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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
Lombard, D.
1996 Nusa Jawa: Silang Budaya; Batas-batas Pembaratan. Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama. Bagian 1
Parsudi Suparlan
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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