Pencak Silat as an Instrument
of Social Control in the Dutch East Indies
Rapid Jurnal Vol 5, No. 4 (Book 18, 2001: 42 – 43)
© O'ong Maryono
At the beginning of the colonial period, pencak silat continued to expand
to all outlying areas of the archipelago, as a result of greater, large-scale
mobility of the people. These migrations frequently involved an element
of force, such as the exile of Kiai Maja -a bodyguard to Prince Diponegoro-
from Java to Tondano, North Sulawesi, after the Dutch government put
a stop to the bloody war in Central Java between 1825 and 1830. Kiai
Maja and his followers lived in Tondano, until their deaths. Some of
them married local women, giving rise to a particular ethnic group known
as Jaton (Java Tondano). It is said that Kiai Maja left behind a specific
brand of self-defence, which is today known as pencak silat Tondano.
One school in Sulawesi still uses the name of its forebear: 'Perguruan
Satria Kiai Maja'.
Migration induced by war was however incidental during the first century
of Dutch colonial rule, hence it did not have the greatest influence
on the spread of pencak silat. Of far greater significance was the migration
resulting from the construction of transportation infrastructures and
related changes in the agrarian economy. In 1808, hundreds of thousands
of farmers from the north coast of Java were forcibly mobilised to build
a road from Anyer to Panarukan, the so-called Grote Postweg. In their
spare time, coolies from different regions entertained themselves by
practising and showing off their pencak silat skills. Their expertise
in self-defence was also useful when facing conflict with other coolies
or with their oppressors. Once again, a synergy of different pencak
silat styles -in this case different Javanese styles- took place, producing
new brands of pencak silat.
The opening of the Java highway enabled the rural population to move,
leading to intermingling of rural populations of different ethnic and
cultural backgrounds. At the end of the 18th century, it was difficult
to penetrate the hinterland of Java due to the dreadful conditions of
the roads. Trade was mainly conducted by sea, all along the north coast
or along the Solo River and the Brantas River. Thanks to the successful
completion of the Grote Postweg -which would be followed by the construction
of the railroad network at the end of the 19th century- not only did
land trade intensify, but also farming communities moved to virgin lands
(Lombard 1996(1):134-139). Because these migratory communities also
brought with them their culture, including self-defence mastery, the
diffusion of pencak silat on Java became irreversible.
The Java highway also created a single economic zone between Pasundan
(West Java) and the rest of Java and paved the way for the commercialisation
of colonial products. These economic changes were also linked to the
kultuurstelsel ('cultivation system', or in the language of the people
'forced cropping system') imposed by the colonial government to overcome
the severe economic crisis in the 1830's. The system required farmers
to plant certain types of crops intended for export, such as sugar cane,
indigo, coffee, tea and pepper, on one-third of their land, or work
on a government plantation 66 days out of the year (Koentjaraningrat
1994:67). This economic structure employed pencak silat as an instrument
of social control to govern coolies and rural communities.
In particular, the Dutch colonial government used pencak silat experts
as 'opas' (from the old Dutch term 'oppasser', meaning guard) or 'kontroleur'
(controller), to supervise the work of the coolies. These supervisors
were selected from among those people who were already known and trusted
by the colonisers. Since the government plantations opened first in
Tangerang and later expanded to Bogor, Sukabumi, Puncak and Bandung,
experienced kontroleurs were selected from these locations and then
transferred to areas where new plantations were being cleared. Most
of them practised maempok, as at that time physical strength and martial
arts skills were the main asset in supervising labourers.
