Where Do Indonesian Islands’ Names Come From ?

I have often wondered looking at names on an Indonesian map about what was the story behind it.

This article gathers the results of my research about the origin of the names of islands of Indonesia.

The origin of the name Sumatera

This one is very interesting. What we know :

  • Sumatra is mentioned very early by Indian texts (such as the Ramayana or the Jataka tales) as Suwarnadwipa (‘Island of Gold’) and Suwarnabhumi (‘Land of Gold’) as a reference to the gold produced in the highlands.
  • The Chinese Monk I-Tsing (or I-Ching) who stayed in Sriwijaya (now Palembang) late 7th century also uses a Chinese rendering for ‘Land of Gold’ to name the island he was staying.
  • The Padang Roco inscriptions (dated 1286 and written in Sanskrit and Old Malay using old Javanese script) refers to Sumatra island as Suwarnabhumi (‘Land of Gold’) and Bhumi Malayu (‘the land of Malayu’). The later Javanese poem of the Nagarakretamaga (14th century) also refers to Bhumi Malayu.
  • The Chinese archive kept the memory of a king of Sriwijaya (the major maritime entrepot of the Strait of Melaka from 7th to early 11th century) that sent an envoy to China in 1017. He was referred to as Haji Sumatrabhumi (‘king of the land of Sumatra’).
  • Early traveler Marco Polo (1292) reported the existence of the kingdom of Samara in the north of Sumatra island. Odorico da Pordenone reports in 1318 his travel from Coromandel in India to Sumoltra. Ibn Battuta (1323) calls this kingdom Samatrah.
  • From the 10th to 13th century, Arabs merchants called this island Lamri in reference to the port of Lamri (or Lamuri, now Banda Aceh) the first port ships reached after crossing the Indian Ocean.
  • The first Portuguese maps from the 16th century already mention the name Sumatra.

In the 14th century, the port town of Pasai (alongside Pidië) in what is now Aceh province became the largest trade center in the Strait of Melaka, notably for pepper, camphor but also silk or gold.

The port was known as Pasai in Malay texts and Portuguese reports but as Samudra from traders in India (meaning ocean in Sanskrit).

What I understand is that there is basically a mythical name (‘Land of Gold’) that was progressively replaced by a more mundane name. Basically the name of the harbor the foreign traders reached first.

Sources :

  • Anthoney Reid & all – Indonesian Heritage Series 03 Early Modern History.
  • Sumatra article on Wikipedia.

The origin of the name Java

In the Javanese language, Java is called Jawa.

The main theory today is that Java founds its source in Sanskrit.

In the first volume of his history of Java (chapter 1), Raffles reported a local tradition attributing the name Jawa to early settlers who would have subsisted on an abundant kind of grain they called jawawut. It’s worth noting that in modern Javanese, jewawut is the name for foxtail millet.

In the Indian Sanskrit epic of the Ramayana (which may go back as early as the 3rd century AD), a place called Yavadvipa is mentioned (yava meaning in ancient time grain or corn and dvipa island).

In Ptolemy’s Geography (originally written in 150 AD), a placed which location seems to match Java’s is called labadiu (probably a Greek adaptation of the Sanskrit). Labadiu is said to mean ‘barley island’.

Sources :

  • “‘Java’ in Ptolemy’s Geographia’ on Medium (link).
  • Raffles History Of Java’s can be downloaded on Project Gutemberg.

The origin of the names Kalimantan and Borneo

It is believed that the name Borneo was forged during the early contacts of the region with European explorers (mostly Portuguese) who corrupted the name ‘Brunei’, an already existing state on the north coast of Borneo.

The source of the world Kalimantan is thought to be Kalamantan which means ‘the land of the Lamanta’ in an unspecified local language. Lamanta is the local name for ‘raw sago’ which is the main plant found on the coast swampy areas.

The Javanese later transformed this name to Kalimanten which means ‘River of the Precious Stones’ in old Javanese (in modern Javanese kali means ‘river’ and inten ‘diamond’).

Diamonds have indeed been extracted for centuries east of Pontianiak and near Banjarmasin. Martapura was a center for diamond cutting.

Later, Kalimanten became Kalimantan.

Source :

  • Jan Avé & Victor King – Borneo : The people of the Weeping Forest. Tradition and Change in Borneo (1986).
  • Anthoney Reid & all – Indonesian Heritage Series 03 Early Modern History.

The origin of the name Lombok

Gurun Island, also called Lombok Merah is mentionned in the 14th century Javanese poem of the Nagarakretagama.

In Indonesian, the word lombok means chili. But the fact that Lombok island is called that way doesn’t seem to have anything to do with chili.

Nowadays, it is commonly accepted among the local Sasak that Lombok means lurus (in Indonesian literally ‘straight, here : honest, trustful). Anyway the name Lombok was chosen because it was auspicious.

Cederoth remarked in the 70s that in patriotic speeches or writings, Lombok was often called Selaparang. Selaparang was an old kingdom established in east Lombok maybe as early as the 13th century.

Sources :

  • Sasak article on Indonesian Wikipedia.
  • Sven Cederroth – The Spell Of The Ancestors And The Power Of Mekkah. A Sasak Community In Lombok (1981).

