History: Belitung as a Trade Route
Since the 7th century until its peak in the 13th century, the waters of Bangka and Belitung were busy waters. These waters play an important role as one of the alternative routes on the international trade route connecting two large empires, namely the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China, and the Abbasid Dynasty (750-870) in the Middle East. This was the maritime silk route which ran from east to west across India and Indonesia. During this time, the Sriwijaya empire reigned in Southeast Asia (VII-XI century). The Bangka Strait functioned as the sea gate to the its capital, Palembang, while the Gaspar Strait and Karimata Strait in Belitung waters were used for ships crossing to Java without stopping at Palembang. The historical evidence for these routes can be found in shipwrecks near the area dating from the 9th century to the 20th century, most of them caused by harsh Pacific waters. Many of these artifacts are now housed in the Tanjungpandan Museum.
The cultural development of the Belitong community is inseparable from the history of tin mining. Since the 17th century, the population of Belitong has traditionally mined tin. Tin mining by the Dutch in Belitong was pioneered by John Francois Loudon in 1851, leading to prosperity causing new cities to begin emerging near mining centers, namely Tanjungpandan, Sijuk, Kelapa Kampit, Manggar, Dendang, Lenggang/Hanging, and Membalong. Previously, settlements existed where ancient kingdoms used to be. At the same time there is an increase population coming from China and other regions in the archipelago such as Java, Madura, and Sulawesi to work in mining companies and their supporting sectors. Each district city is connected by road to facilitate the mobility of people and goods. Those emerging cities still exists and are still functioning today.
The Sawang people were an important maritime tribe in the area. These excellent ocean explorers had migrated from Myanmar and were often used as guides by the Dutch, particularly for long journeys across the Bangka Strait. They were also known for their expertise in fishing. Due to their strong physique, they were recruited by the Dutch as tin mining workers.
The Sawang people had then lived in Koleknya (boat houses) and lived lives intertwined with the sea. The Sawang tribe believes the sea to be a mystical place, where the sea is not only a place to seek fortune but also a source of strength. The Sawang tribe is tied with a closely-bound communal system. Nowadays, they can be found on the coast of the Juru Seberang geosite and live on the mackarel fished nearby.
A “Kata Museum” (“Museum of Words”) has been established in 2010 as the first and only literary museum in Indonesia. The museum was founded by Andrea Hirata, son of Gantung, author of the wildly popular novel “Laskar Pelangi” (Rainbow Troops). This novel tells the life of the people and education in Belitung which was greatly influenced by tin mining culture in the 1950-1960s. The museum is also equipped with a room called Earth Literature containing educational material in geology.
Belitung culture is heavily influenced by the surrounding geological and environmental conditions. Many local beliefs are there to promote sustainable forest use. For example, the existence of the so-called “Hutan Watas” or “Dinding Kampong” as a small forest dividing the village, as well as the existence of “Utan Riding” or “Utan Pemalik” which is a prohibited ecosystem for exploitation. There is also the term “Tali Utan” intended to protect the river border area, keeping groundwater reserves for surrounding communities sustainable and at the same time preventing erosion.
The morphology of the island which is dominant with heath forest also influences people culture such as making herbal medicines (Oktavia, 2012). The maritime-based community groups are spread along the coast of the island. The morphological diversity of the Belitung coast creates a variety of fishing techniques. For example, the type of “kater” boat used by fishermen in Burong Mandi beach has a very positive influence on nature conservation, using simple fishing gear consisting of fishing rods with nylon rolls. The utilization of a Kater creates a culture of “ngerisi” aimed to protect small fishes.
There is also the “Nirok Nanggok” culture which is a culture of catching fish whose time and location is determined by the “Dukun Kampong” or Village Shaman. Nirok Nanggok is a sustainable fish harvesting method, carried out at only at certain times where the fish population has exceeded the carrying capacity of the waters.
Maritime and agrarian culture generates the culture of “Muang Jong” and “Maras Taun”. Muang Jong is a Sawang tribe ritual ceremony to seek the safety including their expectation to obtain the abundant fish by way of dissolving a replica of a boat complete with offerings. The ceremony is held annualy. Maras Taun is a celebration to deliver the gratitude to gain better harvest in the upcoming year. Muang Jong and Maras Taun have been given Intangible National Heritage status by Ministry of Culture and Education.