I am a historian based at Stockholm University. In 2016 I successfully defended my doctoral thesis at Linnaeus University in Växjö, Sweden. The thesis is entitled Historyscapes in Alor: Approaching indigenous histories in eastern Indonesia.
I have spent much time in Southeast Asia, which has influenced my take on history. My geographical speciality is (eastern) Indonesia. In my research I pair an interest in local indigenous history with global history. Local and global is interconnected in complex ways. Through circulations of objects and ideas, history, also at the most local level, is impacted by global factors.
My research is often situated in the borderland between history and anthropology. I am interested in interpretations of the world and how humans relate to history; how objects and stories connect people to the past and to places. This approach also involves the relationship between people, culture and the environment.
In my research, I engage with archives, with texts and objects, and with peoples, the oral, and the self-experienced. I have sought collaborations in inter- and transdisciplinary projects where different perspectives and knowledges are used to approach shared problems, and have worked in close collaborations with local and indigenous people in Southeast Asia.
Areas of interest:
- Global history
- Asian history
- Early modern zoology
- Ethnohistory and ethnobiology
- Material and visual culture
My research often engages in material culture, oral traditions and how people interpret and use objects. Indonesia is a special area of interest and I speak Indonesian. Language skills is a prerequisite for getting close to people and their lives. Since my postdoc period in 2017-2019, birds of paradise from New Guinea have played a major role in my research. After devoting myself to local and indigenous history and historiography, the birds have taken me on an ongoing journey through centuries and continents.
Below I describe the main research and documentation projects I have undertaken over the past two decades. The presentation begins with a future project that is under development.
New Guinea 1948-59 & 2025, a transdisciplinary study of nature and culture based on Sten Bergman's collections
New Guinea is a large island north of Australia, which is characterized by its enormous species richness and cultural diversity, the latter expressed among other things in language diversity. This project connects Sweden and New Guinea, and involves researchers from the subjects of history, ethnography/art history and zoology. Using transdisciplinary environmental and cultural research methods, we want to shed light on changes that have taken place in New Guinea since the middle of the 20th century, and analyse how these changes affect biodiversity and cultural diversity.
As a basis for our research, we analyze material from the Swedish explorer Sten Bergman (1895 - 1975) who made three expeditions to Dutch New Guinea during the period 1948-1959. Each expedition lasted more than a year. We study and compare Bergman's observations and collections from the mid-20th century with the conditions in Indonesian New Guinea three quarters of a century later.
Following the Feathers: A Global History of Birds of Paradise
2017-present. There are about 40 known species of bird of paradise. All occur naturally in the New Guinea region. The birds (ie males) have developed spectacular feathers, which make them attractive to humans. While other birds are traded alive, bird of paradise have long been used locally and exported as feathered objects.
In the project, I investigate how these animal objects have been interpreted and used in different cultures over 500 years. The project shows how charismatic objects and animals have been part of the global circulations of material culture and ideas since the early 16th century. Interpretations and uses of birds of paradise have changed over time and in the various places where they have ended up through trade and as gifts. In the 2000s, the spectacular birds continue to attract people, now mainly through nature films and exclusive bird watching.
Ujir: documentation of an endangered language, Aru Islands, Indonesia
2013-2016. The Ujir language that has not yet been described by linguists. It is an Austronesian language spoken on an island on the west side of the Aru Archipelago, eastern Indonesia. The island is strategically located for trade with inland rainforests and the east side of Aru, as well as with regional and long-distance trade hubs in Maluku, (the Spice Islands). Historically Ujir used to be the easternmost reach of Islam. Archival sources show that Islam was introduced in the mid-17th century. My work in Ujir consisted of multimedia documentation of language, culture and historical traditions. The project was funded by the Volkswagen Stiftung in Germany and the documentation is preserved in The Language Archive (TLA), Max Planck Institute in Nijmegen, the Netherlands.
Link to TLA: https://archive.mpi.nl/tla/
Historyscapes: History and uses of history in oral cultures in Alor, Indonesia
2009-2016. Alor is a mountainous island with 165,000 inhabitants who speak about twenty languages. My interest in the history of Alor was aroused by a great interest in history that arose on the island a few years after the fall of the country's authoritarian Suharto regime in 1999.
