The Mandar Project

The coast of Mandar from the Raja Laut

Note: The research programme is led by Horst Liebner and can be accessed at  Situs-Situs Pra-Islam di Mandar

The province of Mandar (pop. 253,000) is an infrequently-studied part of the southwest peninsula of the island of Sulawesi. The province consists of a narrow coastal strip and a substantial mountainous hinterland; Mandar is known both for its sailors and fishermen and for its upland, head-hunting tribes (George 1996). Traditionally, there were seven ‘pairings’ of upland and coastal polities, the Pitu Uluna Salo (the seven headwaters) and the Pitu Ba'bana Binanga (the seven rivermouths), which traded and raided with each other. Each pairing commanded a river mouth as well as a source of forest products. The region was symbolically united by a ‘king’ residing in Mamuju, but was never a single political unit.

The initial aim of the research was to enquire into the historical validity of this tradition. A fourteen-day coastal survey of the Mandar coast was carried out in July-August 2008, using a traditional Mandar sandeq, a 20-foot sailing vessel with outriggers. This was to duplicate as far as possible the challenges faced by sailors and traders in negotiating the coast and finding suitable anchorage. Crew members were Horst Liebner, Alessandro Ruiu, Ian Caldwell, Pak Ridwan and Pak Isyak, the last two being experienced sailors from the village of Ranggas in southern Mandar. The survey itself took nine days; a further day was spent repairing a broken boom, and the return journey against the prevailing wind back to Ranggas took a further four. The survey vessel had no outboard or inboard motor and GPS equipment was used only to check visual navigation and to estimate forward speed against a prevailing north-south current. 

The survey was divided into two sections: Rangas to Polewali, and Rangas to Malunda. Estuaries and anchorages were sounded and possible trade routes into the hinterland were examined. Oral histories were collected and reports of archaeological findings were explored. One site at Tubo was surveyed, and a surface collection of ceramic sherdage was obtained. This survey provided unequivocal evidence of trade relations between Mandar and the agricultural kingdoms of South Sulawesi in the pre- and post-Islamic periods. Unfortunately, it was not possible to round Cape Tappalang, due to a strong northerly current which meant that the Raja Laut sailed backwards, even with a good southerly wind. As a result, we were unable to survey the most northerly section of the coastline, although later research has indicated that this coastline is of little historical importance regarding the history of South Sulawesi because of its northerly lines of communication and trade.

The project started from the established tradition that there were seven ‘pairings’ of upland and coastal polities from the Pitu Uluna Salo and Pitu Ba’bana Binanga, each pairing commanding a river mouth and a hinterland source of forest products. It is clear from the research that this pairing is an idealised construct, and that it is symbolic, ‘seven’ indicating cosmically-approved plurality and ‘upland/coastal’ indicating duality. No evidence whatsoever was found of any economic or cultural pairing between inland and coastal settlements other than with (or through) Balanipa. This is surprising when one considers the prevalence of the tradition, which can be traced back to at least the nineteenth century.

It is now clear that any notion of Mandar as a political unit refers to the kingdom of Balanipa, which commanded the southern exit of the Salo Mandar river and the southern coast of the Mandar headland. Balanipa’s geographical control of both the major trade route out of the highlands (river valleys run north-south) and the southern coastline, which offers shelter and trade in both east and west monsoons, provided it with an unassailable advantage over other coastal settlements. In short, whoever controlled Balanipa controlled the trade of Mandar with the agricultural kingdoms to the south. However, trade between the west coast of Mandar and the east coast of Kalimantan may have been compatatively free of such control.


George, K.M. 1996. Showing signs of violence. The cultural politics of a twentieth-century headhunting ritual. Berkeley: University of California Press.