The column of soldiers moved silently through the forest, picking their way along muddy trails between dense stands of betel-nut trees. Already the thick tropical heat was rising, and their red jackets were sodden with sweat.
It was an hour before dawn on 26 August 1811, and the men – British redcoats and Indian sepoys – were heading for the formidable fastness of Meester Cornelis, the great redoubt of Batavia, grand old capital of the Dutch East Indies. Inside the fortifications was a massed force of Dutch, French, and Javanese troops. In the words of one British participant, the ‘day that was to fix the destiny of Java’ had arrived.
Today’s Indonesia – the former Dutch East Indies – lies largely beyond the horizon of the English-speaking imagination. But in the second decade of the 19th century it was the scene of a dramatic episode of British colonial history.
The five-year British interregnum in Java, which began with the battle for Batavia in August 1811, was a period of furious controversy that would have a lasting impact on Indonesian history. It also marked a significant chapter in the life of the man best known today for the founding of Singapore: Thomas Stamford Raffles.
Holland, in the form of the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC), the Dutch East India Company, had been involved in Indonesia for more than two centuries. The company had established Java, the 600-mile long lodestone of the Indonesian archipelago, as the hub of its nascent empire, naming Batavia on the north coast of the island as capital, and setting up a network of outposts across the region.
Britain, meanwhile, was increasingly entrenched in the Indian Subcontinent, and had little interest in South-East Asia. But war in Europe changed all that.
In the winter of 1794, Napoleon invaded Holland and installed a puppet republican regime. For the British authorities, all Dutch overseas territories became de facto enemy territory – though pressing concerns closer to home meant that it was not until 1810 that the British East India Company’s governor-general in Calcutta, Gilbert Elliot, Lord Minto, received instructions to ‘proceed to the conquest of Java at the earliest possible opportunity’. The following year a fleet of 81 troop-ships departed India on course for Batavia.
Minto and Raffles
The advance on Java had the air of a Sunday outing. Lord Minto -a dandyish 60-year-old civilian -had taken a personal interest in the project, and together with his collaborator, the 30-year-old Thomas Stamford Raffles, a former clerk in the administration of Penang, he had developed a wildly Romantic view of java as ‘the land of promise’.
Regimental wives and civilian hangers-on had tagged along for the adventure, and as the fleet lumbered across the Java Sea, they were entertained by the antics of strapping young sailors dressed as ‘young, accomplished, and generally sentimental ladies of quality’.
On 4 August the fleet dropped anchor in the murky waters of Batavia Bay, and the 12,000-strong invasion force was landed at the undefended fishing village of Cilincing, eight miles east of Batavia. The forces were evenly split between British regiments and units from the Bengal Presidency Army.
Batavia’s climate was notoriously unhealthy, and it was hoped the Indians would fare better than Englishmen; in the event, they began to succumb to fever before the first shot was fired.
The commander-in-chief was the New York-born veteran Lieutenant-General Sir Samuel Auchmuty, and the commander of the forces in the field was the feisty 45-year-old Irishman Colonel Rollo Gillespie.
The Dutch settlement of Batavia formed a linear development, running inland from the mouth of the Ciliwung River, eight miles west of the British landing spot. First came the walled city of Old Batavia, built in the early 17th century; three miles inland was the modern garrison of Weltevreeden; and a further three miles towards the mountains stood the fortress of Meester Cornelis.
Auchmuty and Gillespie had expected first to engage enemy forces in Old Batavia, but when they reached the city -the eight-mile advance took several days, so intersected with canals and fishponds was the country – they found that the Dutch had already abandoned it.
The Dutch-Napoleonic army in Batavia amounted to a mixed force of some 18,000 men. At their head was the governor-general Jan Willem Janssens, a committed Dutch republican who wrote his letters in florid French. He had already presided over one notable defeat at the hands of the British at the Battle of Blaauwberg in South Africa in 1806, and it was said that Napoleon had despatched him to Java with an ominous warning: ‘Know, sir, that a French General is not offered a second chance.’
