A Prince’s Legacy Part I: the Diponegoro exhibition at the Indonesian National Museum

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A poster for the exhibition. (Photo: Mulyadi Musium Nasional RI)

IO – The Indonesian National Muse­um or Museum Nasional is using the latest museum technology of video mapping in telling the story of Dipo­negoro, a Javanese prince who fought the Dutch in the early 19th century in an exhibition especially aimed at capturing the interest of Indonesian millennials. Indonesian history from the 17th century onwards is full of he­roes from all over the Archipelago who rebelled against the Dutch but proba­bly Prince Diponegoro (1785-1855) is the most famous of these rebels. The eye-catching exhibition is entitled “The Prince Diponegoro Heritage Ex­hibition: A Prince’s Legacy” and is part of the Ministry of Education and Cul­ture’s National Culture Week 2020.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is Prince Diponegoro’s kris which was returned to Indonesia by the Dutch government at the beginning of last March and is now for the first time on view for the public. It was handed over to Indonesia’s Ambassador to the Netherlands, I Gusti A. Wesaka Puja by the Netherlands Minister of Edu­cation, Culture and Science, Ingrid van Engelshoven who very movingly said that the kris is now returned to where it belongs (Indonesia). In 1831, a year after the end of the Java Wars the kris was given by Colonel Cleerens to King Willem I. At first it was kept in the Koninklijk Kabinet van Zeldzaam­heden or Royal Curiosities Cabinet and finally at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden. According to art historian and Raden Saleh expert Werner Kraus Raden Saleh was in fact one of the last people to have handled the kris after it came into the collec­tion of the Dutch king. Thereafter it could not be found. It was only after diligent research that the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden was able to identify it again amongst its collection of Javanese krises.

The Dutch government handing over Diponegoro’s kris to the Indonesian ambassador. Left to right: Dutch Minister of Culture, Ingrid van Engelshoven, the Indonesian ambassador to the Netherlands, Mr Puja and the director of the World Museum in the Netherlands, Stijn Schoonderwoerd. (Photo: Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture And Science)

Prince Diponegoro of course, had several krises as any Javanese noble­man of high standing would. The kris of a compellingly preeminent prince such as Diponegoro would not only be a weapon but would also possess spiritual powers. It would have been given a name. Diponegoro’s kris on display at the Museum Nasional is Kanjeng Kyai Nogo Siluman which means roughly His Highness Sir In­visible Dragon. Fadli Zon the chair­man of the National Kris Secretariat remarked that it is unusual to see on the blade of a nogo siluman kris the entire body of a dragon. Usually only the head of the dragon is visible.

Beside the kris the Prince’s golden umbrella, his spear, his saddle and his cane are also on display. These objects are part of Prince Diponegoro’s sacred heirlooms which he took into battle with him.

Since its independence Indonesia has urged the Netherlands govern­ment to return cultural and historic treasures which were brought to the Netherlands during the colonial peri­od. It was not until the early 1970s that the Dutch government began to act on these requests. Indonesia wanted to maintain article 19 of its cancelled 1949 Cultural Agreement with the Netherlands. It said that by keeping them in the Netherlands it made the objects inaccessible to nearly all of the Indonesian public. The Indonesian Minister of Culture at the time asked for objects that were unique, a source of national pride and a fundamental contribu­tion to the development of national consciousness of the very diverse population of the Indonesian Archi­pelago. After several years of negotia­tions Indonesia and the Netherlands agreed upon some joint recommen­dations in 1975. It was based upon these recommendations that the Netherlands government made a promise to the Indonesian govern­ment to transfer to the Indonesian government several heirloom objects of Prince Diponegoro. The first three of Prince Diponegoro’s heirlooms namely, his golden umbrella, spear and saddle were returned to Indonesian in 1977 coinciding with the state visit of Queen Juliana to Indonesia.

