By Mikko Toivanen, University of Edinburgh
How can historians relate urban spaces to the lives of city dwellers? Does it matter if the city is located in a colonial setting? Brenda Yeoh has argued that an excessive focus on abstract plans and specific structures has often led urban historians to view the colonial city as simply “a creation of its colonial masters” and disregard the cityscape as lived in and experienced by the varied communities of those cities. Recently, notable works have sought to provide more nuanced representations of the variety of urban life in colonial settings by focusing on phenomena like emotions or cosmopolitan communities. In this blog post, I wish to suggest an approach to colonial urban history that interrogates the meanings that people gave to the urban spaces they lived in, and one that zooms in on the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized through a careful analysis of public events and celebrations. Such events, though often directed from above, were only possible with the participation of different communities, and always open to contestation. A case study drawn from my current research on nineteenth-century Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, serves to highlight these issues.
Official ceremonies taking place in public provide a fruitful starting point for the kind of analysis that I propose. These were well-documented and carefully choreographed moments that were deliberately designed to make the most use of the space and time of the city. My work looks at a number of such events in nineteenth-century Southeast Asia, but here I will briefly discuss the arrival of the newly appointed governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, Johannes van den Bosch (1780-1844), in the colonial capital Batavia (now Jakarta) on the island of Java, in 1830. The detailed program for his landing and subsequent ceremonial transfer in procession through the city, consisting of thirty-seven articles, was published more than four months in advance and ran to three pages of the government gazette. The content of those articles says a lot about how the imperial vision of Batavia as a colonial capital was embodied in the general layout and in specific locations of the city, and about what kinds of participation and engagement that vision invited from the different communities of the city.
The ceremonial route re-enacted the nineteenth-century relocation of Batavia’s administrative center away from the old city close to the harbor in the north and toward the interior in the south. Architecturally, it represented a journey from the city’s past to its present, with the route starting off from around the torn-down old castle, made redundant by the growth of the city and development of military technologies, and ending up at the Waterloo palace, a jewel of the Weltevreden area that had only been completed a little while earlier in 1828. Weltevreden comprised the leafy and spacious residential and administrative areas to the south of the city, clustered around the twin squares of Waterlooplein and Koningsplein. Its name (literally “well-satisfied”) was a nod to European ideas of upper-class leisure along the lines of habitual villa names like Sans-souci or Mon repos. The Waterlooplein itself symbolized with its name and its lion monument the colonizers’ European roots, specifically the defeat of Napoleon a decade and a half ago. The route of the procession therefore also sketched a metaphorical journey from Asia to Europe, symbolizing the Dutch empire’s global reach, starting from the old city area where indigenous and other Asian communities lived, and ending at the expansive European-style suburbs (Koningsplein was habitually compared to the Champ de Mars in Paris) south of the city.
What is more, this separation of Asian and European, and of individual communities within those groups, was visually re-enacted in the ceremony. The route of the procession was flanked by soldiers and militiamen, sketching out a kind of urban racial hierarchy in distinctly spatial terms and quite literally putting everyone in their place. The arrangement is described in the program in reverse order, beginning from the end point of the procession on Waterlooplein. Here, the European battalion of the Bataviasche schutterij, a non-professional militia composed of the white residents of the city, gathered in front of the palace to wait for the governor-general. Their privileged ceremonial position reflected the concerns of the colonizer at the time, the unit having been constituted at the onset of the Java War in 1825.
From the square, the European soldiers of the Batavia barracks lined the route through the most desirable residential areas of the south. Next, flanking the road to the suburbs alongside the long Molenvliet canal were the professional indigenous soldiers of the regular army. They were in turn followed by the Chinese community organized under its own “captains”, perhaps not co-incidentally arranged along the Molenvliet not far from the Chinese settlement between the city proper and the European residences. Arriving in the city, the honorary guard was taken up by the city militia’s second battalion, composed of “Papangers” (Mardijkers, descendants of Christian slaves) and “Moors” (Muslims of Indian descent). Finally, the first stage of the route, from the harbor-side where van den Bosch was to disembark and through the site of the old castle, was manned by a desultorily described group of “all further armed yet not uniformly clothed natives.” This marks a reversal of spatial hierarchy from the equivalent procession in 1793, where the European guard of honor was placed at the start of the route at the landing place instead of at the end, reflecting the city’s different center of gravity at the time.
