Orientalising the Dutch East Indies, or: Pimp your princes

After the occupation of the Netherlands and their colonies by the French, and a period British occupation of Java, the Dutch were given back their possessions in Indonesia in 1816. Henceforth, the country was called Dutch East Indies (Nederlandsch Indië), which sounded like a declaration of intent rather than a reality. Large parts of the vast archipelago still had to be conquered (the Dutch of course spoke of ‘pacification’). It was not before the beginning of the 20th century that the last islands, Bali and Lombok, were integrated into the Dutch empire.
The Netherlands were a small country, whereas the Indies were enormous. How could that vast territory be governed by a handful of Dutchmen? The solution was to simply leave the indigenous princes and sultans governing their domains, feudally as they had always done, but since 1816 without waging war on each other and in dependence of the Dutch. In this manner, far less soldiers and civil servants from the Netherlands were needed, and it was expected that the native population would bear the foreign domination more easily when it only had to obey its own nobility.
However, most rulers were robbed of their princely status and were henceforth called ‘regent’. Well-known exceptions were two princes in Central-Java: Yogyakarta and Solo, who kept their princely dignity and also retained a considerable court. Next to the princes and the regents there was a modern European administration; beside every regent stood a district commissioner (‘resident‘) or assistant commissioner, who was supposed to be the regent’s ‚older brother‘. The Dutch officials gave well-intended recommendations, which naturally had to be obeyed. Each assistant commissioner had a controller under him, who travelled through the area to check how the regents were governing and how the administration of justice was exercised, and to hear complaints from the population.
How presentable were these (ex-)princes? Now that the princes and regents were incorporated into Dutch authority as Dutch civil servants of sorts, it was considered unacceptable that they neglected their appearance, their behaviour or their palaces, or squandered the money that was meant for the salaries of their staff. It was bad enough that they had feudal ways and were polygamous. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Dutch East Indian government apparently provided money and advisors to boost and embellish this native elite.
In Louis Couperus’ colonial novel The hidden force (1901),1 a ‘regent’ is described as follows:

The  Prince of Labuwangi, Raden Adipati Surio Sunario, was still young, just thirty, with a fine Javanese face like that of a supercilious wayang shadow puppet, and a little moustache with the tips carefully twisted, […]
The sarong that fitted smoothly around his hips hung in front in a bunch of flat, regular pleats that fluttered open; he wore a white starched shirt with diamond studs and a thin blue tie, over it a blue broadcloth uniform jacket with gold buttons bearing the letter W and the crown;2 on his bare feet he wore black patent leather pumps turned up at the front; the kerchief wound carefully round his head in narrow folds gave his delicate face a feminine look, but his black eyes, occasionally tired, kept flashing in an ecstatic trance. His blue and gold belt held the golden kris dagger, fixed at the small of his back; on his small, slim hand shone a gemstone, and a cigarette case of braided gold wire peeped out of his jacket pocket.

This text was written around 1900. It is obvious that the outward appearance of the regent is a mix of a Javanese and Dutch elements. The starched shirt, the tie, the broadcloth(!) uniform jacket with the gold buttons form the Dutch element. The sarong and the kerchief (blangkon) are traditional Javanese; how original the lacquered pumps are I do not know.
Indeed the 19th century had been a period of experimenting with the appearance of the local nobility and its entourage. It had taken some time before the results were satisfactory, and of course there would always be different outfits for different social functions

One of the most prestigious princes was (and still is) the ruler of Surakarta, also known as the Susuhunan of Solo, in Central Java. On a photograph from 1866, made by the then famous photographers Woodbury & Page, we see Prince Pakubuwono IX with his first wife in full Javanese costume. I cannot assess whether any European elements entered the jacket, other than the three decorations. On his head he carries the Javanese kerchief (blangkon); the sarong is also traditional.

Soesoehoenan Soerakarta Pakoe Boewono IX photo Woodbury 1866

Pakubuwono IX in 1866

On two photographs of 1870, the same prince looks different. On one of them he wears European clothing: a normal civilian suit with the traditional Javanese kerchief. On the other one he is dressed in a military uniform of high rank with a kerchief, while a plumed helmet lies ready on  to be put on top of it. Ready to leave for the battlefield? Both outfits are unconvincing. The bourgeois costume does not look good on him; it is just too … bourgeois. The military uniform does not make sense and is rather embarrassing. The prince did not have any military power; his only army consisted of a bunch of fake soldiers for ceremonial parades in and around the palace. These attempts to westernise his appearance can be considered unsuccessful.


Pakubuwono IX -1870 (1)


Pakubuwono IX -1870 (2)

Orientalism mixed with European elements is manifest in a photograph dating from 1897. It shows the son of the previous prince: Pakubuwono X, arm in arm with his ‘elder brother’, district commissioner W. de Vogel.


Pakubuwono X and Commissioner de Vogel

The velvet coat strongly reminds of a European dress suit, including the the decorations. Does the prince wear shorts of the same material underneath, or does the coat end at the knee and is there only a pair of stockings underneath? The shoes look both oriental and European. Also oriental are the two(!) ceremonial kris daggers. The upper part of the sarong fits around his waist, as usual, but it could not hang down in the normal way, for that would have made invisible the rest of the attire. Therefore it was draped in a fanciful but pointless manner.

At first sight the Susuhunan’s headgear seems a bit mysterious.


It looks like a kopiah with a windscreen behind it. It is indeed a product of fancy, but an older one, since an ancestor of his already wore such a thing around 1835. It must have been some military headgear; see at the end of this article

Between 1870 and 1897, the government apparently decided to boost the principalities, insofar they were still in existence, and to give the palaces and the princes themselves a more attractive appearance.

Who dressed the prince up like that? I suspect someone like the designer of the French Opera in Batavia, commissioned by the Dutch East Indies government. Perhaps the Colonial Exhibition of 1883 in Amsterdam encouraged the authorities to thoroughly occupy themselves with the outward appearance of the Indies. After all, the country should be no less decorative than the British or French colonies.

But not only the princes were pimped, their ‘armies’ were too. Since the end of the Java War in 1830 the princes had only fake soldiers, who were not supposed to participate in any war; they only played a part in parades in and around the palace complex. The next photograph shows a bunch of soldiers in Yogyakarta in 1888, their heads covered with a jumble of Dutch helmets, top hats and various other hats. The picture is touching: it shows the loss of the Javanese military power to the full. Apparently, the government had not found the time yet to embellish this sorry lot.


Soldiers, Yogyakarta 1888

In 1930 and 1931 they looked better. (Pseudo-)military uniforms became more and more attractive and oriental, as these pictures from Yogyakarta show:


Yogyakarta 1930


Yogyakarta, 1931

A recent photograph from Solo shows that uniforms are still developing. Interestingly enough, it also shows the military origin of Pakubuwono’s headgear.


‘Soldiers’ of Solo (Surakarta)

Because of the copyright laws I do not feel free to publish the beautiful and revealing photographs from Yogyakarta by Pitoyo Susanto, but I do recommend to click on this and this link! These pictures show how the uniforms became more picturesque and more oriental, even after the colonial period. According to Susanto, the headgear evolved from Napoleonic military headgear; indeed it reminds of a bicorne.

1. Louis Couperus, The Hidden Force, translated by Paul Vincent, New York 2012
2. W for Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands (r. 1898–1948).

Further reading:
The OrientOrientalism and Oriental Studies: the concepts.
The sword of Islam.
Dutch colonial rulers imitating Javanese princes.
Dreaming of the OrientOrientalist painting.