The Dutch invasion of Bali in 1906, which ultimately served to preserve their culture

It is often said that, despite the official chronology, in practice the 20th century did not begin in 1901 but with the First World War. That is something that we can see reflected in a good number of historical episodes, especially those that occurred in nineteenth-century colonial contexts. And although the attention is usually focused on the British and German empires, with the rest of the European powers behind in embarrassing moments, there are other countries that also have their own ghosts. This is the case of the Netherlands and its intervention in Bali in 1906.

Bali is an island of the Malay archipelago that today constitutes an insular province of Indonesia, well known for being an important tourist destination. For the West, it entered history in 1585, when a Portuguese ship was shipwrecked on its shores. But, above all, it was in 1597, when the navigator Cornelis Houtman claimed possession of that land on behalf of the Netherlands and established a colony. Like the British, the Dutch founded in 1602 the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United East India Company), which received a monopoly on the exploitation of Asia for twenty-one years.

The company grew rich trading slaves for opium, while Bali bled to death in succession civil wars that ended up dividing the country into several kingdoms. However, it went bankrupt in 1799 and that, together with the colonialist trend of the 19th century, led the Netherlands to take direct control of the island between 1846 and 1849, using a paradoxical pretext to end the slave and opium trade. The Balinese did not give in and staged two insurrections in 1858 and 1868, both heavily suppressed, which led to the incorporation of the northern kingdoms of Buleleng, Jembrana and Karangasem into the Dutch East Indies.

Map of Bali and its main enclaves/Image: Flominator on Wikimedia Commons

In 1894, taking advantage of a new succession problem, the Dutch resumed an expansionist policy that led them to seize the neighboring island of Lombok and set as a new objective to take over the southern Balinese region, where the kingdoms of Badung, Klungkung and Tabanan were, the last They maintained a certain independence. Just needed to find a beautiful case and this appeared in the new century, with a clash of cultures -the Christianization of the indigenous had failed- that worsened, once again, a problem of succession.

Everything broke loose in 1904, with the arrival of the new governor of the East Indies. His name was Joannes Benedictus van Heutsz and he was a lieutenant general in the army, with experience in Aceh (Sumatra) and Surabaya (Java), where he had applied his vision of solving problems military manual, with fast and forceful actions that responded to its motto «Vigilance and agility». The result of this was the pacification of those places at the cost of indiscriminate killings of thousands of civilians, which became a good resume for what was expected of him in the new position.

The first thing that was found was the anomalous status of Bali, which until then allowed a certain political autonomy and permissiveness in the traditions of the domains of the various rajas, as had been agreed in the Kuta Treaty of 1849. It also discovered the internal quarrels between local rulers, which led the principality of Gianyar to request Dutch protection against the aggressiveness of other principalities such as Klungkung, Badung, Bangli and Tabanan. It was then that, we said, the spark was produced that served as an excuse for direct intervention.

Among those Balinese traditions that until then had been necessary to respect was a peculiar one, the tawan karang su: the right of the locals to keep the merchandise of the ships that were shipwrecked on their coasts, considering that it was a gift from Batara Baruna, their marine divinity. In reality, the conditions stipulated in the aforementioned Peace of Kuta proscribed this custom, but in practice there was no choice but to tolerate them reluctantly because, after all, most of the accident ships were modest and the thing did not happen to older

Then it happened that, in the spring of that same year, the Chinese junk Sri Kumala, which sailed under the Dutch flag, was stranded in Sanur (Badung), being looted by the local inhabitants. Neither the complaints of the owner nor the orders of the authorities served for nothing. The colonial government demanded an indemnity of 7,500 guilders from the triumvirate on the throne for their inability to enforce the law, under penalty of subjecting Badung to a naval blockade, the cost of which would also be borne by that principality. The leaders categorically rejected the ultimatum, referring it to the Raad Kerta, the ordinary court of Badung, because they considered it a simple robbery, committing themselves to respect the sentence.

Thus began the blockade, which lasted throughout 1905 but with uneven luck. At first it was effective; however, over time, the Badung merchants managed to open an alternative route through Buleleng. On top of that, Tabanan seconded the proud position of its neighbors by providing supplies from its rich agriculture, because it had also earned colonial hostility by authorizing the satisfied. This was an ancient Hindu ritual practice by which widows voluntarily immolated themselves on the funeral pyre during the cremation of their deceased husbands.