Prince Diponegoro painted by Zaenulihsan91 in 2012. (Photo: Zaenulihsan91, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org /licenses/by-sa/4.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

On the 11th of November 1829 Prince Diponegoro and a party of 50 horsemen was ambushed by Dutch Menadonese and Ternatean blitz troops under the command of Major A.V. Michiels in the Gowong moun­tains in Kedu. Diponegoro leapt into a ravine thereby breaking his shoulder and injuring his foot. However, he managed to escape by hiding in the long grass. The troops captured his golden umbrella, sad­dle and spear and took them as war booty. These later ended up in the Netherlands in the Dutch military museum Bronbeek in Arnhem. The spear known as Kiai Rodhan was believed to provide protection as well as warnings of coming danger.

 At the time of the Queen’s visit however, Prince Diponegoro’s kris had been misplaced and could not be found and therefore could also not be returned to Indonesia. In the meantime, in 2015 the descendants of Governor General Jean Chretien Baud (1833-1836), Michiel dan Erica Lucia Baud returned Prince Diponegoro’s cane to the Indonesian people during an exhibition of Dipo­negoro paintings at the Galeri Nasion­al or National Gallery. The cane which was called Kanjeng Kiai Cokro was a gift from the people in 1815 to Prince Diponegoro and he used it during his many pilgrimages around Java before the outbreak of the Java War. At the end of the cane is the symbol of a chakra or discus.

It was only in 2019 that the Na­tional Museum of Ethnology in Leiden after much research was finally able to identify Diponegoro’s kris amongst its collection of krises. Tom Quist a researcher and curator of the Mu­seum was able to identify the kris. He could do so as the latest in a line of previous research on the whereabouts of the kris.

Historian Peter Carey explained that what made the identification possible was that one of Diponegoro’s commanders Sentot Alibasah men­tioned in a letter that he had witnessed Diponegoro give the kris to Colonel Cleerens. (neither Cleerens nor Diponegoro himself mention this in any of their documentation.). Later after handling the krisis Raden Saleh scribbled on Sentot’s letter that traces of the gold filigree that covered the body of the snake on the kris could still be discerned at the end or tip of the kris. Once the identification was made the Dutch Minister of Education, Culture and Science made the decision to transfer the kris to Indonesia based on the earlier agreement in 1975.

The decision of the people of the Netherlands to return the heirlooms of one of Indonesia’s most beloved freedom fighters should be applaud­ed. It reflects an acknowledgment of the right of Indonesians to have fought for their freedom as well as a right of the Indonesian people to have access to the objects that are part of the legacy of one of their most important heroes as part of Indo­nesian heritage. In 1979 UNESCO cited in its magazine Museum the joint recommendations that the Netherlands and Indonesia reached in 1975 as one of three successful return agreements in the post-inde­pendence era.

Prince Diponegoro’s kris on display at the Museum Nasional RI. (Photo: Mulyadi Museum Nasional RI)

Nusi Lisabilla Estudiantin who is the pamong budaya ahli madya or cultural curator at the National Museum says that the return of Indonesian historical and cultural artifacts is the result of a growing consciousness in both Netherlands society as well as its government that it is the right thing to do and this perception is especially strong among young people. “About 1500 objects have already been transferred to us from the Delft Museum. The Director General of Culture, Hilmar Farid has asked that the museums carry out research about the objects that they are returning and they have already promised to research the kris collection that Dutch museums are planning to return.”

The Dutch Cultural Attache in Jakarta, Ms Yolande Melsert says that current­ly the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science is working on a new policy regarding the return of certain historical objects since the 17th century to its former colonies which includes Indonesia. They are working on this policy together with their former colonies to determine which objects are to be transferred. The Netherlands government is hope­ful that the new policy might be ready by the end of February next year.

The curator of the exhibition at the Museum Nasional is Dr Peter Carey, the famous Oxford historian who af­ter the publication of his magnum opus The Power of Prophecy. Prince Dipanegara and the end of an old or­der in Java, 1785-1855, became the internationally acknowledge expert on Prince Diponegoro. He says that Prince Diponegoro had several krises and one of these is still in the pos­session of the Jogjakarta keraton or palace as one of its minor heirlooms. As a wakil dalem or senior prince Di­ponegoro was given the kris known as Kanjeng Kyai Wiso Bintulu. Ap­parently, before the Java War broke out the Queen Mother had a dream that whoever held that kris would become the ruler of Java so she re­quested Diponegoro to return the kris and he complied just before the outbreak of war.

