Out of Darkness Comes Light: The Time of Famine and The (Expected) Arrival of Ratu Adil

By Timoteus A. Kusno

This article is titled after an anthology of letters written by RA Kartini which were later collected and published by J.H. Abendanon with the title “Door Duisternis Tot Licht” (1911), which literally means “Through Darkness to Light”.  


The Echoes of the French Revolution that Shook Java

The post-French Revolution political chaos in Europe seemed to reverberate in the Land of Java. The occupation of the Netherlands by France during the Napoleonic Wars was then followed by the appointment of Governor-General H. W. Daendels (1805-1810) to rule in Java in order to drive away the British fleet. Bringing the spirit of the French Revolution, Daendels desired to abolish the feudalism of the traditional Javanese society[1]. Unlike his predecessors, he just bluntly paid no respect to the Javanese kings, nor to the rest of feudalistic authorities. At this rate, the power of the Javanese monarchs was imperceptibly undermined.

Java, as the Dutch-French colony which was nearly taken by the British, was soon secured. With his iron hands, Daendels mobilized the coolies in the construction of the Great Post Road (De Grote Postweg). In only one year (1808-1809), there laid the approximately one-thousand-kilometer road along the Javanese North Coast, whose construction process had taken so many lives and given bitter memories. This road, undoubtedly, has given a great contribution to the economy of the modern Indonesia hitherto.

From the Kraton (the Palace of) Yogyakarta’s version[2], Daendels’ policies were considered violating the people’s land rights. Many people had been losing their land and later worked as labors in farms, industries, and plantation. Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono II as the ruling King of Yogyakarta resisted and was against Daendels’ policies. His adamant attitude resulted in the dispatch of the Dutch troops to Yogyakarta, giving pressure to the king to pass down the throne to his son, Sri Sultan Hamengku Buwono III.


The Javanese Elites’ Anxieties Over the Domination of Europe

In May 1811, Governor-General Jan Willem Jansens was appointed to succeed Daendels. Not long after, in August 1811 Batavia was handed over to the British. The land of Java, the formerly Dutch-French colony, was finally occupied by the British Sir Stamford Raffles became the ruling leader in Java, with Lord Minto who was in Calcutta (India) occupying the position as the Governor-General.  Sultan HB II saw this transition of the power of Europe as a chance to reclaim his power over Kraton. In Kraton, the power transition from the Dutch to the British was responded with political intrigues and schism that led to a tragedy widely known as Geger Sepehi. It was the British troops invasion (in June 1812) to Kraton Yogyakarta that involved the Sepoys—the Indian infantrymen worked for the British—and Legiun Mangkunegaran (the army corps of Kraton Surakarta)[3].

In the British invasion to Kraton, the internal political turmoil, conspiracies, and treachery acts were tumultuous. Kraton Yogyakarta was shot, occupied, and looted. The British historian Peter Carey wrote that during the invasion, the British troops also took away Kraton’s scripts and shipped them to England. Many jewelries, krises, musical instruments inside Kraton were taken to the residents’ houses by cart and pelvic coolies.[4] According to the historian Onghokham, such an event was the one and only in the history of Javanese Kingdoms. In the earlier periods, the Dutch tended to be involved more in the complicated political intrigues by taking the side of the Javanese monarchs’ feudalistic power. Even in their military invasion during 1948-1949, the Dutch did not lay a hand on the complex of Kraton[5].

Kraton had blundered in coming up with a secret conspiracy with the Sepoys, of which was impeded by the British. Peter Carey interprets that the political games played by the Javanese kingdoms in the early 19th century indicated their resistance toward Western domination over Java.[6] Ironically, the conspiracy failed and the British invasion resulted in the weakening authority of Kraton. Kraton even recorded that in August 1812, they signed an agreement under duress that was unfavorable for the Javanese nobles[7]. The agreement stated that all authorities concerning custom duties and roads were handed over to the British. It even declared that the military force of the kingdoms had to be downsized following the limit stipulated by the British. All citizens (both foreigners and Javanese) who were born outside the royal palace lived under the colonial law, and therefore they could not be judged by the Javanese-Islamic law. The stipulation of these rules under the British colonial power would eventually trigger the wrath of the people that led to the Java War.


