Since archeological evidence is sparse, very little is known about the pre-colonial history of East Timor. It is believed that the island was populated by successive waves of migration from surrounding archipelagos, but the timing of these migrations is unknown. Chinese and Javanese records note that trade in sandalwood and beeswax was conducted as early as the 13th century.
In the late 15th century Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese navigation technology improved, thus expanding the scope of their global travels. The discovery of spices and other valuable commodities in the Indonesian islands greatly increased the amount of ship traffic in the archipelago. In 1509, the first Portuguese explorers set foot on the island of Timor. However, it wasn't until 1556 that a community of Dominican priests from Portugal established the first European outpost on the island. Due to the competing colonial interests of the Dutch and Portuguese, the two countries signed the Treaty of Lisbon in 1559. This treaty split control over the island of Timor; the eastern half of the island was placed under Portuguese jurisdiction, while the western half was controlled by the Dutch. The 1559 Treaty of Lisbon continues to shape Timor's political landscape; today, East Timor is an independent nation, while West Timor is a province of Indonesia.
Political maps in the wake of Treaty of Lisbon indicated that the Portuguese controlled East Timor. However, aside from a few coastal outposts manned primarily by missionaries, Portuguese control of the colony was nominal. Tribal groups continued to exercise a great deal of autonomy in their daily affairs. The Portuguese made no real attempt to administer East Timor's interior regions until the 1920's. While colonial administrative control during this period was weak, the religious influence of Portuguese priests was significant. Located in a predominantly Muslim region, 90% of East Timor's population is Catholic.
Governed by a quasi-fascist dictatorship, Portugal maintained political neutrality during World War II. Despite East Timor's official status as a neutral Portuguese colony, the political and military whirlwinds sweeping the region drew East Timor into the war. Japanese forces swept into British and Dutch possessions in the archipelago. Realizing that Timor was an ideal base the Japanese could use to mount an invasion of Australia, several hundred Australian and British guerrilla fighters formed resistance groups that harassed the 20,000 Japanese troops stationed on the island. It is estimated that 60,000 East Timorese lost their lives during this period of anti-Japanese insurgency. At the conclusion of the World War II, nationalist forces in surrounding Dutch Indonesia declared independence; the Dutch officially acknowledged Indonesian independence in 1949. East Timor, however, returned to its pre-war status as a Portuguese colony.
In 1974-75, East Timor seemed to be making strides towards independence. When a military coup led to the overthrow of Portugal's dictatorship in 1974, the Portuguese governor of East Timor allowed the colony's various political factions to form political parties. In late 1975, a leftist pro-independence group seized power and declared East Timor's independence. However, fighting between rival political factions created a political vacuum; after only nine days of independence, the Indonesian military launched a full-scale invasion of East Timor in December of 1975. President Suharto, Indonesia's right-wing dictator, claimed that this invasion was necessary to avoid a communist takeover of the territory. In July of 1976, Indonesia officially claimed East Timor as the country's twenty-seventh province. However, fierce guerrilla resistance to Indonesian occupation continued for the next two decades. Estimates suggest that more than 200,000 East Timorese died between 1975 and 1999 as a result of periodic famines and frequent military clashes between separatist groups and Indonesian military forces.
During Indonesia's occupation of East Timor, most of the world turned a blind eye to the territory's plight. In response to the chaos that engulfed the region, the United Nations passed a resolution calling for East Timor's independence in 1981. However, without substantive support from any of the countries with political and strategic interests in the region, the U.N.'s resolution went unnoticed. In 1996, exiled resistance leader Jose Ramos Horta, and East Timorese Catholic bishop Carlos Belo received the Nobel Peace Prize, thus directing the world's attention towards the plight of East Timor. The following year, the Asian economic crisis hit Indonesia especially hard; in 1998, economic and political instability toppled the dictatorship of Indonesian President Suharto after 32 years. While East Timor also suffered severe economic hardship in the wake of the Asian economic crisis, there were rays of political hope on the horizon.
In January of 1999, the U.N. brokered an agreement with Indonesia's new president, B.J. Habibie, which cleared the way for a referendum allowing the East Timorese to decide their political status. However, pro-Jakarta militias backed by the Indonesian military twice forced the U.N. to postpone the referendum. On August 30, 1999, 98.6% of East Timor's registered voters finally got a chance to cast their ballots; 78.5% of the voters chose independence. Despite this positive outcome, more tragedy followed the election. The pro-Indonesian militias that had created so much havoc before the elections unleashed a savage series of attacks when the results of the election were announced. A series of riots broke out in Dili, East Timor's capital, and in other cities and villages. As many as 1000 people died during the militia attacks, while some 250,000 people fled to West Timor. In addition, 80% of East Timor's buildings were damaged or destroyed. While East Timor had voiced its wish for independence, the physical and social dislocation caused by post-election violence greatly jeopardized the country's economic and political security as it set out on the path of independence.
In September of 1999, the U.N. dispatched an Australian-led security force that finally restored order in East Timor; in the following months, 200,000 refugees who had fled the violence were able to return to East Timor. For the next two years, the U.N. Transitional Authority in East Timor worked to help rebuild the country's infrastructure and trained East Timorese to play an effective role in establishing self-government. On August 30, 2001, East Timor held its first parliamentary elections; in April of 2002, Xanana Gusmao, an independence leader who spent nearly a decade in an Indonesian prison, was elected the first president of East Timor.
At the stroke of midnight on May 20, 2002, over 100,000 East Timorese gathered in Dili to celebrate the moment the country officially became independent. After centuries as a Portuguese colony, and more than two decades of harsh Indonesian rule, East Timor became the world's newest nation. While East Timor still struggles with widespread poverty, potentially lucrative oil leases that the country's leaders have negotiated with Australian companies provide hope for East Timor's future.