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Topasses (Tupasses, Topas, Topaz) were a group of people in maritime Asia in the early modern period, who claimed Portuguese ancestry or had taken up Portuguese culture and language. Topasses were found in the various places of South Asia and Southeast Asia which were frequented by the Portuguese, such as Goa, Malacca and Batavia. In particular they are associated with the ethnically mixed Portuguese group that dominated politics on Timor in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The etymology of the name is obscure. It might come from the Tamil term tuppasi, "bilingual" or "interpreter". But it has also been associated with the Hindi word topi (hat) which refers to the characteristic hat worn by the men of this community as a marker of their cultural attachment to the European community. Hence, they are also referred to as gente de chapeo in Portuguese accounts or as gens à chapeau in French accounts. It partly overlapped with the Dutch concept mardijker, "free men", who also usually had a Portuguese cultural background, but had no European blood in their veins. While the mardijkers served under the Dutch colonial authorities, the Topasses of Timor were staunchly opposed to the Dutch and used the symbol of the King of Portugal as their ultimate authority.
Impact on the Timor region
As a political entity in the eastern part of Insular Southeast Asia, they arose with the Portuguese settlement on the small Island of Solor (from the 1560s), using Solor as a stepping-stone to the trade in sandalwood on Timor. When the Dutch East India Company conquered Solor in 1613, the Portuguese community moved to Larantuka on Flores. In spite of continuous hostilities with the Dutch, the Topasses managed to obtain a steady foothold on Timor after 1641, and part of the population of Larantuka moved over to West Timor in the late 1650s, as a response to the establishment of the VOC in Kupang in 1653. They were able to defeat Dutch military expeditions on Timor with the help of Timorese allies, in 1653, 1655, 1656 and 1657.
The peace treaty between the Kingdom of Portugal and the Dutch Republic in 1663 removed the acute threat from the latter. By this time the Topasses consisted of an ethnic mix of Portuguese, Florenese, Timorese, Indians, Dutch deserters, etc. Through their military skills they were able to dominate large parts of Timor, with their center in Lifau in the present-day Oecussi-Ambeno enclave.
Independent position within colonial system
The Topass community was led by their own appointed captains, and had little contact with the Viceroy of Portuguese India. They pressed Timorese princes to deliver sandalwood to the coast, which was sold to merchants from the Portuguese colony of Macau or to the Dutch. In 1641, their leader Francisco Fernandes led a Portuguese military expedition to weaken the power of the Muslim Makassarese who had recently made inroads on Timor. His small army of musketeers settled on Timor, extending Portuguese influence into the interior. After 1664 the Topasses were governed by the Hornay and Costa families, who held the titles captain-major (capitão mor) or lieutenant general (tenente general) in turn. The Portuguese appointed an administrator to Lifau in 1656 and in 1702 the Portuguese authorities installed a regular governor in Lifau, a move that was violently opposed by the Topass community. The Topasses had become a law unto themselves, and drove out the Portuguese governor António Coelho Guerreiro in 1705. After more attacks from the Topasses in Lifau, the colonial base was moved east to Dili in eastern Timor in 1769. For long periods up to 1785, a state of warfare existed between the two Portuguese groups.
Decline of the community
In 1749 a political crisis involving Topass leader Gaspar da Costa resulted in another war with the Dutch. When he marched on Kupang with a considerable force he was routed and killed at the Battle of Penfui, after which the Dutch expanded their control of western Timor. Many Timorese princedoms which had hitherto been subordinated to Topass authority now fell away and allied with the VOC instead. The Topass still managed to hang on in Oecussi, and killed the Dutch commander Hans Albrecht von Plüskow in 1761, when he attempted to expand the Dutch sphere on Timor. Their power nevertheless receded by the late 18th century, due to diminishing economic and political opportunities. Still neither Portuguese nor Dutch colonial influence could be firmly established on Timor until the 19th century and only with continuous and heavy military force. The concept Topass disappears from the records in the 19th century. Between 1847-1913 the Portuguese had to mount more than 60 armed expeditions in order to subdue the Timorese in the interior of the island; a few of these revolts occurred in the old Topasses part, west of East Timor. Hornay and Da Costa descendants continued to govern locally as Rajas (or Liurais) of Oecussi up to modern times.
- Boxer, C.R., The Topasses of Timor, Amsterdam 1947
- Hägerdal, H., 'Colonial or Indigenous Rule? The Black Portuguese of Timor in the 17th and 18th Centuries', IIAS Newsletter 44 2007, p. 26.
- Yoder, L.S.M., Custom, Codification, Collaborating: Integrating the Legacy of Land and Forest Authorities in Oecusse Enclave, East Timor, Ph. D. Thesis, Yale University 2005.
- (Portuguese) Leitão, Humberto (1948), Os Portugueses en Solor e Timor de 1515 a 1702, Lisboa: Liga dos Combatantes da Grande Guerra.
- (Portuguese) Matos, Artur Teodoro de (1974), Timor Portugues, 1515-1769, Lisboa: Instituto Histórico Infante Dom Henrique.
- (Dutch) Roever, Arend de (2002), De jacht op sandelhout: De VOC en de tweedeling van Timor in de zeventiende eeuw, Zutphen: Walburg Pers.
- Yule, Henry, & Burnell, A.C. 1996), Hobson-Jobson. The Anglo-Indian Dictionary, Ware: Wordsworth.
- The Lonely Planet on Topasses Retrieved: 17 April 2010