Wednesday, 29 August 2012

When Raffles Ran Java

The story of the British Interregnum in Java, 1811-16


Originally published in History Today magazine, September 2011

On the afternoon of 4 August 1811 a fleet of 81 frigates, sloops and cruisers anchored off a little fishing village called Cilincing on the north coast of Java.  Eight miles west along the muddy foreshore lay Batavia, the grand old capital of the Dutch East Indies, but these ships were not flying the flag of Holland: Union Jacks and the red and white ensigns of the British East India Company fluttered limply from their topmasts.  As the sun slanted away towards Sumatra an armada of longboats ferried some 12,000 soldiers – redcoats and Indian sepoys – ashore from the ships.  The British had arrived to invade Java.


            Two hundred years after its opening act the British invasion of Java and the five-year occupation which followed – usually known as the British Interregnum – are almost completely forgotten, in both the United Kingdom and Indonesia.  If it is remembered at all it is only through the slanted prism of the biographies of the man who served at the head of its administration and who is better remembered today for his later achievements in Singapore: Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826).  Yet the interregnum was a half-decade of high drama and controversy.  It was the point at which ascendant European power first came into outright, open and consequential conflict with the major local powers, and the British brought attitudes and ideas with them which would set the tone and lay the groundwork for the coming colonial century in Java.

            Java is the loadstone of the Southeast Asian archipelago.  It was variously influenced by Chinese trade and Indian religion in the first millennium AD, and then later by the arrival of Islam.  European involvement began in the 16th century as Portuguese, English and Dutch ships vied for control of the lucrative spice market.  The Dutch ultimately came to dominate.  From their base at Batavia, their Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compangnie (VOC; Dutch East India Company) established a network of outposts amongst the islands, laid a lacquer of Dutch territory along the north coast of Java, and became ever more involved in the affairs of the local sultans who still ruled much of the hinterland.  Britain, meanwhile, had concerns further west, and as its own East India Company became entrenched in India, its interest in Java fell away. 

But then, in the chilly tail-end of 1794, a world away from the Javanese tropics, Napoleon sent his French Republican forces across the frosty flatlands of northwest Europe and invaded Holland.  For the British all Dutch overseas possessions became de facto enemy territory.
Though the idea of invading Java was discussed at once, it took a decade-and-a-half for the plan to come to pass.  In 1810 the then governor-general of Britain’s Indian territories, Gilbert Elliot, Lord Minto (1751-1814), received instructions to ‘proceed to the conquest of Java at the earliest possible opportunity’.  A fleet was assembled; regiments were raised, and Raffles, an ambitious young clerk who had been serving in the administration of Penang, was employed to lay the diplomatic and academic groundwork as ‘Agent to the Governor-General with the Malay States’.
In August 1811 the deed was done

Abandoned beach

The British had chosen the Cilincing beach for their landing as a spot unlikely to be defended.  It was unguarded, but when the advance under the command of Colonel Rollo Gillespie (1766-1814) - a feisty, short-statured Irish aristocrat with an impressive list of conquests on the battlefield and in the bedroom to his name - moved west to the original walled town of Batavia, they found that that too had been abandoned by the Dutch. 

The man organising the Dutch defence was the Governor-General, Jan Willem Janssens (1762-1838).  In 1800 the new Napoleonic administration in Holland had disbanded the VOC and brought the Dutch East Indies under direct state control, and staunchly pro-Napoleon Dutchmen like Janssens had been placed in charge.  In August 1811 Janssens had at least 18,000 men at his disposal around Batavia, but he had chosen to retreat early to a modern fortress at Meester Cornelis, six miles south of Old Batavia, in the hope that the British would start dying of fever before the first serious engagement – for Batavia had a notoriously unhealthy climate.  But though fever did claim its first casualties within 24 hours of their arrival, the British managed to move forward and to besiege Meester Cornelis.  At dawn on August 26th they launched their final assault.

Meester Cornelis was sited on a strong defensive position, flanked by a meandering river on one side and a deep canal on the other, but many of Janssens’ troops were uncommitted to the Napoleonic cause.  The defence collapsed, and by mid-morning the attack had turned into a rout.  As the triumphant British rounded up prisoners one appalled republican soldier reported seeing ‘more than one [Dutch] officer amongst them trample on his French cockade to which he had sworn allegiance, uttering scandalous imprecations and swearing and assuring the English: “I am no Frenchman, but a Dutchman.”’ 