Kanjeng Kyai Wiso Bintulu was however, not Diponegoro’s main kris. His personal and most important kris was Kanjeng Kyai Bondo Yudo which more or less means His Highness, Sir Dueling Without Weapons. It has this name because it was believed to be so mag­ical that it did not have to manifest in its material form to take part in a battle.

Close up of Prince Diponegoro’s kris. A little of the dragon’s head is visible on the bottom left side. (Photo: Mulyadi Museum Nasional RI)

Dr Carey further says that Dipo­negoro had the kris forged during the Java War and that it was an amalgama­tion created by melting three other heirloom weapons belonging to Diponegoro. These were a kris given to him by his father, a spear and a cundrik or short stabbing dagger carried by women. Once when he was in Lipuro, Bantul where kris blades are forged a me­teorite fell as he was sleeping. Later he had the blade of the dagger forged from it and gave it to one of his wives. After she died of cholera in 1827 he received the dagger back.

Diponegoro kept this kris all his life even after he was a prisoner of the Dutch and in exile in Makasar. He left instructions that it be buried with him when he died and so in 1855 it was interred with him in his grave in Kampung Melayu in Makasar. This grave was later moved to the munic­ipal cemetery in Makasar. There are rumours that that is not where Di­ponegoro truly rests but then again there are often rumors about the graves of great princes in Indonesia…

After the capture of Prince Diponegoro in 1830 General De Kock order the painting entitled; The Submission of Diepo Negoro to Lieutenant-General Hendrik Merkus Baron de Kock, 28 March 1830, which ended the Java War (1825–30) by Nicolaas Pienneman. (Photo: Nicolaas Pieneman, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Dr Carey commented, “Dipone­goro asked that the kris be buried with him because he did not want his extraordinary personal powers which are to some extent in his kris to be taken by others who might not be able to control or use those pow­ers well.”

The Oxford historian says that in a sense although the colonial govern­ment won the Java War led by Prince Diponegoro from 1825 to 1830 it was a pyrrhic victory for them for Prince Diponegoro who took the Javanese mythical title of Ratu Adil or the Just King used Javanese Islam to create a new identity for the Javanese. The Prince and his followers believed in a coming fundamental transformation of society, after which all things would change and it was with this belief that they prepared for the Java War.

The Building at Fort Rotterdam where Prince Diponegoro being held during Dutch Colonization (Photo: Heandra, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org /licenses/by-sa/3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The youngest son of King Willem II of the Netherlands, Prince Hendrik the Seafarer (1820-1872), as he was known echoed this sentiment. He vis­ited Prince Diponegoro in his impris­onment in Fort Rotterdam in 1837. The 17-year old prince described Di­ponegoro as inhabiting two miserable hot rooms in the Fort and one won­ders what exactly passed between the two for afterwards the young prince wrote in his diary:

“Everyone knows that Diponegoro rebelled against us, nevertheless his imprisonment will always be, to my way of thinking, a blemish on our age old Dutch honour (de oude Hollandsche trouw). It is true he was a rebel, but he came to put an end to a war that had cost both us as well as him so many lives, and moreover he came trusting in our old Dutch honour, to negotiate in good faith. Then he was arrested at the orders of General de Kock. I believe that this matter, which has served us so well (with regard to our possession of the whole of Java), has in fact done us the greatest harm morally for if we should ever be so unfortunate as to have war again on Java, one of the two of us will go under, either our­selves or the Javanese, because none of their leaders will ever want to have anything to do with us again. And this shall not just happen in Java but throughout the Archipelago.”

Historian Peter Carey says that the young prince’s prescient foretell­ing of the future came to pass exactly a hundred and twelve years later. On the 8th of March 1942 Dutch Gen­eral Ter Poorten surrendered to the invading Japanese army in Java. It was hundred and twelve years earlier on the 8th of March 1830 that Prince Diponegoro rode to Magelang and was according to the judgment of the young Dutch prince dishonourably captured by General De Kok.

But this is an old story…we are at peace now with the Dutch and the Dutch king has brought us back Diponegoro’s kris – and it is finally where it belongs. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Wayang kulit of Diponegoro’s uncle, Prince Mangkubumi. (Photo: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org /licenses/by-sa/3.0 via Wikimedia Commons