Thursday, September 28, 2023 | 08:44 WIB

The old sugar world of East Java. Part I: The town of Probolinggo

IO – Years ago across the small valley at the foot of our garden in the mountains of West Java, there was an apple orchard with roses. A Eurasian man managed the gardens and he told me that he came from Probolinggo and that his father was once known as the ‘Grape Man of Probolinggo’. He told me, “My father had an enormous vineyard in Probolinggo and introduced grapes there from all over the world. He had red, black, green, yellow and purple grapes from Egypt, Morocco, Spain, France, Portugal, the Netherlands and Germany – but during the Japanese Occupation when food and everything else was so hard to come by the village people chopped up the vines for firewood. Now, all that remains are the purple grapes of Probolinggo.” 

Mangoes of Probolinggo. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

For many years that was all I knew of Probolinggo. The place which produces the beautiful looking but sour tasting purple grapes. In fact, Probolinggo is also known for its manalagi mangoes. The town is full of gigantic old mango trees which are laden with fruit during the mango season. They say it is the dry season winds, the angin gending, blowing from July through November that pollinates the mango trees and other fruit which make Probolinggo famous for its delectable fruit.

If, however you are interested in 19th century Java then go travel in search of the old sugar world of East Java and start with Probolinggo, but also visit Pasuruan and Panarukan – where much of that world is still visible and is reflected in its many heritage structures, as well as its agriculture. So much still remains: the plantations, the factories, the railroads, the sugar experimentation centre and the beautiful houses and buildings that were built from the wealth of sugar.

Lit-up alun-alun car in Probolinggo. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

I recently went on a trip to East Java in search of that world with a dear friend, Kia Mahdi who is a lady of mixed heritage (all eight of her grandparents were of a different nationality or ethnicity), researching her family history. I shall not go into more detail now about her fascinating research, so important in this era of increasingly intense globalization – until her book comes out which will have the intriguing title, ‘Why Java?’. So, more about that at a later date.

Now, off to Probolinggo, the main town of our sugar explorations.

Probolinggo is the name of a residency but also of a town. It was a part of the Majapahit Empire which existed between the 13th and 16th centuries and was originally called Banger, after the Banger River that flows through the town and which provides drinking water as well as transportation for its inhabitants.  Sunan Pakubuwono II backed a rebellion led by Chinese inhabitants (originally triggered by the Chinese Massacre of 1740 in Batavia) against the VOC which the VOC was able to put down. Consequently, in order to maintain his position Pakubuwono II was forced to cede to the VOC most of eastern Java (the north coast and Madura) including Banger. In 1770 Regent Joyonagoro changed the town’s name to Probolinggo which originates from the Sanskrit words praba meaning light (in a masculine sense) and lingga which is an emblem of the god Shiva and symbolizes masculine fertility.

This north coast, East Javanese town now has a population of about 240,000 inhabitants and covers an area of roughly 56,70 square miles. It is a lovely town with many beautiful old 19th and early 20th century heritage buildings giving it a distinct air of tempo dulu or ‘bygone days’. Probolinggo is a quiet town and still has that slow pace of life that no longer exists in the bigger towns of Java. One way of really being able to see the buildings and savour the atmosphere of Probolinggo is by taking a ride around the town with a becak or trishaw.

Emblem of the City of Probolinggo. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

The period that most influenced the development of Probolinggo as a town was the period between 1830 and 1870 known as the era of the Cultuurstelsel or Forced Cultivation System. Under this system, the colonial government forced Javanese farmers to use 20% of their fields to grow certain export crops in lieu of paying taxes. Alternatively, they could work on government owned plantations for 60 days of the year. The system was very much abused and resulted in famine in many areas as cash crops had to be grown instead of rice. For the Dutch it produced enormous wealth and brought the Netherlands back from the brink of bankruptcy after the expenses of the Java Wars and the Padri Wars in the Indies, and in Europe the Belgian Revolution, as well as keeping the Dutch army on a war footing until 1939.

The second major influence on the spatial development of Probolinggo as well as its architecture, was the construction of the railroads between 1880 and 1900 which helped in the development of the sugar industry and which increased the importance of Probolinggo. The Forced Cultivation System resulted in the development of plantations mainly for sugar and the railroads transported not only people but also agricultural products from the areas around Probolinggo regency, to the town to be shipped to the Netherlands.

Dragon car for hire at the alun-alun in Probolinggo. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana

As with most old Javanese towns, Probolinggo centres around a green known in Indonesian as the alun-alun. In the traditional alun-aluns of Java there is usually the regent’s pendopo or residence on the south side of the alun-alun, a mosque on the west side of it and a prison on its east side. This is all present on the Probolinggo alun-alun. What makes it interesting, is that during the 19th century, a railway station was added to the north side of the green. It held a very important function in the colonial system as it opened up the eastern regions for agriculture and plantations. If you are visiting Probolinggo, then do also visit the alun-alun at night where as part of public entertainment they have vehicles beautifully lit up in the form of fairytale carriages and dragons with which one can have a wonderful spin around the green or even a little further afield.

