Kalimantan now, Dutch East Indies then

Borneo Travel Blog

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2 Steps to the right, 1 Step to the left,   1 step forward, Another back, What the heck is this ? The Tango ?
Nope, it's politics in the Far East & Europe.

Background : Brunei had established trading links with Melaka from the early days with the sultans there and later the Portuguese. When the Dutch took over the town of Melaka in 1641 (with lots of cannon fire and certainly not by strong language), trade was cut off. The later establishments in Martapura, Borneo did not yield good results and the Portuguese called it quits.

Further in the north, the Spanish government who had running battles with the Moros (forerunners of the MLF today ?) in the Philippines sent regular expeditions to topple or diminish the Brunei Sultanate. With the regular raiding by the Moros against the Spanish (using bases in or near Sabah/Brunei) and the resultant counter attacks by the Spanish, the Brunei Sultanate did have their hands full. Trade was never established in the friendly manner over the years between the Spanish and Borneo. * Sabah state till today does have tenuous relations with the Philippines, as the Philippines still stakes a claim over Sabah.

Bad Boys, What are you gonna do when they come for you ?

Sign a treaty pronto, that's what they did. The faster you get protection under the guns of the colonial power,s the safer you are from your nasty fellow islanders. Though this may seem rather spurious since you would end up under the control by someone else anyway. China was nicely gang banged many years ago by all the colonial powers (I can't recall who came too late to join in) and lost Hong Kong & Macau as long term concessions. But, over in what is now Kalimantan, the situation developed from contesting parties who in turn called up the 'powers to be' aka the Dutch East India Company.

Initial interest by the Dutch was in Banjarmasin for purposes of spice trading. As in many places, things were pretty rough and such apparently simple things got complicated. Suddenly, some Dutch heads ended up being on the table instead of just spices and gold. Did they have it coming ? Depends on who you ask. The Europeans would say ' Oh, those barbarians & savages simply can't understand trade !' and the natives would reply ' Those cursed foreign devils would cheat us each time we traded !' Like the wild west, things were settled with force of arms, not by lawyers. Faster definitely, and cheaper possibly. Thus the Dutch flattened the town in return for the deaths of the traders and to put down the hostile locals. The local sultan there then being forced to move to Martapura. Was it out of proportion ? How many natives lives for a Dutchman ? Depends on whose calculator you use, but don't let such minor things stop you. We can always round up the natives body count to the next 100.

After some time, (nearing the end of the 1600's) the Dutch came to the conclusion that outright aggression or plain trading didn't work. They had to be crafty to get results here. What they did was step back and watch the local sultans kill one another (you would have thought they learned the same lesson in Afghanistan and Iraq by now) and then stepping in to assist when asked, for a price. In those times, Dutch control in the East was centred in Java, Indonesia. The local Raja in western Borneo had called upon the Sultan in Bantam (Banten now), West Java for help. For the Dutch, this was a stroke of good luck since they had subdued the Bantam Sultanate (another story of egos gone wild and subsequently punctured). The result of this was that Western Borneo allowed itself to be protected & ruled by the Bantam Sultanate, who in turn was a Dutch vassal. It was either this, or adios padre, there's an unmarked grave waiting for you.

Of Bloodsuckers and Porcupines

About a 100 years later, sometime in 1770, an Arab adventurer (pirate/mercenary/freedom fighter/terrorist on a boat) planted his flag at the tiny village of Pontianak. This pissed off the Raja of Landak, who demanded this scum of the earth get lost from the Landak river mouth. Who was he to collect tolls that rightly belonged to the Raja ? Sounds like Somalia now ?

The Sultan of Bantam was informed of this transgression but the Dutch pulling his strings decided to sit this one out. They decided a bit later to recognise the upstart as the 'Sultan of Pontianak'. This chap was coincidentally named 'Abdu- Rahman' and..... the 1st prime minister of Malaya was Abdul Rahman (minus the official titles). This new Sultan of Pontianak was encouraged to subdue any state nearby and bring it under his fold. (and of course the Dutch East India Co. being the real player behind the scenes controlled everything)


The word 'Pontianak' incidentally is the name of one of the most famous, scariest and violent ghosts in the Malaysian culture. Primarily, the Malays believe that it originates from a still born child, women who dies while giving birth, women who were killed by the pontianak or their spirits captured by them. They are blood suckers in effect. [ oh, they are only women, no male pontianaks, these sexist ghosts]