Java War: The Starting Line of Colonialism

The historian Onghokham, in his foreword in Peter Carey’s Asal-Usul Perang Jawa (2001, the English title: Voyage a Djocja-Karta en 1825: The outbreak of The Java War as seen by a painter), stated that the Java War (1825-1830) which was initiated by Pangeran Diponegoro in his fight against the Dutch and the Kingdom of Yogyakarta served as the line that indicated the shift from the Javanese feudalistic regime (ancient regime) to the colonialism[8]—an era called the “state colonialism” from the perspective of the Dutch. In the Javanese ancient regime, the existence of the Dutch coming as “merchants” had largely contributed to maintaining the status quo of the Javanese feudalistic society[9].

Kartodirdjo wrote that in Diponegoro’s autobiography, Diponegoro claimed to receive the revelation to drive away the foreign rulers directly from Ratu Adil (literally means the Just King)[10]. It was stated in the Chronicle of Diponegoro, quoted by Peter Carey, which says as follows: “If anyone asks you about what rights are you entitled to (leading the war against the infidel Dutch and the apostate Javanese who became their allies),” said the shadow of Ratu Adil on Mount Rasamuni in May 1824, “Tell them to look for the answer in the Quran.” Diponegoro had been initially reluctant because he could not bear to witness deaths as the aftermath of the war. The shadow of Ratu Adil rejected his refusal, appeared once again and said, “Hopefully not: this is God’s will, He has set the destiny of Java; you are fated to do this duty, because no one else will.”[11]

For his followers, Pangeran Diponegoro was Ratu Adil himself. This what made them faithfully motivated and put their whole trust in Diponegoro’s fight. They believed that Diponegoro, the one who was very charismatic, was the very figure who would realize a just and wealthy era in the Land of Java, a hope after getting through a devastating and sorrowful time.[12] At the same time, most of the Javanese believed that the Java War (also known as Dipenogoro War) was the sabil war, a holy war to eliminate the infidels from the Land of Java. Dipenegoro were supported by the villagers who were mobilized by the local officials and noblemen. The villagers joined the war bringing along with them very simple weaponry, including bamboo spears (with sharpened tip).[13] Later, the history noted that these bamboo spears became something that scared the Dutch away. A century later, bamboo spears made its comeback in Java in a more structured and systematic form. The weapon was used in the paramilitary trainings organized by Japan during the Pacific War, bringing their imperialistic agenda in Archipelago, as well as to drive away their enemies from Indonesia.

In Kartodirdjo’s analysis, a number of social movements and anti-colonial resistances in the colonies during the 19th and 20th centuries were mostly based on the ideas of jihad. The forces and calls for resistance with religious underlying motivation were powerful in mobilizing the common people. In the cases of Java, unlike the holy wars taken place in most Islamic countries, the ideology of jihad served as the channel to express anger and anti-foreign feelings because the foreign power was considered oppressive and strangling. Bringing this spirit, the fanatical fighters were even willing to sacrifice their lives for the sake of the holy reason.[14]

Diponegoro’s struggle ended tragically. He was framed and arrested by Hendrik Markus Baron De Kock, the Dutch general in the Java War, in a friendly gathering in Magelang following the Eid Al-Fitr, celebrating the end of the fasting month.[15] In the Javanese-Islamic tradition, the fasting month was commonly concluded with friendly meetings (people visited and forgave one another). Nicolaas Pienaman’s painting that depicted the Dutch’s perspective on the arrest of Diponegoro, “The Rebel” was portrayed as a defenseless figure who surrendered to the Dutch under the flag of the Netherlands. He was pictured to accept the colonial authority, meanwhile his followers looked disheartened, sorrowful, and in despair. Harm Stevens—as the painting was displayed at Rijksmuseum in 2015—gave a critical note on reading the “invisible” in the painting, such as: “the betrayal, the ‘ignoble and unjust’ treatment that took place on Java under the Dutch flag.[16] The Dutch’s victory over Diponegoro’s resistance (1825-1830) asserted their power and set the path open wide for them to conquer the Land of Java. Coming out as the victor of the Java War had legitimized the Dutch’s position in Java and at the same time emasculated the dignity of the Javanese kingdoms.


The Magic of Ratu Adil in the Land of Famine

A number of historians recorded that the Java War was the last huge traditional movement taken place prior to the rise of the national movement. According to Onghokham, this period, as also taken place in India, was indicated by a great number of local movements including peasant’ revolt, labor strike, etc. Note that not all of the movements were anti-colonial in nature.[17] For the Dutch, this very period marked a great transformation in the management of colonies following the aftermaths of the Java War, the Padri War (in Sumatra), and the Belgian Revolution that were very debilitating and costly.

