The Remains of the Dutch Colonial Fort of Maubara in East Timor
The old Dutch colonial fort of Maubara was hidden beneath creeping vines and overgrown trees on the main highway that extends from Dili to the border of East and West Timor.
I stopped at the fading brown, sun beaten sign pointing into the ruins and ventured through the rusting gates to find out more about this crumbling fortress.
This was East Timor, which for hundreds of years was a Portuguese colony, but here I was, the only tourist for miles around, looking at a colonial fort built by the Dutch and wondering how it came to change between European hands in this remote outpost of Timor.
The Dutch Fort Of Maubara
The Dutch built the fort here at Maubara in 1756. Today, the walls and cannon are still incredibly well preserved for a colonial fort that has long been in disuse. In Dili I found a tourism brochure specifically advertising the fort as a sight of interest, but despite its significant history, I was the only tourist here, and the only person in sight on the quiet coastal road.
The border with West Timor, which is part of Indonesia, lies just over 65 kilometres away. The long division of the island of Timor into east and west goes back centuries, all the way to the colonial intrusions of the Dutch and the Portuguese, whose separation of the island into different spheres of influence still has political ramifications today.
Maubara was first taken by the Portuguese when they began to colonise Timor, officially declaring the island an overseas colony in 1702. The Dutch though had their own plans, and they began to colonise the western half Timor, even taking Maubara from the Portuguese and constructing the fort and installing the cannon I could still see today to protect it.
In 1859, the Portuguese managed to trade what is now the Indonesian island of Flores with the Dutch to regain control of Maubara and other areas in Timor. Portuguese power eventually became contained to East Timor, as the Dutch gained control of all of what is now Indonesia. This laid the foundations for future conflict, as in 1975 Indonesia then invaded East Timor, leading to their occupation of the small nation for over twenty years until 2002.
Although built hundreds of years ago, this old Dutch fort’s history was still incredibly relevant today.
The fort though, was almost completely empty.
Empty Streets and Ghostly Walls
The streets of Maubara were deathly quiet in the mid afternoon. East Timor sees practically zero tourism, especially out here away from the capital of Dili. I wasn’t expecting to see any other travellers, but I was expecting a few more people.
The gate to the fort was rusty but unlocked, and it creaked open to reveal a wide open space with a newish looking building in the middle. There was an old lady in the corner of the fort sweeping up leaves, but she didn’t even raise her head up to me as I walked through the creaking entrance.
The walls were standing tall but were overgrown with trees and shrubs. I climbed the stone steps onto the ramparts and found that on either turret looking out over the sea and flanking the gates were iron cannon embossed with Dutch colonial marks. These were real antiques, gazing out across the beach and the ocean as they had since the Dutch first placed them here in the mid 18th century.
In the quiet confines of the fort, the only sound was the faint rustling of the leaves in the wind until I heard a faint clanging in the distance that began to get louder and louder.
The School Children of Maubara
From my vantage point on the walls of the fort, I could see a crowd of people walking down the road towards the village. They were all clanging machetes against rocks and railings on the side of the road as they walked.
I wondered what on earth was happening, but soon realised that rather than being some sort of angry machete wielding mob, they were actually just a huge group of school children walking down the road, perhaps heading back from class or from a school outing. All the boys had machetes either hanging at their waist or in their hands and were for some reason or other deciding to clang them loudly against whatever they could.
Confused, I watched the large column of schoolchildren continue on down the road. When they saw me a few raised their machetes in the air and shouted ‘Hello Mister!’ at me with big friendly smiles on their faces and a sharp knife in one hand.
Some of the children were leaving the column, walking up different road and entering houses, so I presumed that this large group of machete wielding kids were actually just walking home from school.
Bemused and confused, I carried on exploring the remains of the fort.
Maubara and The BMP Militia
After exploring the fort, strolling along the beach and posing for selfies with a few school kids who were now out and about and livening up the town of Maubara, I had seen all there was to see and began the journey back along the coast to Dili.
This same coastal road was the road along which the Indonesian Army retreated when East Timor was granted independence. During my later research on Maubara, I discovered that this was the town where the BMP Militia was formed, and from where they caused death and destruction during the Indonesia withdrawal in 1999. The militia were pro Indonesian and along the road at Liquica, I passed the church where they committed one of the most infamous and brutal massacres in the long struggle between East Timor and Indonesia.
The militias were all from the same island, from similar villages, cultures and with similar languages and traditions as the people they murdered. Simply because of the east and west divide, a divide which was ultimately caused by the colonialists putting up forts in places like Maubare and dividing the land and the people, centuries along the line and the people here were happy to murder and kill each other.
Maubare took a new significance for me when I began to learn more about the town’s more recent history, alongside its colonial one, and the fort still stands there to me as a sad legacy of the lasting and enduring effects of colonialism on Timor.
Maubara Fort East Timor Travel Advice
Interested in travelling to the Maubara Fort in East Timor but don’t know where to start or how to get there? Then read on for my quick guide to all things Maubara Fort!
How To Travel To Maubara Fort East Timor
There is little information about Maubara Fort that’s readily available, but despite this it is easy enough to travel to if you have your own transport.
The fort is roughly 50 kilometres to the west of Dili, simply travel out of the city along the only highway towards the border with West Timor. You will see a brown sign advertising the location of the fort on the road. Simply stop and walk around. The gates might be closed but if they are unlocked simply walk in, I couldn’t figure out if the building in the middle was someone’s house or a museum, it was all very unclear. Either way there is almost no information unfortunately. Along the beach, there are a few local ladies selling a few touristy goods and a small cafe aimed at tourists. You will still probably be the only tourist there despite these initiatives.
I rented a motorcycle from Hostel da Terra in Dili – they charged $17 per day, which is the best price right now in the entire country! The only other transport options if not renting a vehicle would be either hitch hiking or hiring a local driver.
Visiting the Maubara Fort is a trip best combined with a tour of the coast west of Dili. There are several other points of interest along the coast, including the old Portuguese colonial centre of Liquica and the ruins of the Ai Pelo Prison.
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Location of Maubara Fort In East Timor
All Words and Photographs by Richard Collett