The old town of Jakarta as candidate for UNESCO world heritage status, Part I: The scheme for the ideal city

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Simon Stevin’s Scheme for the Ideal City. (photo: IO/Prive.Doc)

IO – As UNESCO assesses the Old Town of Jakarta for World Heritage status, the Independent Observer is publishing a series of articles exploring why the Old Town of Jakarta with its four outlaying Islands of Onrust, Kelor, Cipir and Bidadari deserves world heritage status and what the Jakarta government needs to do to obtain it.

To those who question preserving a colonial heritage site, Lin Che Wei, one of the Old Town’s stakehold­ers who has expanded tremendous time, effort and resources for world heritage status says, “The Old Town is only 1,5 km of the whole 665 km area of Jakarta but this tiny area is the cradle of mod­ern history not only for Jakarta but also of the creation of Indonesia.” To under­stand this join us on a journey through the history of the Old Town area of Ja­karta.

During the 17th and 18th centu­ries the VOC (United Dutch East India Company) created a trade and shipping monopoly of the much sought after products of the Indonesian Archaepela­go, foremost among them spices. They accomplished this by forcing the most important products to be shipped first to Batavia before they could be trans­ported by international shipping to Eu­rope or the Middle East or by regional shipping to Asian countries such as India and China and lastly by inter-is­land shipping from one island to another within the Archipelago. This policy made the Old Town of Jakarta, once known as Batavia the hub and entrepot of the vast network of VOC trade and shipping. Consequently, during the 17th and 18th centuries the Old Town of Jakarta had one of the largest volumes of trade in the world; certainly a far larger gross tonnage of shipping than the EIC. The wealth produced, fuelled Holland’s Gold­en Age and won picturesque Batavia with its symmetrical canals and shaded avenues the title, “Queen of the East”.

Jacatra as it was known when the Dutch arrived, was very attractive to the VOC due to its strategic location close to two of the busiest trade routes in the world namely the Straits of Malacca and the Sunda Straits. It was located at the mouth of a river which guaran­teed fresh water and transport and the fertile, marshy soil was something the Dutch were used to. They knew how to drain it and they changed the landscape with their canals, water mills and sluice gates. On the island of Onrust they even erected windmills. The surrounding countryside could be used for growing food and the forests provided the wood needed for ship repair and to build the town. The Bay of Jakarta also provided an all year around safe anchorage for ships and the Old Town of Jakarta was a closer rendezvous place for vessels ar­riving from Europe or within the region than places further afield such as Am­bon or Banda. The final argument that decided the VOC in choosing the Old Town of Jakarta area was that in order to entice more foreign traders to Jaca­tra, Prince Jayakarta offered the VOC a lower tax than the Sultan of Banten – an action that would later provoke the ire of Banten and lead to war with the VOC.

When the VOC defeated the forces of Banten and Jayakarta, Prince Jayakar­ta’s town with its wooden structures was burnt and razed to the ground, leaving the VOC in the unique position of being able to create a completely new town in any manner they wished. In nearly all other Dutch overseas towns such as Surabaya, Semarang or Malacca there was always already a previous settle­ment or town which needed to be taken into consideration. Dutch city plans had to be adjusted to these previous settle­ments and inhabitants. This was not the case with Batavia. Here the VOC was free to implement a much purer town plan than elsewhere.

Batavia’s town planning in 1621 was very much influenced by the teachings of Simon Stevin, a 17th century Belgian mathematician, physicist and engineer who taught at the University of Leiden and had the ear of Prince Maurits, the Stadthouder. Stevin created what was known as the Scheme for the Ideal City which was a combination of an orthog­onal street pattern stemming from Re­naissance ideals for the ideal city, with Dutch engineering and fortification sys­tems.

As an engineer Stevin was known foremost as a builder of forts and forti­fied cities. The city in his Scheme for the Ideal City is fortified by city walls and a fort. Its straight roads create a grid pattern and the main square or plaza with the most important buildings in the town stands at the point where the primary and secondary axis meet.

A plan of 17th century Batavia clearly reflects the main principles and elements of the Scheme for the Ideal City. A fort, Batavia Castle was built in the north to defend the town against attacks by sea. The city itself was encircled by city walls with 23 bastions and as a further defense the wall was surrounded by outer city moats or canals. Throughout the town an or­thogonal pattern of canals was created for transport. The bastions on the town walls were named after towns in the Netherlands. Batavia Castle was built before the rest of the town and its four bastions named Diamond, Ruby, Pearl and Sapphire, were a clear indica­tion that the merchants who built Batavia had wealth foremost on their minds.

Through the middle of the town flows the Kali Be­sar canal which came into existence after the Dutch canalized and straightened a branch of the Ciliwung River. It served as the main artery and lifeline of the town connecting the ships in the anchorage and the settlers in the town with the great hinterlands where food was grown and where the wood needed for building the town and for ship repairs was drawn from the forests.

In Stevin’s plan when an imaginary line is drawn connecting two bastions from north to south as the primary axis and then another imaginary line con­necting two bastions from east to west, the place where they cross is where the main plaza or square of the town is lo­cated with the most important buildings. In the Old Town of Jakarta that is Fa­tahillah Square. In the 17th and 18th centuries the main buildings were the Stadhuis or Town Hall and the great Kopelkerk or domed church which was a landmark at the time visible from the sea.

Was the Old Town of Jakarta designed by Simon Stevin? The only evidence is a let­ter from Prince Mau­rits to the directors of the VOC (Dutch East India Compa­ny) instructing them to follow the plan for Batavia Castle de­signed by Simon Ste­vin but in the letter Prince Maurits also says that for the time being they need not yet follow Stevin’s plan for the town. Historians do not know whether in the end Stevin’s plan was used for Batavia. Nevertheless, it is obvious that the town was built based on the main defining principles and el­ements of Stevin’s Scheme for the Ideal City. The late vice director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre for Training and Research for Asia and the Pacific, Dr Ron van Oers said, “It is almost certain that Coen was directly advised by Ste­vin.” Coen did return to Holland for an extended period when he may well have met Simon Stevin before returning to the Indies.

The city plan based on Simon Ste­vin’s Scheme for the Ideal City which was made without having to adjust to any earlier settlements is unique amongst other Dutch overseas settle­ments. It differs, from such city plans in the Netherlands in that it had to be ad­justed to the local conditions of climate and geography. Also many of the Chi­nese and local contractors and builders brought their own cultural techniques and styles to the building of Batavia. It is a unique record of a multicultur­al society created as a consequence of the great voyages of discovery of previ­ous centuries whose existence centered around the trade that dominated this region especially during the 17th and 18th centuries.

(Tamalia Alisjahbana)