The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta – a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city

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The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
View of another island from the interior of the Martello like tower on Pulau Kelor. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata

IO – Two weeks ago the Independent Observer published an article about the island of Onrust. Its name translates as ‘Without Rest’ now however, it is a tranquil place simply reminiscent of a time when it was the foremost Dutch shipyard in Indonesia, where work continued non-stop twenty-four hours a day, every day of the week. It is the main island in the four island group that makes up the Taman Arkeologi Onrust or Onrust Archeological Park, in the Bay of Jakarta.

The closest island to Onrust is Pulau Cipir which during the period of the United Dutch East India Company (more commonly referred to as the VOC) was known as the island of Kuiper. Cipir is said to come from the word kecipir which is the Indonesian word for winged beans. Presumably, these beans which have the highest amount of protein of all beans, were once grown here.

In the past Onrust and Cipir both had pontoon bridges jutting out towards each other. The ends of the two pontoon bridges were connected by rope and a man would pull a barge with people or goods on it, along the rope from one pontoon bridge to the next. In the past this was how people commonly moved between the two islands if they did not wish to cross by boat.

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
Haj pilgrims being transported by the barge from Pulau Cipir to Onrust for quarantine. 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

Adolf Heuken in his book ‘Historical Sites of Jakarta’ tells the experience of Dr L.J.A Schoonheyt who was the Tanjung Priok harbor doctor towards the end of the colonial period. Dr Schoonheyt wrote in his memoirs, how on an inspection tour of the four islands, the inspection team afterwards tried to cool off from the heat of the day by sitting on the jetty and dangling their feet in the water, until they suddenly saw a three-meter long shark ‘shooting like a torpedo towards them’. All feet were immediately removed from the water, of course. Later, Dr Schoonheyt was interned on Onrust for being a Dutch Nazi sympathizer and wrote that the sharks were regarded as the best guards around the islands. No one considered escaping by swimming for the coast of Java. Presumably, people also did not attempt to swim from one island to another amongst the group of four islands, either.

Pulau Cipir is located at 106o 44’ 8.96” east longitude and at 6o 02’ 22.25” south latitude. This island once had large VOC godowns or warehouses for storing cargo such as pepper, coffee and spices. The godowns were used to store the cargoes of ships that were being repaired. To keep the cargoes safe at night all workers were returned to Onrust every evening and only guards with dogs remained on Cipir to secure the godowns. A sawmill was also built on Cipir and valuable timber from Java was once kept on the island. It was part of the ship repair yard together with Onrust. In the mid-nineteenth century the island served as a naval coaling station.

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
The Onrust – Kuyper quarantine station. 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

When a quarantine station for haj pilgrims and later also for ships’ passengers, was established on Onrust island in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, a part of the quarantine station was on Pulau Cipir. It was in fact known as the Quarantine Station Onrust-Kuiper.

At a later period, there was formerly a prison on the island. The walls of many of the buildings now standing on Cipir were in the past part of that prison. There remains a cell once used for solitary confinement and also the remains of a large hall of what was originally a two-story building with a high wall around it, built in 1933. The ruins of two small bedroom cottages, as well as some bathroom structures are also still visible today.

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
Ruins of a prison once on Pulau Cipir. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata

In the 19th century the colonial government built a fort on Pulau Cipir as part of Batavia’s sea defenses. The foundations of a round Martello like tower have been partially excavated and can still be seen. At present all that is left of the Martello like tower is a half-circle structure made of red brick, part of which is submerged in seawater. It has been partially built over by a seawall and partially by some new tourist cottages. The remnants of the fort have become a spot that tourists like to view. There are also four old ships’ cannons remaining on the island. Heuken writes that in the past there were apparently many old canons lying about on the four islands but that these were slowly removed most likely by antique or scrap metal dealers.

On the island there was once a natural well with fresh water but it now contains salt water which has to be desalinated. Some tourist cottages and food stalls have been set up on the island to cater to overnight visitors.