Janssens had escaped east to Semarang with a small body of supporters, but on September 17th, at the garrison town of Salatiga in the mountains of Central Java he submitted and handed over the Dutch colony of Java to the British.


The conquest of Dutch Java was an unequivocal triumph for the British, but the occupation that followed was in reality an improvised, opportunistic operation.  Britain could ill afford to take on some new tranche of territory at the time, and Lord Minto’s official instructions had ordered him only to organise ‘the expulsion of the Dutch power, the destruction of their fortifications, the distribution of their arms and stores to the natives and the evacuation of the Island by our own troops’.
Raffles and Minto, however, had developed a vision of Java as a ‘the Land of Promise’, and viewed the idea of handing it over to the native courts as anathema.  Taking advantage of distance, and citing concern about ‘the disruptive and calamitous consequence to so ancient and populous a European Colony’ if it was abandoned post-conquest, Minto quietly disregarded his instructions and made the 30-year-old Raffles – who had been a mere clerk 12 months earlier – the lieutenant-governor of a grand new British territory.  Rollo Gillespie was appointed commander of the forces.

Raffles and Minto knew that they would need to work hard to convince the East India Company’s board of directors in London of the value of their new unsolicited possession.  Colonial Java, however, was tottering on the brink of bankruptcy.  Decades of corruption and mismanagement had ruined the VOC, and at its disbandment in 1800 it had been a credit-crunching 85 million guilders in the red (approximately half a billion pounds in today’s terms).  There had been no recovery during the subsequent republican decade.  Revenues were paltry; hard cash was hard to come by, and reams of paper money had been printed to pay the daily needs of the colony, prompting chronic inflation. 
As Lord Minto sailed back to Calcutta in October he wrote to the East India Company’s board of directors to assure them ‘that Java will supply resources at the least for its own expenses’.  The truth was otherwise.

Royal Subjugation

Though the greatest controversies of the British Interregnum would be borne of Raffles’ increasingly frantic attempts to make good the promises of profit, for the people of Java the most profoundly shocking aspect of the episode was the approach which the British took towards the native courts.  Less than one year into his tenure, in an effort to ‘impress upon them the Character and power of our Government’, Raffles ordered something which no Dutch governor-general had ever dared or wished to sanction – the storming, sacking and outright subjugation of the most powerful royal court in Java.

In the early 19th century the two most significant native powers in Java were those of Yogyakarta and Surakarta, a pair of cousinly kingdoms at the core of the island.  Both had lost ground to the Dutch over the decades, but entrenched in their magnificent walled palaces, or kratons, they viewed the foreigners as allies rather than masters.

 Royal prerogative in Java was closely linked to ideas of the supernatural; power was believed to be drawn from possession of sacred pusaka heirlooms, and sultans earned kudos from reports of their connections with the spirit world.  On a more temporal level rigid protocol governed all aspects of courtly life.  Earlier generations of Dutchmen had at least paid lip service to all this: residents at the courts usually learnt to speak the high, formal Javanese that was the only acceptable language for consultations with kings.  Raffles, however, brought a new kind of European attitude with him: he was determined to assert outright British dominance, and within months of arriving at Batavia he had decided that he should engineer some kind of crushing military victory as ‘decisive a proof to the Native Inhabitants of Java of the strength and determination of the British Government’.  

During his first visit to Yogyakarta he provoked confrontation by demanding that he be seated on an equal level with the sultan, Hamengkubuwono II (1750-1828), and by addressing the court in Malay, a language deemed offensively coarse and uncultured by aristocratic Javanese.  Old ideas of compromise and accommodation had been abandoned.

An assault on Yogyakarta was first mooted at least as early as January 1812; by April there was a thin pretext – a correspondence between the two courts was uncovered, in which the ruler of Surakarta was attempting to instigate an uprising against the Europeans in Java.  But though Surakarta was the source of the insurrection, Raffles considered its counterpart the more important target: ‘I shall immediately adopt decisive measures with regard to Djocjocarta’, Raffles wrote to Minto.

On 20 June 1812 a 1,200-strong British force stormed the walled royal city of Yogyakarta.  The Javanese outnumbered the attackers by almost ten to one, but they were so taken aback by this unimaginable turn of events that their resistance collapsed at once.  One chronicler, a minor Yogyakarta prince named Arya Panular, reported that for the mystically-minded Javanese the British and their Indian troops appeared to be divinely driven: ‘In battle they were irresistible… they were as though protected by the very angels and they struck terror into men’s hearts.’

