Learning from Jakarta Bay

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(Photo: Freddy Wally)

IO – The spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has changed life deeply in 2020, certainly impacts various fields, among them being education and tourism. Travel activities that became popular with virtual tour sessions and teaching & learning fully online, intended to reduce the frequency of face-to-face visits, in the end brought a significant change in an era called the “new normal”. 

Waiting for the COVID-19 virus to subside completely or until the world conditions improve and allow us to travel safely again as before, it’s good if we start aiming for trips that can educate your little ones later, or even improve our knowledge about the history of a city through the three main islands in the so-called “Thousand Islands”, part of the Greater Jakarta area. 

The three islands that hold the history of Jakarta’s past are Damar Besar Island (also known as Edam Island), then there is Kelor Island, and last but not least Onrust Island. 

Edam, which is also known as Monkey Island, is located on the east side of the Thousand Islands group, whose islands are mostly lined up to the north of the Java Sea. Here there is an old lighthouse that was built by Dutch colonialists in 1879. This tower is also called Vast Licht in Dutch. Its height reaches 65 meters and from the inscription affixed to the outer wall of the tower, we will find the fact that this building is one of the legacies of the reign of King Willem II. 

At that time the Dutch colonialists felt the need to control trade in the Bay of Batavia, which was boisterous with many international ships docked at the pier, by building a sturdy and safe beacon. Even though the colonial era is long gone, now the tower is still functioning well as a navigation guide for ships that will dock at Tanjung Priok Port, one of the largest port hubs in Indonesia. 

Dominated by white paint, like most beacon towers throughout Indonesia which have been standing since the colonialist era, the tower in Edam holds historical stories that are rarely discussed by many people. “This place is a mystery because it is said that James Cook, who discovered the continents of Australia and New Zealand, is buried there!” Said Candrian, a Jakarta history expert during a visit to Edam some time ago. 

Visitors who come to Edam, if they want to climb the tower can also do so as long as they remove their footwear. The “hard” sea salt content had corroded the iron floor, with rusty scars. 

From the top of the lighthouse, we can see the beautiful scenery of the Thousand Islands cluster like a bird’s eye. As far as the eye can see, we will satisfy the visuals with the Java Sea where the water is bright blue and sometimes turns turquoise. Beautiful and calming. There are at least 270 steps that need to be climbed to reach the top of this historical tower. 

This place also keeps a rich history in the form of a funeral complex. There the tomb of Queen of Banten, Syarifa Fatimah, which is located behind the tower. Although to get to the grave complex we have to pass through the jungle and bushes, this tomb complex is quite well preserved. There is a guardian who is ready to explain the history of the tomb which is covered in white ceramics. 

“Ratu Syarifah Fatimah was the queen who had full power in the Sultanate of Banten,” Candrian explained. “Unfortunately, she is one of the queens hated by her people because she was more inclined to accept the Netherlands.” 

After the Dutch lost the war in Banten, Ratu Syarifah Fatimah also had to go into exile because she became a common enemy, so that Edam Island became her last domicile until her death. 

Apart from the tower and old burial complex, Edam, which covers 36 hectares, also has other mysteries in the form of an underground bunker and the remains of a fort-like building. 

“During the Old Order and the New Order era, this island had become a location for the Armed Forces to exercise”, explained Candrian about the military-looking buildings on this island. 

Satisfied with exploring Edam, which is partially covered by thickets and forests, the journey that day continued to Kelor. 

The island, which went viral for being the location of Indonesian celebrity weddings in the past few years, is indeed quite iconic. A round fort with orange bricks dominates the island. From a distance, before the ship docked, we can already recognize this 2-hectare area, just by looking at the fort. At first glance, the building seems to remind us of the splendor of the Colosseum in Rome, Italy. 

The fort building is round with orange bricks neatly arranged around it. The name Mortello for this fort was taken or inspired from a fort with a similar name in Corsica, France. When measured carefully, the diameter of this fort is 23 meters. 

During the colonialist era, Kelor was once the base for VOC defense when it was attacked by the Portuguese army in the 17th century. “Besides, the Dutch once made this island a grave for the natives living on the islands around the Thousand Islands, including the graves for political prisoners sentenced to death,” said Candrian. “No wonder this island is also called the island of graves,” added Candrian. 

Walking around Mortello does not take long, this fortress with a height of no more than 10 meters is indeed partially decayed over time. The beach is already abrasive, so safety stones are needed. When dusk falls, Mortello becomes the most Instagrammable location so many local young people come to just enjoy the sunset. 

The learning session about the other history of Jakarta or Batavia will usually continue to Onrust Island. An island with a long history. Here too, the Dutch colonialists, through the VOC, used it as a dockyard for ships that were damaged or needed maintenance. It is not surprising then that there is a nickname that this island never rests or ‘onrust’ in Dutch. 

Unfortunately, visiting Onrust today is certainly very far from what it was during the colonialist era. In Onrust there was once a magnificent fortress with a giant windmill like that in the Netherlands. At present all we can find are the remains of foundations on this part of the island from traces of a windmill that is said to have been built in 1656. 

Entering the 20th century, Onrust was once used as a quarantine center for the Dutch East Indies hajj. Functioning for decades, this place was once a training center for pilgrims to get used to the rough sea waves. This situation was because at that time, to go to perform worship in the Holy Land, they still used ships that journeyed for months. 

Interestingly, for those who like Indonesian history, this place was also the location for detaining rebels from the “Kapal Tujuh” or also known as the HNMLS Zeven Provincien ship. Although history records that the rebellion failed and the Dutch were able to quickly suppress it, the rebels were properly buried here and the burial complex was still neatly preserved on the north side of Onrust. 

Onrust’s function was somewhat depressing during the political transition in the 1960s. The abandoned haj quarantine building was then looted by residents from other islands, leaving behind a skeleton as we see it today. Onrust’s condition, which was left empty without guard, meant the island disappeared from Jakarta’s tourism radar before the massive revitalization in the late New Order period. 

Currently, when we visit Onrust, there is a Betawi-style house which also functions as a museum. In it, we will see some photo documentation, artifacts, and mock-ups in full about Onrust in the past. 

How to get there 

The three historic islands in the Thousand Islands highlighted in this article have connecting routes that can be reached via various piers on the coast of Jakarta. The options start from Bidadari Island (via Marina Ancol) with a special speedboat or if you want a different sensation, you can take a fishing boat that can be rented at Muara Kamal Harbor, West Jakarta. 

These two methods offer a different experience, but it’s still fun to learn the history and see Jakarta in the past. Don’t forget to make sure you apply the health protocols in effect during the COVID-19 pandemic when you visit.  (Freddy Wally)