The interior of the island provided a refuge for some of Indonesia’s earliest inhabitants, some of whom preserved elements of their rich cultures well into the 20th century. The Makassarese and Bugis of the southwest peninsula, and the Christian Minahasans of the far north, are the dominant groups of Sulawesi. The unique traditions, architecture and ceremonies of the Toraja people make the interior of South Sulawesi a deservedly popular destination.
Other minorities, particularly Bajo Sea nomads, have played an integral role in the island’s history. The rise of the kingdom of Gowa – Sulawesi’s first major power – from the mid-16th century was partly due to its trading alliance with the Bajo. The Bajo supplied valuable sea produce, especially the Chinese delicacy trepang (sea cucumber), tortoiseshell, birds’ nests and pearls, attracting international traders to Gowa’s capital, Makassar.
Makassar quickly became known as a cosmopolitan, tolerant and secure entrepôt that allowed traders to bypass the Dutch monopoly over the spice trade in the east – a considerable concern to the Dutch. In 1660 the Dutch sunk six Portuguese ships in Makassar harbour, captured the fort and forced Gowa’s ruler, Sultan Hasanuddin, into an alliance in 1667. Eventually, the Dutch managed to exclude all other foreign traders from Makassar, effectively shutting down the port.
Even after Indonesia won its independence, ongoing civil strife hampered Sulawesi’s attempts at post-war reconstruction until well into the 1960s. A period of uninterrupted peace delivered unprecedented and accelerating development, particularly evident in the ever-growing Makassar metropolis.
Tragically, the Poso region in Central Sulawesi fell into a cycle of inter-communal violence in 1998 and troubles linger on today. The situation in the region remains tense.