Sulawesi History Facts and Timeline

(Sulawesi, Sunda Islands, Indonesia)

The distinctive shape of Sulawesi - often said to resemble petals of an orchid, marks it as one of Indonesia's most unique islands. The geological history of the island is an extremely complex one, involving major tectonic action most likely caused by a collision of three lithospheric plates some 250 million years ago.

Situated between the Maluku Islands and Borneo, Sulawesi boasts the fourth-largest area and third-largest population of any of Indonesia's islands. While Sulawesi may still be relatively unknown to most foreign tourists, those who venture here will not be disappointed by the white powdery beaches along its meandering coastline, or the towering volcanic mountains in the middle of the island.


Rock-built shelters discovered in Maros in the South Sulawesi province indicate that the first humans settled here around 30,000 BC, roughly 10,000 years after the island was part of the land bridge that once linked present-day Indonesia to Australia. The first settlers lived on the island's south and north-west coasts, with the Bugis later becoming Sulawesi's most dominant ethnic group.

The Bugis

Sulawesi's many Bugis chiefdoms frequently traded women in peacetime and battled each other during times of conflict. Head hunting was a common tradition. The Bugis planted rice along the island's rivers, in addition to hunting and gathering.

More than 400 granite megaliths shaped like pots, plates or people, dating from 3000 BC onwards, still stand throughout central Sulawesi. The Bugis, like their fellow Minahasas, were great seafarers, shipbuilders and famed traders. As coastal people living along the south-western peninsula, the Bugis took to the seas to trade throughout the Indonesia archipelago.

European Conquest

The island's colonial history began when Portuguese sailors in search of gold set foot on Sulawesi in 1511 and named the island 'Celebes'. Today, Portuguese surnames and certain Portuguese words can still be found in the North Sulawesi province.

The Dutch and English arrived during the early 17th century. Arung Palakka, a warlord who ruled a Bugis kingdom called Bone, helped the Dutch conquer Sulawesi at the end of the 1660s. Bone became the island's dominant kingdom during the Dutch rule, which brought its cultural development to a halt.

WWII and Indonesian Independence

The island was part of the Netherlands East Indies between 1905 and WWII, when it fell under Japanese occupation, along with other parts of present-day Indonesia. No fewer than 4,000 people died at the hands of the Dutch captain 'Turk' Westerling (Raymond Pierre Paul Westerling) at the time of the South Sulawesi Campaign (1946 to 1947), a major crusade of the National Revolution. Sulawesi became part of the newly independent nation of Indonesia in 1950.

Conflict and Peace

Sulawesi's modern history has been marred by civil strife. The biggest conflicts in the years following Indonesian independence have been between Christians and Muslims. Laskar Jihad and other militias of the Islam persuasion became involved in some of the island's most violent religious struggles between 1999 and 2001. More than 1,000 people sadly lost their lives during these two years.

Today, civil unrest has abated and Sulawesi is once again a top Indonesian tourist destination. The government recently launched the 'Visit South Sulawesi 2012' tourism campaign to highlight the island's spectacular cultural and marine sites, as well as its return to calm after a harrowing political storm.