The Dutch considered them plenty of arguments to undertake what they really wanted: a military campaign. It began in June 1906, with an army of two and a half thousand men under the command of Commander Marinus Bernardus Rost van Tonningen, while the navy, with all available ships, also blocked Tabanan and prevented its fishermen from fishing. Everything was reflected in documents by the respective interests of each contender: one, to justify his actions; another, to show that he was being abused.

In September colonial troops landed at Sanur and advanced on Kesiman, where one of the three Rajahs resided. Along the way they encountered stubborn resistance, but at last they entered the city to find it deserted, with the palace empty and the ruler dead at the hands of a priest. The march resumed towards Denpasar, the main city of Badung, located only four kilometers away, where the column reached without any problem because the ships had previously paved the way by bombarding the palace complex. But what awaited him there was going to be much more impressive than a battle.

The palace was on fire and a massive procession that included men, women and children of all ages, led by the rajah carried in a palanquin, went out to meet the expeditionaries. They all dressed in their best clothes, bejeweled and with peculiar clothes of immaculate white, a tone used in funeral rites of cremation. The procession stopped a hundred yards away, the Raja descended, and at his signal a priest killed him by stabbing him in the chest with a kriss (Typical Indonesian dagger with wavy edged blade). To the horror of the soldiers, the rest of the people followed suit, killing each other: first the nobles and then the common people.

Landing of Dutch troops in Sanur/Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

This unusual scene was a demonstration of the puputan jagaragatraditional collective suicide that constituted the honorable alternative to surrender, similarly to the sepukku Japanese, which the Balinese had already put into practice in 1849. This time, one version goes, as the women threw their jewelry and coins at the soldiers in contempt, a wave of suicide fighters poured out of the palace, spears in hand, charging to the column, which defended itself by firing its cannons and rifles. Another version says that it was the Dutch who opened fire first, causing a massacre and driving the survivors to the ground. puputan.

In any case, the number of fatalities was around a thousand or a thousand and a half, if those produced that same afternoon are added in front of the palace of another of the princes, that of Pamecutan. The colonial authorities lowered the death toll to four hundred, three hundred in the morning and one hundred in the second episode, for only four deaths and some of their own injuries, although a subsequent investigation established the number calculated earlier. Of course, the troops did not deprive themselves of stripping the corpses of their riches, nor of setting fire to the palaces.

Corpses after the second puputan from Denpasar. In the foreground you can see the palanquin of the rajah / Image: public domain in Wikimedia Commons

The campaign was not yet over, for there was still a third Raja, Gusti Ngurah Agung, who had fled to Tabanan. Rost van Tonningen appeared there, demanding that he not allow the two elderly widows of the recently deceased local prince to blow themselves up. But not even the dissuasive arrival of two warships was enough to prevent it; They were the last women to die in Bali from the satisfied, at least officially. Then, Gusti Ngurah Agung agreed to parliament, requesting to abide by the Dutch authority in exchange for being appointed regent. The proposal was rejected and he was only offered an exile in Lombok or Madura, so, two days later and already captive, the rajah took his own life along with his son.

The last phase of the military intervention was against Klungkung, but Dewa Agung Jambe II, its ruler, did not resist and since he had some authority over all of Bali, it was considered preferable to keep him in his position in exchange for a series of cessions that included the delivery of the weapons, destruction of fortifications and trade concessions. that ambiguous status quo it would not take long to blow up: just two years later, Klungkung would become the target of a new intervention, the result of a rebellion caused by the Dutch attempt to impose a monopoly on the opium trade.

Faced with another punitive force that fired on them, Dewa Agung Jambe, his six wives and two hundred faithful, killed themselves with the puputan, turning his kingdom into a protectorate, similar to what had happened with the others. Those expeditions and the resulting massacres had quite an echo, unleashing an international scandal that led the colonial authorities to change their attitude; ironically, it would ultimately serve to protect Bali’s traditional culture and make it a cherished travel destination. By the way, the Chinese owner of the junk collected compensation from him.

It should be added, as significant complementary data, that the son of Governor Van Heutsz would be a convinced Nazi who reached the rank of lieutenant colonel in the Waffen SS, while the younger scion of Rost van Tonningen would lead the NSB (Nationaal-Socialistische Beweging, the National Socialist Party of the Netherlands).


The spell of power. A history of Balinese politics 1650 – 1949 (Henk Schulte Nordholt)/History of the opium problem. The assault on the East, ca. 1600 – 1950 (Hans Derks)/Bali chronicles. Fascinating people and events in Balinese history (Willard A. Hanna)/Wikipedia

Back to top button