The Old Town of Jakarta as Candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Status Part III: The People from Outside the Archipelago

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The Outer Portugese Church now known as the Sion Church was built for the so called “brown Portugese” who were brought as slaves to the Old Town area after the conquest of such places as Malacca, Srilangka and parts of the Coast of Coromandel. (photo: IO/Fino Suhanta)

IO – In the battle with the VOC, Prince Jayakarta’s town, Jacatra was razed, and not only were there no buildings left but most of its inhabitants were either killed in the fighting or fled. The Dutch however, needed people to inhabit the new town that they were building and first they looked at people who originated from outside the Indonesian archipelago.

Historian and archivist, Mona Lohanda says, “Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen invited all types of people to settle in and around the Old Town area of Jakarta. So, immigrants coming here to settle has been the character of Jakarta since its earliest beginnings. Later as a town of trade and commerce people came to look for work; even after the transfer of sovereignty in 1949 people have continued to migrate to Jakarta to seek work, higher education and even at times safety when the countryside proved too dangerous due to rebellions, bandits or war.”

First, the VOC invited the Chinese to settle in Batavia because they needed the trade in ceramics from China as the VOC was not permitted to build a trading post in China. The Chinese were also skilled artisans who could carve wood and later most of the structures in the Old Town would be built by Chinese contractors. It was also the Chinese who opened the hinterlands by draining them and planting rice, fruit, vegetables and sugar cane as well as raising animals for food. The Chinese were also the inhabitants who paid the highest taxes including a poll exempting them from military duty. Finally, they were also instrumental in helping the Dutch collect the taxes due from other ethnic groups. It is understandable that Prof. Leonard Blusee in his book “Strange Company” describes Batavia as a Chinese colonial town for in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Chinese community more than any other ethnic group built and paid for the creation of Batavia. Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen who was instrumental in the establishment of Batavia saw eye to eye with with Souw Beng Kong, the first Kapitan Cina of Batavia whose grave lies in Jalan Pangeran Jayakarta. They were reported to have been close friends. Today, that Chinese presence can be seen in the more than 70 Chinese temples in Jakarta and in the Chinese influence on Indonesian music, language, cuisine, costumes and custom.

Later, the VOC brought nearly 8000 Tamil slaves from the Coast of Coromandel in India. Most of these were Muslims. Consequently, for a time they were the most populous group in Batavia. (The population of Batavia was around 14,000 souls.) At the time there were a lot of wars and famines in that part of India and many of people were forced to sell themselves and their families as slaves in exchange for food. It was during this time that the VOC brought many skilled wood craftsmen to Batavia. Jan Venendaal the expert on Indonesian colonial furniture who has written  “Domestic Interiors at the Cape and in Batavia 1602-1795” says, “The furniture industry in Indonesia now, probably owes its beginnings  to the furniture craftsmen from the Coast of Coromandel who were brought to Batavia in the 17th and 18th centuries.”

The Dutch referred to these Muslim Tamils as the Moors. Later most of them assimilated with the local population through intermarriage but we can still find traces of their influence in two of the earliest mosques in Jakarta namely Masjid Kampung Baru and Masjid Al Anshor. Both mosques were built in the Majapahit style with four soko guru pillars and a two-tiered joglo style roof but the Moorish influence may be seen in their balustered windows.

Further Indian influence can be found in food such as martabak (omelets with curry and minced meat), nasi kebuli (a type of mutton biryhani) and gulai kepala ikan (fish head curry), in music and loan words. One of the most important Tamil loan words in Indonesian is the word, “bapak” or “father”. The Indian influence is also apparent in women’s clothing: the Indonesian sarong and kebaya was influenced by the Indian saya and white long sleeved blouse that fell until the wearer’s calves. Suresh Vaswani, who heads the Gandhi Memorial School adds, “Quite a few Indonesian wedding traditions originate from India such as the custom of the bride washing the groom’s feet after he steps on an egg and the midodareni ceremony before the wedding where the groom and his family are received bearing gifts by the bride’s family.”

