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Makassar: Port of Call

As one of the most significant colonial and trading cities across the East Indies and one of the most important port cities in eastern Indonesia, Makassar has been visited by various nations for centuries. Colours explores the city’s maritime glory and cultural diversity.

Words by Muhammad Fadli

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The morning had just begun and yet Makassar’s Paotere port was already bustling with activity. The porters took turns crossing the footbridge to the ship’s deck toting bulky luggage, their voices breaking the morning silence. Dozens of wooden ships were moored at the jetty.

Either due to the low tide or being overloaded, these wooden ships seemed to be leaning lower than they should have been. The Bugis’ ships, the phinisi, which are shrouded in mythology, were resting at the other end. They were fewer in number than they used to be, when engines hadn’t completely replaced sails.

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I was walking alone around the hectic port. In a stall I met Hasidin, a phinisi captain with decades of sailing experience. Perhaps from having spent so long struggling on the ocean, Hasidin’s laughs were few and far between,  though he cracked a joke often. His voice was deep and his expression solemn along with his sharp eyes. “I’ve been sailing since I was a teenager,” Hasidin recalled. We were sipping our cups of instant coffee in the stall, which was  a makeshift wooden construction. The port was getting more hectic and more crowded. In his old age, he still insisted on sailing with the phinisi – its stern has been equipped with engines, although it still uses sails.

“We used to wait for the wind to sail. Nowadays, even the slightest breeze can lead to sailing restrictions,” said Hasidin with his signature flat expression. Back then, the phinisi ships relied on the weather cycles and the seasons to sail. These wooden ships were the mainstay for the Bugis sailors, who were known for their strong-mindedness in their trading expeditions across the archipelago. The southwest monsoon winds took them to the east. When the season changed, around mid-year, they were carried back by the wind blowing in the opposite direction. On those voyages, various valuable commodities were exchanged. They brought rice, batik, sarongs and glassware to the east in exchange for spices, pearls and other exotic goods. The famous naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace also went on an adventure to the Aru Islands in the mid-19th century in search of the bird of paradise cenderawasih aboard the phinisi. That was then.

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Today, the phinisi is no longer a dominant force in the country’s waters. In the midst of the rapid development of modern naval technology, the phinisi has been forced to adapt in order to survive. “As of the late eighties, everything is equipped with an engine,” said Captain Hasidin as he observed the porters loading the goods into the hull of his ship: rice, instant noodles, flour and cement. Hasidin would transport these goods to Sumbawa. Even so,  traces of the phinisi’s glory days remain. Each day, such ships depart from Paotere to transport various goods to the isolated islands in the Maluku Islands or East Nusa Tenggara.

I left Paotere and coasted to the city centre. Container trucks left dust all over the streets of the busy port, while giant cargo ships took their turn to rest on the jetty. The Soekarno-Hatta Port in Makassar is the biggest port in – and the main gateway to – eastern Indonesia. The city, sitting at the foot of Sulawesi Island, is inseparable from its history as a port city.

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Albert Stuart Walcott, who travelled across the archipelago in the early 19th century, described a slightly different Makassar in his book Java and Her Neighbors. When he visited Makassar, the entire town was taking a nap,  but he still noted Makassar as being one of the most significant colonial and trading cities across the East Indies. For centuries, Makassar was the centre for trade, visited by people from various nations, and as a result, it became a cosmopolitan city. The influence of every nationality can be seen around the city, with one of the most prominent the Chinese heritage.

How Makassar has changed today. I stopped by the Buddhist Ibu Agung Bahari Monastery in Chinatown, located not far from the port area. Built in 1738 by a Chinese sailor, the monastery only retains a little of its original façade. Passing through the gate – the oldest part of the temple – I was welcomed by the temple guard and ushered upstairs. The fourth floor of the temple is the worship area; its porch provides seats directly overlooking the harbour. “Before the port of Makassar was built, we could see the ocean easily,” said the guard. Indeed, according to the guard, the monastery was built in honour of the Goddess of the Sea for safety while sailing.

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Fort Rotterdam, built by the Dutch in the 17th century, is situated just around the corner from Chinatown. A statue of Sultan Hasanuddin on horseback is displayed at the gate. The fort is one of the citizens’ favourite places to spend the day.

I entered the museum in the fort area. The building’s exterior, made of a stone structure, is now dull in colour. The inside has been renovated and painted ivory. Relics from the past are displayed: various kinds of badik (the Bugis butterfly knife), spears and machetes. Remains from past voyages dominate every corner of the La Galigo museum. The name of the museum reminded me of the Sawerigading voyage in the La Galigo epic. The challenging voyage, as described in the longest epic on Earth, has become the pride of the people of southern Sulawesi.

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From Fort Rotterdam I headed off to spend the afternoon at Losari Beach. Every evening, the beach is crowded with people, whether it is the weekend or not. “This is the world’s longest dining table,” joked a merchant at Losari Beach. Along the coast, there is a line of shops selling a variety of snacks. Unable to choose among the great variety, I only ordered pisang epe and a cup of tea. Across Losari Beach, city slogans in giant letters saying ‘City of Makassar’, Pantai Losari, Mandar, and Toraja, as well as statues of female weavers and buffalo, filled the area  to the brim and mingled with the visitors.

I stared at the edge of the sea. On the horizon, thick clouds rolled away and rain was approaching. The west monsoon seemed to have come early to Makassar. This was the season that used to carry the merchants of the old world to Makassar. And for the Bugis people, it was a sign to start sailing.

Jakarta to Makassar


Flight Time 2 hours 55 minutes

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From Colours February 2017

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5 Senses – Sight
BENTENG SOMBA OPU

Located on the outskirts of the city of Makassar, in the Gowa Regency, Fort Somba Opu is an important part of the sometimes-overlooked history of the surrounding area. Built in the 16th century by the 9th King of Gowa, Daeng Matanre Karaeng Tumpa’risi’ Kallona, this place was indeed a centre of trade, visited by merchants from Asia to Europe. Unfortunately, the VOC destroyed it in 1669 and let the ruins sink into the sea before it was finally rediscovered in the 1980s and reconstructed. The fort complex also recently added a museum housing the artefacts of the Sultanate of Gowa and a collection of traditional houses of South Sulawesi.