Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Sailing Surabaya's River of Gold

The History of Surabaya's old port district, Kalimas

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 01/11/09

Surabaya was once a name to conjure with. A century ago the East Java capital was one of the great port cities of Asia, a place mentioned on docksides and in the pages of romantic novels the world over in the same breath as Shanghai, Singapore and Hong Kong. This might surprise many modern residents and visitors, for though it is still Indonesia’s second biggest city Surabaya has very much faded from the world map. Today I am setting out on foot in search of echoes of the maritime past that once made it the most important city of the Dutch East Indies.

A floodtide of cars, motorbikes and becaks is streaming across Jembatan Merah, the Red Bridge that connects Surabaya’s Chinatown with the old colonial quarter. No one pays much attention to the strip of murky brown water that oozes beneath the bridge, but this waterway, Kalimas, the River of Gold, was key to Surabaya’s trading past.
Dodging through the traffic I take a left at the eastern end of the bridge and find myself walking along a dusty, potholed track beside the river. There is a smell of fish and mud. To the right a rank of crumbling warehouses – hipped roofs and stout columns betraying their Dutch pedigree – are all that remains to show that this was once one of the busiest wharf-sides in Asia.
From its earliest beginnings Surabaya was a port. Local legend has the origins of the city in an epic battle between a shark (sura) and a crocodile (buaya) somewhere in the vicinity of Jembatan Merah. More tangibly the city’s founding is officially dated to 1293 when a wandering Chinese fleet was defeated by a local army nearby, but the first historical records of a place named Surabaya only appear a century later – as a key entrepot of the mighty Majapahit Empire.

Without a natural harbor Surabaya grew as a roadstead port. Sheltered from the storms of the Java Sea by the long, low island of Madura to the north, sailing schooners could anchor safely in the channel beyond the mouth of the Kalimas River. Only the smallest of the trading ships could navigate the mud-banks to come upstream, so most cargo was unloaded into open boats then hustled up the Kalimas to the trading houses and markets on the now decaying wharf along which I am walking.

“River of Gold” was always a somewhat hyperbolic name. Today the dropping tide is showing slabs of slimy grey mud. The water is the color of cappuccino, and the only boat in view is a battered green tender ferrying passengers from one bank to the other. The riverside is lined with flimsy wooden shacks. A lean, grinning man reclining in the shade calls me over. His name is Mahmud, and like many of the people now inhabiting this part of Surabaya, he is originally from Madura.
“They’re all from the Dutch time,” he says, waving towards the flaking white warehouses. “A lot of Dutch tourists come here to take photos of them.”
I glance up and down the wharf, half-expecting to see a gaggle of sweating sightseers from Amsterdam, but I am the only foreigner in sight, and with a smile Mahmud concedes that by “many” he really means “a few”.
Nearby a posse of thin, barefooted men are unloading sacks of dried fish from a truck into the dark, dusty interior of one of the warehouses. Watching over them is a Chinese man who says that his father bought this warehouse fifty years ago, at a time when the fortunes of the old Kalimas Wharf had already faded.
I walk on. Here and there a drooping bougainvillea bush gives a splash of bright color to the scene, but this area, once so prosperous, is now home to the poorest of industries – recycling of old bottles and sacks, and the gathering of garbage.

After the decline of the Majapahit Empire Surabaya became a rowdy city-state on the fringes of the Mataram Kingdom. Despite a series of sieges and rebellions the goods – and the money – continued to flow up the Kalimas, from the spice gardens of Maluku, from the river ports on the jungle fringes of Kalimantan, from Sulawesi and beyond. The first Dutch trading operations were set up in the late 17th Century, and in 1743 Mataram ceded full sovereignty of the city to the Dutch East India Company. The scene was set for Surabaya to become the biggest and most important of all Indonesia’s colonial cities.
Development of the sugarcane industry in the 19th Century saw the port grow into a teeming, cosmopolitan metropolis. Many of the now crumbling warehouses that line the river date from this time. The seafaring writer Joseph Conrad came to Surabaya during its heyday. He set part of his novel Victory in the city.

The vibrancy of that era seems far away as I cross to the left bank of the river. Here there is a chaotic market where bulky Madurese women are haggling over baskets of bananas and mangoes. Trade still goes on here, but the produce has been brought in by land; the river, slithering past to the right, is ignored. Beyond the market I find myself picking along a narrow, walled-in alleyway beyond which I enter a kampung, a working class village-within-a-city. I am greeted with a near-hysterical chorus of “hello misters!”
Beyond the kamung walls I can see stacked tiers of shipping containers. Surabaya is still a port – a big one – but changes in the world of seaborne trade in the late 19th Century ensured the death of the old riverside wharfs.

