The Madurese are an ethnic group that hail from Madura, a dry, inhospitable island off the northeast coast of Java, and have traditionally made their living off the island. Also known as the Orang Madura, Tijang Madura, Wong Madura, they are regarded by many Indonesians with the same contempt leveled at gypsies in Europe. The Javanese call them “kasar” (“unrefined”). [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Madurese are a fairly large ethnic group. There are about 12 million of them and they make up about 3 percent of the population of Indonesia. Their numbers far exceed the capacity of their island and about 80 percent live somewhere else. Over the centuries many have migrated to Java. A large number of them live in east Java and have given that region a bit of a Madurese character.

More recently many have moved to Borneo and other islands as part of Indonesia's transmigration program. Between 1960 and 2000, more than 100,000 Madurese resettled in Kalimantan in Borneo from their home island of Madura. The local people quickly grew tired of them as they took away business and jobs. The often ran the shops and worked in the factories in the areas they migrated to.

The Madurese have traditionally worked as farmers, traders, livestock producers and fishermen. They have traditionally been resistant to outsiders and their history has been defined by struggles with the Javanese. In 1677 the Madurese managed to seize the royal treasury of the Javanese Mataram kingdom and the Javanese needed the help of the Dutch to get it back. The adoption of Islam in the 16th century helped the Madurese unify as a people. The Dutch used the Madurese as mercenaries and tapped anti-Javanese feeling among the Madurese in their battles again the Javanese .

Madurese Society

The Madurese once had a noble class but it has largely disappeared. There are village leaders and religious leaders. The later often have more power and often preside over the education of children. Most Madurese belong to the Shafi school of Sunni Islam but they are not regarded as particularly religious. A number of traditional beliefs and customs remain such as communal sacred meals which are undertaken to bring good luck. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Madurese marriages have traditionally been between first or second cousins and have involved the payment of a bride price often in cattle. The marriage ceremony is Islamic but many Madurese customs have been incorporated into the wedding. Although polygamy is allowed by Islamic law it is rarely practiced. Post marriage residence is often with the bride’s family. A daughter often takes care of the parents in old age and she inherits the house. ~

Madurese Honor and Revenge

The Madurese are regarded as hot tempered, aggressive, hostile and clannish and prone to turning to violence to settle disputes. Madurese women have a reputation for being excellent in bed, immoral, demanding and difficult to live with. Many Madurese say that their name comes from the combination of “madu” (“honey”) and “dara” (“girl”).

The Madurese are regarded as proud and blunt. They exert strong control in the Surabay area of Java. The people of Surabay are regarded as more course and lacking in manners by the traditionalists of Central Java. The Javanese spoken there is considered vulgar. With all that said, the Madurese have traditionally been devout Muslims. Many regard them as hospitable as they are rough.

Madurese men are known for their brutal code of honor. They have traditionally carried big curved knives called “caroks”, which other people say they are ready to use at the slightest provocation. Men killing a rival have traditionally grabbed an enemy from behind and cut his carotid arteries or stomach. Such a punishment was inflicted on adulterers, cattle thieves, and people accused of dishonor and making face-losing insults. Carok attacks are often fatal and a single attack can trigger a blood feud that can endure for generations. Sometimes religion leaders are called on to intervene and head off a carok attack.

Madurese Life, Culture and Cattle

The climate and soils of Madura are not compatible with high yield agriculture, especially wet rice cultivation. As a result the Madurese have traditionally emphasized livestock production and raised cattle, sheep and goats, some of which were exported to Java. Women have traditionally worked as traders and laborers of wealthy farmers; men as traders, handicraft producers and salaried workers. Fishermen have traditionally used outrigger canoes and nets. The sarong and “peci” are the garments of choice.

The Madurese love their cattle. Bull fights and bull races (“kerapan sapi”) are big events. In cattle races, riders stand on a wheel-less device yoked to two oxen supposed to replicate a plow. The devise looks like a cross made from poles. The legs of the riders are secured onto the vehicle like feet inside ski boots. They propel the oxen forward by yanking on their tails. Contestants often employ sorcery and magic in an effort to defeat their rivals.

There are bull racing stadiums all over Madura. The biggest one is in Pamekasan, Madura’s capital. The bulls are carefully bred and prize bulls are quite valuable. When they are young they are pampered and given various things—including beer, raw eggs, special herbs and honey—to help them grow up strong and fast.

Bull Races and trials are held throughout the year with the serious racing beginning in August. The competition gets especially lively in September and October when the quarterfinal action begins. The final is held in Pamekasaan the capital of Madura. The final races may feature as many as 100 bulls. They are decorated with flowers, ribbons and ornamental harnesses and led in a procession through the town. During each race two pairs of oxen are pitted against one another. Gamelan music is played before the race to get the bulls excited. Just before they are set loose they are given healthy helpings of arrack. They races are 100 meters with the fastest times being around 10 seconds. The cattle don’t always run in a straight line. Occasionally they charge into the crowds. The winners get prize money and earn bigger money from stud fees.

Hostility Toward Madurese

Non-Madurese from all walks of life—teachers, merchants, civil servants and tourist guides—have traditionally despised the Madurese. After deadly attacks on madurese in Borneo, many sympathized with the attackers. One Chinese man told the Independent, "They can not peacefully live along side other. Madurese just love to fight and steal." One man with a human ear strung around his neck like a pendent told the Independent, "We don't care about your race. We don't care about your religion. Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Dayak, Malay, Chinese or Bugi—all are welcome. We just don't want the Madurese. All of the Madurese must leave."

The Dayaks and Malays in Kalimantan in Indonesian Borneo resent the Madurese’s economic aggressiveness and their insensitivity to the customs of other ethnic groups, seeming to look down on them. In the 1990s in much of west Kalimantan the Madurese monopolized the minibus transport system, expanded farming into disputed lands and managed to make more money than other ethnic groups. Other ethnic groups accused them of thugish behavior and stealing land.

A 49-year-old Dayak schoolteacher old Time, "It's true we killed Madurese—and ate them. But we regarded them as animals. The Madurese are bad. They are thieves, killers, cheats. They take your coconuts, steal your chickens. It's impossible to live with the Madurese." The "unity in diversity" concept of Indonesia is "rubbish if the Madurese don’t respect or customs."

The trouble in Kalimantan has been blamed partly on deforestation. Dayaks grew angry and frustrated as they were forced out of their forest homes and watched forestry jobs go to Madurese not themselves.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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