Studying Indonesian History in Bengkulu

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(Photo: Freddy Wally)

IO – Bengkulu is one of the provinces in Indonesia with a long history. Known as Bencoolen when the British, through the British East India Company trading company, controlled this area in the 17th century, Bengkulu now features not only many interesting historical attractions to visit but also enchanting natural beauty. 

Its strategic position in the southwestern part of Sumatra, which only takes less than an hour’s flight from Jakarta, is unfortunately not enough to make Bengkulu popular as a tourist destination for local travelers. This province which also has a capital of the same name has the potential to be an interesting weekend getaway, especially for lovers of Indonesian history. 

The trip to explore Bengkulu City itself can be done in less than 24 hours because the locations between tourist attractions in the province which were inaugurated on November 18, 1968, are fairly close to each other, including Bung Karno’s House of Exile which is located in the city center, precisely on Jalan Soekarno Hatta, there is also the Rumah Ibu Fatmawati which is only 1 km from Bung Karno’s House of Exile, besides that there is also the British Tomb Complex which holds mystery and also the monumental Parr Monument and not to be missed, the legendary Fort Marlborough. 

Bung Karno’s Exile House 

The house with a large yard that is neatly arranged does not at first glance look like an exile’s house. We will find this house still neatly maintained in every corner, starting from the tiles (floor), frames, doors, windows, to the ceiling. Visitors will automatically feel like they have been thrown into the past when they visit this historical site. 

Divided into several rooms, this house still leaves Bung Karno and his second wife Inggit Garnasih’s bedroom as an exhibition area; then there is a reading room which is arranged like Soekarno’s private library. There is a collection of some 303 books in Dutch and English. 

There is also a room that contains the attributes and properties of the tonil plays which Soekarno often engaged in with local children during his exile. One of the universal plays that Bung Karno and children often played was a play about the struggling struggles of Monte Carlo. It is recorded that there are at least 120 collections of opera attributes that are still left in this place. 

Being exiled for 4 years in Bengkulu from 1938 to the beginning of the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in 1942 made Bengkulu not only leave a deep impression on Bung Karno but also made unforgettable life experiences, one of which was meeting Fatmawati, who later became his third wife. 

It was noted that Fatmawati herself was the son of Hassan Din, the leader of Muhammadiyah Bengkulu at that time. Muhammadiyah itself is one of the largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia to date. The intense meeting occurred because Bung Karno was active in teaching at the Muhammadiyah school, allowing a love story to grow between the two lovebirds. 

Bung Karno’s House of Exile also has a back yard that is no less spacious, where there are rows of small pavilions that used to function as public kitchens, storerooms, toilets, and rooms for the servants. There is also an old well of which it is said the water is believed to keep you young. This place also maintains a neat unit of Bung Karno’s onthel bicycle in a glass box, a wooden cupboard, some of Bung Karno’s love letters to Fatmawati, and a dressing table in Bung Karno’s room. 

Fatmawati’s house 

If you are curious about the shape of the sewing machine used by Bung Karno’s wife, Fatmawati, when sewing the red and white heirloom flag that was raised on Independence Day on August 17, 1945, this place still keeps the sewing machine well to look back on and remember its history. 

The museum, which is a replica of the official residence of the Fatmawati family, is unique because it is a typical Sumatran stilt house with wooden dominance as its main architecture. From the information gathered, the original house of Bung Karno’s third wife, which was previously located on Jalan S. Parman-Bengkulu, has been destroyed and has not been rebuilt. 

Although it is not as big as Soekarno’s House of Exile, Fatmawati House Museum has a collection of rare photos all over its walls from the struggle of Soekarno and his wife, Fatmawati. 

Apart from that, this place also keeps some of the important furniture that once filled Fatmawati’s family home, from a bed complete with nets to a set of guest chairs and a table. There are also clothes that Fatmawati often wore, displayed in mannequins as a picture of the figure of the first “First Lady of the Republic”. 

Fort Marlborough 

This is a British heritage fort in the city of Bengkulu which was founded by the East India Company in 1714-1719, when it was led by Governor Joseph Callet. This fort was built on an artificial hill, facing the city of Bengkulu and its back was to the Indian Ocean. This fort was burned down by the people of Bengkulu, which forced its residents to flee to Madras, India. 

They then returned in 1724 after an agreement was reached. In 1793, another attack was launched. In this incident, a British officer, Robert Hamilton, died. And then in 1807, Chief Resident Thomas Parr was also killed. These two tragic events were later commemorated by the British government with monuments in the city of Bengkulu. 

Marlborough itself still functioned as a fortress until the Dutch came to power from 1825-1942, then during the Japanese occupation era in 1942- 1945, and during the Indonesian independence war. From the time of the Japanese defeat until 1948, the fort served as the headquarters of the Indonesian police. However, in the period of 1949-1950, Fort Marlborough was re-occupied by the Dutch. 

After the Dutch left in 1950 following the Round Table Agreement, Fort Marlborough, which when viewed from above looks like a turtle, became the headquarters of the Indonesian Army and turned into a museum during the New Order era, to be precise from 1977 until the present. 

Thomas Parr Monument 

A monument dedicated to Thomas Parr, British Resident in Bengkulu who was killed in 1807. Built a year after his death, the building is considered a cultural heritage with a distinctive oval shape and is located not too far from Fort Marlborough as well as the Bengkulu Governor’s Office. 

Bengkulu Jamik Mosque 

One of the historical mosques whose architecture was designed by Bung Karno during his exile in Bengkulu. This mosque has Javanese and Sumatran architectural styles. 

Initially, the Bengkulu Jamik Mosque was a small building known as the Surau Lamo. In the early 18th century, the Jamik Bengkulu Mosque was moved to the location where the mosque now stands. The architecture of the mosque buildings at that time was still made of wood, with a thatched roof. 

The structure of the mosque building did not change much when Bung Karno modified it from his old design. Most of the mosque structure is still preserved, except for the walls and floors, which are elevated 2 and 30 meters respectively. Another thing that Soekarno designed was the roof and pillars of the mosque. 

The roof of the mosque is stacked and three-storied, which symbolizes faith, Islam, and Ihsan. In addition, the roof of the mosque is arranged with bending accents and has a top decoration. The high roof of the mosque also symbolizes the “scale of God”, with the roof and ceiling space made high enough as if to touch the sky. 

British Cemetery Complex 

This tomb complex was put into use in 1714 along with the construction of Fort Marlborough. The location of the tomb itself was not far from Marlborough and was conceived by British colonialists as part of the fort. Today the tomb complex is next to a church. According to records that exist in various literature, the British buried here were victims of diseases such as malaria and dysentery and also died in wars. 

Free of admission, this tomb complex is neat and clean; some ancient and unique tombstones can still be found in this 4.5-hectare area. There are at least 53 British tombstones that are still intact. In the afternoon local children will be seen playing happily in this complex. 

Overall, Bengkulu is not only interesting to visit for those of you who want to know another facet of history of the Republic of Indonesia. Bengkulu is not only famous as the origin of the famous Rafflesia Arnoldii Flower but also has an interesting history to trace. While the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing, don’t forget to continue to apply health protocols during your visit for convenience and safety in traveling. Enjoy exploring! (Freddy Wally)