The Arabs were only allowed to settle in Batavia in the 19th century and their influence maybe seen in mosques such as Masjid An-Nawier and Langgar Tinggi in the Pekojan area where they slowly replaced the Tamils. There are more than 3000 Arabic loan words in Indonesian. Some are obvious words such as “Allah” or “Al Qur’an” but there are also other more prosaic words such as “sebab” which means “because,” or “hamil” meaning “pregnant”. The Arabic influence can also be felt in music such as the orkes gambus (wooden lute) and in dances such as the Zapin Betawi which is a combination of Malay and Arabic dance traditions.

After the VOC captured the Portuguese possessions on the Coast of Coromandel, in Sri Langka and Malacca they brought back the Portuguese as slaves. Beside the white Portuguese there were also local people in those places who had converted to Catholicism, taken the names of their Portuguese god-parents and spoke and dressed as the Portuguese. After a time these so called “brown Portuguese” were offered “merdeka” or freedom if they became Protestants which many did and the Gereja Sion or Outer Portuguese Church was built for them. They were known as the “Mardijkers” and their influence may be felt in over 300 Portuguese loan words such as bendera (flag), kereta (carriage), pesta (feast) and terigu (flour) but most of all the Portuguese influence is felt in “keroncong music” which has the same roots as the popular Portuguese “fado” and which the Javanese have developed further with Javanese musical influences. Until today one can still find the Keroncong Cafarinho and the Keroncong Tugu in the Mardijker village of Tugu which lies in the suburbs of Jakarta.

The first Japanese arrived in Batavia when Governor General Hendrik Brouwer recruited 68 soldiers in Hirado and sent them to Batavia. In the following decades 300 Japanese mercenaries were sent to fight in some of the main VOC battles of the time including the conquest of the Banda Islands where they were given the gruesome task of beheading and quartering the Bandanese chieftains known as the orang kaya. The Japanese mercenaries did not return to Japan because the Tokugawa government later restricted the inflow and outflow of people. However, these restrictions were eased for a while and later still there was a short wave of Christian Japanese migrants to Batavia. In 1632 there were 108 Japanese living in Batavia. Slowly the Japanese intermarried and blended in with the local population, leaving nearly no trace. Many centuries later during the Second World War the Japanese had a powerful influence on batik designs and motifs by introducing what later came to be known as the Jawa Hokokai style of batik with its myriad butterflies and cherry blossoms on classical Javanese backgrounds.

The Dutch of course brought their influence in various styles of architecture ranging from 16th century buildings to the Art Deco of the 1930s. The 19th century Immanuel Church represents the main Protestant edifice left by the Dutch. There are Dutch loan words in the Indonesian language such as “bengkel” or “car workshop,” “laci” or “drawer” and of course the famous “knalpot” or “exhaust pipe”. The Dutch influence on costume is not only clearly to be seen in the dresses, shirts and trousers that Indonesians wear but also in Indonesia’s beloved batik where the Dutch influence created the style called “Batik Belanda” or “Dutch Batik”. In cuisine the famous “kueh lapis” of layer cake served during Lebaran, the most important Muslim feast of the year – originates from the German “baum kuchen” by way of Holland. This is of course only a small sample of the Dutch influence which can be seen from such tangibles as furniture to intangibles such as the tanjidor music that is still played by the Betawi people today. The music originates from a combination of the slave orchestras who played classical music for Dutch plantation owners and the marching music of the colonial army.

These overseas cultures mixed with indigenous ones and created many cross-cultures such as the Indisch culture and the peranakan Chinese and of course the Betawi culture. All four of the major world cultures were represented in the Old Town: the Chinese, the Indian, the European and the Middle Eastern and all of them have influenced the formation of an Indonesian culture.

(Tamalia Alisjahbana)