Janssens had abandoned Old Batavia as a deliberate ploy, hoping that the British would rapidly succumb to the malaria endemic there, and could then be pinned down in the pestilential alleyways. As an imaginative additional measure, he had ordered that copious quantities of alcohol should be left in the abandoned houses, in the hope that the British would drink themselves into a stupor.
Gillespie issued strict orders for sobriety. A tentative Dutch assault on the southern gates of the walled town was seen off. And the best efforts of a requisitioned French servant to fell the top brass with a batch of poisoned
coffee had only limited results. Then, before dawn on 10 August, a 1,500-strong British force moved south along the road to Weltevreeden. But once more, the British found that Janssens had already pulled back his forces.
An elusive foe
Some of the British began to wonder if they would ever get the chance to fight in Java. But as they pressed on, now heading northwards through a dense stand of pepper trees, they finally came under sustained fire for the first time. The Dutch had set up field guns on either side of the road, and had felled trees to block the way.
Gillespie, who was still vomiting from time to time as a result of the poisoned coffee, ordered two parties to loop out left and right to attack the enemy positions from the flank, while a third party scrambled forward under covering fire to haul the trees out of the way.
It was all over in minutes, and the Dutch forces were soon fleeing through the forest towards Meester Cornelis, despite the best efforts of their officers to rally them.
At one point, Janssens’ chief of staff, General Alberti, who had become separated from his own men, ran into a small party of the green-coated British 89th. Mistaking them for his own troops, Alberti began upbraiding them angrily for retreating without orders – at which point a private of the 89th shot him in the chest (though he ultimately survived).
The problem that Janssens faced was not one of numbers; it was a question of loyalty and quality. Many of the Dutchmen were aging veterans of the former VOC army -the VOC itself having been disbanded shortly after the French invasion of Holland – and they had little, if any, commitment to the Napoleonic cause. The Javanese conscripts had still less interest in fighting.
A number of French soldiers had been shipped out in recent years, but they were reportedly the dregs of the Republican army, deemed of little use on European fronts. Now they bolted for the final fastness of Meester Cornelis, where Gillespie and Auchmuty set up a siege.
Meester Cornelis was a formidable fortress. Built by Janssens’ predecessor, Marshal Daendels, it comprised five miles of fortifications studded with 280 pieces of heavy cannon, and was flanked to the west by the meandering Ciliwung River, and to the east by a deep canal called the Slokan. The surrounding countryside, meanwhile, was ‘intersected with ravines, enclosures, and betel plantations, resembling hop-grounds, many parts of which could only be passed in single file’
Over the coming days the British kept up a heavy cannonade against the northern walls of Cornelis. Gillespie and Auchmuty were sensitive to the dangers of a stalemate in the morbid Javanese climate. They had arrived with the advantage of energy and health, but by mid-August heat and fever were taking their toll, and they knew they must act. And so, in the early hours of the morning of 26 August, the final stealthy assault began.
Small parties were sent out to attack the fortress from all angles, while the bulk of the British forces under Gillespie headed off through the forest to launch a surprise assault across the Slokan from the east, the point they had judged the weakest. The plan was to launch simultaneous operations at first light.
In the event Gillespie almost met with disaster. As the first section of the advance huddled in the trees just a few hundred yards from the first Dutch pickets, they realised to their horror that the thousands-strong column that should have been snaking up behind them was nowhere to be seen: they had got lost in the betel plantations.
It was, in the words of Captain William Thorn, a close confidant of Gillespie, ‘One of those pauses of distressful anxiety, which can be better conceived than described.’
Unable to communicate with the other parties, Gillespie decided on a typically brazen course of action: he attacked anyway, sneaking unspotted past the first Dutch sentries, and then launching an unsupported rush on the first redoubts.
