Memoir of Tanah Runcuk; A Little Note on the Hidden Map of the Everlasting Expedition

By Pandu Yuhsina Adaba

Memoir of Tanah Runcuk; A Little Note on the Hidden Map of the Everlasting Expedition(1)

Mpu Nala never revealed the place to anyone, neither to Mahapatih(2) Gadjah Mada nor to Prabu(3) Hayam Wuruk. He only took Majapahit’s best shipwrights sailing once again to the place, without the companion crews who had accompanied him at the first time he landed therein. They all agreed to conceal the place because there grew a kind of tree with large diameter wood resistant to salt water. Several months following the eruption, Mpu Nala took the shipwrights to visit the area of the Island impacted by the volcanic eruption. Those ship crews never spoke any single word about the event. They understood that Majapahit would never be able to make another great ship.(4)



 When D. Kusbirin, the son of Prof. Dr. Lukman Sudjatmika, M.Si (one of senior staffs at CTRS) contacted me and asked for my opinion about Tanah Runcuk, I was stunned for a while. A little spark flashed in my brain. Tanah Runcuk.  Why had it be that very name again? It is a name of a mysterious place, whose existence was in between mythical and scientific spaces. I acknowledged that some persons whom I am familiar with had conducted researches on this topic, but with very limited publication. Whether it was due to the sensitivity of the issue, or because the resonance of Tanah Runcuk’s existence was indeed never been able to shake some spaces of scientific debate either in the realm of history, anthropology, or archaeology. Runcuk is a dark room on the corner of the scientific investigation’s ray of light, particularly on the history of nusantara (archipelago). I frequently located it as a memory that was missing from the collective memories of nusantara.


Different Expeditions to Reveal the Exotic Mystery of Nusantara

 There are many places or societies in nusantara located in the grey zone, which means that they have been recorded in history but later gone from contemporary academic discussions. A lot of myths had ignited the curiosity of researchers and explorers to conduct a series of action for the sake of answering such curiosity and at the same time revealing the mystery lying behind existing myths.

An example of the expeditions aiming at discovering the uniqueness of nusantara had been undergone since colonial era. It was Carl Alfred Block who explored the inland areas of Kalimantan (Borneo) in order to discover the race of tailed human, one of the legends in Dayak tribe. He was driven by his huge curiosity. Carl Block visited the Sultan of Kutai in Tenggarong in 1879. He was performing a task ordered by Governor-General Johan Van Lansberge to collect some data about the inland communities of Kalimantan. According to stories circulating at the time, the tailed humans (also known as orang buntut which literally means human with tail) inhabited the area around the settlement of the Sultan of Pasir and the bank of Teweh River. Carl Block did not manage to discover orang buntut in this journey. Alfred Russel Wallace called Carl Block’s journey as a ludicrous event.(5)

Michael Clark Rockefeller conducted a journey to the inland areas of Papua in order to study Asmat Tribe. The journey ended tragically by the researcher’s dissapearance. Some speculated that Michael Clark Rockefeller became the victim of Asmat’s cannibalism. However, such speculation has not been properly clarified regarding many other possibilities such as wild animal attack or accident caused by the extreme landscape of Papua.

There are a lot of different myths and assumptions commonly believed in Indonesian society. One of them is the assumption that Madura Island is a desolate area. It is not more than a construct formed by colonial government in order to conceal their extreme cruelty and exploitation.

In the 17th century, Governor-General Maetsuyker used to report Madura’s natural condition in the form of dense forest. Madura’s dense forest corresponded with the folktales originating from the region, for example about Aryo Menak. A Madurese young man who were fond of going in and out of a forest. A work of a Madurese ancient poet entitled “Bangsacara dan Ragapadmi” tells about Madura’s nature overgrown with thick forests in which deers and muntjacs lived. A massive logging for the sake of colonial government’s business in the 19th century has changed the landscape of Madura into a barren area.

