Sunday, 31 October 2010

Indonesia's First English Newspaper

The Java Government Gazette

Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 25/10/10

The Jakarta Globe might be Indonesia’s newest English language newspaper, but which was its first? Many people will assume that it was the Jakarta Post (founded in 1983); those with longer memories might recall the now defunct Indonesian Times (launched in 1974), or the Indonesian Observer (founded in 1955). Fans of historic trivia might even suggest the short-lived Independent, a weekly newssheet printed in Jakarta at the end of World War II during the Allied reoccupation of Indonesia. But in truth the inky ancestor of all those publications and more first rolled off the presses almost 200 years ago. Its name was the Java Government Gazette.

In 1811 Britain occupied Java and ousted Dutch colonial forces from the East Indies. The invasion was a far-flung sideshow of the Napoleonic Wars then wracking Europe: France had annexed Holland, making Dutch overseas possessions de facto enemy territory in British eyes. For five years Java and a scattering of other archipelago outposts were under a British administration based in Jakarta, then known as Batavia.
Under the energetic Lieutenant-Governor, Thomas Stamford Raffles (who later went on to found Singapore) there were all sorts of changes – Indonesian traffic today travels on the British-style left thanks to laws laid down in this period, for example. One of the first innovations was the launch of a weekly newspaper.
An entire printing press was shipped in from Calcutta, but before the first edition hit the newsstands the chief printer, Dr Hunter, succumbed to Batavia’s notoriously insalubrious climate, and it was his young assistant Amos H. Hubbard who oversaw the launch of the Gazette.
Hubbard came from a family of venerable American newsmen. His father was the proprietor of the Norwich Courier in Connecticut, and his older brother, Thomas, had worked as a government printer for the British in Calcutta. Hubbard was printer and acting editor of the Gazette for its entire run.
The first edition of the Java Government Gazette was delivered to subscribers on 29 February 1812, and for the next four years it appeared without fail every Saturday. It was a broadsheet, more or less the same size as your modern Globe, though it usually ran to only four pages, and needless to say, full coloration was a distant dream.

The paper’s principal role was as a government mouthpiece. The first column of its front page was usually taken up by the latest pronouncements from the Lieutenant-Governor on issues as diverse as the official prices of opium and arak, slave laws and the value of the official paper currency. A strap-line under the imposing masthead declared that all such notifications were to “be considered official, and duly attended to accordingly by the parties concerned”. Many Dutch citizens remained in Java during the British interregnum and these notices usually also appeared translated into Dutch.
But there was more to the Gazette than mere pronouncements and propaganda. Its pages were usually scattered with intriguing advertisements for everything from “handsome second-hand carriages” to pickled herrings, from “Superior French Claret” for 18 Spanish dollars per dozen bottles to “valuable men and women slaves”.
There were also lively correspondence columns featuring haughty discussions of moral issues such as slavery and dueling, flowery poems from contributors – and the occasional bout of literary bickering.
There was also plenty of local news. Dramatic reports appeared of bloody British victories over local rulers in Palembang and Yogyakarta, while descriptions of more peaceful encounters – usually penned by Amos Hubbard himself – were full of intriguing color. In March 1812 the Gazette reported a picnic hosted for the Sultans of Cirebon in Batavia. The entertainment consisted of a “Malay dance” which did not go down well with the European observers: “Their uncouth attitude and gestures surprised the English spectators, whilst they evidently delighted the Javanese nobility”. Afterwards the guests were ferried to a specially constructed bamboo bungalow on stilts in the middle of the Ciliwung River to engage in a spot of fishing.
Later the same year the Gazette carried its first sports report, covering the results of the first annual Salatiga Horse Races, held in the hills of Central Java. The $100 Kraton Stakes was won by Lieutenant Hunter, while Lieutenant Black’s mare Skinflint bolted, and a pony named Sultan threw its rider.
There were also unintentionally hilarious editorials passing judgment on the standards of dress amongst Batavia’s resident Dutchwomen, and ethnographic reports on Balinese princes and Kalimantan tribes from intrepid English travelers.
The second half of the paper was filled with international news, which came second-hand, and very late indeed. The copy was usually lifted wholesale from any Calcutta and London papers that arrived with passengers disembarking from sailing ships at Batavia’s teeming harbor. News of the wars in Europe was often six months out-of-date.
From time to time, when a particularly exciting batch of overseas newspapers arrived in town a “Special Edition” of the Gazette was hurried out midweek. Editor Hubbard also oversaw the publication of the “Java Annual Directory”, which included full listings of government officials, laws, services, and private businesses, and was available to Gazette subscribers for eight Java rupees (non-subscribers had to pay the full 12 rupees).