Decentralization and democratic reforms had changed the political map of Indonesia. The previous focus on the centre (Java, Jakarta) gave rise to a new interest in regional and local history. In Alor in the early 2000’s everybody, from high-ranking officials to village elders and school teachers, seemed to be involved in projects aiming at producing written histories from Alor. This proved to be complicated as the local historical sources were oral traditions, memorabilia and places in the landscape, sources that did not easily translate into text.
In my doctoral research, I documented history from different language groups and used narratological methods to analyse the data I collected. Oral traditions generated a new picture of the island's history, which in many ways contested history based on colonial sources from the Dutch archives.
The anthropologist, the collection, the legends - Cora Du Bois and the Abui people
2007-2009. During the years 1938-39, the American anthropologist Cora Du Bois lived with the Abui people in Alor, Indonesia. Her goal was to investigate connections between culture and personality, and to try methods from psychoanalysis on people who were not influenced by Western culture. Du Bois corresponded with Walter Kaudern, a museum director in Gothenburg, Sweden who had published research from Celebes (Sulawesi). Kaudern persuaded Du Bois to collect objects from Alor and send them to Sweden. Their intention was that the collection would be presented in a book about the material culture of Alor, but the Second world war and the sudden death of Kaudern put a halt to these plans. The only documentation was a list of the objects. I have worked on documentation of the collection, among other things by doing interviews about all objects in the valley where they were collected. It turned out that Cora Du Bois was reputable in Alor and had taken on a mythological form amongst some Abui speaking groups. I have documented people who remembered Cora since they were children, and the stories that are told about the anthropologist.
Muslims and Christians in Ternate (Alor) - Religious coexistence in eastern Indonesia
2002-2007. In the early 2000s, violent conflicts raged in Maluku, eastern Indonesia. The battle line came to stand between Muslims and Christians.
During this critical period, I visited a small island called Ternate in the strait between Alor and Pantar. The island is named after the larger and more famous island Ternate in Maluku. I was invited to a big feast in the village Uma Pura, celebrating the new roof on a clan house, and noticed that the guests were both Muslims and Christians. When I asked questions about this, the villagers claimed that "two religions are twice as good as one". Uma Pura is a Muslim village, but the neighbours are Christians. At religious and traditional celebrations, the villages invite each other. Two religions meant twice as many feasts. I conducted fieldwork in Ternate (Alor) in 2002 and 2003 to study how this interfaith coexistence worked. The result was a master's thesis in social anthropology.
Textiles and traditions in Indonesia
1998-ongoing. I have a long-lasting interest in Indonesian textiles. Hand-woven fabrics are filled with symbolic and other meanings, and textiles are a way of approaching the world of women. My interest began with ethnographic documentation of material culture and textile traditions on the island of Sumba, Indonesia. Several periods of fieldwork resulted in photographic documentation for the Ethnographic Museum, now the Museum of World Culture in Gothenburg. Parts of the visuals were included in a museum exhibition entitled “Life and Death om Sumba - The woven world”.
Link to photographic collection (Wellfelt) in the World Culture Museums database Carlotta: https://collections.smvk.se/carlotta-vkm/web
I have continued to do research on textiles parallel to other projects and have published an article on textile production and local trade networks with raw materials and handicraft products in the Flores-Pantar-Alor region. The article won a prize awarded by the Textile Society of America and can be accessed here:
A selection from Stockholm University publication database
Haptic History in Southeast Asia
2022. Emilie Wellfelt. The Routledge Companion to Global Indigenous History, 669-689Chapter
Michel de Certeau (1988) argued that history as an academic practice is entangled with colonialism: western powers write their own history while un-writing embodied traditions of indigenous people they want to control.
This contribution to indigenous global history and uses of history is an exploration of embodied history, drawing on lessons taught by indigenous experts in the Indonesian island Alor, a place where history is very present but not as written text. It draws also on observations from academic fields ranging from architecture to neuroscience.
