Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies (today Jakarta, Indonesia), 18th century.

Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies (today Jakarta, Indonesia), 18th century.

Princes, Profits and the Prophet

The 18th century was a turbulent period in Javanese history, when local kingdoms, Dutch traders and a mysterious Turk became embroiled in a series of bloody conflicts.

The Dutch side of the story

The Dutch East India Company, the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), was entangled in a bloody Javanese civil war in the 1750s. The kingdom of Mataram, with its series of capital cities in south-central Java, had been embroiled in major wars since the late 17th century. The VOC blundered into this volatile situation in the hope of winning trade concessions. It made an initial and cautious military intervention at the end of 1676 at Surabaya, on Java’s north-east coast, hoping to mediate some sort of settlement. Not everyone in the Company’s hierarchy thought this a sensible move. Some expressed the view that the VOC could only subdue Java at the cost of ruining the island and to the detriment of the Company’s finances. The logic of intervention would, nevertheless, lead the VOC deep into the interior, with consequences even worse than sceptics had feared.

In early 1677 the Company renewed a treaty, signed 30 years before with the Mataram dynasty. The Company promised to assist the dynasty in return for the king repaying all VOC costs and granting economic concessions, such as freedom from tolls. The warfare in Java thereby gained another layer. It became not only a civil war among indigenous forces, but one in which the Javanese court was supported by non-Muslim infidels. The fighting became in part a dynastic struggle as well as a religio-cultural one and enmities grew more entrenched. In 1677 the court fell to the rebels and Amangkurat I died while fleeing his burning palace. His son – with no court, treasury or army – sought the Company’s assistance in return for still more concessions. He thus became Susuhunan Amangkurat II. Some in the Company saw this as a golden opportunity and were anxious to march into Java’s interior to put down the rebellion and place its client king on the throne. But it did not work out that way.

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