In 1815 in far away Europe the Napoleonic Wars came to an end; Dutch sovereignty was re-established, and Britain agreed to hand back the Indonesian territories it had seized four years earlier. Raffles left for England in early 1816, and later in the year Dutchman Godert van der Capellen arrived to oversee the return of Dutch control.
The Java Government Gazette limped on for a few months, but its front pages were peppered with adverts for passages to England and for auctions of English homes and household goods. Its readership was vanishing, and the number of columns filled with Dutch text rose.
The last ever edition went out to the dwindling body of subscribers on 10 August 1816, almost exactly five years after the British first arrived in Java. The paper was replaced shortly afterwards by the Dutch-language Bataviasche Courant.
Today the role of the Java Government Gazette as the forerunner of modern Indonesia’s entire English language print media is largely forgotten, and back copies are few and far between (though there are collections in the British Library and in the Dutch National Archives).
As for what happened to the erstwhile editor, Amos Hubbard – he did not join the initial English exodus in 1816. What he did after the Gazette folded is not clear, but a rather sad little “situation wanted” advert near the bottom of Page One of the last edition offers a clue: “A YOUNG MAN, who understands the Dutch Language, would have no objections to engage himself in any of the Merchant Houses – for particulars enquire at the Printing Office”.
Hubbard evidently did find a position – and a lucrative one too. The following year he chartered a ship, filled its hold with his own purchases, and headed home to America. It was probably the best decision he could have made – he would have had rather a long wait for the next editorial position on an English language publication in Indonesia to become available...

News from the pages of the Java Government Gazette

Sacred Cows and Burning Widows
29 February 1812
A Gazette correspondent offers readers a tantalizing glimpse of life in Bali:

The Bali people pay divine honours to the Cow; they do not make use of its hide, nor will they sit upon it from reverential respect. The wife burns herself with the body of her deceased husband, she ascends the funeral pile, adorned with flowers, and holding in her hand a dove, which she liberates. On the bird’s flying off she leaps voluntarily into the fire.

Toothless and Clueless Thieves Flee
25 April 1812
A pair of Indians go on the run from Surabaya:

On Saturday morning, the 25th April, 1812, deserted from Sourabaya, two Bengal servants, both named Peerbuccus, after robbing their employers to a considerable amount. One of them is a robust looking man, about 35 years of age, and has lost many of his front teeth; he speaks the Malay language tolerable fluently, and has rather an effeminate voice. The other is a very tall, thin, black, miserable looking creature, has no one good quality to recommend him and may be easily known from his great stupidity which approaches nearly to idiotism. Any person giving information so as they may be apprehended, shall be handsomely rewarded...

New Fashion Hits Batavia
2 May 1812
An editorial praises the latest trend amongst Batavian ladies:

At the entertainment recently given at Batavia it was remarked how great an improvement has been introduced in respect to the attire of the Dutch Ladies since British authority has been established. The Cabaya appears now generally disused and the more elegant English costume adopted. We congratulate our friends on the amelioration of the public taste, because we see in it the dawn of still greater and more important improvements...

Poison Pen Writer Says Sorry
12 December 1813
A court-sanctioned apology from a foul-mouthed tax dodger, who “neglected to pay certain duties at Batavia”:

I JOHN WILLIAMS WELSH, formerly known by the name of John Williams, commanding the ship Claudine, do this eleventh day of December 1813, before the Supreme Court of Judicature in Batavia, declare that on the ninth day of April 1812, I did at Sourabaya write a most false, malicious, abusive and threatening letter, addressed to Messrs WALLIS and Co. Prize Agents for the Captors of Java, and I do acknowledge that I wrote this letter under the impulse of passion, for had I at the time been capable of reflection, I must have been sensible that I had no reason whatever for using such gross and improper language...

Rumble in the Jungle
14 December 1814
A gruesome report of a fight between a tiger and a buffalo, a traditional entertainment laid on for guests by the sultan of Yogyakarta:

A Royal Tyger, one of the largest and most ferocious of the species, was enclosed together with a very fine Buffaloe of the true fighting breed, within a strong circular fence of about thirty yards in circumference. For some moments they stood on the defensive, each seeming unwilling to begin the fight; the appearance of the Tyger during this interval was highly characteristic of his nature; he seemed perfectly aware of the prowess of his adversary, and would fain have avoided the impending contest – his furious eyes which glared like fireballs, darted in wistful glances around him, apparently in search of the means of escape or of a less powerful antagonist on whom to wreak his vengeance. Mean time the Buffaloe stood as if conscious of superiority, steadily awaiting the attack of his formidable adversary. This state of inaction might have lasted for some time had not the Buffaloe been aroused to furious pitch of irritation by the application of bunches of nettles attached to long bamboos, which with the assistance of chilly water which was poured on him from above seemed at once to exhaust his caution and forbearance; he roared with pain and indignation, spurned the ground he trod on, and then darted with inconceivable velocity on his wary antagonist , who avoided his horns and fastened on his neck, which tore in a dreadful manner. As soon as the Buffaloe disengaged himself he charged again but with equal ill success, the Tyger still avoided the fury of his onset, yet seldom failed to inflict some terrible wound upon his opponent. In this manner the battle raged for nearly an hour, when the Buffaloe, contrary to the usual result, was completely defeated, and was obliged to be withdrawn from the scene of action...

© Tim Hannigan 2010

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