Some “Lost” Lands

 There are several regions that used to exist but later were “gone” from the collective memories of Indonesian modern human. Nevertheless, our historical investigation in the past, particularly about colonial era, strongly depends on old archives that are mostly stored abroad. Discussion on Tanah Runcuk is not the sole existing issue. Therefore, before discussing Tanah Runcuk, it may be better to present some stories about similar areas.

It was Yasiole Island, a place which was told located on the east side of Indonesia. Records on the existence of the island might be traced in Walter Waltz’ travel literature. He was a Swedish traveller who used to work in Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij (KPM—Royal Packet Navigation Company), a shipping company belonged to the Dutch Empire. In some cases, the record was quoted by historicians discussing on the economic level of society living in the eastern hemisphere. The island became a justification for a society that was not familiar with the economy of commercial goods. Production of goods was done on the basis of subsistence and not of capital accumulation. The record on Yasiole Island’s subsistence economy was frequently made as a justification for Marxist anthropologists to describe a real evidence of the phases of society’s economic development according to Karl Marx’s law of dialectic history movement.

The second location to discuss is Nagasaka Valley. A place which was told located in between two mountains, an area of the best coffee bean producer for global commodity in the 17th century. What made it unique is the story about the process of land inheritance, where the people only recognized the cultivation right title given to the manager/beneficiary for one generation only. If the manager died, the cultivation right would be returned to the local communities for a decision of future utilization. The local communities were known to be brave; some men living in that area were even able to conquer tiger barehanded. The note on this matter was written by a German anthropologist, Dirk Bulleck, who travelled along Java Island. Referring to the clue regarding its location, then the area was most likely located around Mount Merbabu-Merapi, or Mount Sindoro-Sumbing, or in between Mount Pangrango-Salak.

In the end, both Yasiole Island and Nagasaka Valley are now unexisting within contemporary administrative map. There are some possibilities regarding the issue. First, the note-writers might name the areas being discovered in their own language according to the impression they perceived. It might also be highly suspected that the island and valley written in those travellers’ note have been named after another name. A similar pattern can be found for example in Geertz’ work about Santri, Priyayi, and Abangan in Pare, Kediri. Geertz called that place as “Mojokutho”(6).


Comments on Tanah Runcuk

 Writings on Tanah Runcuk will inevitably refer to Stern Jr. and Wallach’s records. Those two writers investigated a unique thing in the world of colonialism, namely: The establishment of local authority institution for the sake of colonial power’s interest. It might be not much different from emerging symptoms in Indonesia in colonial era. Similar symptoms can be found in the writing of Jan Breman that reviewed colonial’s benefit gained from forced labor in Priangan(7).

In another study, Robert Van Niel also described a similar symptom happening in several regions in Java in the period of cultuurstelsel(8). It means that what Stern Jr. and Wallach recorded on the utilization of local authority institution for the sake of colonial’s interest did not stand alone.


Comment (1):

The Economic System of Runcuk

 In Stern Jr. and Wallach’s records, it was mentioned that Orang Runcuk living in coastal area had interacted with foreign people from India, China, Arab, and Europe. It implies that the mode of trade within the society was quite advanced. It was also possible that capitalism (at least in its ancient form) had entered Tanah Runcuk. However, as it was customary in Asiatic mode of production happening in eastern hemisphere in that period, the 17th-18th centuries, subistence production certainly still existed. It was in line with JH Boeke’s finding about a society of dualistic economy which was a combination of two things: the development of capitalistic-based production to produce global commodities, and on the other side, some people in the society still produced for daily need self-sufficiency (not for commercial goods/global commodities)(9)).

Another face of Orang Runcuk recorded by Stern Jr. and Wallach is Inland Orang Runcuk (Orang Runcuk Pedalaman). Based on the note, Inland Orang Runcuk were still nomadic. In this case, what to notice is the fact that within the same landscape there were two different modes of production but they could concurrently exist. While Coastal Orang Runcuk had performed global commodities trade and interacted with different traders from all over the world, Inland Orang Runcuk still produced for the sake of fulfilling their basic needs. It is strongly suspected that if such mode of production gained some surplus, it would not be accumulated for investment, instead it would be concidered as merely an anticipation towards unexpected condition (for example bad weather, crop failure, famine, and natural hazard).