An almighty explosion
As the sun slipped up over the lush green Javanese countryside, the battle for Meester Cornelis got under way. Gillespie and his men forced their way across the Slokan and overwhelmed Redoubt Number Four in a welter of close combat.
Eventually the missing columns appeared from the forest and joined an attack on the next redoubt. But on the brink of storming it, the British were subjected to an almighty explosion. A pair of French captains, in an early instance of a suicide bombing, had immolated themselves in the powder store – with dramatic consequences, as Captain Thorn recorded: ‘The ground was strewn with the mangled bodies and scattered limbs of friends and foes, blended together in a horrible state of fraternity.’
Despite this shocking incident, Gillespie’s men pushed on, deeper into the Cornelis fortifications. More redoubts fell. Guns were seized. An attempted Dutch cavalry charge from the bowels of the fort faltered fast under fire.
Very soon the assault had triggered a rout, and the defenders were fleeing south through the forest, heading for the Dutch hill-station of Buitenzorg, with the British in furious pursuit. By the time they had gone ten miles, the British had taken 5,000 prisoners.
Once more, it was shaky loyalties that had causedJanssens’ defence to collapse. One appalled Napoleonic officer recorded the scene as he was dragged back towards British lines: ‘With a feeling of shame and indignation I saw more than one [Dutch] officer amongst them trample on his French cockade, to which he had sworn allegiance, uttering scandalous imprecations and swearing and assuring the English: “I am no Frenchman, but a Dutchman.” ‘
Lord Minto, who had been safely ensconced offshore during the worst of the fighting, visited the battlefield the following day, and was horrified: ‘The number of dead and the shocking variety of deaths had better not be imagined.’ But in truth the outgunned British had achieved victory at minimal cost. Just 62 British soldiers and 17 Indian sepoys had died in the attack on Meester Cornelis.
Janssens and a small body of Napoleonic officers had escaped and fled east to Semarang, where they attempted to organize a second line of defence. Auchmuty set out in pursuit.
Eventually, on 18 September, at the little upland garrison of Salatiga, Janssens – who was almost alone by the end – ceded control of the Dutch East Indies to the British. He stressed, however, that ‘as long as I had any [men] left me, I would never have submitted’.
The British interregnum
The five-year interregnum that followed the fall of Batavia was, in truth, a rogue operation. Lord Minto’s instructions from the Supreme Government had ordered him to organize only ‘the expulsion of the Dutch power, the destruction of their fortifications, the distribution of their arms and stores to the natives, and the evacuation of the Island by our own troops’.
But with his Romantic notions of ‘the land of promise’, as well as supposed concern for the fate of Dutch civilians, he unilaterally decided to retain the territory. He and Auchmuty returned to India in October 1811, leaving the inexperienced Raffles as lieutenant-governor, with Gillespie as his military counterpart.
Today Raffles is best remembered for the subsequent founding of Singapore, and is usually portrayed as a liberal reformer, a gentleman scholar, and an acceptable counterpoint to the more aggressive aspects of British colonial history. His actions in Java, however, reveal him to have been a personification of the shift from the earlier 18th-century style of ‘company colonialism’ towards the grand imperialism of the coming Victorian Age.
During the previous century, in both British India and the Dutch East Indies, there had been room for compromise. The agents of the Dutch and British East India Companies had often tried to further European commercial interests without seeking to overturn the sovereignty of native courts. Some of their number had engaged with Asian cultures in a manner that would be anathema in a later epoch, participating in local society, legitimately marrying Asian women, and even converting to Islam.
Raffles’ arrival in Java marked an abrupt end to such acculturation, and his five-year reign on the island was a microcosm of the wider transition from the era of the ‘White Mughals’ to that of the ‘Queen Empress’.
The European enemy had been roundly trounced, but there were other powers in Java – the great native courts of the hinterland, Yogyakarta and Surakarta. Raffles decided that they constituted an unconscionable challenge to his authority.
