Friday, 12 August 2011

Red City - the Mutinies of Semarang

Semarang in Indonesia is now known locally as the Red City, after it´s Communist links. It was where Dutch immigrants started the local Communist party in 1920, and promptly started fighting with the Socialists. The city has had a troubled history.

The African mutiny, 1840

Local (left) and African soldiers in the KNIL

The Dutch in the 1830s faced a problem. They had a burgeoning empire in the East Indies, but it had to be policed. There were good local soldiers available, for instance the Amboinese, but there had already been one Javanese revolt in 1829 and arming more locals did not seem a good idea. Equally there were few Dutch willing to volunteer, and it was illegal to send Dutch conscripts to the East. The solution was to recruit African soldiers, who it was presumed would cope better with the climate, and have little reason to align themselves with the local population. To further ensure their loyalty, they were promised "European" status in terms of pay and conditions.
The original idea was to recruit Ashanti warriors, who had a superb reputation. Unfortunately, the Ashanti saw little point in volunteering for 15 years service in a distant land when they had a good thing going at home. But they were amenable to selling some of their slaves to the Dutch. These slaves were then technically "freed" (important to prevent interference from Royal Navy anti-slavery patrols on the West African coast) and the fee regarded as an advance on their pay. Over 2,000 were shipped to join the Dutch East Indies Army, the KLIN.

Now, the "European" status might have been seen as a bureaucratic slight of hand in the Hague, but it was taken very seriously by the Africans. On the other hand, to the Dutch officers in Batavia, they were unaccustomed to any European ways let alone military training, and of course hardly any spoke Dutch, or even the same African languages. By 1838 there were reports of disturbances throughout the army, Dutch officers reported that the Africans were "'choleric, quick-tempered and extremely insolent" and recommended only one African company per battalion, although "during military expeditions they demonstrated bravery and fearlessness, even more so than the Europeans. In combat their ardour needed to be tempered, otherwise they ignored the orders of their officers". Importantly, "it was repeatedly emphasised that the Africans looked down on the native population."

In December 1840 the military tribunal in Semarang tried a case of mutiny. This wasn´t the first incidence of trouble, but it was the first to go to court. In the garrison town of Kedong Kebo in central Java the 4th Infantry battalion had mutinied, or rather the 3rd, 4th and 5th African companies did. The cause was not a general sense of "anti-colonialism", but a feeling that they were losing their status as "Europeans" and being treated like "natives". Actually, a justified grievance as their bedding had been removed and their pay down graded. On 16th April the 3rd and 5th companies disobeyed their officers and stormed into the kitchens, from where they returned armed with wooden sticks. With the 4th company they then went for the arsenal "shouting rebellious slogans", but the commander had had prior warning, and filled it with European troops. The mutineers were dispersed and fled into the bush, followed by armed patrols. With little local support they were soon captured, and the ring leaders sentenced to 25 lashes and 2 years in prison, the rest to 14 days in prison. In 1841 there was another revolt on Sumatra that left 2 Africans dead, and in December 1841 recruitment in West Africa was stopped altogether

The use of African soldiers in the KNIL is discussed in more detail in "African mutinies in the Netherlands East Indies" (2003) by Ineke van Kessel, available by open access on the web

The Swiss mutiny, 1860

Lt Romswinckel

By 1860 Semarang was a major commercial centre, with about 30,000 people employed in import and export businesses, and a trade of 30 million guilders per year. The European population was 2nd only to Batavia. Nonetheless the KLIN still had the same manpower problem, and now they turned to the Swiss. The most famous mercenaries in Europe, surely this couldn´t go wrong? In Semarang it did. The "numerous" Swiss garrison revolted and terrified the merchants of the city with the prospect of "murder and looting". Fortunately for them a Dutch officer, Lt Joost Hendrik Romswinckel was on hand. He had already seen service in Boni, where he won the Military Order of William, and he had a reputation for calmness under fire. In one case he had hidden a leg wound from his native troops and only attended to it later in secret. This calmness served him well again, with a "handful" of loyal troops he faced down the mutineers and reestablished order. The city awarded him a jewelled sword in gratitude.

The Japanese mutiny, 1945

Japanese troops in Semarang, 1942

Like the rest of Java, Semarang was occupied by the Japanese in WW2. When they surrendered this left a vacuum which Indonesian nationalists immediately filled, declaring Independence on 17th August 1945. Unfortunately, in effect, this meant a complete breakdown in law and order, with murder and looting rife. Although the 5,000 Dutch in Semarang were worried, the 40,000 Chinese were terrified - they had suffered particularly under the Japanese and now were targeted by the Indonesians.

By this time British and Dutch troops had reestablished control in Batavia, but the Indian troops in Semarang were struggling. They had successfully evacuated many POWs, but power and water had been cut off and thousands of British, Dutch and Eurasians were forced into internment camps. There was another source of troops however. The Japanese battalion in Semerang under Major Kido had been confined to barracks since the surrender, though they had occasionally been used under strict Indian control to maintain order. Now Kido took matters into his own hands. In the early hours of October 15th the Japanese left their barracks, without permission, and moved into the city. They cleared the immediate area and then secured the internment camps. Next day, under heavy machine gun and sniper fire, they stormed the town jail, finding the bodies of 85 murdered Japanese, but rescuing another 50, and over 300 Europeans due to be executed the next day.

More Indian and British troops arrived, especially the 10th Gurkha Rifles and 5th Parachute brigade and the city came back under control. Electricity and water were reestablished, and in 1946 the city was handed back to Dutch troops. Kido's "mutiny" was soon over, but it saved a lot of lives, as Captain D.B. Friend, of the Gurkhas reported - 'There is little doubt that the internees at Semarang owed their lives to Kido and his men, for it was they who prevented the Indonesians from capturing the camps and massacring the inmates before the arrival of British troops'

The most famous mutiny of all

The mutiny

Ok, the Mutiny on the Bounty didn't start in Semarang, but Bligh and his companions did pass through on their way home, on Thursday September 24th 1789. As well as remarking that "the Custom among the dutch is to go to Sleep immediately after Dinner their time of Dining being precisely at Noon", he left this description...

"In the Morning Mr. de Bose did me the favour to show me the environs of this place . Its situation is pleasant, with fine Roads like Bowling Greens, for the Country except far back is level without any rising Grounds and is well Watered. The generality of the Houses are not well calculated for the Country but none of the superior ones particularly this of Mr. de Bose are Airy and built with Taste. The Chinese Town is apart from the Europeans, and so are the industrious people. The Markets are Large and supplied with great abundance of Legumes and Fruit and every article of Food is to be got at a very cheap rate.

But what does great honor to the Europeans here is a publick Hospital under the direction of Mr. Johannes Jacobus Abegg who is first Surgeon. Perhaps a more Airy, or a Situation more desirable for a Sick Man cannot be found, or is it possible for more cleanliness to be observed in any place whatever.

Here's also a public School supported by contributions and some other Helps from such Scholars as are able to pay for their education.The Mathematical Sciences are regularly and well taught and every young person may be properly educated to form a Complete Sea Officer. The Head Master Mr. Stainmitz is possessed of a few necessary Instruments but he wants a little practical knowledge of the use of them and of the manner of making Observations.

The Town is fortified and surrounded by a Wall & Ditch, on the whole perhaps they can mount 80 peices of Cannon. The Troupes are Commanded by a Colonel and their number may amount to 300 effective Europeans. Among those Officers who have honord me with a Visit was a Mr. C. C. Van Arnschild an Hanovarian Officer now in the Company Service whose Father is a General in Hanover".

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