Was the name of the town given because the ruler there was a bloodsucker, in effect collecting tithes so high it bled the river users dry ? Or were the women there real femme fatales ? From my last visits to that place, the businessmen in that place outdo the supernatural versions when it comes to bleeding you dry. So.... the legacy wasn't all fluff. ###

## The word 'Landak' also refers to the porcupine. You know, the prickly fellow who shoots his sharp quills at your when he is pissed off ? Did they have lots of those critters there ? If there were, they must have been eaten up. OR, it could have referred to the people's temperament. Am I good at being politically incorrect or what ?  experience tells me that, ahem... I might be quite close, though their descendants have mellowed somewhat. ##

Don'tcha Wish Your Kingdom Was Hot Like Mine ?

So successful was this scheme that it was played in Southern Borneo too.

Sometime during the 1740's : The Sultan of Banjarmasin (now in Kalimantan, Indonesia) had pepper supply contracts and military base agreements with the Dutch East India Company [Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC ] - we had less polite names for it during school days since it was part of our history lessons. However, the Bugis seafaring people (read : pirates to those under attack by them) were causing problems for the Sultanate. Coupled with internal power struggles, the opportunity was there for the VOC to step in and support one party. The new dominions were then ceeded to the VOC, and soon enough, the Soverign Lord, Owner and Possessor of the Kingdom of Banjarmasin were the Dutch.

Ooops, ….. in 1784, the Treaty of Paris opened the South East Asian archipelago to all seafaring nations and anybody who float a piece of wood. The monopoly was thus broken, but by then, the VOC itself was troubled badly by internal problems of overspending, (gasp!, how could they !) corruption and creative accounting. Whaaat ? I thought this only happened in the 2000's ?? And... the poor guys were on the verge on bankruptcy, sigh … all good times must come to an end. No government bailout for them.

This bugs me : Why is it that these foreign powers decide our fates here ? Why can't we decide that the waters off Hudson Bay are open only to the Russian fleet ?

Thus, the VOC consolidated their positions and returned the concessions to the Sultans. The Sultan of Banjarmasin however found himself in a difficult position as there was no viable power to defend the lands and lines of trade. Again, by fate or by design, Alexander Hare (a British merchant from Melaka) was approached by the Sultan while in Melaka. He had earlier sent out expeditions to Banjarmasin without returning with anything useful. He had good ideas of setting up his own kingdom complete with slaves, and of course, collecting a harem in a land far way from England. ( sigh, those good ol days before political correctness ) Introductions were made, hands were shaken, gifts were exchanged and Governor General Stamford Raffles met with the Sultan of Banjarmasin.

Timing is everything,

Napolean had 'annexed' as opposed to 'walking in uninvited with an army' into Holland in 1810. The British decided that since misery loves company, they set about to invade Java, the Dutch administration centre of the Far East. Being on the ball, Raffles developed good relations with the rest of the rulers in the region in preparation. Meanwhile, Alexander Hare was sent off the Banjarmasin as an administrator (Resident), and managed to grab a very lucrative deal for the English East India Co. (ahem, himself too). A chunk of land approximately 1,400 sq miles (yeah, just a small lump in those days) was granted to him. Everybody was happy, the Sultan got his protection & prestige, the British Crown got an ally, concessions & trade, Mr. Alexander Hare had enough land to rival England ( don't know about his harem though )

With the enthusiasm of a kid in a candy store, Alexander Hare set in motion the plans to set up pepper & spice plantations, mining of precious stones and minerals, timber logging and salt mines. And... he found out that the natives were less than enthusiastic about working in such industries for foreigners. It was necessary instead to bring in labour from other areas such as Java to keep things going. During that time, western Borneo was found to be more conducive for trading against the south eastern Borneo area where Banjarmasin was located. Adding the wonderful nature of politics, the British was now wary of the French, and looked to the Dutch to balance the distribution of power. And in a weird turn, the British ceded the the bulk of the East Indies back to the Dutch. I can't imagine what the locals felt about it. It was like a game of football and you were kicked about with about the same amount of consideration in the aim of achieving someone else's goal.

to be continued......

almond72 says:
oh, history and extracts from country & regional reports I made. This version is less detailed. I haven't reached the part about 1963-1966 years yet, wait for it. :P
Posted on: Sep 27, 2009
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