Within one short morning Yogyakarta was totally subjugated and largely destroyed, with the loss of only 23 British soldiers.  The Sultan was arrested and exiled, and the court was looted.  Raffles and the British resident at Yogyakarta, John Crawfurd (1783-1768), seized the entire contents of the court archives, while Gillespie’s personal booty was valued at £15,000 in gold, jewels and hard currency (the equivalent of £500,000 today).

The profound shock of the conquest for the Javanese was underscored the following day when the Crown Prince was placed on the battered throne.  A Javanese coronation was supposed to be an affair of high ceremony, designed to emphasise the semi-divine nature of the sultan.  But the hastily convened coronation which the British oversaw took place not in in the Siti Inggil pavilion on the sacred axis between the mountains and the ocean, but in the main hall of the Dutch-built residency.  The crown prince was made Sultan Hamengkubuwono III, and when the courtiers rose to the dais to pay him homage John Crawfurd physically pushed them to the floor and forced them to kiss Raffles’ knees in the ultimate Javanese act of submission.  In two centuries of Dutch involvement in Java, no aristocrat had made such humiliating homage to a European.

Two days later Raffles wrote to Lord Minto to inform him of his success in Yogyakarta:
The blow which has been struck at Djocjo Carta, has afforded so decisive a proof to the Native Inhabitants of Java of the strength and determination of the British Government, that they now for the first time know their relative situation and importance,’ he wrote; ‘The European power is now for the first time paramount in Java.

Establishing British Rule

With paramountcy assured, a semblance of a settled colonial society emerged in the early years of the interregnum.  A weekly newspaper – the Java Government Gazette – rolled off the presses in Batavia, and a few months after the fall of Yogyakarta the first annual Salatiga Races were held in the mountains of Central Java, with horse riding, cricket and a meeting of a new pack of staghounds.

A minor clash of civilisations came about between the brisk newcomers and the old-established European community.  Two centuries in the tropics had seen an Indo-Dutch creole culture develop in the ports of Java; generations of European men had married local women, and many ‘Europeans’ in Java were, in fact, mixed race.  These Indo-European women often spoke no Dutch; Malay was the language of choice, and they usually dressed in local style sarong and kebaya, even at grand society events.  They had, a rather appalled Lord Minto noted, become ‘a mixed breed, are now the wives and ladies of rank and fashion in Java’.

In British India, however, the earlier era of the ‘white mughals’ – Englishmen with silk turbans and native bibis – was rapidly passing.  Bone fide British wives – including Mrs Olivia Raffles – had joined the invasion, and a change in the dress code was called for.  By mid-1812 the Gazette was noting with approval that ‘an improvement has been introduced in respect to the attire of the Dutch Ladies, since the British authority has been established.  The Cabaya appears now generally disused and the more elegant English costume adopted.’

The British readily adopted one old Dutch practice, however – slavery.  Raffles, Lord Minto and many of the other British had arrived in Java with high Wilberforcian ideals about the Rights of Man.  But though they did ban the import of slaves from other islands they quickly discovered that domestic service depended entirely on bondage.  There were around 30,000 slaves in European ownership in Java, and without them dinners would go uncooked and clothes unwashed.

Elsewhere, energetic efforts were made to catalogue the relics of Java’s pre-Islamic past.  The military engineer Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821) had made an enthusiastic early assessment of the 8th century Hindu temple complex at Prambanan.  Raffles – who was planning a grand treatise on the history of Java – employed an experienced Dutch surveyor called   Hermanius Cornelius and a British engineer called George Baker to make records of many of the island’s other relics (the oft-repeated claim that Raffles ‘discovered’ the huge Buddhist stupa at Borobudur is untrue, however – it was well known to the locals, and had first been recorded by a Dutchman named Frederik Coyett in 1733), and elsewhere translations of Old Javanese manuscripts were collected.   This was all scholarship with an orientalist agenda: ‘Knowledge is power, and in the intercourse between enlightened and ignorant nations, the former must and will be the rulers’. Raffles once wrote. 