By early 1812 he had decided that he needed to organise a crushing military defeat of one or other of these courts as ‘decisive proof to the Native Inhabitants of Java of the strength and determination of the British Government’.
In June that year he made his move, ordering an attack on Yogyakarta on the flimsy pretext of an uncovered correspondence discussing an uprising against the Europeans which had, in fact, been instigated by the Surakarta court.
Yogyakarta was the more significant of the two realms and, wrote Raffles, ‘the Sultan [of Yogyakarta] decidedly looks upon us as a less powerful people than the [Napoleonic] Government which proceeded us, and it becomes absolutely necessary for the tranquillity of the Country that he should be taught to think otherwise.’
If the conquest of Batavia had been a remarkable success for an outnumbered British force, the subsequent sacking of Yogyakarta was, on paper at least, a feat of almost superhuman status. On 20 June 1812, most of Britain’s military manpower was tied up in Sumatra, where Raffles had ordered a punitive expedition against the Palembang Sultanate. With just 1,200 men at his disposal, therefore, he now instructed Gillespie to launch an attack on the walled city of Yogyakarta, a place defended by some 10,000Javanese troops.
The storming of Yogyakarta
In truth, however, the turn of events was such an earth-shattering shock to the Javanese that their defence collapsed almost at once. Yogyakarta had inherited the mantle of pastjavanese kingdoms such as Mataram and Majapahit. It was a place of high protocol and of a complex Muslim-Javanese courtly culture that drew on an older Hindu and Buddhist heritage.
During the previous two centuries, conflicts between the Dutch and the Javanese courts had been typified by formalized posturing and brinkmanship, and had then usually been resolved through face-saving diplomacy. The Sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono II, had never believed that the British would really attack, and once the sepoys began to surge over the walls his court descended into panic. As one Javanese prince, Arya Panular, noted, ‘In battle [the British] were irresistible… they were as though protected by the very angels and they struck terror into men’s hearts.’
The assault began at dawn, and by 9am it was all over. Though they had been outnumbered by almost ten to one, the British lost just 23 men. The Sultan was arrested and exiled, and the victors fell to enthusiastic looting of the city. Gillespie took away personal booty valued at GBP 15,000 (half a million, in modern terms) while Raffles and the British resident at Yogyakarta, John Crawfurd, stole the entire contents of the court archives. The following afternoon the Crown Prince was placed on the throne as a British puppet, and during the coronation the courtiers were forced to kiss Raffles’ knees in the ultimate Javanese act of subjugation.
Writing to Lord Minto to inform him of the victory, Raffles declared that it had ‘afforded so decisive a proof to the Native Inhabitants of java of the strength and determination of the British Government, that they now for the first time know their relative situation and importance… The European power is now for the first time paramount in Java.’
The return of the Dutch
After the fall of Yogyakarta, peace returned to Java. But the new British administration rapidly descended into disorder. A vicious clash of personalities emerged between Raffles and Gillespie.
They had been ill-suited to being left in charge of a complex colony – one man a bruising aristocratic war-hero, the other an ambitious if insecure middle-class civilian; and neither with any real experience of government. They were, according to one visitor, ‘at constant variance and daggers drawn’, and Gillespie eventually lodged formal accusations of corruption against his civilian counterpart. Meanwhile, a series of budgetary blunders and ill-planned and overreaching reforms pushed the colony to the brink of an economic meltdown.
Raffles and Minto had dreamed of making Java a permanent British possession, controlling traffic between the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. But in the circumstances the higher authorities were all too eager to hand it back to the Dutch once the wars were over in Europe, and Holland had regained its sovereignty.
When they returned in 1816, the Dutch found administrative and financial chaos; but there was also another, more useful inheritance. The great native courts had finally been hobbled. There would be no return to old modes of compromise: the European power was indeed finally paramount in Java, and the scene had been set for the coming colonial century, both in the Dutch East Indies, and in the wider Asian continent beyond.