About this time last year I became interested in the question as to how the Muslim expansion into South East Asia happened. I found the answer (I think it was there) in C.R. Boxer’s The Portuguese Seaborne Empire; it was relatively straight forward. Arab trading vessels would sail east on the monsoon; wait for the pancoraba or change of monsoon, then sail back with their cargos of Japanese silver, Chinese silks, Indonesian spices, Persian horses, Indian pepper. In the time they spent ashore the sailors would form liaisons with local women; children would be born; and, on some subsequent voyage, an imam would be brought east to educate these children. Mosques were built and Muslim communities thus grew up naturally around trading ports, without any need for aggressive proselytizing or military conquest. The seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor are essentially a history of this early period of Arab voyaging into the Indian Ocean and beyond. Later, Gujarat merchants, also Muslim, continued to transplant their religion into the trading lands.

Something similar happened with the Chinese, who seem to have sailed in southern waters intermittently over a period of a thousand years or more. Zheng He, the 13th century voyager, was of course Muslim himself, but culturally he was Chinese, he was representing a Ming Dynasty emperor, and was in the habit of placing shrines to Tianfei, the Taoist Sea Goddess, at the places he or his admirals touched. There is said to have been one of these shrines at the site where Darwin now stands. Chinese communities grew up around trading ports in the same way the Muslim communities did, with the other religions – Hindu, Buddhist, Animist – accommodating the new faiths. It is fascinating to learn that the port of Malacca which, when the Portuguese took it in 1511, they accounted the richest city they had seen, was at that time only a hundred or so years old; and that, politically, an alliance between the first rulers of Malacca and the Ming Empire was of crucial importance to the survival and growth of the entrepot.

The Chinese voyages ended abruptly about 1433; seventy odd years later, the Portuguese learned how to navigate the Indian Ocean from a renegade Muslim captain on the east African coast and a quite extraordinary campaign of violence was unleashed in an area which until then had remained relatively peaceful; for trade took precedence over every other activity, and religious tolerance was the rule, not the exception. But even the Portuguese adapted. For example: during the 16th century the Dominicans established missions on the island of Solor, off the east coast of Flores in Nusa Tenggara. Communities of Christianized locals who married Portuguese grew up around the Dominican Missions, becoming the people known to themselves as Topasses and to the Dutch as Black Portuguese. The Topasses were active traders, especially in sandalwood, throughout the archipelago and were particularly successful in Timor, where descendent populations survive today, as they do in Darwin itself, which has been a haven for Timorese exiles since 1975.

The derivation of the word Topasses is a matter of some complexity. Tupassi (Topasses), purportedly comes from the Hindu word for hat, topi, because the Topasses regarded themselves as Gente de Chapeo - People of the Hat. They were also known as the Larantuqueiros, from the islands of that name off eastern Flores. The Dutch, whom they fought for several hundred years, called them Swarte Portugueezen in all official documents. In the language of the Atoni Pa Meto population, who had the longest established contact with them on Timor, they were known as Sobe Kase - Foreign Hats. Yet another variant, among the Rotinese, on the small island at the western tip of Timor, was Sapeo Nggeo - Black Hats. Topasses were multilingual. Portuguese was their status language, also used for worship; Malay was their language of trade; and most Topasses spoke, as their mother-tongue, a local language of Flores or Timor.

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