In the year 1819, three years after the British return of the East Indies to the Netherlands, a young man of twenty arrived to Kupang, a port on the coast of West Timor. Kupang was by no means a large place but it was the centre of Dutch colonial power over this part of Indonesia, and its administration monitored the various islands that the Netherlands laid claim to: Solor, Alor, Rote, Savu, and others. This task was made the more difficult since some of these places were also claimed by Portugal, which maintained a colonial governor in Dili, in the eastern part of Timor. The last serious conflict between the two colonial powers had occurred the previous year when the little harbour Atapupu was forcibly occupied by the Dutch resident. The tempests of the Age of Napoleon had been severely felt in Timor, whose inhabitants were located at the extremities of the colonial claims of the warring parties. Britons, Dutchmen, and Portuguese had fought or intrigued for the resources of an island that was neither the richest nor the most accessible in the island world of Southeast Asia—rather the opposite.
The name of the young man was Reint Le Bruyn. Born in Zutphen, Le Bruyn had spent his early years as a child labourer in a textile factory. Coming from relatively destitute conditions, he had nevertheless picked up some education, and in 1818 he signed up for the Nederlandsch Zendeling-Genootschap (NZG), the Dutch Missionary Society. This society, the first among about fifteen to concentrate on the East Indies, had been established in 1797 by a missionary who later worked in South Africa. It was modelled on the London Missionary Society which was founded two years earlier. Societies of this kind emerged as part of the wave of rising interest in undertaking missionary activity in non-Western societies, which, interestingly, coincided with the questioning of traditional clerical hierarchy after the outbreak of the French Revolution. Biographical sketches of Le Bruyn's life have typically pointed to his Christian devotion to explain his career choice. However, it could also have been a way for poor men of ability to engage in work that provided a degree of professional recognition that they could not have hoped for at home. Missionaries received scant preparation for their task in Rotterdam; they had little knowledge of the societies that awaited them, and they only learned any substantial Malay, the main language of communication, on arrival in the Indies. Le Bruyn successfully overcame these obstacles and had an eventful career on Timor for the next ten years, to the extent that posterity hailed him as the true pioneer of the Protestant mission in these waters.