The next island in the group is Pulau Kelor. It is located at 106o 44’ 43.35” east longitude and at 6o 02’ 33.76” south latitude. In Indonesian kelor is the name of the moringa or drumstick tree. The leaves of this highly nutritious plant have more vitamins and minerals than any other green leafy vegetables. As the plant grows wild in many parts of Indonesia, presumably there were numerous drumstick trees on the island that people consumed.

During the Dutch times, Pulau Kelor was known as Kerkhof Eiland or ‘Graveyard Island’ because after 1699 the dead were no longer buried on Onrust (which only has the remains of a small Dutch cemetery now) but brought to the graveyard on Kelor. Unfortunately, the old Dutch graveyard on Kelor was eroded by the sea as a result of dredging in the Bay of Jakarta and sadly, nothing remains of it now.

All of the islands in the archeological park suffer from erosion by the sea. The government has built concrete seawalls that are further fortified with dolosse, on all the islands. Dolosse are reinforced concrete blocks with geometrical shapes that weigh up to 80 tonnes, used as revetments to protect the shoreline against the erosive force of the waves. Kelor is the outermost island of the Onrust group and therefore acts as a further protective barrier for the other three islands against the sea erosion. Last year the City of Jakarta repaired Kelor’s sea defenses against further erosion. Although most of the islands in the Bay of Jakarta fall into the province of Banten the four islands of the Onrust Archeological Park fall under the jurisdiction of the City of Jakarta.

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
A view of the island of Kuiper or Pulau Cipir by Jacob Pieter Mercier between 1855 – 1882. Photo credit: Rijksmuseum, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

A few years ago the City of Jakarta planned to allow the Onrust group to be part of a commercial land fill program whereby they would become part of the mainland of Jakarta and then available for property development. Mr Lin Che Wei, Mrs Toeti Heraty Roosseno, Mr Candrian Attahiyat and the writer were amongst those who struggled to convince the government that the islands are an inseparable part of the historic Old Town area of Jakarta that need to be preserved in their original form as islands, reminding the government that the four islands have cultural heritage status since 1972 and that in 2002 they were made into an archeological park to preserve the artifacts and ruins on the islands. Thankfully, the City of Jakarta agreed and all such land fill and development plans with regard to the islands were set aside.

The British left Indonesia in the early 19th century after governing for about five years. Governor-General Van der Capellen then built a naval base at Onrust between 1823 and 1825. The four islands served as the outermost circle of Batavia’s defense at sea. After the series of republican revolts against European monarchies known as the Revolutions of 1848, the Dutch built Martello like towers on the four islands between 1850 and 1852. They were most likely inspired in this by the British.

Corsicans have built round towers since the 15th century to protect the coastal villages on their island, as well as their shipping from North African pirates. In 1565, Giovan Giacomo Paleari Fratino designed a round fort as part of the Genoese defense system at Mortella Point in Corsica. In 1794, two British warships attacked this tower unsuccessfully. Two hours of cannonade from the ships had no effect on the tower and after one of the ships was heavily damaged by shots fired from the tower, both ships withdrew. The British were impressed and copied the design of the tower naming their design after the tower at Mortella. However, they confused the name and called their towers Martello (meaning ‘hammer’) towers instead of Mortella (meaning ‘myrtle’). After the French Revolutionary Wars (1792-1804) they built such towers all over the British empire, almost always as part of the coastal defense.

Martelloes are small round, usually two storied defensive forts that are about 12 meters high, with thick walls resistant to canon fire. On their flat roofs were usually placed heavy artillery able to fire in a complete circle. However, their usefulness did not last long as they soon became obsolete with the introduction of more sophisticated artillery and ships. The towers built by the Dutch on the four islands of the Onrust group, are not true Martelloes but rather circular forts.

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
A canon on Pulau Cipir. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata

The Dutch planned to place 80-pounder grenade guns on the circular forts to protect the ships in the passages between the islands which were covered by the artillery on the towers so that they could support each other and thereby create a safe anchorage for the ships. The guns were very effective against wooden ships. However, when ships were outfitted with metal armour they were no longer so effective. By 1860 the British had also discovered that such towers were no defense against rifled artillery. Consequently, the Martello like towers on the four islands were blown up to render them ineffective.

