the Islamic Moluccan sultanates of Ternate and Tidore in the fifteenth century. This would not be entirely surprising.
There are other indications of contact between parts of western New Guinea and the islands to the west, in particular finds of early bronze items on the Bird’s Head, including a bronze Heger Type I drum (a large kettledrum associated with the spread of metalworking from mainland Southeast Asia to Indonesia c.2000 years ago). How these items ended up in New Guinea is not known, and as far as I’m aware they weren’t found in dated archaeological contexts. They can only have come from the west, though, and presumably at some point before Islam and European explorers came along. A 1606 map based on the diaries of the Prato-Torres expedition mentions the forging of iron in southwestern New Guinea, but this is rather late to ascribe a Papuan metalworking tradition to the period before European contact.
New Guinea is not referred to in any way in any text until the fourteenth century. A name for part of the island appears in canto 14, stanza 5 of an Old Javanese kakawin known as the Deśawarṇana (‘Description of the Districts’), written by Mpu Prapañca in 1365; this may well be the earliest reference to any part or product of New Guinea. The full text of this stanza reads (in Pigeaud’s 1960 transcription):
ikaṅ saka sanūṣanūṣa makhasar butun/ baṅgawī
kunir ggaliyahu mwaṅ i salaya sūmba solot/ muar
muwah tikhaṅ i waṇḍan ambwan āthawā maloko wwanin
ri seran i timūr makādiniṅ aṅeka nūṣātutur
In Stuart Robson’s 1995 translation:
Taking them island by island: Makasar, Butun, and Banggawi,
Kunir, Galiyahu and Salaya, Sumba, Solot, and Muwar,
As well as Waṇḍan, Ambwan, Maloko, and Wwanin,
Seran and Timur as the main ones among the various islands that remember their duty.
In this canto Prapañca was supposedly describing the realm of Majapahit, the kingdom that ruled in East Java from 1293 to some point in the 1520s. The toponyms listed there are those Prapañca claims were Majapahit vassals — although there are reasons to be sceptical of this claim. Many of those in stanza 5 are in eastern Indonesia, and while there are certainly oral traditions relating to Java in many of the places mentioned, and while Javanese traders must have visited them, it is hard to believe that they really paid tribute to Java or “remembered their duty”.
But that’s not my point here. This stanza contains the first mention of a place in New Guinea in any text ever: wwanin. In Old Javanese the syllable wa was interchangeable with o, and so wwanin has been identified with the Onin Peninsula, a part of the Bomberai Peninsula on the west coast of New Guinea. The context makes this likely; ambwan is almost certainly Ambon in eastern Indonesia, south of Seram; maloko must be Maluku, probably then referring to the northern Moluccan islands of Ternate, Tidore, and Halmahera; and seran has to be Seram. These places are all in the neighbourhood of the Bomberai Peninsula.
Why would Javanese people know about or go to Onin? The answer is that the Peninsula is home to an aromatic that seems to have become popular in Java and Sumatra in the fourteenth century: massoi, the bark of the tree Cryptocarya massoy. The most comprehensive description of this massoi trade is in Pamela Swadling’s Plumes from Paradise (1997), although most of that work is concerned with other products and later periods; a complete survey has yet to be written, as far as I know. In any case, the earliest account of the use of massoi is in Miguel Roxa de Brito’s 1581–1582 report on Seram and New Guinea (translated here in Sollewijn Gelpke 1994), where it says that massoi (massoya) was popular among “…the Javanese, who value it as a medicine. [They] grind it and rub their bodies with it, as an ointment, even when in good health; and they spend a lot of money on it each year” (1994:133). Cryptocarya massoy only grows in this part of New Guinea, and it grows well only at certain altitudes, so any early reference to massoi can be identified as a reference to trade with Onin.
I’m aware of at least two such references in texts dated before 1500. One is in a section of the fourteenth-century Malay text Hikayat Raja Pasai (‘Chronicle of the Rulers of Pasai’) discussing tribute from eastern Indonesia to Majapahit (transcribed by Russell Jones):
“…dan yang dari timur pun datang dari Bandan dan Siran dan Larantoka masing-masing dengan persembahnya, ada lilin ada cendana ada mesui ada kayu manis ada pala dan cengkih, terlalu banyak bertimbun, dan lagi beberapa daripada ambar dan kesturi.”
…and of the things from the east there come as tribute from each of Banda, Seram, and Larantuka wax, sandalwood, massoi, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves — lots and lots in piles, and several of ambergris and musk as well
This section is on page 132 in Royal Asiatic Society London manuscript Raffles Malay №67; I don’t think it’s included in the digitized Hikayat Raja Pasai in the British Library, which is a pity (the BL one is missing the end). In any case, here massoi appears as mesui (مسوي). I haven’t been able to find an Old Javanese equivalent of this term in the dictionary, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t appear in some piece of Old Javanese text somewhere; the OJED is huge but incomplete. The only New Guinea-related term in Old Javanese (aside from wwanin) appears to be boṇḍan, a word for a slave or servant possibly referring to Papuans. Boṇḍan occurs once in the corpus in a part of an inscription listing slaves and servants; the word that comes right afterwards is jĕṅgi, the word for retainers from Africa, so it’s not implausible that boṇḍan was a similar racial term for Papuans. It’s hardly proof positive of a Papuan connection, though.
In any case, a similar term for massoi does occur in Old Sundanese literature — specifically in Bujangga Manik, a fifteenth-century narrative poem about the journey of an ascetic around Java. The ascetic begins the journey as a naive young prince of Pajajaran, the pre-Islamic state in West Java, and during his journey acquires the knowledge and spiritual understanding to be considered a sage or holy man (mahapandita). At the end of the journey he ascends to heaven, and the last 300 lines or so are devoted to describing heaven and the mahapandita’s perfection, as in lines 1552–1554:
Na awak ruum ti candu
mahabara ti candana
amis ti kulit masui
Your body is more fragrant than opium,
more special than sandalwood,
sweeter than massoi bark.
Evidently massoi was highly valued, even considered superlatively fragrant, in late-medieval West Java.
There must also have been trade in bird-of-paradise plumes as well by the end of the fifteenth century, as they seem to be mentioned by the Venetian Niccolò de’ Conti, who travelled to Java and Sumatra in the 1430s. He noted that the skins of “footless birds” were used as head ornaments in “Big Java” — confusing for several reasons, but no doubt a reference to birds of paradise. A possible earlier reference to exotic eastern Indonesian birds, perhaps birds of paradise, is found in the ninth-century Old Javanese kakawin Rāmāyaṇa, which uses the term swari, apparently related to Malay kesuari ‘cassowary’. Ultimately, though, it is difficult to relate these words to New Guinea specifically, let alone a species of bird or locale found on the island.
Either way, these references to Onin and massoi in Old Javanese, Classical Malay, and Old Sundanese texts indicate that the far western extremity of New Guinea had some commerce with Java and Sumatra in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. This doesn’t tell us that New Guinea was integrated into Indian Ocean/Eurasian trade before 1500 the way Banda, Maluku, and Timor (the homes of nutmeg, cloves, and sandalwood respectively) were, because massoi seems to have been traded only as far as Java and Sumatra; New Guinea was not pivotal to pre-Columbian Old World commerce. These are nonetheless the earliest mentions of the second-largest island in the world, and they ought to remind us that the ‘medieval world’ was bigger and more diverse than you might expect.