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Home » Scuba diving news / articles » Historical information about Bunaken Island
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Bunaken is an island of 8 km square at the far northern tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia. From volcanic origin, it consists mainly of a base of fossil coral on which insists a lush jungle. Inhabited today by more than 4,000 people, it has 3 different villages and a magnificent coral reef that surrounds the coastal perimeter. It is the living center of the Bunaken Marine Park, a paradise for divers, naturalists and sea lovers.

There is no detailed information on the events that took place in Bunaken before 1850. It is known, however, that human settlements did not exist on the island in prehistoric age, neither later. The oral tradition of the island suggests that a population of a few indigenous residents was present since at least 1700. They were family groups of hunter - gatherers - fishermen who lived the few natural resources in Bunaken. They were aggressive and violent individuals, both to opposing families of the island, both to the few travelers who landed on the beaches. They did not hesitate to solve internal conflicts or disputes with strangers killing and cutting heads through the use of bladed weapons.

For this reason, even today, part of the population believes that one of the first names given to the island, even before it was called Bunaken, was Pulau Piso, which means “the island of the knives”. This interpretation, however, it is still controversial.

With the arrival of Europeans in North Sulawesi, since 1600, commercial traffic increased between the main city on the north coast, Manado, and Sangihe archipelago, located hundreds of miles north side, almost to the southern border of the Philippines. First the Portuguese, then the Spanish and finally the Dutch, who ruled for over three centuries on these lands, gave a huge boost to the commercial exchange and started a migration flows between the various islands.

At the time, in addition to the main market of Manado, the exit point for the precious natural resources of the region of Minahasa, was also an important market the one present on the neighboring island of Manado Tua, where traders exchanged fish, rice, seeds, spices, animals, fabrics and more. This island, having a characteristic shape of a volcanic cone, still visible today, unfortunately offered only little room for the rest of the merchants and travelers. They indeed began to raise their own tents in the nearby Bunaken, much more spacious and accessible. For this reason, the island was called Nikavunakeng or Damamunakeng, which in Sangihe language means "place where you stop and rest."

Over time, these temporary settlements, due to the need to travel and trade, gradually became stable. The first groups of families, arriving from the Sangihe Archipelago and the Philippines, settled in the northeast of the island, in the only place where there was easy access to fresh water that emerged on the surface. The location, which still bears that name, was called Tanjung Parigi, which in Sangihe language means "the corner of the well." An ancient stone well, of very large size, it is still present today in this village. Between 1830 and 1840 the island's name officially became Bunankeng, and then become permanently Bunaken, the name that still identifies it today.

In 1850 there is the first official document issued by the Dutch governor about Bunaken. In this act, the Dutch commanded residents families in Tanjung Parigi to move to the south of the island, in a place that at that time was called Tandusang, which in Sangihe language means "the land out of the water."
The origin of that order arose from a judicial decision taken by the Dutch court of Manado as a result of a dispute between Pamela, the first indigenous head of Tanjung Parigi, and Jacobis Caroles, native chief of Tandusang, for reasons of exploitation and land’s property. As a result of the judgment, while Pamela was exiled, Caroles became the first administrative indigenous delegate in Bunaken for the Dutch government.

In the wake of the victory, Caroles dictates that all residents of Tanjung Parigi must move to Tandusang. As Tanjung Paris depopulated, residents start calling it Soa Tinentang, which in Sangihe language means "the land emerging from the water". Only many years later, the site of Tanjun Parigi was inhabited again and retake its original name.

The area called Tandusang corresponded exactly to the position of the actual main village of Bunaken and guaranteed, better than the village of Tanjung Parigi, improved accessibility by sea and also a short distance by boat from Manado. Moreover, the presence of shallow fresh water layers under the soil allowed digging wells with relative simplicity.
The area, however, was still damp and unhealthy because of wetlands and mangroves. The high excursion of the tide, which could reach up to 2 meters, helped to make the marshland. In 1890 Dutch governorship emanates a decree requiring all householders to plant each 50 coconut palms to sanitize and consolidate the soil.

As of 1870, an official government’s structure on the island was finally created. Located in the village of Bunaken, it is driven by a mayor, called in local language Lurah. This structure, albeit through various changes, it is still in charge of the administration of the island. In 1923 the administration of the island was then divided into two different municipality: the city of Bunaken village (also including Tanjung Parigi) and the city of Alung Banua village.

Bunaken landscape

Alung Banua is the third village on the island and even the younger. It was founded only many years later Tanjung Parigi and Bunaken by migrants from Sangihe Island. In local language the name means "land down" because was built on the slopes of the highest hill present at Bunaken. It is located in a green valley overlooking the island of Manado Tua.
The long Dutch domination has also greatly contributed to the evangelization of the indigenous population. Animism, still present today even if only in the form of rituals and taboos, was gradually supplanted by Christianity, Protestant and Pentecost. The first church, together the first school, was established in 1918 by Theopilus Domitz.

