View of the City of Makassar, ca. 1640, with Somba Opu in its Centre
View of the City of Makassar, ca. 1640, with Somba Opu in its Centre

In its heydays in the first half of the 17th century, Benteng (‘Fort’) Somba Opu was the heart of the sprawling port city of Makassar, then sited on the northern banks of the Jeneberang river that today marks the southern outskirts the modern city. Construction of the fort had started in the early 16th century with a number of earthen ramparts; by the 1630s, massive brick walls encircled a mighty citadel that contained the palaces of the sultan, his court and family and their retainers.

On the seaside the wall was reinforced by a layer of compacted earth and a further, outer cover of bricks plus a number of towers and bastions. This sea-wall proved virtually impregnable to ship-borne artillery fire – and imperative were such preparations: Throughout the 1660s Somba Opu was at the heart of a ferocious war with the Dutch East India Company over the trade in Indonesia’s fine spices, nutmeg and cloves. The fortress only fell in 1669, after days of fierce fighting over a breach that the Dutch had blown into the wall with the last of their gunpowder.

The Conquest of Makassar 1650

A Dutch Fleet bombarding Somba Opu, 1660, with Fort Ujung Pandang, the later Fort Rotterdam, in the Background

The years of war left the city devastated: Of the about 100,000 residents before the war, now only some 6,000 remained. To forestall a revival of Makassar, her last and most dreaded competitor, the Dutch company built a new town and harbour a little north of Fort Rotterdam, ceded to the Dutch in the peace treaty. Initially called Vlaardingen, this settlement became the nucleus of the modern city.

The walls of Benteng Somba Opu were razed to the ground; and again in 1701, the Dutch company stopped an attempt of the Sultan of Gowa to rebuild the fortress, this time but without much fighting. The scattered bricks of the citadel’s mighty walls were used for other buildings, and shifts of estuary of the Jeneberang river eventually isolated the site on an island that formed in between two branches of the river. Another Dutch-Makassar conflict in the late 1770s left the district of Somba Opu as wasteland and swamps.