To analyze the data from Stern Jr. and Wallach’s records, the description written in the records are definitely inadequate. As common anthropologic writing, the note should contain the information on the shape of housing, building architecture, and the function of each part of the building, thus it might be processed into a deeper analysis on the economic pattern that shaped housing pattern and architecture used by the people of Runcuk(10)

It was a thing we can still commonly find in NTT. The area of Mollo Mountains (administratively a region of Timor Tengah Selatan District) can still give us some insight on the traditional houses (called as Loppo) which were designed as residence and barn concurrently. Harvest surplus were as much as possible stored as food reserve for them to survive lean months. Crop trading for the sake of commercial needs had occured at that time, but in small amount.

Barter system applied by the inland people of Runcuk hardly received adequate review.    Stern Jr. and Wallach’s records only stated that the coastal people of Runcuk had been long performing international commodity exchange. Description on the model of exchange performed by the inland people of Runcuk will be considered mysterious if we refer to the isolated nature of the spatial topography of Runcuk. A unique comparative note might be found in Maurice Godelier’s work discussing Baruya People in Papua New Guinea. The note described that Baruya People still maintained barter system, but in their true nature, they used salt as the counterweight for bartering goods with different value of utility(11)).


Comment (2): Religious System

 What Stern Jr. and Wallach recorded only made a little review on the religious system of Coastal Orang Runcuk (Stern and Wallach called them Orang Runcuk Luar). The note also stated that Orang Runcuk Luar were highly religious in worshipping. They were monotheistic and at the same time believed in a lot of superstitions. The note did not mention the superstitions in detail. It certainly needs other sources as comparison to analyze the religious system of Coastal Orang Runcuk. The most possible way is to find its equivalent existing in other regions during the same period of time.

On the other side, Stern Jr. and Wallach’s record also mentioned only least information on the religious system of Orang Runcuk living in inland areas. The note recorded that Orang Runcuk who lived in inland areas still had faith in beliefs resembling animism and dynamism. It was because they had only minimal contact with the outside world. However, the condition changed when colonial’s interest expanded its agricultural investment to inland areas (the mid 17th century).

We might have the insight on transition from Javanese rationality to mysticism through a novel written by Pramoedya Ananata Toer entitled Arus Balik. In the work, implicitly Pram portrayed the change of society’s religious system from Hindu-Buddha to Islam where it was also influenced by the conflict of either mythology or regulations on values, history, and regulations existing within each religion(12)).


What is Missing from the Note?

 We can literally say that Stern and Wallach’s records on Orang Runcuk contain only few information. What they recorded gives only a little reviow on kinship system. With such minimal information, the note states that: Orang Runcuk adhered to patriarchal system. There were no further explanation about their marriage system, pattern of settlement, life necessity exchange pattern, and so on.

There should be a series of further research towards Orang Runcuk to complete the mosaics of knowledge about Tanah Runcuk. For the sake of it, researcher must perform investigation on colonial archives. And it is surely a long process of struggling.



M Yahandhi T. (2014). Pencarian Ras Manusia Berekor di Kalimantan, online article in:

Clifford Geertz. (2013). Agama Jawa; Santri-Priyayi-Abangan dalam Kebudayaan Jawa (Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu).

Jan Breman. (2014). Keuntungan Kolonial dari Tanam Paksa. (Jakarta: Yayasan Obor Indonesia).

Robert Van Niel. (2003). Sistem Tanam Paksa di Jawa. (Jakarta: LP3ES).

JH Boeke. (1983). Pra-Kapitalisme di Asia. (Jakarta: Pustaka Sinar Harapan)

Maurice Godelier, translated by Robert Brain. (1977). Perspective in Marxist Anthropology. (Cambridge: Cambridge Press)

Pramoedya Ananta Toer. (1995). Arus Balik. (Jakarta: Hasta Mitra)


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