Gorontalo is the newest province on Sulawesi. Recently separated from North Sulawesi, it covers a mere 12,000 sq. km. with a population of 840,000. The area is composed of extensive coastlines, rugged mountains, and a large central valley almost entirely surrounded by steep slopes. At its center is beautiful Lake Limboto. Because of its narrowness, those flying into the new Jalaluddin Airport can view both northern and southern coastlines simultaneously.
According to local legend, Gorontalo appeared when the seas subsided, leaving a wide land area with three mountains in the middle. This legend is plausible given the presence of high limestone cliffs along the southern coastline where ancient corals and giant shells are clearly evident in the cliffs. Scuba diving along this coastline is spectacular. Before the arrival of foreign influences, Gorontalo was organized into a federation of five kingdoms. This federation had a representative assembly to choose the king and then to advise him. Succession was not hereditary but based on the worthiness of the candidate and popular sentiment. A bad king could be – and was – removed by vote. Queens also came to power. This system had been functioning since the 14th century.
Islam arrived with the growing regional influence of the Ternate Sultanate during the mid 16th century. A descendant of a Gorontalo king was married to Baabullah, the Sultan of Ternate. When she was kidnapped on the waters of Tomini Bay, the family naturally sent word to the Sultan. The help he sent marks the entrance of Islam into Gorontalo’s ruling elite. This arrival of Islam in 1566 occurred during the middle of a bitter 200-year long civil war. In 1525, three small rock forts were built overlooking the waters of Lake Limboto with Portuguese assistance. Still in place today, the Fort Otonaha complex provides wonderful views.
The Spanish also entered the general area in limited numbers via the Philippines during the mid-1500s. They introduced corn, tomatoes, chili peppers, horses, and the afternoon siesta to Gorontalo, all of which are an integral part life today.
The Dutch under the aegis of the United East India Company (VOC) worked to wrest control of the lucrative spice trade away from the Sultanate of Ternate and push out all other European competitors. Since the Sultan of Ternate had just brokered a peace treaty that ended Gorontalo’s protracted civil war, he was able to surrender control of Gorontalo to the Dutch. That year (1677) the Dutch governor of Maluku visited Gorontalo, making preparations for a contract between the Gorontalo federation of kingdoms and the VOC. This contract gave the VOC control over the Gorontalo plus the entire Tomini Bay. Gradually, the Dutch gained political control of Gorontalo and ended both the federation and the power of the kings.
The Japanese occupied Gorontalo during the war. The Gorontalese are proud of their resistance. Local hero Nani Wartabone led the struggle and the Japanese were forced out as of 23 January 1942. Locals proudly point out that the Indonesian flag first flew here, a full three years prior to Indonesian independence from the Dutch in 1945. Since Gorontalo escaped Allied bombing during the war, a number of Dutch-era buildings are still standing. Although many are in poor repair, Gorontalo City has a distinctive colonial appearance.
Located just north of the equator, Gorontalo City charms visitors with its architecture and shade trees, streets bustling with horse-drawn buggies and motorized rickshaws, and friendly residents. Those shouts of “Hello, mister!” mean that people are really pleased to see you.
In addition to the Fort Otonaha complex overlooking Lake Limboto, other areas of interest include Lombongo Hot Springs and an easy jungle trek to a waterfall in Nani Wartabone National Park (formerly Dumoga-Bone). Although Gorontalo City is often a transit point for those going to the Togian (Togean) islands, diving is seasonally available from the City. Miguel’s Diving, located in the Hotel Melati Cyber Café, takes certified divers to the dramatic cliffs of Gorontalo.
Article and photos by Rantje, www.miguelsdiving.com