Plantation workers in Halmahera carrying the funnel-shaped baskets favored by Alfur people to collect forest products.
Several origins for the term Alfur have been proposed, including from Spanish, Portuguese, and even Arabic. The most likely hypothesis however is that it originated from Tidoresehalefuru, a compound composed of the stems hale "land" and furu "wild, savage". From Tidore it was adopted and used by Malay traders and the Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch adventurers and colonists who came to the Spice Islands.
The term referred to certain lands and their inhabitants that were considered "wild", "untamed" or "pagan", particularly in regions that fell under the influence of Tidore and neighboring Ternate. The term was thus especially used of peoples in the Maluku Islands (Halmahera, Seram, and Buru among others) and nearby areas of northern and central Sulawesi. Until the 1900s even Papuans were also often called "Alfur". In 1879 Van Musschenbroek, former Resident of Menado, described the use of the term in the following way:
"The general native criterion whether one still is [or is no longer] an Alfur lies in the laying aside of heathenism through the adoption of a monotheistic religion, be it Christianity or Islam. There are thus Alfurs among the most diverse races, both among the Melanesian inhabitants of New Guinea and the true Polynesians of Ceram (actually Serang), as well as among the (Micro?)-nesian Sangirese and the Malayo-Polynesian inhabitants of Celebes."
As with the so-called Indians of North America, the various peoples collectively referred to as Alfurs were not culturally homogeneous. The term Alfur is thus generally claimed to be of no ethnological value, and shortly after the turn of the 20th century it practically disappeared from Dutch administrative and academic writings. The word "Alfuren" continued to be used by German anthropologist Georg Friederici in his works. He used it in a more specific manner to refer to the aborigines or early inhabitants of Maluku, and by extension to those from the island of Sulawesi.
Following increased awareness and respect for indigenous peoples and their ways, the term Alfurs is used nowadays without derogatory meaning. In present-day publications like guide books "Alfur" is included as a generic name for the indigenous people living in forest areas of the larger islands of the Maluku, like Halmahera, Buru or Seram.
^S. C. J. W. van Musschenbroek (compiler). "Toelichtingen, behoorende bij de kaart van de bocht van Tomini of Gorontalo en aangrenzende landen,de reeden, afvoerplaatsen, binnenlandsche wegen en andere middelen van gemeenschap." Tijdschrift van het Aardrijkskundig Genootschap vol. 4 (1880), page 94, note 1.
^Georg Friederici, Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse einer amtlichen Forschungsreise nach dem Bismarck-Archipel im Jahre 1908. Beiträge zur Völker und Sprachenkunde von Deutsch-Neuguinea. Mitteilungen aus den Deutschen Schutzgebieten. Mittler und Sohn. Berlin, 1912.