A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
Painting of Onrust by Abraham Storck dated 1699. The fort and three derricks are visible. The ship on its side is being caulked. Photo credit: (trant van) Abraham Storck (schilder) onbekend (schilder), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

IO – The island of Onrust is located exactly, at 106o 144’ 6” East Longitude and 6o 02’ 5” making it 14 kilometers north of Jakarta in the Untung Jawa area of Pulau Seribu or the Thousand Islands. This cluster of islands is located in the Bay of Jakarta and Onrust together with 3 other small islands proved to be invaluable to the United Dutch East India Company commonly referred to as the VOC (Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie).

The first Dutch ships arrived in Indonesia at the mouth of the Ciliwung River in 1596 led by Cornelius de Houtman. They were not part of the VOC which was not created until 1602 but rather belonged to the so called voorcompagnies or fore-companies namely, twelve small trading companies that in 1602 were amalgamated to become the VOC. Trade is not possible without ships and ships cannot be maintained without shipyards where the constant wear and tear that those ships experience during their long voyages can be repaired. Therefore, one of the first things that the VOC negotiated was a place where they would be permitted to conduct ship repairs.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
Small museum with findings of archaeological excavations on the island. Formerly, the doctors’ house. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata

In 1610 the VOC entered into an agreement with Prince Jayakarta who then ruled Jacatra or Jayakarta with its port of Sunda Kelapa, under the suzerainty of the Sultanate of Banten. Under this agreement the VOC was permitted to take wood from the island later known as Onrust in what is now called the Bay of Jakarta and to conduct ship repairs there. This came to also include three other islands namely, Kelor, Cipir and Bidadari. These four islands later were to become Batavia’s first line of defense by sea for the ships waiting in the Batavia roadstead or anchorage off the harbor of Sunda Kelapa, thus making the islands from a heritage perspective, an integral part of Kota Tua or the Old Town area of Jakarta.

Later after Jan Pieterszoon Coen had captured Jacatra and established Batavia, the VOC had two shipyards in Kota Tua. These were the Ankerwerf or Anchor Wharf where anchors were stored and VOC carpenters lived and the Timmerwerf or the Company’s Ship Repair Yard. Here lived the equipagemeester or equipage master who was in charge of all loading and provisioning of ships, as well as ship repairs and the manning of ships. The four islands in the Bay of Jakarta previously mentioned were also under his command, including any work on Onrust.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
View of Onrust by Johann Wolfgang Heydt (draughtsman), 1739. Photo credit: Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

However, after the silting of the Kali Besar canal made it too shallow for large ships to be repaired in Kota Tua, the main shipyard for repairing large ships was only carried out on Onrust. There the shipyard grew until there was a miniature town with sawmills, artisan and slave quarters; a gun powder magazine, godowns, a church and barracks. There were godowns for storing the ballast that needed to be carried by ships to keep them upright such as wood, copper, salpeter and tin. There were also special godowns for goods intended for markets in Europe or Asia.  In 1674 the first of the only two windmills in Indonesia was built on Orust, and in 1691 the second was built there. They were both used to operate the sawmills. All of this was under the command of the Baas van Onrust or the Boss (or Master) of Onrust who lived quite grandly on the island.

There were about 200 hundred men who lived and worked on Onrust, most of whom were very skilled carpenters but also smiths, sailmakers, operators of windmills and other skilled craftsmen. Others, came over from Batavia every day. Nine hundred slaves lived on the island, some of whom belonged to the VOC and others the VOC hired from their masters in Batavia. Beside this there were also sailors working on Onrust who had been sentenced to forced labour.

In 1615 the VOC built a shipyard and a small storage house on the island, which Jan Pieterszoon Coen hoped would eventually develop into a trade and defence base against threats from Banten and England. In the mid-17th century a battery was established on the island and in 1656 the fortification was reinforced by a fort which was later expanded and further reinforced by bastions and other structures. In 1671 Bastion Beekhuis was erected with further artillery planted on the other three islands.  Bastion Towpunt was another bastion built on the fort on Onrust. The bastions protruded from the fort and were used as look-out posts. The fort itself was of an asymmetrical pentagonal shape with a bastion in each corner. The whole structure was made of red bricks and coral. Some of the foundations of the fort on Onrust are still visible today. Between 1983 and 1990, seventeen excavations were carried out by Dr Candrian Attahiyat who is a member of the Jakarta Team of Regional Heritage Experts. He succeeded in unearthing the foundations of Bastion Beekhuis and the walls connecting it to Bastion Towpunt; also the foundations of the two sawmills, a windmill and the Martello like tower.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
The small VOC cemetery on Onrust Island. Photo Credit: Fino Simarmata

