Much has been written about the 1934 Exposição Colonial and 1940 Exposição do Mundo Português in Porto and Lisbon respectively, where “natives” from across the Portuguese empire were put on display — much like third world peoples were in the 1904 World’s Fair in St Louis. (Dom Aleixo Corte Real of Ainaro and Dom Carlos Ximenes of Bercoli went to Porto in 1934. They were celebrated as “civilized” but were also inspected by physical anthropologists.)
Yet little has been written about the attempts of Portuguese administrators to “celebrate” Timorese culture in the colony.
Captain Armando Pinto Corrêa, an ambitious Portuguese administrator who rather resembled Eraserhead, held office as the Administrador da Circunscrição de Baucau in the early 1930s. Pinto Corrêa, it turns out, was probably the biggest promoter of Timor of his times. Quoting from his Timor Lés a Lés (1944), on taking office, he believed the régulos of Baucau did not “possess a moral unity corresponding to the administrative unity placed there by the Government” at the end of the 19th century.
So shortly after the 1930 “Agricultural, Industry, and Animal Husbandry Exposition” in Baucau, Pinto Corrêa brought 70 “maiores” from Baucau together for a great feast in the town of Baucau.
Not long after this, Pinto Corrêa visited the Dutch island of Kissar with a number of maiores. Captain Reis Costa, father of Fretilin founding member Vicente “Sa’he” Reis, is quoted at length during this visit. According to Pinto Corrêa he says, “I haven’t been to your Batavia, but I believe that in some time it could trump our Baucau.” An “indefatigable orator,” Reis Costa tells the Kissarians about nursing, agriculture and animal husbandry in Timor. He takes a friendly jab, telling them that their women, on the dance floor, are as “heavy as a sack of Matebian potatoes.” The visit was friendly, and the departure tearful, as told in Timor Lés a Lés.
Pinto Corrêa decided that they would prepare a visit for the Kissarians a couple of months later. Bringing together the chiefs of Baucau, the Administrator played on their pride, saying that Baucau district was the best in all of Timor, and he “emphasized that the excursion not only be nice for the outlanders, but an impressive lesson of our superiority.”
The first to offer to the planning of this extravagant visit, according to Pinto Corrêa, was Tenente Noco Loi of Baguia, who offered six buffaloes. Pinto Corrêa writes that it was difficult to convince the chiefs that only one buffalo would be necessary in each locality. (People in Baguia told me recently that Pinto Corrêa was a fearful siakteen, and he himself admits he was nicknamed mane manas or hot man.)
Everywhere, there was a buzz of preparation… Two weeks before the arrival of the Kissarians, Baucau already had a festive atmosphere. Brigades of masons transformed, meanwhile, the physical appearance of the houses. Columns of stone replaced the painted wood that held up the rooves of verandas of the Chinese… In a last minute effort, the tailors finished uniforms of the pedibola players, the laborers of the chiefs, the Dutch flags and the outfits for the bainós. There were three tailors and five seamstresses working on the challenge. Just two of them, in two months, were able to make 130 complete suits… And, after thousands of difficulties, bargaining on prices, struggling with the implacable speed of certain owners, the last contracts were signed for the trucks that would make the circuit of the District, in a beautiful route of 386 kilometers…
The entourage visited, at what seemed to be lightening speed, all of the subdistricts of Baucau. One passage, on its travels from Sagadate to Baguia by moonlight is particularly amazing:
Throughout the District, all of the settlements are close to the road are signed by identical arches. From Laga to Baâguia, there are various whose signs read sonorous names: Melidai, Libagua, Samalari, Sagadate, Ate-Lari, Lavatere…
From Sagadate, the road is all illuminated by torches. Thousands of men, planted methodically, every ten meters, on both sides of the road, hold in the air large flaming brands. This imposing and theatrical scene of flames burning extended for 20 kilometers, is, at the same time, a strong and impressive parade of discipline. Surprising even for me, that, having conceived and organized, for the return from Baâguia — and not for the trip there, that was supposed to be sooner — never, however, I cared to think possible, through the night, such a colossal mobilization of people… in areas of remote sucos, and in postos, like in Laga and Kelicai, where there is not the shadow of a European, whether chefe de posto or deportado.
On their arrival in Baguia, around midnight, Pinto Corrêa described what was almost a “force feeding” of the group, with three buffaloes, ten pigs and eight chickens, hundreds of eggs, “forests” of cabbage, and “hills” of rice. There was a barrel of red wine and innumerable bottles of Port wine. He writes the guests were in a true “panic” when they saw that the cooks were attempting to “murder them” — stuff their mouths with all kinds of “zoological specimens.”
The entourage “beat its retreat” back to the coast, the torch lines tracing from Baguia all the way to the coast. They arrived in Baucau at 3am.
Pinto Corrêa finishes his account with the praise lavished on the Timorese and Portuguese by Inspector Wattimena from Kissar, recounting the “enormous admiration that he came to have for our great country, illustrious homeland of navigators and colonizers.”
I find this whole episode fascinating. Pinto Corrêa is unparalleled in his ethnographic, insider knowledge of the District. His works today contain captivating detail, often buried in footnotes. But in the end, he was a very imposing man, feeling a clear mandate to organize, direct and “civilize” if necessary by force. For this he is remembered as a siakteen.
But what motivated the maiores of Baucau? Fear? Curiosity? Competition? Did the “force feeding” of the entourage, as Pinto Corrêa suggests, constitute some kind of attempt on the part of the chiefs to assert their power and agency? (Quoting the ex-slave in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: “overcome ’em with yesses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction.”)
Finally, to what extent did Pinto Corrêa’s attempts to create a “moral unity” actually work — can both the colonial geography of the town of Baucau and the District be seen as a project of this one individual?