Clash of personalities 

Throughout the early months of the interregnum Raffles clung to the idea that Java might remain a British possession forever, but as the years passed and the promised revenues failed to materialise it became clear that the East India Company Directors would seize any opportunity to disengage from the island.  Various attempts to raise revenue failed, and the cost of the Yogyakarta campaign and another military expedition against the Sumatran state of Palembang pushed Java’s account further into the red.  When Lord Minto was replaced as Governor-General by the less romantically-minded Lord Moira in 1813, there was no longer a sympathetic ear in Calcutta. 

To make matters worse Raffles’ relationship with the second most powerful man in European Java, Rollo Gillespie, was rancorous.  They were ill-suited to being left together in charge of a complex colony – one man a bruising aristocratic war veteran, the other a youthful and ambitious middle class civilian.  They were, one observer noted, ‘at daggers drawn and constant variance’.  In late 1813 Gillespie returned to India, where he submitted formal allegations of corruption and incompetence against Raffles.

By the time Gillespie’s charges were laid, peace was threatening in Europe and British Java was clearly doomed.  In the final stages Raffles furiously battled the accusations levelled against him; he organised the annexation of the lands of the minor coastal sultanates of Cirebon and Banten, and pressed ahead with his scholarship.  But the administration was coming apart at the seams, and the financial crisis continued.

Raffles had ambitiously attempted to reform the colonial land revenue system, replacing the old and inefficient VOC method of monopolies and rent in kind with an Indian-inspired system called ryotwari, in which farmers paid cash rents to the state based on the innate value of their land, rather than what they grew on it.  ‘The introduction of a money rent’, Raffles believed, ‘would bring forward a large proportion of coin which at present lies unemployed’.  But there was almost no hard cash in Java, and the preliminary research for the new system had been inadequate.  In the words of the critical John Crawfurd, Raffles ‘saw it break down even before he had himself quitted the administration of the island’.

Return of the Dutch

By the end of 1815 the Napoleonic Wars were over, and Britain was happily arranging to return seized territories to Holland.  Java would be a Dutch colony again by August 1816, but the failure of all Raffles’ attempts to make the island pay, coupled with the lingering stigma of Gillespie’s charges, had made his position untenable.  Just eight months short of the handover the East India Company announced that ‘we are of the opinion that his continuance on the Government of Java would be highly inexpedient’.  Raffles had been sacked, and a trustworthy caretaker, John Fendall, was left to manage Java until the handover.
The Java that the Dutch regained in August 1816 was not the same place they had departed five years earlier.  The overall financial state of the colony was, if anything, worse than it had been before the British arrived.  Devalued paper currency was still in circulation, and the old systems of revenue collection had been dismantled.

The incoming Dutch Governor-General, Van der Capellen, sent a civil servant named De Bruijn to tour the island and to try to make sense of the barely functioning new land-rent system.  De Bruijn found that in many cases the projected rents had never been collected; elsewhere the demands for cash had forced local farmers into the hands of unscrupulous Chinese moneylenders.  With no collateral they had had to borrow against the projected value of future crops; around Surabaya the farmers owed years of future harvests to the loan sharks.

But as he travelled De Bruijn came to an unexpected conclusion: the system might have failed miserably, he decided, but Raffles had the right idea: it was ‘beyond all doubt’, De Bruijn wrote, ‘that the land rent, modified and improved on a well-considered and regulated plan, is the only true and sufficient way to pour out the rich produce of these remote regions into the lap of the Motherland’.  Ultimately it was a different revenue system which the new administration instated, but the basic motivation – of extracting as much as possible from the Javanese countryside – endured, especially in the notorious ‘cultivation system’ later in the century.

Elsewhere the Dutch discovered that opium use had increased exponentially – British opium barons in Calcutta had had the island thrown open to free trade in the drug.  By the middle of the next decade opium sales were contributing 12 per cent of the colonial income in Java.  And the stern gaze of the English memsahibs had caused a shift in attitudes.  Though native concubines and mixed-race children always remained more common in Dutch Java than in British India, the old creole culture of the ports was increasingly shunned by the upper echelons, and Malay-speaking Indo-European women were no longer ‘the ladies of rank and fashion’.