There was also a church on the island with a small graveyard. The graveyard was used between 1691 and 1863 however, as of 1699 most people were buried on Kelor Island which used to be known as Kerkhof or Graveyard Island. There are still the remains of a few old tombstones in the cemetery on Onrust that are visible today.

Onrust was of the utmost importance to the VOC because without the shipyard for repairs their ships would not have been able to ply the waters of Asia as well as sail with goods to Holland. Their operations relied solely on these ships and after months at sea the ships needed to be caulked, careened and repaired.

The VOC had around 100 ships plying the waters between Asian ports alone which must have resulted in a lot of repair work on Onrust. However, it was not just the Dutch who used the shipyard there but also Chinese junks and all types of Indonesian vessels and the ships of other European nations such as the French and the British. The shipyard on Onrust was so busy that work continued unabated around the clock and around the calendar, day in and day out eventually leading to its name onrust which means ‘without rest’. The small island was not just industrious in its ship repairs but also provided excellent workmanship. In his first circumnavigation of the globe (1768-1771) Captain James Cook had to go to Onrust for ship repairs in 1770 for his ship, the Endeavour after it ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef. He was very satisfied with the work and wrote, “I must say that I do not believe that there is a marine yard in the world where work is done with more alertness than here, or where there are better conveniences for heaving ships down both in point of safety and dispatch”.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
Construction of the second iron dry dock of 5000 tons in 1879 on Onrust. Photo Credit: AnonymousUnknown author, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org /licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly however, it was so unhealthy that in Batavia and during the last part of his return voyage a third of his crew died of malaria and dysentery and he never returned to either Batavia or Onrust. Seven of them died on Onrust itself, and when the ship left for Europe it had so many sick onboard that it was like a hospital ship.

The declaration of war on Britain by the French Republic on the 1st of February 1793 drew Britain into the War of the First Coalition (1792-1797). In 1795 the French captured the Netherlands and Dutch possessions in the Indonesian Archipelago (It was only after December 1818 that the Dutch referred to these as the Netherlands East Indies) became part of the global struggle between the French and the British. It placed Dutch possessions such as Java in a precarious position with regard to the British and in 1800 Captain Henry Lidgbird Ball blockaded the Batavia roadstead, and on the 23rd of August captured the arsenal on Onrust including 5 Dutch armed vessels. Twenty-two other Dutch vessels were destroyed.

After the British left, the Dutch rebuilt the buildings and facilities. This work was completed in 1806. However, a second British attack, led by Admiral Edward Pellew that year, again destroyed the fort and according to Adolf Heukens in his book ‘Historical Sites of Batavia’, Daendels removed much else of value in 1809. There was fighting again around Onrust when the British occupied Batavia in 1810. They destroyed nearly everything on Onrust.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
The inner court of the old military base on Onrust in 1917. Photo credit: 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

In 1816 after the British interregnum, the Dutch again erected new buildings on Onrust. Between 1823 and 1825 Governor-General Van der Capellen built a naval base at Onrust. A Martello-like tower with heavy pivot guns was erected on Onrust between 1850 and 1852. However, it soon became obsolete as a system of defence, with the more sophisticated developments in guns and ships in the years that followed. In 1883 the tower was blown up to make way for a canteen. Its foundations are still visible today, after excavations by Dr Candrain Attahiyat.

