Around the middle of the 17th century, Sonsorol was invaded by pirates from Sulu who called themselves Moros ("Moors", i.e. Moslems) even though their crews included Sea Dyaks, Bugis from the Celebes, Javanese and other "lascar types." Their semi-legendary admiral, Sultan Ilanun Moro, settled down with some of his followers--who thus became an island "aristocracy" of sorts.
Islam sat rather lightly on the Sonsorol Moros: the stricture of the Divine Law they ignored, and illiteracy kept them ignorant of the Koran. Like bedouin of the sea, religion served them as a new ethnic identity and an excuse to plunder their "unbelieving" victims.
With Sonsorol as a base, they continued their predation and grew moderately wealthy--and finally acquired a modicum of culture. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Javanese taste prevailed, and Indonesian sufis visited the island.
Unfortunately not a single architectural trace of this "Golden Age" survived the invasion and conquest by Spanish forces under the Governor of the Philippines, Narcisco Claveria y Zaldua, in 1850. The Sonsorol Sultans were nearly the last of the Moro pirates to be subdued and the conquistadors imposed upon them a ruinous and rapacious colonial regime, including forced conversion and outright slavery.
By 1867, however, the Spanish had lost interest in the island, which produced nothing but copra and resentment. The Dutch rulers of Indonesia added Sonsorol to their empire after a single desultory battle; the natives considered the Dutch an improvement over the hated Spanish, and at first raised few objections; in fact, a great many converted to the Dutch Reformed Church.
Dutch influence remains strong in Sonsorol. Scarcely a family on the island lacks European blood; Dutch words survive in the dialect; the Old Ouarter of Sonsorol City boasts several modest but pleasant houses in "Batavian" style, with raised facades and red tile roofs; the Calvinist "Cathedral" and the small Government House are also worth a visit.
In this period the Moro "aristocracy" (those who traced descent from the pirates) reverted to their easy-going brand of Islam. The Sultans were allowed "courtesy titles" but remained powerless and penniless. Javanese culture shaped their attitudes, especially the arts of gamelan and dance, the esoteric teachings of the Kebatinan sects (including martial arts and sorcery), and the millenarian concept of the "Just King". Out of this ferment a strange blend of revolutionary proto-nationalism and mystical fervor-resentment of the Dutch began to fester.
In 1907 (the same year the Netherlands finally subdued northern Sumatra), the Sultan of Sonsorol, Pak Harjanto Abdul Rahman Moro I, staged a tragic and futile uprising against colonial forces. It is said his followers believed themselves magically invulnerable to bullets. The Sultan and other conspirators were executed, the title abolished, and the island sank into depression, somnolence, lassitude and obscurity.
At the start of World War II, Sonsorol's population had sunk to about 2000, with a Dutch garrison and administration of fewer than fifty. In 1942, the Japanese made an easy conquest of the island, sent the Europeans to prison-camps in Java, built a few bunkers (still extant), left behind a token force, and departed for the invasion of Malaysia.
The new Japanese overlords behaved harshly, almost sadistically--if the tales still told on Sonsorol can be credited--and anti-Japanese sentiment survives to this day. In 1945, a single cruiser manned by Australian and New Zealand naval forces arrived to liberate the island. The Japanese put up a suicidal resistance, and the native population, led by Sultan Pak Harjanto III (grandson of the "martyr" of 1907), joined in the battle for freedom on July 20.
The post-war period found Sonsorol with new colonial masters: a Joint Protectorate under Australia and New Zealand. A slump in the price of copra ruined the last vestiges of the economy; emigration soared, and by 1952 the population had sunk beneath a thousand. The Protectorate, burdened with the administration of other Pacific islands, ignored Sonsorol except as a source of cheap labor.
The Sultan, hero of the liberation, began to agitate for independence. A sincere admirer of western democracy, he believed that political freedom would somehow solve the island's problem. In 1962 the Protectorate allowed a plebescite, and a clear majority chose independence under a Constitutional Monarchy. On August 17th of that year, the Joint Protectorate withdrew.
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