The island of Ambon is situated in the central Moluccas (Maluku Tengah) which lies in the eastern part of Indonesia. Compared to many other parts of Indonesia, little is known of its pre-colonial history. Today, Ambon is well known for its beautiful scenery and the musical talents of its people who originally had their own local language which has now been superseded by Malay.
In the 15th century, Islam already had a firm foothold in the Moluccas. The most dominant kingdom in North Moluccas was the Raja Ampat (Four Kings) federation. In the Central Moluccas, the Kingdom of Hitu was also an important political centre. After the domination of the Portuguese, and afterwards the Dutch, the Central Moluccas were Christenised, first to Catholicism and later to Protestantism which has been the dominant religion ever since.
In the bid for monopoly in the spice trade, the Dutch created a spice centre in the Central Moluccas especially for cloves while its place of origin, the Northern Moluccas was abolished as a place of its cultivation. The direct control which resulted from this situation has made its influence felt in the social and cultural atmosphere of this region.
The National Library of Indonesia has 354 items of Moluccas provenance listed in its catalogue but according to researchers of Pusat Bahasa (Language Center) in Ambon, a number of collections are still waiting to be studied. Two sources which are frequently mentioned in studies of Moluccas history are Hikayat Tanah Hitu and Sejarah Ternate.
At present many manuscripts in the Ambon archipelago are still kept by local people, particularly in the areas of the former kingdoms, such as Kaitetu, Hitu, Hila, Laha, Banda, Halmahera, and Seram. According to sources, more than 200 manuscripts have been found in the Ambon archipelago in the possession of the local population - most of these manuscripts are in a poor condition and need to be preserved as soon as possible.
Until now, little or no attention has been paid to Ambon manuscripts, perhaps because this part of the country is known for its Christian population and the manuscripts are in Arabic script, so that there was little interest as to their contents.Those manuscripts that have already been located will be digitised and copies deposited with the National Library and the University of Indonesia. Efforts will be made to persuade the owners to allow the original manuscripts to be relocated to a safe regional archival home. If this is not possible then they will be shown how to care for their manuscripts. A survey for other manuscripts will also be undertaken.
According to researchers of Pusat Bahasa (Language Center) in Ambon, a number of collections are still waiting to be studied. Manuscripts kept in personal collections are extremely vulnerable, due to the tropical climate and the lack of knowledge of manuscript preservation. If no action is taken soon, we can be certain that the Ambon manuscripts will be lost. This means that our source of knowledge of the spiritual life of the ancient Moluccas people will also be lost forever.
During the project, eleven villages were visited on the islands of Ambon and Haruku. 182 manuscripts were digitised from the villages of Hila, Hitu Lama, Hitu Messeng, Kaitetu, Morella and Seith in Ambon, and Kabau and Pelalu on the islands of Haruku, held by 12 owners or keepers.
The manuscripts contain a wide variety of subjects, such as genealogies, epic tales, poetry, Alquran, prayers, sermons, and official documents. Most of the Ambon manuscripts are in the form of rotulus (vertical rolls) kept in a protective sheath of bamboo; the paper is mostly European,while in some cases dluwang or native paper or blank paper is used. Languages used in the texts are Arabic, an Ambon dialect of Malay, and Dutch. Writing systems used are Arabic, Jawi (Arabic-Malay scripts) and Latin.
The Ambon manuscripts which have been digitised remain with their original owners. The digital copies have been deposited with the National Library of the Republic of Indonesia (PNRI), Library of the University of Indonesia, the British Library and with the manuscript owners. The project has helped to raise awareness amongst local people of the importance of preserving the cultural legacy inherited from their ancestors.