After 1823 Onrust was again used as a shipyard for repairs by the navy but now also the private sector and by 1848 ship repair was flourishing again on Onrust. A floating shipyard was built there in 1856 and in 1869 the first iron dock of 3000 tons arrived. Activities on Onrust continued until 1883 when construction began on Tanjung Priok Harbour. It was only after this that the role of Onrust as a shipyard declined and finally ceased altogether. In 1886 the naval base at Onrust Island was also abandoned.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
Pilgrims returning from the Haj to quarantine on Onrust Island, circa 1930. Photo credit: 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

Onrust then became a quarantine centre for infectious diseases. In 1911 the Netherlands Indies Quarantine Ordinance came into force and 35 dormitories were built on Onrust which could each house 100 people. Passengers on ships that within the last 5 days had entered harbours infected with yellow fever, cholera or plague or on whose ships there were passengers infected with those diseases, had to remain on Onrust for 5 days. It was the first time that it was recognized that passengers could be asymptomatic carriers, and an incubation period of five days was assumed for the diseases.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
The quarantine sheds with their anti-rat barriers consisting of steel plates above 1 meter of reinforced concrete to prevent the spread of leptospirosis. Photo Credit: 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

Meanwhile, the Netherlands Indies Haj Pilgrimage Ordinance had been issued in 1859. Special regulations were added that all pilgrims returning from Mecca had to remain on Onrust for 5 days. If there were any sick pilgrims amongst them then they all had to remain on Onrust for 10 days. In 1911, at its peak as a quarantine centre for haj pilgrims, twenty-five thousand two hundred and sixty people made the haj pilgrimage from Indonesia to Mecca. Of these, 12% died during the voyage. Onrust continued in its capacity as a quarantine detention centre until 1933. Later a sanatorium for lung diseases was established on the island. Some remains of the old hospital and quarantine barracks are still visible. These had anti-rat barriers in front of the doorways to prevent the spread of leptospirosis which consisted of steel plates on top of one meter of reinforced concrete below.

From 1933 until 1940, the mutineers involved in the mutiny on Her Netherlands Majesty’s Ship Zeven Provincien were held on Onrust. The ship was a navy coastal defence ship. In 1933 when it was off the coast of Sumatra part of its mixed Dutch and Indonesian crew mutinied triggered by a 17% pay cut and unhappy work conditions. Part of the crew seized control of the ship and only surrendered after air bombardment of the ship. Many were killed. Five Dutch and 19 Javanese sailors were tried for mutiny and treason and received prison sentences from 1 to 18 years imprisonment. Some of the prisoners died on Onrust and later their remains were moved to the Kalibata Heroes cemetery in Jakarta for the mutiny was seen in the light of being one of the first actions in the struggle for independence.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
De Zeven Provinciën leaving Den Helder for East Indies in 1910. Its mutineers were imprisoned on Onrust. Photo Credit: AnonymousUnknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1940, the Dutch imprisoned Germans and Nazi sympathizers on Onrust. After the Japanese invaded Indonesia in 1942, they also used it as a prison island. During the struggle for independence the colonial government imprisoned Indonesian freedom fighters and German navy crews from the German U-boat station in Surabaya, on Orust. After independence, Onrust served as a leprosarium under the control of the Indonesia Ministry of Health, until 1960 when the leprosarium was relocated.

In 1972 Ali Sadikin, the then Governor of Jakarta, declared Onrust Island a protected historical site. In 2002 the administration made Onrust and its three neighbors – the islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari – an archaeological park to protect the artifacts and ruins on the islands that date back to the time of the Dutch East India Company.

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
Foundations of the Martello like tower and of dolosse to prevent sea erosion of the island. Photo Credit: Fino Simarmata

Currently, Pulau Onrust and the other three islands fall under the same management unit of the Jakarta municipality as the Museum Bahari or Maritime Museum in Kota Tua. This year they will be busy restoring the jetty as well as several old buildings and facilities on the island including the small museum. They will also be inventorizing all objects at the museum that were excavated on the island and archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat’s archaeological findings on the Island of Onrust will be published as a book.

For those who are interested in visiting Onrust and neighbouring islands it is possible to go by speed boat from the Ancol Marina or by fishing boat from the Muara Kamal harbor. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

A visit to the peaceful and scenic island of Onrust, once the busiest VOC Shipyard
A 1656 sketch by Johannes Listingof the fortifications to be built on Onrust. Photo credit: Nationaal Archief, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you enjoyed this article, you may also want to read Part II of the article by the same writer: https://observerid.com/the-islands-of-cipir-kelor-and-bidadari-in-the-bay-of-jakarta-a-pleasant-visit-away-from-the-hustle-and-bustle-of-the-city/