About the Tanimbar Islands

Damianus Marsele

The Tanimbar Islands are in the Indonesian province of Maluku, at the end of the long arc of islands that stretches from Sumatra through Java, Bali, Lombok and down through Timor

The largest island in the group is Yamdena, some seventy miles long and forty miles wide at its widest. To the north are Fordata and Larat, and to the south is the island of Selaru. Several islands lie to the West including Sera. This sketch map gives a rough layout of the islands.

Map of the Tanimbar Islands

Map: Will Buckingham, adapted from McKinnon 1991.

The main administrative capital of the islands is Saumlaki, on the southern tip of Yamdena.


It is hard to reconstruct much of Tanimbarese history due to the lack of indigenous records before the twentieth century. Although the islands were claimed by the Dutch in the mid 1600s, Dutch presence in the islands was limited until the early 20th Century. The Catholic church established a permanent mission in the islands in 1910, and the first conversions occurred soon after. By the late 1930’s when Petrus Drabbe was writing his ethnography of the islands, almost all of the inhabitants of the island were at least nominally Christianised.

During the Second World War, the Japanese occupied the islands, and soon after the war ended, Tanimbar was subsumed into the fledgling Indonesian state. The latter part of the 20th century saw Tanimbar becoming drawn more closely into the structures of the Indonesian state and also saw continued missionary activity.

By the mid-1990s, commercial interests in Tanimbar – mining, fishing, commercial forestry and oil – were beginning to put a strain on the islands’ resources. And then, when sectarian violence broke out in Ambon in the late 1990s, refugees from Central Maluku started to arrive in Tanimbar, putting a further strain on resources.

If you have any up-to-date information on Tanimbar, please get in touch.

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