Searching for traces of the British Empire in Bengkulu, Sumatra
Originally published in the Jakarta Globe, 27/03/11
The little hilltop is thick with vegetation. To the east the dark hills of the Sumatran hinterland rise under banks of pearly cloud; to the west the wind-chased expanse of the Indian Ocean rolls away towards an empty horizon.
I scramble through the undergrowth, searching for some trace of the building that once stood on this riverside hillock on the outskirts of Bengkulu. There are fragments of brick and concrete, and here and there a chunk of rough-hewn limestone. Mosquitoes needle at my ankles and I beat a retreat to the bright sunlight.
A bulky middle-aged woman waddles across from a nearby house to ask what I’m looking for. Her name is Eni, and she tells me that the remnants of something do indeed stand on this overgrown hill in the Pasar Bengkulu district.
“Something from the Japanese era, or maybe from the Dutch era,” she says. The fragments of brick and concrete suggest that she might be right on both counts, but long before those foreign occupiers another nation flew its flag over the river here. This spot was the site of Fort York, the first British outpost in Bengkulu.
Bengkulu, occupying a little knuckle of land and presiding over a 400-kilometre sliver of coastal territory is modern Sumatra’s sleepiest provincial capital, but for 140 years was an anomalous pocket of British territory. Two centuries later I am here to hunt down the traces of this forgotten episode in Indonesian history.
The first servants of Britain’s East India Company reached Bengkulu in 1685 after being kicked out of Java by the ascendant Dutch. They hoped that the place would prove to be a honeypot – an essential stopover for China-bound shipping and a fertile garden for lucrative pepper crops. Instead Bengkulu turned out to be an unremitting economic black hole, losing the Company £100,000 a year. It was the original Southeast Asian hardship posting.
The Sumatran climate proved catastrophic to foreign constitutions, and Fort York, the outpost that once stood on that little hillock, had a particularly insalubrious location.
“Some unusual malignity infests our air and strikes at all,” wrote the governor Joseph Collet in 1713. In search of a better climate Collet abandoned Fort York and had a new garrison built, a couple of kilometers further south. After bidding goodbye to Eni, that’s where I head, following a coastal road beneath ranks of tilted casuarina trees.
Much more remains of Fort Marlborough than of its predecessor. Rising in hunks of off-white masonry like slabs of mildewed wedding cake, it dominates the old part of Bengkulu. Rusting cannons, stamped with English coats of arms, lie like beached wales in the courtyard, and the ramshackle red roofs of the town sprawl away inland. The views are fine for modern tourists, but for earlier generations of foreigners with no chance of a quick escape this was a bleak and lonely place. Many drowned their sorrows in drink. Governor Collet and his 19 assistants went through a staggering 900 bottles of claret a month, prompting appalled company directors in Calcutta to declare that “It is a wonder to us that any of you live six months.”
Not all British residents of Bengkulu succumbed to drink and disease, however. William Marsden, who was here in the 1770s, wrote The History of Sumatra, the first major scholarly work in English on Indonesia. The most famous Englishman to call Bengkulu home also made the most of his time here. Thomas Stamford Raffles – famed as the founder of Singapore – was governor of Bengkulu for six years.
On arrival in 1818 Raffles declared that “This is without exception the most wretched place I ever beheld”. The buildings were collapsing, and most of the officials were drunk – or dead. During his term Raffles did his best to reform Bengkulu.
A hundred meters from Fort Marlborough I find one of his civic works. It is a chunky neoclassical monument which Raffles erected to Thomas Parr, an earlier governor who was beheaded in his bedroom by disgruntled locals. From here I wander on along sleepy streets half-swamped in tropical vegetation. At many of the junctions stand concrete models of tabot, a Bengkulu icon. Once a year these tottering wood-and-paper models are paraded through the streets and toppled into the sea. The tabot ceremony falls 9 Muharram, a date usually commemorated by Shia Muslims. The celebrations in Sunni-majority Bengkulu are usually attributed to the British influence – the soldiers of the East India Company were mostly Indians, many of who were indeed Shia. But the ceremonies also show a link to earlier Hindu traditions.
Passing another British monument – to Captain Robert Hamilton who died in 1793 – I come to the great sweep of Pantai Panjang, Bengkulu’s “Long Beach”. Choppy waves are surging onto the sand and the sun is dropping west across an achingly empty ocean. I cut back northwest through the lanes to the European cemetery, the place where all too many of Bengkulu’s British residents ended up. Pale headstones stand at crooked angles and barefoot children are using the tombs as goalposts for a football match.
Hundreds of British soldiers and civilians – including Raffles’ four young children – were buried here. Today it is a strangely tranquil place. Many of the inscriptions have vanished over the years, while others were replaced with amateurish replicas during an ill-considered refurbishment in the 1990s. But there are still traces of small tragedies. One hulking vault outside the main cemetery is the resting place of a 10-day old child and of his mother, who died five years later at the age of 25. Another commemorating Captain Thomas Tapson who died in 1816 was “erected to his Memory by his much afflicted friend Nonah Jessmina”, hinting at a cross-cultural love affair.
As I wander around, scribbling notes and taking photos, the gang of children drift away from their ballgame to follow me. They come here to play football most afternoons, they tell me, but they know nothing about the tombs. No one has ever explained to them about the history of their hometown, and they do not even know the nationality of the people buried here.
Once I start to explain they quickly take an interest, and they drag me around the marked tombs demanding to know exactly who is buried where. They take a particular delight in the graves of small children, though they assure me that none of them have ever seen a ghost here.
Having done my small bit for historical awareness I head back to Fort Marlborough to watch the sunset. The British departed Bengkulu in 1824 when they organized a territorial trade-off with their Dutch rivals, swopping the town for the Malay port of Melaka. The fort remained a garrison for Dutch troops but the place was so remote and insignificant that it was chosen as a suitably far-flung exile for Sukarno during the years of anti-colonialist agitation.
As I clamber back onto the ramparts and look out towards a fiery western sky a young woman sitting with her friends on one of the parapets calls me over and we fall into conversation. Her name is Riani and she has recently returned to Bengkulu after several years in Jakarta. She comes from village 200 kilometers to the south on the old frontier of British territory. To my astonishment, she tells me that in that part of the province the local Malay dialect still contains a few English words: blanket, school, pocket and try. Almost two centuries after the Union Jack and the red standard of the East India Company flapped down the flagpole here for the last time, it seems that something still remains…
© Tim Hannigan 2011