Day 2: The Jakarta Museum & the Sunda Kelapa Port


(HW pp. 3>5, 11-30-13, Saturday, 0.6 hr.)

A Dream already. Yesterday, which seemed so compelling as it was happening, has already faded into the mist of fragmented memories and suggestive words.

The major events: a Jakarta Museum, the Sunda Kalapa Port, and finally a massage combined with an abundance of driving through crowded and chaotic streets. To complete the day, a Western style steak house with Martin and his friends. Martin: “I want you to have some familiar food. After we begin our journey only ethnic food.”

The day began with a long drive through the Jakarta maze. Although the roads seem to have no rules, everything flows smoothly. Many near misses, but no collisions. Honking for communication, not out of anger.

We finally arrive at a museum that is closed due to Muslim Friday. On this day of the week, the Faithful go to the mosque to pray world-wide, like Sunday for Christians. A great international bonding experience.

We have lunch instead. Juan and Voonyen are disappointed when they see Muslim servers because this means there will be no pork on the menu. Evidently the Chinese love pork and Islam forbids it. Juan eats no pork at home because his mother is Muslim, and sometimes sneaks out to get some. Despite no pork, the noodles are very flavorful and filing with a light sauce and a little bit of seafood. Indonesia does great pasta – sometimes in clear-brothed soups, sometimes a soupy pasta with a variety of ingredients, like the Vietnamese Pho.

The Jakarta History Museum

Because the traffic is so bad, our driver takes us to the Jakarta History Museum. It is guarded and under construction. After a few words, they allow us in. Evidently, the museum is intended to chart Jakarta’s rise as the capitol of Indonesia. According to the museum guide, a lovely Javanese lady who appears to help us out, it is the most visited museum in Jakarta, especially by the Dutch. For it is the Dutch that invested Jakarta with importance. It seems that this was the Dutch stronghold when they established control over Indonesia. It was they who drained the swamplands to enable people to spread out into a major international city of 10 million plus.

Located on the northwest coast of Java, Jakarta is Indonesia’s capitol, as well as its economic and political center. It is the largest city in Southeast Asia. The greater metropolitan area, which includes 5 cities contains 20 million people and is the second largest in the world. Including the suburbs, which extend for miles, there are 28 million inhabitants spread over 255 square miles. This might make it the largest collection of humans in one geographical area anywhere. Further, it is one of the fastest growing areas on the planet. Talk about urban sprawl.

What factors led to the emergence of this megalopolis?

The port from which Jakarta grows is of relatively recent importance. Historical records note the port as early as the 4th century CE. The Kingdom of Sunda in western Java absorbed the port into their territory by the 6th century. The harbor became known as Sunda Kelapa due to all the coconuts grown there, as Kelapa is coconut in Sundanese. According to Chinese sources, it was an important trading center for the Sunda Kingdom in the 14th century. However, for most of its history it was overshadowed by Palembang in Sumatra and then Malacca on the Malay Peninsula – both international entrepôts.

Jakarta only became a city in the 16th century. This was due to the European influence in Southeast Asia. After conquering Malacca, the Portuguese arrived in Sunda Kelapa looking for a spice center. Sunda was known for its fine pepper. Afraid of the rising power of the Sultanate of Demak in northern Java, the Kingdom of Sunda allowed the Portuguese to establish a port in the area in 1522.

To defend themselves, the Portuguese built a cannon with a hand on the end. The hand was clenched into a fist with the thumb sticking out through the fingers. For the Portuguese it was an aggressive gesture meaning ‘up yours’ or ‘fuck you’, with similar significance to when the middle finger is extended in English speaking countries.

Despite this bravado, the Portuguese were attacked and conquered by Fatahillah, a Javanese general from Demak in 1527. Due to this victory, the city was renamed Jayakerta (Sundanese: Glorious Fortress). This is the official beginning of the city. The obnoxious Portuguese cannon became a symbol of fertility for the local women. Touching the fist presumably brought pregnancy.

Again because of infighting amongst the many small sultanates of Java, ships from the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) were allowed into Java in 1596. It quickly became apparent that a wolf was in the chicken coop. The Javanese attempted to drive the Dutch out. But it was too late. Under the leadership of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the Dutch East India Company captured and razed Jakarta in 1619. The Company (the VOC) established their capitol on the site. The walled township was renamed Batavia. When the Indonesians declared their independence in 1945, the city remained the capitol and returned to its original name, Jakarta.

The primary administrative building of the Dutch colonial period, the city hall of Batavia, houses the museum. It was built in 1710 and became a museum in 1974. It includes a prison for men and women – small underground dungeons where it was impossible to stand up straight. The inmates were so crowded in these cramped quarters that many died before they reached trial. Public executions were held in the courtyard in the center of the walled-in City Hall. The local Javanese were invited to attend as an example of what happens to the rebellious. The high walls around the city and the city hall indicate that the Dutch were not well loved by the Javanese and were instead viewed as a type of poison that they wanted to expel from their midst.