Domitz, native of Ambon Island, moved to Bunaken after serving several years in prison. Sentenced by a Dutch court for offenses, once released from prison he leaved definitely Ambon. Arrived in Bunaken, he created the first Protestant Christian congregation and with it the first elementary school. Today, in the village of Bunaken it is still possible to visit the building where lessons and assemblies were held. It is the only building of colonial era remained on the island, surrounded by banana trees and palm trees, made of a stone basement, inside which it develops a room, and a wooden superstructure on top. The actual church of Bunaken, recognizable from the sea because of its big size and its colors, was rebuilt from an already present older structure and completed only in year 2000.

Today, schools in Bunaken are managed by the government. Access is guaranteed to all, regardless of creed. On the island there are kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools. For those who wish to continue their studies in high schools, the only alternative is moving to Manado.

Following the European domination, almost all North Sulawesi is mainly Christian. Islam arrived only later and still 90% of the population follows Christianity. Also Bunaken respects the same proportion. The first mosque was built in 1925, then restored completely only in 1976. Muslims have settled exclusively near the mosque: they do not like to mix with Christians, although the coexistence between religions is peaceful and there is mutual tolerance.

Animism still exists but only in private and inside family. However, at the launch of a new boat, at the construction of a new house or garden, at the construction of a tomb, the residents perform ancient rites and recite formulas. Many also still believe in jungle’s spirits which at night enter homes, or believe in the presence of evil beings that possess people. It's not unusual to see women who are afraid to walk alone at night due to the presence of ghosts.

During the Japanese domination (1942-1945), Japanese soldiers settled in Bunaken, guarding strategic points. On the top of Manado Tua mountain, also was organized a spotting site with anti-aircraft artillery for enemy planes flying over Manado. However, there is no record of bloody events or violence on the population and today there is no more trace of their military installations.

Following the Indonesian’s independence declaration on August 17, 1945, also Bunaken step under the control of the central government in Jakarta. However, the transition was slow and complex, because North Sulawesi did not want give up total control of activities in the hands of Jakarta. Many areas opposed and didn’t accept the authority of the new national government and the elite that ran the most thriving commercial enterprises still sided with the Dutch. In 1957 they declared the independence of the whole of North Sulawesi, then unleashing the armed intervention of Jakarta that with aviation bombed also Manado. In June 1958 Manado capitulated under the overwhelming forces of the central government of Indonesia.
Since then, the sites have found peace and tranquility. Even the inhabitants of Bunaken enjoyed this opportunity, and under the guidance of the new central government have benefited of new schools and a basic medical care. The population gradually increased, reaching today over 4,000 inhabitants, divided between the 3 villages, without, however, a noticeable economic development.

Since the earliest times, people live mainly from fishing, which is the most important and relevant activity. The fish surplus is sold Manado market. Instead, raising pigs, poultry and harvesting fields (coconuts, sweet potatoes, cassava, vegetables and bananas) is still a low intensive activity. The agriculture indeed is at subsistence level and commercial exchange with Manado is modest. Rice, the primary diet element, is imported from Manado, so as drinking water, unfortunately still very scarce on the island. The fresh water shortage was one of the factors that slowed down the development of Bunaken.

A major boost to the economy of the island and was provided by the creation of the Bunaken Marine Park in 1991. Since then, island’s popularity grown and a new international image begun to attract a growing stream of visitors: mainly divers, snorkelers and naturalists. The Marine Park, located in the Celebes Sea, offers the most 'high biodiversity' for all the species of corals, fishes and other sea creatures. The abundance of cold currents, originated from very deep underwater valleys that surround the island, help to feed the reef. The deep green of the jungle and mangroves, in contrast with the blue of the reef, create breathtaking scenery.

Following the flow of tourists, many resorts were built, both on the part of local entrepreneurs, both on the part of foreign investors. The resorts offer overnight stay in bungalows, restaurant and diving. Today this is the main source of wealth of the island and significantly contributed to raising the average income of local people. Many islanders in fact working directly or indirectly employed by the resort, providing maintenance services, transport, brokerage, supply of various kinds, and customer service.

Bunaken today presents itself as a place with predominantly tourist destination, where the new economy has to deal with the demands of the local community and their traditions. Unlike other destinations, Bunaken is a small island where the tourists flow is limited and local people follow their own interests, sometimes far away from the new tourist vocation. The high population’s rate growth today insists on the resources of the sea and the expansion of villages and construction of resort requires resources from the jungle. The challenge for the future will be then to reconcile the development of the major economies of the island, with the improvement of life’s quality and the protection of natural heritage.

Amedeo Gaudino
Copyright 2015

Raja Laut Dive Resort Bunaken
Raja Laut Dive Resort Bunaken
Raja Laut Dive Resort Bunaken
1 articles published

Raja Laut is a small eco dive lodge situated in Bunaken Island, Indonesia, with 6 sea front view bungalows, a professional diving center, PADI school, a restaurant with an Italian cuisine touch.
Located in the heart of the Celebes Sea, the Bunaken Marine National Park, North Sulawesi, Indonesia, it enjoys the best wall diving in the word.
Raja Laut has wonderful sea view, with ...

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Docy Good
25 January 2016

Interesting, informative and instructive article! Thanks