Jalan Gubernur Suryo in Probolinggo. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana

Not far from the alun-alun is Jalan Gubernur Suryo which must have been one of the most important roads during the colonial period for here are located what were clearly the most important colonial buildings of the town. At Jalan Suryo no 32 is located the Immanuel Protestant Reformed church built in 1862 with funds donated by Charles Etty, the Englishman who built the Wonolangen sugar factory and who was one of the wealthiest men in Probolinggo. During his time the church was an Anglican church but later changed to Dutch Reformed.

What makes this church unique is that firstly, the whole church is painted flaming red. Secondly, it is made of corrugated metal with a steel frame to support its roof. The drawback to having a metal church is that by midday it is very hot within the church. Consequently, in 1980, it was decided to line the church on the inside with wood so that the congregation would no longer suffer so much from the midday heat.

Imannuel Church, popularly known as the Red Church is an icon of Probolinggo. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO.

The reason the church was painted red in the first place, is because Probolinggo is located by the sea and it was feared that the salty sea breezes would soon rust the metal; as a result it was painted with meni or an orangey red paint used as an anti-rust primer. By now however, it seems that over the anti-rust primer it was painted an even stronger red causing the church to now be popularly known as the Red Church. The minister says that the red denotes the blood of Christ. The church has become one of the icons of Probolinggo. All this makes the church quite unique and there is apparently only one other such church in the world, namely in the Netherlands. Immanuel therefore received cultural heritage status from the government in 2014 and on every 17th of August the church bells ring out to celebrate Independence day.

Stained glass windows of the Red Church. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO.

The church which has stained glass windows, shows a mixture of the Neo-Gothic style as well as elements of the Industrial Revolution.  The Neo-Gothic elements are clearly visible in the Church’s finely wrought pulpit and the spiral stairs leading up to the pulpit, as well as in its stained glass windows with their arched wooden frames and the Church’s steeple. The influence of the Industrial Revolution is clear from the fact that it was one of the first prefabricated structure in the Indies with the parts ordered from Germany and then sent to the Netherlands before being sent to the Indies.

Pulpit in the Red Church of Probolinggo. Photo credit: Tamalia Alsijahbana/IO

In a cupboard in the back room of the church are still kept some 19th century silver jugs, chalices and plates for communion as well as an old Bible, old letters and a few photographs of former ministers of the church. Today, Immanuel has a very warm and welcoming congregation consisting of many different Indonesian ethnicities led by a lady pastor, Meilin Suriani Tapahing who originally comes from Talaud in North Sulawesi.

The Tisnonegaran area in Probolinggo appears to be equivalent to the old elite Menteng area of Jakarta. On Jalan Suryo are located several other architecturally interesting buildings. One of them is the very grand Catholic primary school, Mater Dei. This beautiful neo-classical building surrounded by mature mango trees, dedicated to the Holy Mother bears the inscription on its emblem Tota Christi per Mariam or ‘To belong completely to Christ through the intermediary of the Holy Mary’.

Mater Dei school on Jl Suryo in the Tisnonegaran area of Probolinggo. Photo credit: TamaliaAlisjahbana/IO

Perhaps, the most important building on Jalan Suryo is the building at number 27 which has now become the DPRD or city legislative body. The two story building which has apparently been renovated has retained its neo-classical rounded, white pillars. A third very important building on Jl Suryo is number 17, namely the Probolinggo city museum. During the colonial era, this was originally the societeit or club house of the wealthy elite of Probolinggo and its environs. The funds for this were again donated by Charles Etty, the British owner of the Wonolangen sugar factory located on the outskirts of the city.

The Probolinggo city legislature. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

After independence and the later nationalization of Dutch assets in the 1950s, the building was used for cultural activities. In 2008 several concerned citizens and organizations including the Badan Perencanaan Pembangunan Daerah  (Bappeda) or Regional Development Planning Agency, the Dinas Pemuda, Olah Raga,  Budaya dan Pariwisata or Municipal Youth, Sports, Culture and Tourism Services and the British Indonesia Artists Society or BIAS proposed the creation of a city museum for Probolinggo. This led to the creation of the Museum Probolinggo. Besides being a museum, it also continues to function as a cultural centre.

Probolinggo Museum. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

The Museum has collections of ancient statues and reliefs from the Hindu period, ceramics, batiks, old photographs and manuscripts, numismatics, as well as objects such as old bells, traditional boats, etc. The most interesting remnant of the sugar world of East Java is however, the 19th century locomotive with ‘Wonolangen sugar factory’ still clearly impressed upon it.

Wonolangen sugar factory train at the Probolinggo city museum. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

Next week’s article will be about the Wonolangen and Oemboel sugar factories in the 19th century once owned by  Englishman, Charles Etty. (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

Sign on Wonolangen train at Probolinggo Muncipa Museum. Photo credit: Tamalia Alisjahbana/IO

If you enjoyed this article you may like to read more about The sugar world of East Java by the same writer in:

Part II:


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