Overlooking the sea at Lohayong Village stone walls and rusting canons, relics of 16th century Portuguese fort, are a fascinating reminder of early European influence in Indonesia. Solor Island, the south-western most island of the group was once an important asset in the Portuguese’s conquests over Indonesia and the greater Spice Islands.
In 1511 and Portuguese expedition noted that sandalwood, the much prized fragrant tree, grew in abundance on Solor, Sumba and Timor. In addition, the narrow strait between Solor and Adonara islands provided protection from monsoonal winds, a perfect anchorage for sandalwood traders bringing their precious cargo from Timor to Malacca or Macau. The fledgling trading post soon drew the attention of the Archbishop of Goa and by 1561 he’d dispatched Dominican missionaries to Solor to spread the Catholic faith to the natives and establish a permanent European settlement.
Although the native proved quite responsive to Christianity, the missionaries soon found themselves and their small community of converts coming under attack from muslim Buginese pirates. For two years they withstood persistent attacks, protected by a hastily erected wooden palisade. During an attack in 1566, just when the missionaries thought all was lost, the Portuguese Royal Galleon sailed into the harbour and quickly sent the attackers packing. The arrival of the Royal Galleon was quite coincidental and an event never seen before or thereafter. The missionaries of course, viewed their miraculous escape as Divine Intervention and bolstered with this indisputable validation from God himself, returned to their evangelism with renewed fervor.
When word of the attack reached Malacca, funds were raised to build a stone fortress and soon after, the missionaries set to work. Built on high ground, close to the shore the fort was large enough to contain within its 2m thick, 4m high walls a church, monastery and seminary. After the construction of ‘Fort of Our Lady of Mercy of Solor’ but known simply as the ‘Dominican Fort’, the community steadily expanded. By 1590, the Portuguese and Christian community was estimated at 25,000. Many of the Portuguese traders took local wives from among the Christian converts, growing kinship ties and improving relations and understanding between settlers and natives continued to progress.
Things changed dramatically in 1613 when four fully armed Dutch East India Company (VOC) ships arrived in the harbour. The Portuguese, having grown complacent during the preceding years, were caught off guard and defenceless. The soldiers who were meant to be guarding the fort were away trading for sandalwood. When they returned it was to find the fort occupied by VOC troops, the Portuguese traders and their families having been expelled from the island.
The Dutch renamed to for ‘Fort Henricus,’ but struggled to make a profit. Under the terms of surrender, the expelled Portuguese traders were supposed to depart for Malacca but most simply moved across the Flores Strait to nearby Larantuka and took their business with them. Adding to their woes, the Dutch Commander began trading sandalwood for himself rather than for the benefit of the VOC. When suspicion arose about his corrupt activities he and another commander defected to Larantuka. In the face of their defection and a general lack of morale, the remaining troops decided Solor was more trouble than it was worth. They made a half-hearted effort to demolish the fort and abandoned the island. The newly appointed Governor-General of the VOC was furious and ordered the re-construction and re-occupation of the fort.
The battle between the Dutch and Portuguese for domination of the sandalwood trade ebbed and flowed for the next decade. Dutch resources were stretched to the limit defending other areas of their vast empire. In Solor, the fort struggled under mismanagement and misbehaviour. Relations between the Dutch and the locals were strained and to add insult to injury the Dutch had failed to shut down the Portuguese trading post at Larantuka. Before the end of 1627, they had no choice but to sign a truce with them so when a minor earthquake damaged the fort in 1630, the Dutch decided it wasn’t worth rebuilding and took the opportunity to extricate themselves from the island. The Dominican’s reoccupied the fort a few year later and commenced reconstruction works.
But the Dutch weren’t quite done. When a sudden increase in demand from the Chinese pushed sandalwood prices up in 1646, the Dutch took the fort once again. They struggled on, even making a profit at one point, and temporarily abandoning for a brief period in 1657. When Niay Chile Moeda, who had great authority over the natives in her regency, became the new queen of Solor in 1665 the Dutch deemed it safe to reduce the fort staff to two caretaker soldiers, a situation that remained well into the 18th century.
The old fort is located in Lohayong Village on the mid-north coast of Solor about 6km west of Lamakera. It is reachable by ojek from Lamakera or small boat.