[TimorLesteStudies] New article: Douglas Kammen - Queens of Timor

Bu Wilson bu.wilson at anu.edu.au
Wed Nov 21 14:26:18 EST 2012

Douglas Kammen, "Queens of Timor," Archipel 84 (2012), pp. 149-173.


Scholarship on East Timor commonly depicts indigenous socio-political
arrangements as being characterized by a dualistic division of power
between ritual and political spheres. 2 Anthropologists have described these
spheres in gendered terms – “feminine” ritual authority (usually headed by
an old man who is referred to as an “old woman”), and “masculine” political
or jural authority (also in male hands) responsible for worldly affairs. This
conception of power and social organization, it is argued, pre-dates the
arrival of the Portuguese and Dutch on Timor and continues to inform much
indigenous thought to this day. While noting these dualist conceptions,
historians have overwhelmingly highlighted the centrality of indigenous
polities, commonly referred to as “kingdoms”, 3 and their rulers (Liurai in
Tetum and Rei [King] or Regulo [Little King] in Portuguese 4), who, it is generally assumed, were men operating in an exclusively “masculine”
sphere. Since 2002, researchers and a variety of development practitioners
writing about current affairs in Timor-Leste have noted that efforts to protect
and promote women’s rights and encourage female political participation
often conflict with “traditional” conceptions of power and gender roles that
disadvantage women. These themes are synthesized in a recent report written
for the United Nations Development Fund for Women: “Within the
traditional power structures, there is an almost complete absence of women
in important roles. Political, ritual and conflict mediation powers has [sic]
been the sole domain of men.” 5

A closer look at documentation from the nineteenth century suggests that
the relationship between gender and power in the indigenous polities may
not have been as straightforward as has typically been assumed. There is
rather surprising evidence that throughout the nineteenth century a
significant proportion of the indigenous polities in the Portuguese sphere on
Timor were ruled by women, Rainha (P., queen). Given that virtually no
reigning queens can be identified during the eighteenth century, for which a
great deal of primary documentation has survived, it appears that this was a
new phenomenon. In the early nineteenth century, a low-point in Portuguese
endeavors on Timor, and again at mid-century, just as the first serious efforts
to construct a functioning colonial administrative apparatus and integrate the
myriad indigenous polities into a system of indirect rule were beginning,
reigning queens accounted for a quarter of the rulers identified by the
Portuguese governors in Dili. In the 1870s and 1880s, the heyday of indirect
rule, 15 percent of the terms of vassalage between indigenous polities and
the Portuguese administration were signed by or in the name of ruling
queens. Put yet another way, during the nineteenth century approximately
half of the indigenous polities recognized by the Portuguese regime had at
least one female ruler, and several polities had multiple reigning queens
during this period. This ‘era of queens’, to borrow a term applied to Patani
(1584-1688) and Aceh (1641-1699) 6, came to an abrupt end in the early
1890s, however, after which indigenous political authority, or at least that
authority presented to and recognized by the colonial state, became solely a
male affair. 

This paper has two aims. The first of these is to document the
phenomenon of reigning queens in nineteenth century Portuguese Timor. 7The second aim is to suggest a rough analytical framework within which to
situate female leadership in what has long been considered to be the
“masculine” realm of worldly affairs, and to assess the admittedly limited
data against this framework. The paper argues that while female rule was
concentrated in polities in closest proximity to Portuguese centers of
authority, paradoxically the condition for this was the relative decline in
Portuguese administrative initiatives. During the second half of the century,
however, nascent colonial state building resulted first in the manipulation of
marriage politics, and by the last decade of the century in the wholesale
elimination of ruling queens. This era of queens provides an important
window into Portuguese colonial rule, the localization of old and new ideas
about ‘kingship’, and indigenous responses to the foreign presence.

Dr Bu V.E. Wilson

T: Vanuatu +678 598 2646 (mobile); +678 22626 (landline)
T: Australia +61 (0) 407 087 086
T: Timor-Leste +670 770 22887
E: buvewilson at gmail.com
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