Victory opened a broader way for more exploitations of the native people. The Dutch needed to gain more fund as it had been running low. Under the reign of Governor-General Van Den Bosch (1830-1833), the Dutch initiated a plantation system called Cultuurstelsel. Indonesian historians refer to the system as Tanam Paksa which literally means “enforcement planting” in English. By this system, the Dutch imposed the obligation on the farmers to utilize 20% of their land to cultivate export commodities, particularly coffee, sugarcane, tea, and indigo. Those who did not own any piece of land were required to work 75 days per year in the government-owned plantations. Cultuurstelsel (1830-1870) functioning as the “tax substitution” in the colony had become the lucrative source of income that saved the Dutch from adversity and led them to prosperity. Onghokham further explained that in practice, all farmers had to work for the colonial government as their plantation coolies, serving as the “substitution cost” for their taxes that should have been imposed on them for their land ownership.[18] In this era, famine and poverty among the farmers were worsening. Many of them died of fatigue and hunger. The death of farmers was a casual view back then. Goenawan Muhammad, in his Catatan Pinggir (Sidelines) essay, wrote that even when the dead bodies of the farmer were left unburied, the Regent could still respond calmly by saying, “At night, the tiger will drag their bodies.”[19]

It was in this period as well (in between the last huge traditional movement and the rise of the national movement) when the native people’s awareness on injustice began to ignite more resistances which were (sometimes) radical and revolutionary in nature. The status quo was challenged. And the people demanded for thorough changes and reconstruction, bringing within them the spirit of Ratu Adil. In the context of the myth of Ratu Adil, borrowing Sartono Kartodirjo’s perspective, radical means rejecting the entire prevailing social norms and it is indicated by a strong moral aggravation that leads to challenging and treating the rulers who hold privileges as the enemy. Within the very same period, Onghokham noted that some small-scale upheavals including peasant’ revolt against the Dutch colonial government “only” aimed at the improvement of living conditions. The farmers revolted because they were strangled by the taxes, cultuurstelsel, and problems regarding land or water supply[20]. Not all acts of resistance were revolutionary.

In some areas, people’s disappointment and anger concerning the power of Europe were manifested in radical attitudes demonstrated in religious movements. According to Sartono Kartodirjo, the primary element of religious movements comprises a charismatic leader who had received a sort of revelation and treated as a prophet, teacher, shaman, wizard, or Messianic messenger by the disciples.[21] Studying the reports written by the colonial officers[22], Kartodirdjo found that the religious movements that brought the spirit of Ratu Adil (millenarianism) turned out to be considered as dangerous threats to the authority of the colonial regime. He explained that the millenarian hopes were something inherent in the Javanese culture, and in the history, it brought forth prophetic figures. For the Javanese, these stories were told in their oral tradition. The religious leaders were generally able to verbally articulate the bitterness encountered by the people and the hopes they were holding on to.

These charismatic leaders were believed to have supernatural power and be miraculous. The sacred stuffs surrounding the figures were the attractive side for their loyal disciples. Kartodirdjo’s analysis stated that the radicalism in several religious movements implied a recurring pattern of hope. This pattern comprised magico-mysticism (the spiritual aspect and connectedness with the ancestors, sacred figures, or supernatural world) and nativism (the hope for driving away the European and the revival of the dignity of the motherland under the reign of the old dynasty). Ratu Adil was seen as the savior, the king who would be able to uphold justice and make peace in the Land of Java. In the Javanese mythology, the Just King (Ratu Adil) would set the people free from hunger, wickedness, and disaster. The arrival of Ratu Adil would be indicated by disaster and suffering[23].

Religious revivalism in Java was taking place in the second half of the 19th century. During this period, many Javanese Muslims conducted the fifth pillars of Islam, namely going hajj (pilgrimage) to the Kaaba in Mecca. Furthermore, people began to conduct their missionary endeavor (dawah) from one place to another and developed Islamic tariqas and schools. Kartodirdjo’s study suggests that the growing tariqas within the era had given rise to fanatism. Meanwhile, the notion of Islamic eschatology had contributed to the transformation of the collectives into the more revolutionary, militant groups that aimed at overthrowing the colonial authority.[24] The rise of millenarianism as the revolutionary act was inseparable from the great wave of religious revivalism, that was one of the characteristics of Javanese rural life in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was in line with the fact that in the said period, a lot of social turmoil took place in the rural areas instead of the urban ones, involving mostly farmers and villagers.