The racial-hierarchical division of the city was represented spatially through the route but also visually through participants’ clothing. In addition to the soldiers’ regular uniforms, the program called for European militiamen to appear in full dress (in groote tenue) and the Chinese captains in their best “Chinese ceremonial dress” (Chinesche groot tooisel), while the irregular indigenous troops were specifically singled out for their lack of uniform dress. Moreover, visual prompts were employed to represent not only the internal diversity of the city but also the global reach and power of the Dutch empire: all the foreign ships in the harbor were required to fly their national flags and standards during the governor-general’s landing. The display served to emphasize the role of the sea as a significant backdrop of the city and more generally as a connective medium between the colony and the wider world. The connection between global trade and Dutch power was symbolically reinforced by Van den Bosch’s procession from the harbor to his palace. This visual display of globe-spanning diversity was however ordered to the rhythms of a strictly European soundscape as the ceremony was entirely dominated by Dutch military and civic music, with repeated renditions of the national anthem alongside marching tunes and the usual 21-shot cannon salutes.
Van den Bosch’s procession was a development of a longstanding tradition, in which the conception of the public and its role in the city was subject to change. Earlier, in the seventeenth century, the handover of power had had a radically different character, taking place out in the open and requiring a ceremonial show of approval from the gathered audience; by contrast, Van den Bosch received his duties in the exclusive closed space of a palace, witnessed only by a handful of pre-selected individuals. That change reflected both the increasing formality of colonial ceremony and the construction of new, more ostentatious administrative architecture in the nineteenth century, changes that conspired to increase the distance between the city’s public and its administrative elites. By Jan-Jacob Rochussen’s arrival in 1845, the festivities had again transformed. Participation was now invited not in the official handover but in a wide-ranging accompanying social program organized by and for the colonial elites: a performance of a Donizetti opera by an amateur theatrical society (in a theater completed in 1821); an ostentatious ball at the Harmonie social club (opened in 1815); and celebratory races at the Batavia racing club (founded in 1825). All of these activities took place in the new buildings clustered in and around the vast Koningsplein square, ceremonially reinforcing the primacy of that area and the European-coded middle-class leisure that it embodied. Yet the festivities still offered only limited roles to the non-elite and Asian inhabitants of the city.
A look at Van den Bosch’s procession highlights the variety of meanings packed into the colonial cityscape, imbuing urban spaces with ideas and imageries associated with Asia and Europe, past and present, local and global. The ceremony also demonstrates the ways in which the racial hierarchies of colonial society were made concrete and spatialized in the layout of the city-as-microcosm. Most importantly, however, the program draws attention to the contradictions of an imperial urbanity that required participation from below to maintain its authority but simultaneously did not trust the loyalty of its subjects. The visible contribution of diverse communities in the procession was achieved by a regimented military hierarchy where each community had its captains, responsible for ensuring the presence of their men on the day. To underline the hollowness of that participation, the program had little room for public engagement – no speeches were given in the open – or civilian participation, with the exception of the very highest elites with access to the literal corridors of power. The procession itself went right past the many non-European neighborhoods of the city.
A few decades later, in 1869, the 250th anniversary celebrations of Batavia made a greater, if also clumsier, effort to include a variety of communities. However, previously discouraged civic engagement could hardly be stepped up overnight. Singapore’s Straits Times reported at the time – no doubt with some schadenfreude – that “the natives showed little interest” in the unveiling of a statue for the city’s famously brutal founder, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, while the festivities as a whole were disrupted by widespread “alarming and disagreeable rumours” of rebellion. Through passive non-participation and active opposition, the people of Batavia found ways to reject an overt celebration of imperial urbanity. Public ceremonies, even if directed from the top down, could therefore also turn into moments of contestation, and possibly of renegotiation, of urban life.
Mikko Toivanen defended his PhD in history at the European University Institute in October 2019 and is currently a visiting researcher at the University of Edinburgh. His new research project examines the ceremonial uses of urban space in nineteenth-century Batavia and Singapore.