Not much is known about East Timor prior to the arrival of the Europeans, although there is ample evidence that Chinese and Javanese sailors and traders visited the region in quest of sandalwood and beeswax, which were found there in abundance. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in the region of East Timor in the early 16th century.
They established themselves at Lifau in 1556. Their claim to the island was disputed by the Dutch, who arrived in 1613. A treaty signed in 1859 and subsequently modified in 1893 set the border between the Dutch and Portuguese territories.
The colonial powers exploited the island’s vast sandalwood resources.
During World War II Timor was also occupied by the Japanese from 1942–45. Then in 1950 Dutch Timor and the rest of the surrounding Dutch East Indies were transformed into the Republic of Indonesia. In 1975 when Portugal’s former colonies were winning their independence, fighting broke out between rival independence groups in Portuguese Timor. The Leftist Revolutionary Front for an Independent East Timor (FRETILIN) emerged triumphant, and on November 28 FRETILIN established the Democratic Republic of East Timor, with Francisco Xavier do Amaral (b.
1937) as its president. Nine days later Indonesia’s army invaded the territory and claimed sovereignty, administering the area as Timor Province. The annexation, however, was not internationally recognized. Meanwhile the people of the area suffered greatly from acute food shortages, disease, and military repression. Warfare with FRETILIN guerrillas also continued unabated. Finally in August 1998 Indonesia and Portugal reached an agreement that gave East Timor the right to local self-government. Indonesia was reluctant to withdraw its forces, however, and talks broke down.
In March 1999 Portugal and Indonesia agreed to let the East Timorese choose between autonomy within Indonesia or independence. In August of that year, in a UN-supervised referendum, voters chose independence. The territory descended into chaos as pro-Indonesian militias and the army unleashed a reign of terror and wanton brutality, killing supporters of independence, raping women, committing arson everywhere, and causing thousands to flee their homes. In September in light of mounting international pressure Indonesia asked the United Nations to send a peacekeeping force to East Timor. From 2000 onward the UN force assumed the administration and defense of East Timor, which became a dependent territory. A constituent assembly (assigned the important task of writing a constitution for East Timor) was elected in September 2001. In April 2002 José Alexandre “Xanana” Gusmão (b.
1946), a former guerrilla leader, defeated Xavier do Amaral and won the presidency. In May 2002 East Timor became an independent nation.

East Timor includes the eastern half of the island of Timor, the Oecussi (Ambeno) region on the northwest portion of the island of Timor, in addition to the two islands of Pulau Atauro and Pulau Jaco. East Timor is part of the Indonesian archipelago as well as the biggest and easternmost of the Lesser Sunda Islands. To the north of the mountainous island are the Ombai Strait and Wetar Strait; to the south the Timor Sea separates the island from Australia. To the west is the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara.
The island of East Timor was once part of the Australian continental shelf and is composed primarily of limestone. The island has a ridge of rugged mountains running its length. There are narrow coastal plains dotted with beaches, cliffs, and coral reefs. The region has no major valleys or important rivers. This topography, combined with the rocky soil and low rainfall, make agriculture difficult. The country experiences both food and water shortages in the dry season.
The climate of East Timor is largely tropical with hot and humid weather. The difference between the dry and rainy seasons is clear-cut. During the dry season, from May to November, the northern coast receives minimal rain, making agriculture impossible in that area. The central mountains and the south coast do receive a small amount of rain. From November to May, during the rainy season, the entire island receives lots of rain; however this often produces flooding and landslides.
Typhoons are a common phenomenon in the region.

