The isle of Cevkawesi in the East Indies, known as Kawas to the Dutch and Portuguese, was of little interest to Europeans prior to Dutch consolidation of their colonial rule post-1814. It was small and mountainous, with few of the spices or safe harbors desired by the VOC or the Crown in Lisbon.

In fact, Cevkawesi was best known for the volcanic eruption of its central peak in 1800, one which violently ejected much of the central island into the sky and left a caldera full of seawater. While paling in comparison to the eruptions of Tambora (1815) and Krakatoa (1883), the eruption still caused a localized cooling and mild tidal waves in nearby harbors, with ashfall recorded in Jakarta and Singapore.

However, archival research has indicated that the island may have been inhabited at the time of the eruption. The Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie archives in Amsterdam show a visit to Cevkawesi by a trading vessel in 1787, and the master’s official report includes mention of oerbevolking (aboriginal inhabitants), ruïnes van steen (stone ruins), and hindoe beelden (Hindu statues). The ship’s master’s notes indicate that there was little of economic value, mentioning that the inhabitants were squatting in the structures and did not appear to have the technology to make such structures.

In a controversial paper published in the Historical Bulletin of Southeast Asia and Oceania, a group of scholars argued that the VOC records indicate a relict population of a much larger empire or entity living on Cevkawesi and surviving in monumental architecture from an earlier period until the time of the eruption.

The paper went on to propose a number of origins for the “stone ruins,” from the Sailendra dynasty on nearby Java circa 800 AD to the Mataram kingdom circa 1000 or even the later Srivijaya, Singhasari, or Majapahit empires. A totally unique and independent origin was also discussed (the VOC ship’s master mentioned being unable to understand the Cevkawesis despite the presence of a Javan translator in the ship’s compliment).

It was possible, however unlikely, that the inhabitants of Cevkawesi had an entirely unique culture, architecture, and language.

Whatever the case, the answers lay buried on the flanks of the island. Volcanologists estimate that the eruption would have unleashed multiple pyroclastic flows into Cevkawesi valleys, scouring them clean of all life and burying any structures deeper than Pompeii.

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