The origin of the name Sumba

Different languages are spoken in Sumba but all Sumbanese more or less refer to their island as Wai Humba (and themselves as Tau Humba).

Source : Gregory Forth – Rindi. An Ethnographic Study of a Traditional Domain in Eastern Sumba (1981).

The origin of the name Flores

The Portuguese called the eastern part of the island ‘Cape of Flowers’ or ‘Cabo de Flores’ and the name remained.

In 1969, Sareng Orin Bao reported that the oral tradition of the Sika region considered the island was originally called Nusa Nipa ‘Dragon Island’ (due to the shape of the island).

Nonetheless, according to Forth : “‘Nusa Nipa’ is a designation which at present is widely accepted on Flores as the indigenous name for the entire island. In spire of the argument of Sareng Orin Bao (1969) who adduces a variety of evidence favoring this interpretation, it remains uncertain whether this was in a fact a traditional usage, or at any rate on that was known throughout Flores.

Sources :

  • Gregory Forth – Beneath the Volcano. Religion, Cosmology and Spirit Classification among the Nage of Eastern Indonesia (1998).
  • Tular Sudamadi – Between colonial legacies and grassroots movements: exploring cultural heritage practice in the Ngadha and Manggarai Region of Flores (2014).

The origin of the name Sulawesi

I have always read the same explanation, even though it’s never very much substantiated. In a Central Sulawesi language (which one ?), sula means ‘island’ and mesi ‘iron’. So Sulawesi would mean iron island.

Iron deposits in Indonesia are not very common, one of the main and historical one is near Matano Lake in the highlands of Central Sulawesi.

According to Pelras, this specific iron was especially sought after because it contains also some nickel and was especially fit to forge weapons. According to Van Duuren, the most prestigious ancient keris (traditional dagger with an undulating blade originating from Java) featured sophisticated reflections and patterns on the blade that the smith could create only using an alloy of iron an nickel.

If we follow this theory, Sulawesi would have gotten this name, not just became the native Bugis traded iron but because it was there that the Javanese princes sourced the metal of their sacred weapons.

I found also worth noting that historically, Wakatobi islands (southeastern tip of Sulawesi) were called Tukangbesi islands (‘Ironsmith islands’).

Sources :

  • Sulawesi article on Wikipedia.
  • Christian Pelras – The Bugis (1996).
  • David Van Duuren – The Kris. An earthly approach to a cosmic symbol

The origin of the name Maluku

The usage of the name Maluku is attested from the 14th century based on the Nagarakretagama Javanese poem.

Interpretations (mid-16th century) collected by early Dutch missionaries and chroniclers reported that the meaning of Maluku was ‘the head of a bull‘ or ‘the head of something large‘ in an unspecified local language.

According to Andaya, it’s at least a century later that there was “an attempt to provide an Islamic explanation”.

In his reference history of Indonesia, historian M.C. Ricklefs writes that the term Maluku was “ultimately derived from the Arab traders’ term for the region, jazirat al-Muluk, the land of many kings”. If we follow Andaya (who is more specialized in Maluku than Ricklefs who is primarily a specialist of Java), this would be a latter reinterpretation of an existing name.

Sources :

  • Leonard Y. Andaya – The World of Maluku. Eastern Indonesia in the Early Modern Period (1993).
  • M.C. Ricklefs – A History of Modern Indonesia Since C.1200 (4th edition, 2008).

The origin of the name Papua

We know from Portuguese records that when their sailors reached eastern Indonesia in the early 16th century, Papua was already a common name.

The most plausible explanation I found was proposed by ethnographer F.C. Kamma in a 1954 book. He remarked that the Raja Ampat islands (which are the easternmost part of Papua) were sometimes referred to in Biak and Numfoor (2 islands further east in the Cendrawasih Bay) as Sup i babwa which means ‘the land below’ (i.e. below the sunset, so west).

In the Biak dialect spoken in some islands of the Raja Ampat, ‘babwa’ was pronounced ‘papwa’.

Kamma thus suggested that in the course of time, the name (Sup i) papwa might have become Papua. And because Raja Ampat islands were the first part of Papua outsiders (mostly coming from the west) would visit, the name Papua would have become a generic term for this region.

The origin of the name Raja Ampat

Historically, the Raja Ampat islands were ruled by 4 rulers in Salawati, Waigeo, Misool and Waigama (which is located in the northeast part of Misool island).

They were designated as the Kalana Fat (‘Four Kings’). When the Dutch established a colonial administration in West New Guinea in 1900, it seems that this name was gradually translated to the Malay equivalent Raja Empat (‘Four Kings’).

The fact that ‘four’/’empat’ is written ‘ampat’ instead of ’empat’ is probably due to the regional pronounciation of empat.

Source : J.H.F. Sollewijn Gelpke – On the origin of the name Papua. 1993 (link).


  1. Hi. Good reading and interesting theories. Some are a bit simplistic, and the language/grammar is a bit off, but generally plausible for the most part. Thank you.

    • Hi, yeah this is more an organized collection of various notes than an article.

      Feel free to share more detailed comments !


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