The museum displays copies of prehistoric stone carvings, histories of the early Sultanates, and huge portraits of the Portuguese Albuquerque and Fatahillah, the Javanese general who defeated him. Albuquerque was the first to establish a European stronghold in Southeast Asia. A barbaric man, he cut off the ears of an emissary when he first arrived in India and replaced them with donkey ears. He was continuing the Catholic crusades against the Muslim world by establishing control of the crucial trade routes. The museum also includes the aforementioned cannon with the obnoxious clenched fist.

Mandala Politics and Jakarta

To understand the context for the European incursion into Southeast Asia, let us examine Southeast Asian mandala empires extend their influence from the center through prestige and economic advantage. The borders are not fixed and indeed collapse when the mandala center becomes weak. In contrast, Western-style territorial empires are based upon conquering and enslaving indigenous populations. The conquerors then establish and defend fixed boundaries through military might. China is an integral part of Southeast Asia's mandala poltical system. Once a nation or even a port becomes a vassal of the Chinese Empire, they immediately obtain major trading advantages and are showered with valuable gifts. The relationship with China confers prestige and hence credibility to these political groupings. The ensuing prosperity funds these mandala empires. Indeed, once China's support is withdrawn for internal or external reasons, the mandala empire frequently collapsed.

Here is an example of mandala politics that contributed to Jakarta's creation. Parameswara, the ruler of tiny Malacca, curried and obtained China's favor by turning it into a free port, one without duties. Due to this trade advantage, China shifted her allegiance from the reigning Majapahit Empire to Malacca. Within decades, Malacca became the new mandala empire of Southeast Asia and the Majapahit power began to fade. A Portuguese commentator even suggested that Malacca might replace Venice as the premier trading port in the world.

Due to internal problems, China abruptly withdrew from the Southeast Asia scene in the mid 1400s. Having lost his best customer and protector, Parameswara converted to Islam – becoming Iskander Shah. This conversion attracted the significant Arab traders from the West to his port. With the support of the Muslim Arabs, Malacca continued her reign.

The trade routes with Southeast Asia and Europe were disrupted due to the ongoing wars between the Catholics and the Muslim world. To satisfy the European demand for Asian luxuries, including spices and silks, the Portuguese successfully challenged the Arab trading privileges in Southeast Asia by conquering some of the significant Muslim ports including Malacca. To expand their influence the Portuguese sailed to the port of Sunda Kelapa. After setting up shop, the Portuguese were defeated and driven out by one of the Javanese sultanates.

Less than a century later, the Dutch East India Company conquered and established their colonial capital on this European beachhead. Due to the Dutch influence, it became a thriving international city named Batavia. This prosperous metropolitan area was renamed Jakarta when Indonesia claimed independence. In such a way did Southeast Asia's mandala politics contribute to the founding of Jakarta.

It seems that my rough and somewhat uninformed history has a new meme to add to the mix – Southeast Asia's mandala empires complete with the Chinese influence. A meme is an idea that is replicated through the communication of meaningful information from one human to another. Our knowledgeable guide didn’t seem to understand the concept of a mandala empire upon which Southeast Asian politics is based. Even scholarly books seem at a loss to describe the Khmer’s political system, another mandala empire. Hopefully others will spread this meme from one to another to clear away some confusion.

Sunda Kelapa

Our driver next took us to the port from which Jakarta emerged. Our guide states: “You haven’t seen Jakarta unless you’ve seen the Sunda Kelapa port. Kelapa means coconut. Don’t mistake for kapala, which means head.” We all laugh.

Most of the boats jut out of the water.

“They haven’t been loaded with cement yet,” the guide informs us. “Once filled, they sit low in the water. The boats sail between Jakarta and the islands with no navigation tools, just the stars. The sailors are recruited from the islands.”

I think to myself: “These are the famous Austronesian speakers, the best navigators the world has ever seen. They colonized all the islands from Madagascar in the Indian Ocean to Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean some 10,000 years ago. They then moved into Indonesian islands about 5,000 years ago. They are still sailing in the same traditional fashion, without any of the modern shipping technology. Some things never change.”

Men are sprinkled everywhere – sleeping in any spare corner on the dock or in the ship. “These are the dock workers. They carry cement bags across the narrow gangplanks to the hull of the ship – lifting thousands of pounds per day. To make extra money, some of them are sailors as well.”

Although very coordinated, Laurie requires assistance in crossing these wooden planks with nothing in her hands. Although not very glamorous, we are all happy that we got raw port experience of Sunda Kelapa.

From here, more seemingly endless traffic to a marvelous foot and leg massage. After a brief rest, the aforementioned Western steak dinner complete with French fries, green beans and carrots. Then we collapse into our hotel beds.


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