BOOK REVIEW: Jakarta, History of a Misunderstood City

By Herald Van Der Linde. Marshall Cavendish Editions, Singapore. Soft cover, 248 pages

Jakarta may be the favorite city of very few foreigners. Love of this sprawling, crowded, sinking metropolis with its few memorable touristic landmarks may seem eccentric. But its long history has captivated the heart of one long-time expatriate resident, Dutchman Herald Van Der Linde. He has now performed the much needed service – a short and very readable account of its history and geography, linking the past to the present and to the names of its component parts, kampungs, streets, and its several vital but often forgotten rivers and canals, a port city as well as the Jabodetabek megacity of today. It is a guide to understanding interesting facets of Jakarta, not a guidebook.

For some tastes, there may be a little too much of the personal, but it works in easing the path to understanding the outlines of the city’s long history without suffocating the general reader with detail. It takes the author from backpacker to learner of Bahasa through socializing not school, to years in Jakarta as a bank economist – but one with links back to Dutch ancestors in 17th and 18th century Java.

This is a book of value to visitors who want to see the city as more than a modern metropolitan mass. But it also needs to be read by those who think they already know the city or at least know the map locations of Tebet, Tugu, and Tanah Abang and do not confuse Kemayoran with Kebayoran, Glodok with Grogol but the scant idea of how it all came together.

Much of the book is, necessarily, taken up with nearly three hundred years of Dutch presence from establishing a trading post in 1611 on the right bank of the Ciliwung river, at Jayakarta, a sultanate then under Banten rule, seizing and burning it in 1619, changing its name to Batavia, the old Roman name for what is now southern Netherlands, and later diverting the Ciliwung into canals.

For good or ill the Dutch tried to create a city in their own likeness. Though the techniques of those who had mastered the North Sea reclamation and canal engineering didn’t always work on the northwest Java coast, the city has been growing most of the time ever since. The author shows how the factors behind the expansion created new and distinct districts, the kampungs which retain identity to today.

The book also takes us farther back, to the fact that long before Jayakarta and Banten became Muslim sultanates, these ports were important places on the sea trade routes linking the Spice Islands of the eastern archipelago to India, to China, Arabia and ultimately to the Mediterranean. The cloves that could be bought in 14th century London may well have come via Kelapa, as Jakarta was then called and whose rulers were Hindu until conquered by Demak, the first Muslim sultanate on the Java coast, in 1527

Even farther back, what is now part of Greater Jakarta was the port of the Tarumnegara kingdom on the Citarum river. A 5th century stone inscription written in Pallava (south Indian) script recorded the achievements of the “powerful, illustrious and brave King the famous Purnavarman” comparing him to the god Vishnu. Then as now, trade lured foreigners and their ideas to the riches of Java.

The book takes us quickly through the history via anecdotes, maps, prints, and photos, in particular, it shows the expansion of the city outside its walls, and episodes including the growth of the Chinese population and its massacre in 1740, to brief English rule, Dutch supremacy throughout Java, Japanese occupation, the post-independence period to the present, and concludes with the huge challenges the city now faces with population, flooding and multiple lesser ills. But ever the optimist for his beloved Jakarta he concludes that ingenuity and the kampung spirit of local cooperation will overcome the challenges. Though there will surely be bumps. He is probably right. As one who first visited in 1973, this reviewer is aware of how far it has come since then, developing rapidly while maintaining a diversity of experience without equal in Southeast Asia.

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