This article was written in Indonesian by Risa Herdahita Putri. It was translated into English by Zuraidah Ehsan.
Three hours before dawn on Saturday, 20 June 1812, silence gripped the Keraton (Royal Palace) of Yogyakarta. The cannons at the Vredeburg Fort had stopped spewing fire. This was not a good situation, because an hour later, two hours before dawn, an attack order was issued to British column commanders.
The arrival of the British in 1812 placed Thomas Stamford Raffles as the Governor General, which had great influence on the position of Sultan Hamengkubuwono II (Sultan Sepuh). He intended to restore the rights of the Javanese king, which had been previously denied when Daendels was in power. However, Raffles was apparently not much different from Daendels.
The request of Sultan Hamengkubuwono II to replace Mas Surojo (Sultan Hamengkubuwono III) with Mangkudiningrat as Crown Prince was also rejected. The British preferred Raden Mas Surojo to ascend the throne, as he was seen as more cordial and compliant compared to his father. The British did not want to risk the possibilities of future conflicts which would inconvenience them. It became the impetus for the British attack on Keraton Ngayogyakarta Hadiningrat.
The attackers came from the Vredeburg Fort. The British formed three troops that were mobilised to raid the Keraton. First, the 3rd Bengali Volunteers Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel James Dewar and the corps of Prince Prangwedono, Mangkunegaran Legion. They marched round the fort towards the south entrance. Their target was said to be the enemy outside the gate, Gerbang Nirboyo (Plengkung Gading).
Second, the British formed a shadow attack from the north.This attack was launched by the 4th Bengali Battalion Volunteers, under Major Peter Grant. They came right in front of Pagelaran, the entrance to keraton.
Third, the unit lead by Lieutenant Colonel James Watson was ordered to launch the main attack. In silence they moved around the northeastern part of the fortress. Dawn had not yet broken, so darkness veiled the movement of this troop. When they reached the correct point of the east wall, they climbed up the ladder that was provided by the Kapitan Cina (leader of the Chinese community), Tan Jin Sing.
It took only three hours to raze the keraton and subsequently, the British successfully stripped the ruling Sultan Hamengkubowono II of his position. Historian Peter Carey described the British attack as unexpected. Their arrival to ransack the keraton was undetected, as it happened before the crack of dawn. This was in spite of several small attacks that came from the direction of Vredeburg Fort.
The presence of the Sepoy soldiers terrified the Javanese, according to Carey. “Raffles said that they needed only two British regiments and five Sepoy Battalion, who were as tall as any European soldier, to instill fear among the Javanese,” said Carey in History Tour, “Trail of the British in Java, 1811-1812,” in Yogyakarta, Wednesday (30/8).
The Kadipaten area suffered most of the onslaughts. The attacks forced the occupants, including the Crown Prince, who was later appointed Sultan Hamengkubuwono III, and his son, Prince Diponegoro, to escape into Fort Baluwerti, in the direction of Taman Sari Water Castle through Jalan Ngasem.
“When the entourage from Kadipaten was making its way to Taman Sari, many of the gates were blocked by horses’ carcasses,” said Carey.
Not just the carcasses, but the dead bodies of victims of the attacks also lay piling up in the fortress, at every corner of the gate, and especially at the main gate facing the northern square. The British lost 23 lives, while 78 were injured during the attack which took place from 0500 to 0800 that morning.
That was nothing compared to the Javanese. A thousand British-Sepoy troops involved in the operation could be said to be enough to suppress the Javanese forces. “For Java, thousands perished,” noted Carey.
Sultan Sepuh was arrested. As if that was not enough, the troop looted the keraton on a large scale. It took four long days to cart away chests filled with treasures from the keraton. The value exceeded USD120 million in today’s monetary terms.
The spoils were brought to the governor’s residence. The precious objects, such as manuscripts, were then brought to Rustenburg Residency. The booty was distributed between officers and the British-Indian troops.
“In the residency, [booty] was sorted and distributed,” said Carey.
The victory was not ignored by Raffles. He wrote a letter to Lord Minto on 25th June 1812 from Semarang. He said that it was the first time that an European power had succeeded in Java.
“Until this moment, we have never been able to call ourselves rulers of the most precious hinterland provinces, what more when our coastal possessions are uncertain,” said Carey, quoting Raffles’ letter.
After the subjugation of the Keraton of Yogyakarta, Sultan Hamengkubowono II was exiled to Penang Island [Penang, Malaysia] (1812-1815). His eldest son, was later appointed Sultan Hamengkubowono III (Sultan Raja), and reigned for just two years after the appointment.
“The appointment took place five days later. At that time the fire in the keraton was still not completely extinguished,” said Carey, standing in front of Vredebrug Fortress.
According to Carey, the incident laid the foundation of a new world. Yogyakarta, Banten, Bone, and others lost their power as indigenous sovereigns. Starting then, local officials had to accept the appointed resident as the representative from Batavia. They were prohibited from making agreements with the outside world without going through the central government.
“I no longer need to dismount from the horse if I want to pass by the keraton,” Carey joked, alluding to the British conquest of Yogyakarta.
This translation won the JALA Indonesian Translation Competition.
Risa Herdahita Putri is a journalist and graduate of Gajah Mada University. A resident of Jakarta, she also writes a blog.
Zuraidah Ehsan is a freelance Malay-English translator who has worked in the heritage industry for 18 years. She is currently also working as a freelance researcher on an intangible cultural heritage project, as well on her family history, with the hope of someday publishing both.