At 4 a.m. on June 20, 1812, a column of red-coated British and Indian soldiers came trotting out of the old Dutch fort in Yogyakarta. They jogged swiftly across the grassy sweep of the Alun-Alun, heading for the northeast corner of the Kraton, the great fortified royal city of Central Java.
As the first light began to seep across the rice fields, they surged up bamboo ladders onto the ramparts and overwhelmed the bleary-eyed Javanese defenders.
By mid-morning, the Kraton had fallen, hundreds of its inhabitants had been killed, the Sultan and his heir had been taken prisoner and an orgy of looting had erupted.
The fall of Yogyakarta was one of the most dramatic and significant events of 19th century Indonesian history, but two centuries later it has been largely forgotten.
Britain had seized Java and the other outposts of the nascent Dutch empire the previous year after Holland itself was annexed by Napoleon. A young clerk named Thomas Stamford Raffles, later to find fame in Singapore, was left in charge.
Raffles had brought with him a new set of European ideals. The preceding two centuries — in both the Dutch East Indies and British India — had often been typified by uneasy compromise between the European newcomers and the local rulers, with both sides quietly convinced it was they who were really calling the shots. But Raffles was determined to exert outright dominance over Java, and especially over Yogyakarta, which, under Sultan Hamengkubuwono II, was the island’s most significant indigenous power.
In April 1812, the British uncovered a correspondence between the royal courts of Java in which the ruler of Surakarta had attempted to incite the Yogyakarta Sultan to rise against the foreigners. But instead of punishing the Surakarta instigators, Raffles decided to use it as a pretext for an attack on Yogyakarta to “impress upon them the character and power of our government.”
The British invasion of Yogyakarta was an exercise of huge bravado. Most of the colonial troops were tied up in South Sumatra at the time, and Raffles had just 1,200 men at his disposal, a mix of British redcoats and Indian sepoys. The Sultan, meanwhile, had an army 11,000 strong.
As one British soldier noted, “To assault a place of such magnitude with so small a force, and the knowledge that we had to contend with a vast superiority of numbers, could not fail to give a very serious and appalling aspect to our enterprise.”
Hostilities began as soon as the British advance reached the old Dutch fort on the outskirts of Yogyakarta on June 17, and for three days observers were treated to “the singular spectacle of two contiguous forts, belonging to nations situated at opposite extremes of the globe, bombarding each other.”
And then, during the early hours of June 20, the British ceased fire to lull the defenders into a false sense of security. But just before dawn, they launched their attack under the command of Rollo Gillespie, a short-statured, short-tempered Irish aristocrat with an improbable list of conquests on the battlefield and in the bedroom to his name. Raffles was left behind to watch from the Dutch fort.
Inside the Kraton things had already begun to fall apart before the first redcoats even reached the walls. For 200 years the Javanese had been dealing with the Dutch, and though the relationship had often been marked by bickering and brinkmanship, confrontations had always ended with the signing of a treaty, rather than with flying bullets. The Sultan and his subjects were so taken aback by the violent turn of events that the defense collapsed as soon as the British troops began to surge into the city.
The crown prince, heir to the throne, ended up on the run in the alleyways of the walled city. Accompanied by a clutch of loyal relatives, he had to clamber over dead horses and fallen tamarind trees, dodge bullets and sidestep rampaging sepoys. For a scion of a court built on rigid protocol, it was a shocking experience. It was also a shocking experience for the crown prince’s 26-year-old son, a fiery young man named Diponegoro. He would remember this early trauma at the hands of Europeans in the years to come.
By 9 a.m. the British had made a full circuit of the walls while Gillespie and a cabal of cavalrymen galloped around, driving back anyone who tried to flee. The Crown Prince was found cowering in the locked doorway of the Taman Sari, the Water Palace, and was arrested. Meanwhile, a few hard-core defenders took refuge in the royal mosque, just outside the Kraton walls. They managed to hold off the attackers for a while, and one of the Javanese sharpshooters even managed to score a direct hit, leaving Gillespie with a bullet wound in his arm.
But before long, a welter of cannonballs silenced the last resistance. British troops burst into the sacred Inner Kraton, opened fire on the remaining defenders and closed in on the Sultan, who was still ensconced on the Bangsal Kencono, the Golden Pavilion at the heart of the palace. He was arrested, marched on foot across the Alun-Alun to the Dutch fort and locked in a back room.
It had taken an outnumbered British advance just three hours to overturn centuries of refined royal protocol with the loss of just 23 soldiers; unknown hundreds of Javanese died.
Meanwhile, the Kraton itself had erupted in an orgy of looting as British and Indian soldiers went on the rampage, plundering royal treasuries, dredging ditches and ripping up floors in their search for valuables. Gillespie and the other top brass had staff loot on their behalf — the commander’s personal haul of gold, jewels and cash was valued at 15,000 pounds (around $750,000 in today’s terms). Raffles and the British Resident at Yogyakarta, John Crawfurd, seized the entire contents of the court archive, taking away a mass of manuscripts which are today largely locked in British museums.
The next day the British placed the bruised crown prince on the battered throne as Sultan Hamengkubuwono III. Instead of the usual carefully calibrated ritual on the Siti Inggil pavilion, the coronation was a hastily contrived affair in the old Dutch Residency. Raffles was seated beside the Sultan, and when the courtiers rose to greet their new king, Crawfurd physically forced them onto the ground to kiss Raffles’ knees. It was the first time Javanese aristocrats had ever had to pay such homage to a European.
A treaty was hastily penned, which declared that the new Sultan would acknowledge “the supremacy of the British Government over the whole Island of Java.” The old Sultan was shipped off to exile in Penang, and one of his younger brothers, a prince named Notokusumo, who had gone over to the British ahead of the invasion in the hope of being appointed a puppet ruler, was granted hereditary title to 3,000 households, a little kingdom within a kingdom, under the new royal moniker Paku Alam. On June 23, Raffles headed back for the colonial quarters of the coast.
“The blow which has been struck at Djocjo Carta has afforded so decisive a proof to the Native Inhabitants of Java of the strength and determination of the British Government, that they now for the first time know their relative situation and importance,” he wrote. “The European power is now for the first time paramount in Java.”
Today, there is little popular recollection in Indonesia of the traumatic events of June 20, 1812. Even in Yogyakarta itself, the only story told about the British invasion — that they renamed the city’s main street, Jalan Malioboro, after the Duke of Marlborough — seems to be untrue. There is no record of such a rebranding in the British accounts, and the name is probably an older corruption of malybhara , a Sanskrit word meaning “adorned with flowers.”
But you can still explore the remnants of the ramparts which the British stormed, the Dutch fort that they occupied and the royal mosque, the Masjid Agung, where the defenders made their last stand. The ninth Paku Alam is still the head of the royal house the British founded and is the hereditary vice-governor of the Special District of Yogyakarta.
The wider significance of the conquest of Yogyakarta was that it really did mark — if only in theory — the point at which European power became “for the first time paramount in Java.” Diponegoro, the young royal who had been beside his father the crown prince during that humiliating flight through the Kraton, would eventually launch a violent five-year last-stand against outright subjugation in the form of the Java War of the 1820s.
However, there would be no more room for the old power-sharing and compromise of the 18th century. When Britain handed Java back to the Dutch in 1816, the scene had been set for an unrivaled European empire in Indonesia that would last for 130 years.