The outer walls of the Martello like tower on Pulau Kelor was destroyed and only the structure of the inner circle remains intact with a diameter of 9,26 meters from the outside. The walls are two floors high, the roof however has gone – and have a thickness of 2,6 meters. Many have cracks and could collapse.

The last of the four islands in the archeological park is Pulau Bidadari which translates as ‘Angel Island’. It is located at 106o   44’ 48.79” east longitude and 6o 02’ 9” south latitude. During the colonial period it was known as Purmerend Eiland and Indonesians referred to it as Pulau Sakit or “Island of the Sick’. This is because there was once a leprosarium on the island.

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
Small graveyard on the island of Purmerend or Pulau Bidadari, circa 1930. Photo credit: AnonymousUnknown author, CC BY 4.0 (https://creativecommons .org/licenses/by/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

In the 17th century leprosy was on the rise in Batavia. It was then thought to be a highly contagious disease so, people suffering from it were placed far from the community, preferably on an island. Therefore, in 1665 a leprosy hospital or Lazarus house as it was then called, was established on Purmerend. Originally, there had been a leprosy hospital in the vicinity of Fort Angke on the mainland but because of the fear of contamination this was moved to Purmerend in September 1681. There were usually between 160 -170 patients there. People who were born on the island but had no symptoms of the disease were allowed to go live on Edam Island which is outside the Onrust group.

By the 18th century leprosy was no longer regarded as being highly contagious. Leprosy patients were returned to society and cared for in general hospitals and in 1790 the leprosy hospital on Purmerend began taking in patients with other illnesses as well. By 1795, the last leprosy patient had been moved to the Chinese hospital in Batavia. The move was because with the advent of the French Revolutionary Wars there was fear of an attack by the British. The British later did attack and destroy the hospital in 1800.

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
Ruins of Martello like tower on Pulau Bidadari showing interior walls and inner circle. Photo credit: Fino Simarmata

The ruins of a Martello like tower on Pulau Bidadari is the most intact of such towers on the four islands. Both the outer and inner circle with the covered passage in between are still in existence. At the centre of the inner circle, there still exits a smaller circle which was used as a place for storing water (on the islands people collected rain water, as the wells on the islands tended to be contaminated by salt water). This pool was for drinking water and to cool the powder magazine.

The Martello like tower on Bidadari was damaged during the volcanic eruption of Mount Krakatoa in 1883 nevertheless, it continued to be used as a fort until 1878 when it became a warehouse. It was finally abandoned in 1908.

After independence the island remained empty with no inhabitants until 1970 when PT Seabreeze Indonesia established a resort on the island with cottages (including cottages on stilts above the water), restaurant and shops. Many varieties of trees were planted on the island creating a very pleasant and cool atmosphere during the dry season, as well as food and shelter for the many birds that visit the Thousand Islands in the Bay of Jakarta. Beside its white beaches, the island also has mangroves and many fruit trees as well as rare plants were planted on the island. It has about 50 monitor lizards which can grow up to 2 meters in length.

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
Nest of a Brahmini kite above the Martello like tower on Pulau Bidadari Photo credit: Fino Simarmata

Just above the Martello like tower on Bidadari stands a very high tree where a brahmini kite likes to nest. This bird is regarded as the prototype of the mythological garuda bird which is Indonesia’s national symbol.

The island also changed its name from Pulau Sakit to Pulau Bidadari in 1970. Pulau Sakit was felt not to be appropriate for a resort island. The new name was said to have been inspired by the names of other islands in the Thousand Islands such as Pulau Putri (Princess Island), Pulau Nirwana and Pulau Kahyangan (Heavenly Island). (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

The islands of Cipir, Kelor and Bidadari in the Bay of Jakarta - a pleasant visit away from the hustle and bustle of the city
This drawing from William Bradley’s Journal ‘A Voyage to New South Wales’ circa 1802 provides a view of Onrust and Cipir. Photo credit: William Bradley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you enjoyed this article, you may also want to read Part I of the article by the same writer: https://observerid.com/a-visit-to-the-peaceful-and-scenic-island-of-onrust-once-the-busiest-voc-shipyard/