But the biggest change of all was in the balance of power between the European administration and the Javanese courts.  Any vestige of independence had been removed in Banten and Cirebon, and the consequence of both Surakarta and the once-mighty Yogyakarta had been drastically reduced.  For all the economic rack and ruin, the British had indeed handed back to the Hollanders a Java in which ‘the European power’ was ‘for the first time paramount’, and though there was one final stand against European dominance, in the form of the Java War of 1825-30, the days of Javanese independence were over; the groundwork had been laid for the coming colonial century in Indonesia.

Raffles and the Raj

In his own lifetime, Raffles’ professional reputation never really recovered from the financial catastrophe of Java.  But thanks to later biographers, he is usually remembered today as a liberal scholar and a visionary reformer, an acceptable exception to the ugly rule of imperialism, celebrated for the founding of Singapore.  His actions in Java, however show him to be one of the pioneers of the very attitudes that fuelled the rise of the Raj, when ‘knowledge was power’ and rivals to British dominance needed to be ‘taught a lesson’. 

A close examination of the forgotten episodes of the British Interregnum in Java has much to tell us, about Raffles himself, about the later developments in the Dutch East Indies, and about the wider mores, modes and mind-sets of the coming epoch of high Victorian imperialism.  Indonesians too, who have forgotten the episode as thoroughly as Britons, would find much of interest.  Many of their own received versions of history – of a glorious pre-Islamic past, of the Dutch as perfidious practitioners of divide and rule, and of Hindu Bali as a ‘living museum’ – were voiced for the first time in the writings of Raffles and John Crawfurd, and the role of the royal courts in the colonial scheme was finalised not by the Dutch, but by the British.

There is one other eminently palpable legacy, instantly apparent to anyone who visits Indonesia today: the first traffic regulations were laid down during the British Interregnum, and two centuries later the howling maelstrom of buses, trucks and bikes that floods through modern Jakarta travels on the left-hand side of the road, rather than on the Continental right.
© Tim Hannigan 2012
The full story of the British Interregnum and Raffles' forgotten role in Indonesian history is told in Tim Hannigan's award-winning new book, Raffles and the British Invasion of Java, published by Monsoon Books.
For more information see


Unknown said...

Great article Tim, extremely well written.
I was completely taken aback to realise the British had a foothold, as tenuously as it was in Java of all places!
Not at all surprised how the invasion panned out though in those days with some damning evidence for Britains complete lack of respect for the local rulers and culture AND humanity with the continuation of the slave business!
It's certainly answered one query of mine though about driving on the left side of the road....Cheers

Tim Hannigan said...

Hi Anto,
Glad you enjoyed it! If you're keen the full story is in the book.

Actually, one bit of trivia, which I didn't find space for in either the book or the article, but which you might find very interesting indeed, is that Raffles ordered an approach on Japan from Java,which involved approaching under false pretenses, flying Dutch flags.

I simply didn't have time to look into this episode in detail, but it seems to have been typified by general skulduggery, corruption and incompetence - unsurprisingly!

And the driving on the left - it was something that puzzled me the first time I came to Indonesia, long before I'd ever heard of the British Interregnum...

Victor Wong said...

Hi Tim,
Really enjoying reading your book currently. I was always intrigued by rollo, raffles and java many years ago and so far, your book is spot on fleshing out the details for me.

Wish you can also flesh out more material for another book on java, post-napoleonic period?


Tim Hannigan said...

Hi Victor,

Thanks so much - I'm ever so glad you're enjoying it.

The period has always been squeezed down in previous books on Raffles - the writers always want to get on to Singapore, and have never had any particular background interest or involvement in Java. It was, though, the biggest, longest part of Raffles' career, and within his own lifetime the most significant.

As for Rollo Gillespie, he's the most fabulous character. As all previous biographers have come at the topic with a rather exclusive sympathy for Raffles they've tended to reduce Gillespie to little more than a cardboard cut-out, the bad guy, and a "borderline psychopath" - to quote one Raffles fan. He was clearly something of a thug, but he deserves a rather fuller showing than that.

About another book on post-Napoleonic Java, the thing that drew my attention to the British Interregnum in the first place was the availability of accessible primary sources. I don't read Dutch or Javanese, but I wanted to be able to work from archival material, and the Interregnum gave me plenty of that written in English. In fact, the book was never originally supposed to be about Raffles really; before I really got stuck in to the archives I expected him to be just a secondary figure, with various lesser known characters, British, Indian and Javanese, taking centre stage.

So the lack of English-language primary sources limits my options for tackling later Javanese history - until I learn to read Dutch and Javanese!

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