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The Rise of the Jago in Colonial times

Rapid Journal Vol 6, No. 1 (Book 19, 2001: 40 – 41)

© O'ong Maryono


Discussion of pencak silat during the time of the Dutch-East Indies would not be complete without bringing up the issue of 'jago': a pencak silat expert possessing magical power to boost his self-confidence in fighting. The term "jago" in itself, is not clearly defined. According to the General Indonesian Language Dictionary, "jago" has various meanings, including, "rooster older than 12 months"; "main candidate in an election"; "front runner"; "champion"; and "the favorite to win". Generally speaking, a jago is regarded as someone to be respected by the community because of his gifts or talents, a person with posture and social status, somewhat like a prize rooster. Exactly where and when this expression originated cannot be confirmed. However, from examples in literature, epic stories and colonial government reports it is hypothesized that the term jago developed amidst the communities of Central Java, East Java and Madura during Dutch colonial times, more specifically from the time when the so-called Cultuurstelsel (the colonial system of forced cultivation or "sistim tanam paksa") was first instituted. What is clear, is that part of a person 's ability to be regarded as a jago, is an outstanding command of martial arts skills, often with an additional belief in that person 's supernatural strength:

How and why did someone become a jago? Until now, this question remains unanswered. It may be that someone became a jago because of his heritage.... The author is of the opinion that physical prowess, bravery and a mastery of mystical knowledge were the primary requirements to become a jago. A person was acknowledged as a jago if he could endure a long period of training. This training consisted of assisting experienced jago in their daily activities and their burglaries. Other than that, a would-be jago was required to ngelmu (be an apprentice or disciple) to a guru or kiai (religious teacher). In fact, this was done not only by jago, but was a stage of learning for any adolescent at that time. Furthermore, a youth would improve his skills by studying self-defence techniques of pencak silat. Still, each would-be jago followed a specialised type of ngelmu according to his own personal needs, such as ilmu sirep (hypnotic knowledge),26 panglimunan (power to make yourself and others invisible), or ilmu kekebalan (power to become invincible, invulnerable to attack). After studying from various teachers, the aspiring jago ended his apprenticeship by spending a period of time alone, as a hermit. If he succeeded in all this, he would then undergo an initiation ritual (Schulte Nordholt 1983:668; see also van Till 1996:462)

Many poems and folk tales portrays the would-be jago as learning to recite verses from the Qur'an and practising pencak silat in the pesantren at an early age. Once he had mastered the necessary skills and knowledge, a jago would rise up to fight against the oppression of the Dutch colonial administration, and rob from those in power. Part of the booty was distributed to the poor or donated to build a village mosque (Rahmat Ali 1993). This is really no different from the epics of Robin Hood, who fought in England for social justice by stealing from the rich to give to the poor.

A jago would also honour the principles of noble conduct which are central to the practice of pencak silat trying to defuse confrontation, attacking only in case of an emergency, and being very careful in avoiding any unnecessary violence or even killing anybody. Even though violence can't always be avoided when facing an enemy, it should only be used for a just cause and as a means to alleviate the suffering of others. Armed with simple weapons, the jago would face capture and subsequent punishment by the Dutch, namely to be brought before a firing squad. As the story goes, although the jago's enemies (i.e. armed Dutch troops or police) would carry far more sophisticated weapons than our jago, they would let themselves be overpowered and become very confused, as the jago magically escapes time after time; The Dutch would have to suffer many material losses before succeeding in capturing and executing the jago thus regaining control of the situation and restoring law and order. What is interesting is that even after death, a jago could still strike fear into the hearts of those in power. The message conveyed here is that a smart character, who has mastered the skills of pencak silat, will die a noble death, defending God and the Truth, as a hero.

