A Prince’s Legacy. Part II: Trying to understand Diponegoro

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IO – As a woman, a non-Javanese Indonesian, a person who respects physical courage and whose father modernized the Malay language in order to become Indonesian it is not easy for me to admire or understand Diponegoro, the Javanese prince who ignited and led the Java Wars from 1825 till 1830. Why is this?

Well, firstly Diponegoro did not struggle for anyone but the Javanese people and the Javanese culture. He resented ever having to use the Malay language for which he had an intense dislike referring to it as a “chicken language”. He was according to his own accounts quite a womanizer and a very surprising fact that many people are not aware of is that he could not stand the sight of blood and during the fighting he did not participate in the actual physical struggle. Also, he did not succeed.

Nonetheless, he is a deeply revered figure in Indonesia, even by non-Javanese for there are roads in provinces all over Indonesia bearing the name Jalan Diponegoro and these are usually major roads. In 1973 Diponegoro was accorded the status of a national hero and in 1955 all over the nation the government held centenary commemorations for him. So, trying to understand Diponegoro and what he accomplished is in a sense understanding one of the great architypes of the Indonesian people, the Ratu Adil or Just King and how ultimatelythis architype helped to propel Indonesians towards independence. Since the VOC established itself in Indonesia in the 17th century there have been continuous wars and rebellions against the Dutch until the final 20th century struggle for independence. In provinces all over the Archipelago many of these rebellions were led by Ratu Adil type figures. Trying to understand Diponegoro is to a great extant trying to understand the mind and soul of Indonesians.

In order to acieve a better understanding of Diponegoro, I spoke with Dr Peter Carey, a British historian of Irish descent from the University of Oxford. He is the acknowledged Diponegoro expert who has researched Diponegoro for exactly 50 years and wrote the defining work on Diponegoro The Power of Prophecy. Prince Dipanegara and the end of an old order in Java, 1785-1855. Dr Carey haswritten more than 15 books and 120 articles about Diponegoro, helped create an animation film, 3 exhibitions, numerous dramatic readings and dramas and received on the 19th of November 2020 the Anugerah Kebudayaan or Cultural Award from theSultan of Jogjakarta for contributions for the enrichment and knowledge of the cultural and literary heritage of Jogjakarta.

Dr Carey’s background has perhaps in a way contributed to his interest in and sympathy for Prince Diponegoro. He himself was born in Burma and raised there until the age of 7 and both his mother and father were descended from generations of people who had lived in the East namely in China, India and the East Indies. He has Irish blood from his father’s side and Scots blood from his mother’s side and these are two peoples who for centuries fought against being under the yoke of another people. Perhaps this provided Dr Carey with a certain sympathy and sensitivity towards Diponegoro and his struggle to free his people of Dutch colonialism. When asked what specifically gives him empathy for Diponegoro Carey replied, “Diponegoro was a lonely person. He lived life on the margins. Starting with being the son of an unofficial wife.”

Diponegoro was born in 1785 as the oldest son of Sultan Hameng­ kubuwono III of Jogjakarta. His mother was not the sultan’s official wife leaving him somewhat on the margins of court life. However, he attracted the attention of his great grandfather, Sultan Mangkubumi or Hamengkubuwono I who when he saw Diponegoro as a baby sensed that this was a special baby and fore-telling that one day it would cause the Dutch more destruction than he himself had during the Giyanti Wars of the 18th century but that only God knew what the final outcome would be of Diponegpro’s struggle.

Many years later when he was a prisoner in exile Diponegoro wrote in his Babad Diponegoro or Chronicles of Diponegoro which were 1151 folio pages that he associated his great grandfather’s prediction with that of Sultan Agung of Mataram in the 17th century namely that after Sultan Agung’s death the Dutch would rule Java for 300 years although one of his descendants would rebel against them but would be ultimately defeated. This was later reaffirmed by the voice probably that of the Sunan Kalijaga (one of the 9 guardians that helped spread Islam in Java)  that he heard in a cave at Parangkusuma that he was the means but not for long, only to be counted amongst the ancestors.

In fact, all his life Diponegoro believed that he was destined to be a hero who would be defeated. He accepted that fate. Knowing this about his fate would have added to his feeling of standing alone. As Dr Carey says, “He was lonely because he was a person apart.” His fate was different from everyone else’s.

In his great book on Diponegoro, Peter Carey writes that Diponegoro was very much influenced by strong women: his mother, his grandmother and most of all his great grandmother, Ratu Ageng Tegalreja to whom his great grandfather Sultan Mangkubumi entrusted Diponegoro’s upbringing after his death so that at the age of 7 she took him away to live with her on a country estate that she established to grow rice and cultivate religious life. Before that he had lived with his mother in the women’s section of the keraton or palace. Like any normal 7-year old boy, he would have missed his mother very much. It would have left him feeling very lonely.

Ratu Ageng Tegalreja was an extremely strong woman who was once the commander of her husband’s elite female bodyguards. Later during the Java War Diponegoro would have several able women fighting in his cause. This would have included members of the elite female prajurit estri corps of the Sultan’s bodyguardsas well as figures such as Raden Ayu Yudakusuma who became one of Diponegoro’s senior cavalry commanders and Nyai Ageng Serang who took up arms and led a 500 strong force in the Serang Demal area.