With the arrival of fast steam ships with schedules to keep an old-fashioned roadstead port and a narrow river served by open boats was woefully inadequate. At the same time railways to carry sugar straight from the mills in the south of the city to the port were laid. The Kalimas River became hopelessly congested. Sometimes it was entirely blocked with small, overloaded craft, and to make matters worse the sandbanks at the mouth of the river could only be negotiated at high water. It could take days to load or unload a ship. Something had to be done, and after lengthy debate the building of a modern, deepwater port was finally sanctioned. In the 1920s the new harbor of Tanjung Perak was built, north of the old riverside wharfs. Now even the biggest freighters could come alongside to be loaded straight from the dock. Kalimas was relegated to the sidelines, and the collapse of the sugar industry in the 1930s was its final death knell. The river silted up; the warehouses were locked and left to crumble.

But something still remains. I have lost sight of the river, but the excited kampung-dwellers point me down the narrowest of side alleys: “That way mister, there are lots of boats!”
I emerge in the evening sunlight on a crowded dockside. The huge international cargo ships now moor at Tanjung Perak – I can see the skeletal outlines of the cranes there, stark against the evening sky – but smaller inter-island traffic still comes to the river. The narrow waterway is crammed with boats. Evening sunlight falls on rust, flaking white paint, high prows and frayed rigging. There are decrepit tramp steamers and amongst them older wooden vessels. Some of them, though leaking diesel from the bilges, still have the graceful lines of pinisi, the sailing schooners of Sulawesi that were the original trading boats of Indonesia.
The first of these old wooden boats that I pass is, to my disappointment, no longer a working vessel. A man lounging on the steeply sloping deck tells me that it has been bought by a resort on Flores. When restoration is complete it will ferry tourists to the dive sites of the Komodo National Park. But the next boat is still trading, though it is being loaded not with spice or sandalwood but with boxes of instant noodles, bound for the islands of the Kangean Archipelago east of Madura.

As I make my way along the dockside crewmen from other boats call out to me. They come from all over Indonesia; many are from Kalimantan, or from the distant islands of Nusa Tenggara – Flores, Timor and Alor. Their destinations too are scattered across the archipelago.
A sailor greets me. His name is Abdullah. He comes from Banyuwangi at the eastern tip of Java. He is one of eight crewmen on an old wooden ship carrying onions to Bali.
The journey will take three days. “Now it’s the season of big waves,” says Abdullah, “so sometimes it takes longer.” From Bali they will sail another three days north to Makassar, then south across the Java Sea to Jakarta, then east along the coast, back to Surabaya. These are some of the oldest trade routes of the islands.
Abdullah makes Rp50,000 a day. “Not enough to buy cigarettes,” he grumbles, and he rarely sees his wife and three children, back home in Banyuwangi.

A little further along the dock men are padding along the narrowest of wooden gangplanks carrying huge loads onto another old wooden boat. They are bound for Balikpapan in Kalimantan, and they invite me onboard, laughing at my tentative steps along their precarious gangway. Onboard there is a smell of tar and diesel, salt and rotten wood. In the hollow belly of the ship there are bags of cement and bundles of reinforcement bar for building; on the roof of the wheelhouse there are orange septic tanks, and in a hold beside the engine room in the stern there are boxes of mineral water and biscuits. I am shown up a worn wooden ladder to the wheelhouse where the captain, Pak Subur, is watching over the loading of the ship.
“We always carry a mixed cargo like this,” he says, “and we don’t go until the boat is full. We make a loss if it’s not full.” Subur is 51 years old and comes from Kalimantan. He has been sailing on these wooden cargo boats all his life. The wheelhouse is starkly bare. There is only the wheel, and a tarnished copper bell hanging from the ceiling.
“On modern ships they have radar, compasses, radios. They need to look at maps before they go. They think they know about the sea, but they don’t.”
I am astonished. Doesn’t Subur even have a map or a compass?
He smiles and shakes his head. “We know the way.”
Subur has a small, dank cabin next to the wheelhouse; the other 12 crewmen sleep below. The name of the ship is Usaha Bersama – Joint Effort. Looking out from the wheelhouse I can see the mouth of the river, and beyond it the hazy line of Madura with the big freighters moored in its lee. Subur will sail that way the day after tomorrow, at midnight on the high tide. It will be three days – without navigational equipment – to Balikpapan.
Surabaya’s Kalimas River may no longer be at the center of world trade, and its warehouses and wharfs may have long since decayed. But there are still ships like Subur’s, plying routes that existed long before the sugar industry and the colonial era, and even before Mataram and Majapahit.

As I nervously edge back down the narrow plank to the quayside one of the crew, a dark young man from Ambon, calls to me.
“Come with us, mister, to Balikpapan. There will be big waves, and for sure you’ll be scared, but it’s nice on a boat like this.” I’m not quite sure if he is serious, and I have other commitments to stop me running away to sea this time, but for a moment, in the late afternoon on this venerable old dockside, it’s a tempting offer…

© Tim Hannigan 2009

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