In popular imagination, the jago would also have a strong feeling of solidarity with the oppressed community and would be using pencak silat skills to defend the rights of the so-called "wong cilik", or the poor and powerless, against the abuse of power by, in this case, the rich foreign (i.e. European) landlords and the colonial government. The theme of the jago as a heroic defender of the rights of the wong cilik is found in various forms of theatre, particularly in Java. For example, in the Ludruk-theatre in East Java the stories and actions of local jago --like Sakera the Madurese hero, Sarip Tambak Yoso, a jago who controlled Surabaya and its surroundings, Sawung Galing, a jago from Pasuruan-- are staged. Similarly, in Lenong Betawi (a form of popular theatre found in Jakarta and the surrounding areas) the stories of a number of regional jago, among others Si Jampang, Si Pitung and his band, Mat Item, Ronda, Si Angki, Si Panjang and Mira (the "female lion" from Marunda) are performed. Similarly, the actions of 'Javanese Robin Hoods' who have become legendary have been immortalised in literature. Tales of Sakera, Sarip Tambak Yoso, or Sawung Galing and Si Pitung, a Betawi jago whose influence spread far and wide throughout the archipelago, have been passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation and have been developed into books and TV serials (van Till 1996).

Nevertheless, most historians believe that the jago were an extension of the colonial system in rural areas, playing a dual role in society. On the one hand, the regency apparatus (regent bestuur) used the jago to assert their interests. Using their martial art skills, jago were to safeguard their village against criminal attacks by other jago, since at that time there were no police force in rural areas. They were also charged with collecting taxes as determined by the colonial government and with driving farmers into forced labour, by physical force if necessary. Thanks to the jago, village chiefs and regents could please the central authorities and be rewarded by them. In return, the jago were released from all kinds of obligations imposed on village residents. On the other hand, outside of their village, the jago used their pencak silat and kanuragan skills to undertake criminal acts, such as stealing goods (especially animals) from villagers, burning down homes, or torturing their victims. This dual function meant that the jago were simultaneously protectors and oppressors of the people. Although frequently regarded as heroes in their own communities, in other villages they were greatly feared (Schulte Nordholt 1983.

The allure of the jago was not limited to Java. Similar functionaries also existed in other islands of the archipelago. The most famous example is perhaps the 'parewa' from the Minangkabau area (West Sumatra). The term 'parewa' comes from the word 'prawira', a soldier of the Pagaruyung empire, which was supported by the Dutch Government in the Padri war against Ka-selarasan Bodi Chaniago. After the war, the parewa were used by the Dutch to control and collect taxes from the people. Although the local people respected them as martial arts masters, their behaviour was considered to deviate from social norms. As in this description by a social scientist, parewa were:

a group of people who did not follow tradition and by the orthodox community were considered to be an affront to teachings of Islam. However, they were entrusted with the duty of guarding the mosque. Parewas made a living through gambling, cock fighting and the like. They were experts in pencak and silat and possessed a wide social network. Parewa from different villages respected and admired each other. They would defend their allies to death. (Anderson 1972:8)

The phenomenon of the jago and parewa is interesting to study because it reflects one of the fundamental changes within pencak silat. At the very least, supernatural and martial arts were no longer used by a group of people to achieve spiritual perfection, rather they were 'misused' for the purpose of material gain. The ideal of the pesilat as a guardian of life's sacred values was no longer upheld during the Dutch-East Indies era, because most pencak silat experts preferred to work on the side of the colonialists rather than defend the weak. Even though in the literature they are honoured as the 'heroes of the oppressed people', actually they often were hit men for the state apparatus, and many of their deeds flew in the face of traditional customs and values. As a result, pencak silat became connected with immoral acts, and began to be viewed as a tool for evil and cruelty.27 Although its good name was tainted, as will be described in the next chapter, pencak silat would make a comeback during the national awakening era, thanks to the hard work of a group of masters who fought in the interests of the people.

Anderson, B.
1972 Java in a time of revolution; Occupation and Resistence, 1944-1946. Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press
Till, M. van
1995 In search of Si Pitung. The History of an Indonesian Legend. Bijdragen KITLV, no. 152 (III), pp-461-482
Schulte Nordholt, H.
1983 De Jago in the schaduw: Misdaad en 'Orde' in the koloniale staat op Java. De Gids, no. 146 (8/9), pp. 664-475

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