When the island of East Timor was colonized by the Portuguese, they exploited and ultimately exhausted its vast sandalwood reserves. In late 1999 about 70 percent of the remaining economic infrastructure was devastated by Indonesian troops and anti-independence militias. Over the next three years a massive international program, manned by 5,000 peacekeepers and 1,300 police officers, undertook a substantial reconstruction in both urban and rural areas. However economic growth was impeded in 2003 due to extensive drought and the gradual reduction of the international presence.
The country faces great challenges in its efforts to rebuild the infrastructure, to restructure and overhaul the civil administration, and to generate more jobs for young people. Agriculture holds a good deal of promise for East Timor’s economy but it also faces obstacles. East Timor’s coffee growers seem to have benefited from the demand for coffee in the Western world. The farmers are too poor to buy pesticides for their crops; of late however Western coffee importers (among them Starbucks) have agreed to pay high prices for the organic coffee beans grown in East Timor. The National Cooperative Business Association, with a grant from the U.S.
Agency for International Development (USAID), has set up a cooperative body that will help in marketing Timorese coffee abroad.
Other elements of the post-occupation, nascent economy include marble mining, offshore fishing, and tourism. Some observers have suggested establishing a casino industry to attract tourists from Indonesia where gambling is illegal.
War has left hideous scars on a once lush and beautiful island that will have to be completely healed before tourism is possible. In addition East Timor faces the challenge of eradicating illiteracy and training its youth to run the bureaucracy required for a well-functioning government.

Legends say that a giant crocodile was transformed into the island of Timor, or Ilha do Crocodilo (Crocodile Island), as it is popularly known. In spite of the lingering Portuguese influence, the East Timorese still cling to their ethnic lifestyle, spiritual beliefs, and languages.
The Portuguese colonial powers were successful in converting the bulk of the East Timorese population to Catholicism. During the colonial period a mission was established and churches were built. Today 90 percent of East Timorese are Roman Catholics.
Most East Timorese suffer the effects of poverty and squalor. A major task before the government is to heal the wounds of war and dispel the fears embedded in the national psyche.

The cuisine of East Timor is greatly influenced by the culinary arts of Portugal, which administered the territory for nearly three centuries. The fact that both countries are located in maritime regions further heightens the similarity between their cuisines.
East Timorese eat an abundance of seafood, including crabs and fish. Other common foods include vegetables and greens (especially cabbage), and pork as well as beef. There are also plenty of cheeses. For dessert there is an array of pastries as well as puddings that incorporate fresh fruits.

Because the area was under Portuguese rule for centuries Roman Catholicism is the predominant religion of East Timor, and Catholic rites are commonly practiced by the majority of the population.
One of these is baptism, which represents one’s entry into the community of the Catholic Church. It also represents the washing away of sins. In East Timor the newborn child is usually baptized by a priest in a church within a few weeks of its birth, and the event is generally celebrated with family gettogethers and special meals.
In East Timor weddings generally take place in Catholic Churches. The bride is customarily dressed in white with a huge veil and floral ornaments. On the day of the wedding the bride and groom assemble at the church, along with their respective families.
The couple then proceeds to the altar where the rites are conducted by a priest. The priest asks the couple for their consent to the marriage. After the couple exchanges rings there are readings from the scriptures. The priest then declares the two of them husband and wife. After the church ceremony the families of the couple organize one or more feasts to celebrate the occasion.

The East Timorese follow the practices of the Roman Catholic Church regarding death. Following a death family and friends traditionally observe a vigil, or wake. Flowers, candles, and rosary beads are placed close to the body. The body is washed, clothed, and laid in a coffin, which is taken to the church for a funeral Mass. Afterward the coffin is taken to the graveyard, where a brief graveside prayer ceremony takes place. After the coffin has been lowered into the ground those who are present symbolically throw handfuls of dust on the coffin before the grave is filled in. After the burial a Requiem Mass may be held in the church to pray for the peace of the departed soul. This ceremony is accompanied by solemn music.
Although many people of East Timor have become practicing Catholics they continue to honor their indigenous spiritual beliefs as well. To the south of Dili a ridge of mountains descends to the sea. For the Timorese that ridge of mountains is the path of the spirits of the dead, and they believe that the spirits of the dead travel that path down to the sea. At the base of that last hill or mountain before the sea is Grandfather Crocodile, the lord of the sea, who receives the spirits of the dead. The spirits remain in the sea for a while, and then return to the land.
The Timorese have a death ritual chant that describes the return of the changed spirits from the sea to the land and their entry into plants and their fertilization of the Earth.