Carey, Peter. 2001. Asal Usul Perang Jawa: Pemberontakan Sepoy & Lukisan Raden Saleh. Yogyakarta: LKiS

Carey, Peter. 2014. Takdir: Riwayat Pangeran Diponegoro (1785-1855). Jakarta: Penerbit Buku Kompas

Onghokham. 2018. Wahyu yang Hilang Negeri yang Guncang. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia

Kartodirdjo, Sartono. 1984. Ratu Adil. Jakarta: Penerbit Sinar Harapan

Kartodirdjo, Sartono. 2015. Pemberontakan Petani Banten 1888. Jakarta: Komunitas Bambu

Mohamad, Goenawan. 2006. Catatan Pinggir. Jakarta: Grafiti Pers

Stevens, Harm. 2015. Bitter Spice. Amsterdam: Rijksmuseum Amsterdam & Uitgeverij Vantilt,                         Nijmegen

Tempo. 2017. Jalan Pos Daendels. Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia


Featured Image

A Flood on Java (c. 1865-1876) by Raden Saleh, lithograph, 32 x 44 cm, Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies


Internet Sources

https://www.kratonjogja.id/ragam/11/geger-sepehi (acccessed on 17 November 2019)

https://historia.id/politik/articles/detik-detik-menegangkan-saat-belanda-menjebak-diponegoro-6mmJ2 (acccessed on 27 November 2019)


End notes

[1] Tempo (2017), Jalan Pos Daendels, p. 2

[2] https://www.kratonjogja.id/ragam/11/geger-sepehi (accessed on 17 November 2019)

[3] ibid.

[4] Peter Carey (2014), Takdir: Riwayat Pangeran Diponegoro (1785-1855) (Eng. title: Destiny: The Life of Prince Diponegoro of Yogyakarta). Translator: Bambang Murtianto. Editor: Mulyawan Karim. Jakarta: Penerbit Buku Kompas

[5] Onghokham in his foreword in Peter Carey’s Asal-Usul Perang Jawa (2001), p. xvi

[6] Peter Carey (2001), Asal Usul Perang Jawa, pp. 71–109

[7] https://www.kratonjogja.id/ragam/11/geger-sepehi (accessed on 17 November 2019)

[8]Onghokham in his foreword in Peter Carey’s Asal-Usul Perang Jawa (2001), pp. ix-xviii

[9] ibid. p. xv

[10] Serat Babad Dipanegara (1913), pp. 98-100 in Sartono Kartodirdjo (1984), Ratu Adil, p.16

[11] Babad Dipanegara, Manado version, vol. 1, Leiden Universiteit Bibliotheek Codex Orientalis 6547 a, 2.2.-3, pp. 1–2 in Peter Carey (2001), Asal Usul Perang Jawa, p. xxii.

[12] Peter Carey (2001), Asal Usul Perang Jawa, pp. 40–41

[13] ibid.

[14] Sartono Kartodirdjo (1984), Ratu Adil, pp. 106–107

[15] In Aryono’s “Detik-detik Menegangkan Saat Belanda Menjebak Diponegoro”, a writing on Peter Carey’s Raden Saleh: Anak Belanda, Mooi Indie dan Nasionalisme, responding to the arrest done by De Kock, Diponegoro said, “Why am I not allowed to return? What should I do here? I only came for friendly meeting, just like the common Javanese do after completing the fasting month.” (See: https://historia.id/politik/articles/detik-detik-menegangkan-saat-belanda-menjebak-diponegoro-6mmJ2 [accessed on 27 November 2019])

[16] Harm Stevens (2015), Bitter Spice, p. 47

[17] Onghokham in his foreword in Peter Carey’s Asal-Usul Perang Jawa (2001), pp. ix-xviii

[18] Onghokham (2018), Wahyu yang Hilang, Negeri yang Guncang, p. 165

[19] Mohamad, Goenawan (2006), Catatan Pinggir, 1: 430–431

[20] ibid, p. 168

[21] Sartono Kartodirdjo (1984), Ratu Adil, p. 13

[22] The thing to be meticulously noticed while reading these colonial officers’ reports is the stereotypical tendency to liken the religious movements to any revolutionary or anti-foreign movements, which were frequently affected by ethnic prejudice and islamophobia. Kartodirdjo underlined the argument that attributing either political or revolutionary characteristic to every religious movements is a wrong act.

[23] op.cit, pp. 9–31

[24] Sartono Kartodirdjo (2015), Pemberontakan Petani Banten, p. 21

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