How did Mataram conquer Surabaya

On the golden river of Surabaya

mare series “Legendary port cities”: Anyone looking for Joseph Conrad's footsteps on Java commutes between the beginning and the end of this century
By Ulli Kulke and Rolf Nobel

Life takes the place of the dead, step by step, from the outside in. Decaying opulence of crosses and crypts, statuettes and steles, Gothic and godly, canopies or other structural elements. Above all, Alang-Alang, the razor-sharp grass of Indonesia, thrives. Over the years, an impressive landscape of ruins has grown out of the Peneleh cemetery in Surabaya. But it is not a death field.

"This is where Cornelius Adreanus Keulemanns rests," is written on a marble grave slab. In fact, a young man is sleeping here. The perforated shadow of the rust-eaten iron roof and the coolness of the marble soften the tropical heat. The relational inscription in the foreign language doesn't bother him. Many sleep here, extensively, as always half the city, when the sun is at its highest.

In the years before 1914, when the surrounding neighborhoods advanced into elegant European residential quarters and Joseph Conrad anchored the city in world literature with his novel "Sieg", the grave diggers once used many hectares here for the Dutch rulers. Hardly any of them could escape the death of malaria back then, at the height of the colonial era, if they only stayed long enough in the port city of the United East India Company (VOC). After the Second World War, the tombs were all too pompous to be worth it for the Indonesians to leave them open. They just didn't care.

So today many rest in the Peneleh cemetery, topsy-turvy. Lots of shouting, of goats and quarrels, of children and fighting cocks and their audience. A lively Kampung - a residential area - has grown into the field and continues to grow. Family graves become family dwellings, grave slabs become table tops, temple-like mausoleums become places of the cigarette and chewing gum trade.

Many graves are open, some only recently. Nobody cares about the square meter-wide gaping holes, no survivors can be seen here. The carefree life triumphs over all piety. The residential district of Genteng sprawls undisturbed over the cemetery, as once did some layer over any previous one in Troy.

Genteng, one of the central campings of Surabayas. Where the soul of the old port city lives, far from the port itself, because, according to Javanese tradition, the soul of a city must not lie near its heart. The soul - in it are most of the mosques, the bazaars, the Arab quarter. Mohammedan rulers once shifted their centers of power from the south of Java to the north coast, when the transport of a very special commodity across the seas to distant Europe was becoming more and more lucrative: spices. Surabaya developed into a commercial metropolis. The city is located where the coveted spices were sent on their long journey to the West long before the arrival of the Europeans: cloves, nutmeg and other treasures whose origins were already known to ancient Europe, but only from hearsay, and this over many thousands Nautical miles from the other end of the world.

To track down the country where the spices come from, the superpowers Spain and Portugal set out on their way 500 years ago. Columbus looked for him in the west, the successors of the India driver Vasco da Gama finally found him in the east. A little later, the Dutch controlled the routes and kept them up to our time.

“In the beginning there was the spice,” Stefan Zweig begins his book about Magellan's first circumnavigation. Here, in Surabaya, the treasures from the tiny spice islands landed in the east of the archipelago, from here, in the bellies of the junks, they set out on the long journey along the "Spice Road": across the Indian Ocean, through the deserts of the Levante and the Mediterranean, finally to Genoa and Venice, across the Alps to Augsburg or Nuremberg.

Long ago a sura and a buaya - a crocodile and a shark - fought off the coast of Java. A memorial in front of the Surabaya Zoo commemorates the fable, but today nobody knows exactly when it should have been, let alone who would have won, the crocodile or the shark. It is also not known who founded the city on this site and named it after the two combatants. But it has been handed down that large ruling dynasties, Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic, carried on brisk maritime trade from where the islands of Java and Madura are closest to each other. And that at the time of the mighty Majapahit Empire, in the 14th century, the great international port of Ujung Galuh was already established here.

When the first Europeans arrived at the beginning of the 16th century, Majapahit had long since passed its heyday, which today is considered the "golden" of pre-colonial Indonesia - with the important trade hub at the center. The Islamic sultans of Mataram tried again at the same point to establish a local power apparatus against the Dutch, but ultimately failed in 1625.

Gresik is a suburb of Surabaya. Wooden ships' bodies, small fishing boats and large pinisis, as the Indonesians still call their sailing freighters today, sink into the harbor mud, two-masters, which are called the pinasses after the European sailing ships of the 17th century. Here, too, in the ship cemetery, life takes what it can use from the realm of the dead. The large hulls of the Pinisis are jacked up and cannibalized. Those who are no longer believed to have a future get one here: new frames, new superstructures, new sailing rig, as it has always been possible.

Surabaya 1999: There is a great timelessness, a refusal to do everything differently at the turn of the millennium than in the last five hundred years. The owner of a new ship, a slender Chinese in his late 50s, knows neither about the past of Mataram, Majapahit or the Spice Route, nor about the future, about globalization, which could threaten him. He has just invested 450 million rupiahs, the equivalent of 75,000 marks, in his 300-ton sailing freighter. But he has never heard of the new, large container terminal that has been under construction for years in Tanjung Perak, the modern port of his hometown Surabaya, and is about to be completed. Why also? Sailing ships have always made the freight traffic of the largest island nation in the world, and it will remain so. Indonesia is likely to be the country with the world's largest share of wind energy in cargo traffic, even if many of the pinisis now have a built-in engine for the great slacks. And so many more freighters, driven by the wind, will enter Surabaya from distant areas of the archipelago.

More precisely: in the mouth of the Kali Mas, the "Golden River". Here is the heart of the great port city, at a proper distance from its soul. Around 1000 meters of the harbor quay, over which the bowsprit of the Pinisis push themselves so high and proud that all fears of modern competition, should they ever arise anywhere, are null and void.

The cargo sailors lie close together, not alongside, but with the bow to the quay: pot-bellied, 35-meter-long and eight-meter-wide Bugi schooners, named after the most daring of all seafarers in the archipelago: the Bugis. They come from Sulawesi, the Celebes known from colonial times, and still make up the majority of the teams today. From Sulawesi, Surabaya is the next major port on Java, the main island of Indonesia. This is one of the reasons why so many Bugi schooners are moored in Kali Mas.

The river is no longer golden, and the very thought of falling into the broth makes you sick. Otherwise, however, little has changed at Kali Mas since the time when human flotsam like the notorious Bully Hayes disembarked here 100 years ago to go about his dark business in Surabaya.


This is an excerpt from the text. You can read the whole article in mare No. 13. Subscribers can also read it here in the mare archive.