I suggest the concept ‘haptic history’ as a way to understand how history can be both internalised and externalised when contained in body and landscape. In this context ‘haptic’ refers to the tactile senses that are active as we move through the physical environment. It is a way of orienting oneself in which touch overrides visual impressions.
Haptic history is an experiential totality that comes with living in landscapes impregnated with stories from the past. We share this history-space with our predecessors, the ancestors who in the case of Alor are active agents in the present. Such ancestral presences contribute to a perception of time that in certain instances is collapsed into an ‘everywhen’, found also in Australian aboriginal thought in Dreaming.
Organising history into place rather than chronological time makes it possible to accommodate many versions of the past without experiencing a conflict. Each story has its place, and belongs to people who are legitimate keepers of certain pasts. This multi-vocal history defies the limitations of two-dimensional written text. Haptic history needs living bodies to stay alive.
Collecting Experience in the 1930s
2020. Emilie Wellfelt. Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 176 (4), 587-590Article
2020. Emilie Wellfelt. Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 176 (1), 151-153Article
Raja Ampat Ritual Art: Spirit Priests and Ancestor Cults in New Guinea’s Far West, by Raymond Corbey
2019. Emilie Wellfelt. Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 175 (1), 95-97Article
Islam in Aru, Indonesia
2019. Emilie Wellfelt, Sonny A. Djonler. Indonesia and the Malay World 47 (138), 160-183Article
The coming of Islam in eastern Indonesia is generally assigned to the activities of Muslim traders from the late 15th century onwards. This assumption is an over-simplification, especially in areas outside the main trade centres. In the Aru islands, Islam was introduced by the mid 17th century. We argue that Islamisation in Aru was initially a matter of internal considerations, rather than trade. We present oral traditions about the expansion of Islam as seen from two locations: Ujir, the historical Muslim centre in Aru on the west coast, and Benjuring, a former stronghold of local ancestral beliefs in the east. The oral sources are juxtaposed with European accounts of the 17th century when Muslim and Protestant centres first developed in Aru. The coming of Islam forced people to either convert or leave for non-Muslim areas. By late colonial times (early 20th century), both Islam and the Protestant church had reached remote villages. The most recent wave of conversions in Aru to state-approved world religions took place in the 1970s. In the last 30 years, the population in Aru has grown, especially in the regency capital Dobo. While Muslims used to be a small minority in Aru with their main centre on Ujir island, the point of gravity has shifted to Dobo, a fast-growing town with a large influx of mostly Muslims from other parts of Indonesia. Islamisation is still ongoing in Aru and the character of Islam is changing.
2019. Hans Hägerdal, Emilie Wellfelt. Wacana: Journal of the Humanities of Indonesia 20 (3), 430-456Article
The present study focuses on a set of events in the Aru Islands, Maluku, in the late eighteenth century which are documented in some detail by Dutch records. A violent rebellion with Muslim and anti-European overtones baffled the Dutch colonialists (VOC) and led to a series of humiliations for the Company on Aru, before eventually being subdued. As one of the main catalysts of the conflict stands the chief Tamalola from the Muslim island Ujir. Interestingly, this persons also a central figure in local traditions from Ujir. Moreover, his story connects with wider cultural and economic networks in eastern Indonesia. Thus the article asks how the imprints of the Tamalola figure in textual and non-textual sources can add to our knowledge of how communities of Eastern Indonesia ordered their lives outside colonial control.
Reconstructing contact between Alor and Timor
2018. Antoinette Schapper, Emilie Wellfelt. NUSA: Linguistic studies of languages in and around Indonesia 64, 95-112Article
Despite being separated by a short sea-crossing, the neighbouring islands of Alor and Timor in south-eastern Wallacea have to date been treated as separate units of linguistic analysis and possible linguistic influence between them is yet to be investigated. Historical sources and oral traditions bear witness to the fact that the communities from both islands have been engaged with one another for a long time. This paper brings together evidence of various types including song, place names and lexemes to present the first account of the interactions between Timor and Alor. We show that the groups of southern and eastern Alor have had long-standing connections with those of north-central Timor, whose importance has generally been overlooked by historical and linguistic studies.
Show all publications by Emilie Wellfelt at Stockholm University