After Sultan Mangkubumi’s death Ratu Ageng Tegalreja left because she did not approve of the frivolousness and lack of religious observance of her son’s court. She was descended from religious teachers and as well as a profound religious belief she also passed on to Diponegoro the ability to be a very sound administrator of land and finances. Later, Diponegoro wanted to be the ruler of Java who defended the Muslim religion. Nevertheless, she also passed on to Diponegoro her firm insistence on preserving Javanese traditions. It was later said of him that Diponegoro was in all things a Javanese who followed Javanese customs.

However, Dr Carey writes that the period during which Diponegoro lived was a time when the Javanese Old Order was crumbling. In the 17th and 18th centuries the south-central Javanese rulers enjoyed de facto sovereignty; except for Batavia Central and East Java were under the rule of Mataram whereas West Java was under the sovereignty of the Kingdom of Pajajaran. After the bankruptcy of the VOC in 1799 came the short-lived French (1808-1811) and British (1811-1816) interregnums which brought great changes to Java after they “forced open Jogjakarta’s eastern outlying territories, plundered its court and exiled its reigning monarch”. Jogjakarta was under European domination and the status of its rulers changed to a subordinate role under the colonial administration whereby in the end the Javanese nobility became a form of civil servant paid by the Netherlands Indies government.

The colonial government’s policies driven by an enormous need for money brought great sufferings to the Javanese peasants. To this, Dr Carey adds adverse environmental conditions and the cholera epidemic of 1821 as well as the large increase in the price of rice (every Indonesian government has subsidized the price of rice) as the triggers for the Java War.

The War which began in 1825 was coming to an end by September 1829 first with the death of Diponegoro’s uncle Prince Prabuningrat who was killed while defending Diponegoro’s retreat. This was followed by that of his senior army commander Prince Ngabehi and his two sons. He also received a wangsit or divine whisper foretelling him that all his efforts would come to naught. Diponegoro later wrote in his chronicles that he then realized that he remained alone in the world. By October many of his top commanders including his uncle Prince Mangkubumi and Sentot Ali Basah had given themselves up to the Dutch and his mother and sister were found by them. He was suffering from malaria had become a fugitive. Although he was not captured as a result of being defeated in battle it was difficult for him to hold out any further but he came to the negotiating table in the belief that he was guaranteed safe passage to leave again if the negotiations were to come to naught and he gave his kris to Colonel Cleerens as a symbol of his trust. In Magelang he was arrested by General De Kock on what was ultimately the order of the King and sent to Batavia where for a while he was held prisoner in the Stadhuis. This is why last year a permanent exhibition was created in the west wing of the Jakarta History Museum for Diponegoro. From there he was exiled first to Menado and then finally to Fort Rotterdam in Makasar. He was a lonely man and when twenty years later he received a letter from his mother he was excited and hopeful that she might come to stay with him and he wrote asking her to but that 7-year-old boy from so long ago was never to live with his mother again. She was too old for the long trip from Java.

Dr Carey sees the significance of Diponegoro for future generations in his role as a transitional figure: a member of the keraton and of course, the old Javanese court traditions but also one who used Javanese Islam to change how the Javanese viewed themselves as a people. He forged a common identity for disenchanted nobility, religious leaders, farmers, labourers and artisans who longed for the restoration of an idealized traditional order. Prince Diponegoro who had been educated in a pesantren or Islamic religious schoolsince already a very young age and who had been brought up amongst the peasant boys and working class of Java referred to this as” restoring the high state of the Islamic religion in Java”.

In this he parted company to a certain extent from his traditional Javanese keraton traditions which can be symbolized by his meeting with Nyai Loro Kidul the mythical Goddess of the South Seas who plays such an important role in the mythology of Jogjakarta and the other Central Javanese kingdoms. As a young man after his studies Prince Diponegoro travelled to many holy sites in Java where he meditated including in a cave in Karangtritis where he reported that Nyai Loro Kidul appeared to him during his meditation. She offered to help him rid Java of the Dutch with her spirit troops much as she had once aided Panembahan Senopati the founder of the Mataram kingdom of Central Java. In exchange she asked that he pray for her soul that God might grant her human form again but Diponegoro refused her offer. Dr Carey said that working together with her as a Muslim would have brought grave consequences to him.

Here we see a sharp departure from the Javanese keraton tradition where to this day Nyai Loro Kidul is married to every Sultan of Jogjakarta It could be argued that Diponegoro’s rejection of cooperating with Nyai Loro Kidul did bring grave consequences: he lost the Java War and was exiled from Java ever after. In a sense it could also be seen as a rejection of the matrilineal traditions of our Polynesian ancestors.

Prince Diponegoro was in many ways a Javanese hero. He for example intensely disliked the Malay that was to become the foundation for our present day Indonesian language which he referred to as “That language of chickens which no ruler in Java wished to hear,” and he insisted on the use of high Javanese even by Dutch prisoners taken during the War. He fought for a Javanese identity. Not an Indonesian one.

However, Peter Carey’s vision of Prince Diponegoro goes further than that. He writes that The Java War was of immense significance for Indonesia’s future for it created a movement of unique social breadth which in some respects anticipated the nationalist movement of the early twentieth century” which ultimately led to Indonesian independence in 1945. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)