The supervisors frequently married local women and settled in the new
plantation areas. Little by little they passed on their pencak silat
skills -derived particularly from the Cimande, Cikalong and Cikaret
styles- to the local population. After gaining a sufficient number of
students, they started to teach maempok according to their cultural
tradition, requiring jurus performances to be always accompanied by
gendang (drum) pencak music played on two large drums (indung), two
small ones (kulantir), one small gong and one trumpet. However, since
West Javanese musical instruments were not always available in the new
settlements, they had to be replaced with local ones. For example, in
the plantations of East Java, the supervisors adopted musical instruments
brought by migrants from Madura and Bawean (since they comprised the
majority of settlers), consisting of six short drums, trumpets and brass
instruments (jidur).22 In the former plantation area of the Besuki Residency,23
present day performances of West Javanese styles clearly show cultural
Madurese elements assimilated from colonial times.
Assimilation also occurred among martial arts of different countries.
In many coastal towns in Java, such as Cirebon, Semarang and Surabaya,
where there was a concentration of Chinese traders, kuntao and pencak
silat influenced one another. The influence of kuntao was strongest
in Batavia, because of its longstanding Chinese colony. Many Chinese
who lived in Banten were brought to Batavia in 1619 to build the city
in a marshland area. They worked as stonemasons, canal builders, gamblers,
merchants, medicine traders and wayang orang performers. Amongst them
there were kuntao experts who had lost their positions in China, as
king's sentinels or as soldiers, when weapons were first discovered.
These masters passed down their knowledge to family members as a legacy
of their ancestors, to be kept hidden and used for self-defence only
if absolutely necessary.
In the beginning, the Chinese settlers lived in Chinese-style houses
spread out throughout the city. But following the mass killings of 1740,
the newly arrived Chinese were prohibited by the Dutch from living inside
the city walls and were placed in new settlements named 'pecinan' (Chinese
hamlets) -such as Glodok and Kramat Bunder Senen. There, kuntao was
practised in the many Chinese associations, and existing pencak silat
styles eventually absorbed Chinese martial arts elements (de Vries 1989:61-64).
Going again back in time, if during the kultuurstensel period, the acculturation
of pencak silat occurred primarily in Java, from 1870 onwards -with
the liberalisation of the economy and the expansion of private plantations-
it crossed over to other islands. New areas, including the eastern coast
of Sumatra, were opened up to establish tobacco and palm oil plantations.
There was great demand for coolies and plantation supervisors from Java
and Madura to work on the private plantations in Sumatra. On these plantations,
far from the hustle and bustle of the cities, with no entertainment,
migrants from different ethnic groups and cultures exchanged self-defence
techniques. Again, interaction also occurred with martial arts from
other countries, as the Dutch colonialists brought coolies from China
to expand exploitation of tin mines in Bangka, Singkep and Belitung
(de Vries 1989:68-69). The mingling of Chinese migrants and indigenous
people renewed the exchange between pencak silat and Chinese martial
arts, especially kuntao.
Furthermore, the expansion of private plantations allowed pencak silat
styles to trespass the borders of the archipelago. By the end of the
19th century, pencak silat had already reached other countries then
ruled by the colonial Dutch government. One such country where pencak
silat took hold was Suriname. From 1890 to 1932, more than 30,000 Javanese
were moved to Suriname, bringing along their own customs and culture.
Even today, Javanese-Surinamese people study the art of kanuragan and
pencak silat as a part of their humanistic education. (Parsudi Suparlan
1995:212-217). In general, it can be said that wherever Javanese worked,
either contractually or forcibly, styles of pencak silat that exhibit
specifically Javanese features can be found.
The development of pencak silat is intrinsically related to the colonial
system in many other ways, as the description of the 'jago' - a pencak
silat expert possessing magical power to boost his self-confidence in
fighting- in the next article will clearly illustrate
1994 Kebudayaan Jawa. 2nd Edition. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka
1996 Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya; Batas-batas Pembaratan. Jakarta: Gramedia
Pustaka Utama. Bagian 1
1995 The Javanese in Suriname; Ethnicity in an Ethnically Plural Society.
Tempe: Arizona State University
Vries, de J.
1972 Jakarta Tempo Doeloe. Jakarta: Antar Kota
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