Locating, documenting and digitising: Preserving the endangered manuscripts of the Legacy of the Sultanate of Buton, South-Eastern Sulawesi Province, Indonesia (EAP212)

Aims and objectives

This project will conduct an inventory survey of around 830 Butonese manuscripts from eight private collections held in Bau-Bau, Maligano, and Kendari, and will search for other families owning manuscripts in the insular region of the former Butonese Sultanate, which is now included in the territory of South-Eastern Sulawesi Province, Indonesia.

The Sultanate of Buton (c 1342 -1960) was a sovereign maritime kingdom, consisting of dozens of islands, situated off the south-eastern tip of Sulawesi. Its dynasty left behind various kinds of manuscripts, now privately kept by the descendants of Butonese noble families.

The Butonese manuscripts are mostly written on European paper in the Arabic and Wolio languages using Jawi - Wolio script. A few others were written in the Buginese and Dutch languages using the respective scripts. These manuscripts were written and copied between the 17th and the 20th centuries. Their contents are manifold, among them are legends, genealogies, various correspondence (such as official letters, contract letters, personal letters), and accounts of traditional ceremonies. Other manuscripts contain Islamic teaching and Sufism, Islamic mysticism, Arabic grammar, Al-Qur'an, language, traditional maritime knowledge of sea navigation, chronicles, Butonese traditional laws (such as taxation, customary law, maritime law, Islamic law), traditional medicine, and divination manuals (astrology, prognosis, and interpretation of dreams). These documents are important sources for the study of language, literature, local Islam, traditional political history, culture and society in Indonesia.

For a long time these Butonese manuscripts have been inaccessible to scholars since they are privately owned by families on the islands of Buton. The Buton archipelago is isolated in eastern Indonesia. Local transportation networks are still underdeveloped and there are no international flights to Kendari, the capital of South-Eastern Sulawesi Province.

Considering their archipelagic nature, the Butonese manuscripts may reflect the culture and history of an insular community in Indonesia. Quantitatively, such manuscripts that show maritime characters, which were produced by archipelagic ethnic communities such as the Butonese, are far fewer than those manifest continental characters that are much found in European, Asian, and African mainland countries. Today, many Butonese manuscript collections are endangered not only by the tropical weather, but also their owners' lack of knowledge in archival preservation and management. Moreover, there has been little interest in safeguarding traditional cultural heritage such as manuscripts, because of the strong effects of modernisation on Indonesian local societies, which make old things less attractive and worthy. If no effort is made to safeguard these collections, there is a strong possibility we will lose forever these important sources of historical and cultural heritage especially since few original Butonese manuscripts have been preserved outside of Buton. Furthermore, the lack of skills in archival management of the manuscript owners and the dearth of moral and financial support by the national and local governments are factors contributing to the destruction of this historical heritage. These collections are also succeptible to the illegal international trade in Indonesian manuscripts. Last year a manuscript 'poacher' from Malaysia smuggled 24 Butonese Manuscripts to his country. This caused a furore among cultural observers and academics in Indonesia's South-Eastern Sulawesi Province.

This project will produce a written survey report and digital samples of selected manuscripts from the eight collections that have been identified. Since this is a pilot project, not all manuscripts will be photographed at this stage. Agreements will be drawn up with their owners for complete filming in the future. Other collections will also be located and permission sought to photograph their manuscripts at a later stage. If permission is obtained, it is hoped this pilot project will lead to the development of a major research project for digitising these Butonese manuscripts, conducting training for the owners of the collections and local staff working in relevant institutions in South-Eastern Sulawesi Province, in order to preserve the manuscripts from total destruction and help save them for the future.


Political issues of autonomy and separation that flared in South-East Sulawesi province meant the project could not be as fully completed as originally planned. However, almost 100 manuscripts from six collections were able to be digitised and copies deposited with Haluoleo University at Kendari and with the British Library. It was not possible to carry out a more extensive survey locating additional manuscript collections due to the political unrest.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: