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Robodoi, The Pirate from Tobelo

Despite his technical background, Oni Suryaman is driven by literature. In his spare time, he writes essays, book reviews, and fiction. He also worked as a part-time translator for Indonesian publisher Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia and Kanisius Publishing House. He has recently published a picture book titled I Belog, a retelling of a famous Balinese folklore, an adaptation of which was performed at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content (AFCC) Singapore 2017.

Read some of his essays and book reviews at: and

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 Robodoi, The Pirate from Tobelo


Are these my last days?

Robodoi contemplated the words that filled his heart. Tonight, on the beach, he felt that’s where the signs were pointing. The sparkle of the stars in the sky was dimmer, the whisper of the wind seemed softer, and the air felt stuffy—all ominous signs to herald the final moment. He shivered as the evening breeze picked up and chilled his bones. He had never felt like this before. Though he liked to deny it, he knew—as did everyone else—that his life had been directed by the signs.

Robodoi had been born on a dark, starless night in 1785, in Tobelo, a region of North Halmahera, one of the larger Moluccan islands. The sky had been lit by only a crescent moon, and a chilly wind seemed to freeze all beings; the silence felt complete. “This is a bad night for the birth of a baby,” the villagers whispered. “The child is doomed to die young. But if it survives, it will be very strong.”

Papa Tatto—that is what Robodoi called his father—often repeated that saying, even years later. At first, Robodoi did not understand what it meant, but as he grew older, he started to appreciate the words. Especially tonight, shivering on the beach.

Lalaba, had been sitting some distance down the beach. Now, he sauntered towards Robodoi. Not wanting to disturb his leader, Lalaba remained silent and took in the features of the man he had accompanied for most of a lifetime. The wind whipped his aging body and played with Robodoi’s long hair. Lalaba felt he knew what Robodoi was thinking. Their recent isolation seemed to have killed off his strong spirit. It also could be because Yoppi, Pilatu, and their other comrades, were no longer with them.

When at last Lalaba gently touched Robodoi’s shoulder, Robodoi turned his head slowly. The moonlight lit the wrinkles in his face. Lalaba was as old as Robodoi, but his leader looked much older. “It is all over.” Lalaba’s voice was barely audible.

To Robodoi, the words seemed to come from afar, but they echoed endlessly in his ears.


It is all over….

This was something Robodoi had never imagined. Ever since he was a boy, his life had been pointed in one direction. Robodoi remembered how, when he was seven years old, Papa Tatto had taken him to the beach.

Papa Tatto seated Robodoi on a bamboo raft, then towed the raft by boat out to of the open sea. When they were out far enough, Papa Tatto released the raft.

The waves pounded and slapped Robodoi around. He nearly fell off the raft several times, but managed to hang on to the side, until a big wave rolled the raft and tossed him into the sea. Salt water filled his mouth and hurt his throat. It was the first time Robodoi had been scared of dying. The waves became more violent and pushed him into a vortex. He used his final bit of strength to swim toward the raft.

When Robodoi finally reached the beach, he was exhausted.

Papa Tatto only said gently, “You survived this time, not because you’re great. You were just lucky. You can never defeat the sea!”

Robodoi stared at Papa Tatto’s face as his father bent toward him.

“Therefore, befriend the sea.” Papa Tatto tapped Robodoi on his shoulder. “So she will never drown you.”

Papa Tatto’s counsel was wise, and Robodoi wanted to please him, so he tried to take his advice. He remembered what happened when Papa Tatto took him out on a boat for the first time. He was fourteen. He hadn’t thought much of it at that time, but when Papa Tatto handed him a spear, Robodoi realized this was not a regular outing.

Robodoi knew that Papa Tatto always had been Sultan Muhammad Amiruddin’s henchman. The Sultan of Tidore, who was also known as Sultan Nuku, had been fighting the VOC, a Dutch trading company, since the company arrived in the islands. Robodoi was excited when Papa Tatto asked him to join him on the boat along with several other young men. An Iranun slave ship was on its way to Sape, a region in Nusa Tenggara, with dozens of slaves on board.

At first, Papa Tatto ordered Robodoi and the other young men to wait. It seemed that he wanted to show Robodoi how he could destroy the slave ship and capture the slaves.

But the situation soon got out of control. Robodoi and the other mates became excited when war cries and flying arrows filled the sky. When a cannon shot was directed at their boat, he had no other option but to join the battle.

It was Robodoi’s first battle. His breath almost stopped as his boat gained speed. The yelling from the other young men beat the sound of the waves. They sounded like vultures that found carrion. At the same time, arrows whizzed through the deafening artillery fire. It didn’t take long before men from Papa Tatto’s fleet succeeded in boarding the much taller enemy ship. Soon, the air filled with death cries, followed by yells of victory.

It was a decisive day. The spear Robodoi had used to hunt game and fish had now been aimed at humans. Blood that had so recently flowed now dried and blackened on the blade and he realized his weapon had been designed to kill.

The feeling of victory was addictive. The Dutch continued to pressure Sultan Nuku and, after Papa Tatto was killed in one of the battles, Robodoi decided to join the survivors, the men who used to follow his father. They moved from place to place and tried to mingle with the locals of coastal villages before finally moving to Raja Ampat, a small cluster of islands in northeastern Maluku.

But the sea always called to Robodoi. Ever since Papa Tatto had introduced him to the sea, Robodoi quietly regarded it as his best friend. He regularly got on his boat just to listen to the winds and the waves and spent time diving to the bottom of the sea, to look at the fish and explore previously uncharted caves. He began to make offerings to the sea in the form of a freshly slaughtered cow head or water buffalo. Robodoi felt he and the sea had a bond no one could understand.

Robodoi could never really leave the sea. Perhaps he could stay away from her for a few months while hiding from his enemies—the Dutch ships, in particular. But just like someone pining for a lover, he missed her the moment he pushed his boat onto the beach. He missed paddling across the waves. Seawater splashing on his face never failed to revive his spirit. And he missed calling out to the sky, a cry that was quickly taken up by his men. Thus was his life, and no one could keep him from it, not even himself.

At times, Robodoi and some of his mates silently took the boat they kept hidden in the mangrove forest to sea.

That was how Robodoi and his men survived. Initially, no one from the village knew they were pirating. But everything changed when Robodoi discovered a treasure chest filled with gold and jewelry among the loot.

Using the gold, Robodoi managed to buy twelve completely outfitted boats. He bought several cannons and asked some vagrants to join him.

Within a short time, Robodoi had attacked several Gujarati and Chinese merchant vessels. He also dared to destroy a few Dutch patrol ships. His name was feared by the traders, but soon there was a battle that spread his fame even further.

Standing on his boat the day of the battle, Robodoi looked at ten big ships in front of him. They were Dutch ships that had just arrived in these waters. They did not seem to be bothered by the large number of his boats. Only after he ordered an attack, and hundreds of flying arrows were cutting through the sky, did the crew on the Dutch ship become agitated. They loaded their cannons and the crew readied to return fire.

Alas, they were too late. Yoppi and Pilatu, who led the boats at the rear of the ship, had begun to attack. It did not take long before Robodoi could see the floating dead bodies of his enemies as well as his men everywhere.

The battle made him famous. People came to see him and asked to join him. It was no surprise that only one month after the bloody battle, he had more than 400 men under his command. Men, who, he believed, were ready to die for him.

After that, he no longer only targeted the small ships. No ship could deter him. He defeated Gujarati and Chinese ships, he also conquered Dutch ships equipped with many cannons. Doing battle became a daily routine for Robodoi and his men.

Robodoi was, of course, not always that lucky.

Once he was caught by the navy of the Ternate Sultanate. Worried about his reputation as a pirate, the Sultanate dispatched a special convoy to capture him.

Luckily, Pilatu, Yoppi, and Lalaba successfully ambushed the ship that was bringing him to shore. A battle was inevitable. Several cannons exchanged fire. But because he had more ships, the sultanate’s convoy chose to surrender in the end.

Though he had managed to flee, Robodoi was certain that the Ternate Sultanate would make another plan to apprehend and destroy him. So he decided to lie low for a while. To position himself as far as possible from the Sultanate’s reach, he took all of his followers to the east coast of Sulawesi. Of course, he continued to pirate while at sea.

Lalaba did not agree with this decision. Robodoi knew that his friend was cautious and at times appeared like a coward. While the other men were eager to raise arms, Lalaba disagreed with them. “Everything has changed,” Lalaba told him gently. “Don’t you realize that we have become too big? The villagers are avoiding us. We can no longer mingle with them.”

“We can live wherever we want, Lalaba!” Yoppi interrupted him.

“Listen,” Lalaba said, “We have wreaked havoc on those white men’s ships. While they did not respond to our act, I’m sure they’re planning to retaliate. I heard that their ships are headed for these waters.”

Pilatu and Yoppi laughed.

“Don’t they always come?” Pilatu said. “And don’t we always succeed in destroying them?”

Lalaba looked silently at Robodoi, as if asking for support.

But Robodoi tended to agree with Pilatu and Yoppi. They had defeated the white men several times. They now sailed ships he had seized from them.

Robodoi had never really feared the white men’s ships. Even though those ships were large and armed with many cannons, they moved slowly. Robodoi had been able to defeat them with a single attack.

However, Lalaba was not entirely wrong. The new ships ships sailing under the Royal Dutch Navy’s flag were unlike those they had seen before. These ships moved much faster. With just one attack, they had destroyed twelve of Robodoi’s boats. Numerous men died in that battle.

Robodoi was enraged. This was his most humiliating defeat. He ordered the purchase of several more boats and planned a counter attack. When one of his followers reported a single ship flying the Royal Dutch Navy’s flag alone in the Raja Ampat waters, Robodoi saw his opportunity.

That night, Robodoi ordered an attack on the Dutch ship. Yoppi and Pilatu lead the other boats to form a half circle around the ship while Robodoi and Lalaba attacked it directly from the front.

Strangely, the Dutch ship neither panicked nor tried to escape. While it was obvious she was surrounded, no one seemed to be bothered. When Robodoi raised his hand and yelled, “Att-taa-aa-ack!” hundreds of arrows swished into the air. Their attack was met with a few canon shots. Robodoi assumed that there were not enough men on board to put up a fight. But when they boarded the ship to steal its cannons and gun powder, other Dutch ships appeared out of nowhere and encircled them.

“It’s a trap!” Pilatu shouted. He and his men hurried back to their own boat. Without waiting for further orders they dispersed in all directions, trying to confuse their enemies. The Dutch cannons easily destroyed several boats that came too close.

It was a horrible night. During his escape, Robodoi saw many of his men’s bodies floating in a sea red with blood.


On the beach, Robodoi sunk silently into his loneliness. The wind caressed his wrinkled face.

“It is all over,” Lalaba’s whispers slipped into his ears. “All the others have surrendered. We can no longer continue the fight; this running has become tiresome.”

Robodoi did not answer. Lalaba was sitting next to him, but his voice seemed to come from afar. He could not remember how long he had been on the run. He too was very tired. Despite the fact he had stopped pirating, it seemed the white men never gave up hunting him.

Everything Lalaba had predicted had come to fruition. Robodoi closed his eyes. He regretted having ignored Lalaba’s advice.

Now, Robodoi could only draw a deep breath. It seemed he didn’t have another option. Everything had changed. The sea was still his best friend, but he could not escape old age.


Finally, Robodoi decided to go to Tobungku, a region within the Ternate Sultanate. Lalaba accompanied him. It was 1852. Several of his followers escorted him, even though he had told them repeatedly to leave. He knew that, while weary, they still wanted to prove their loyalty.

When he arrived at Tobungku, the Ternate Sultanate sent fourteen kora-koras, Moluccan war boats. Robodoi was separated from the others. He was blindfolded with a black cloth and his hands were tied securely behind his back.

Robodoi knew something was wrong, but there was nothing he could do. Without saying a word, the guards from the Sultanate guided him. He could tell that they were boarding a big ship.

For a long time, nothing happened. Finally, someone ripped off the blindfold.

“So, this is the man who has caused us trouble all this time?” a white man stared at him, grimacing.

Robodoi looked around him. Several white men dressed in white-and-blue uniforms snickered. Some of them pointed a gun at his head. He realized that the Ternate Sultanate had conspired with the Dutch to catch him. Furious, he balled his fists. Even though he knew the Sultanate of Ternate and the Dutch were in cahoots, he never suspected the Sultanate would deliver him to his enemies.

“Do you know why we brought you here?” the white man who seemed to be the captain sneered. He pulled his revolver out of the holster and shot Robodoi in the thigh. “You’re only fit to die at sea,” he said.

Robodoi staggered and lost his grip on the railing. As he fell overboard, he heard laughter coming from the deck.

For a while, Robodoi felt himself sink. The pain from the wound in his thigh spread quickly to all parts of his body. The water around him started to redden.

The waves washed over him several times. When the sea water slipped off his face, Robodoi tried to breathe and surrendered himself to the waves. He recalled the first time he paddled a raft out to sea, using only his hands, and his adventures when diving among the fish and exploring magical caves. He remembered the battles he had fought during his lifetime. Robodoi was certain that the sea had been his best friend all of his life. If, today, the sea wanted to consume him, he would surrender willingly. When the waves once again folded him into a roll and slipped him back beneath the watersurface, Robodoi closed his eyes.

He was certain the sea would not harm him.


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