Surprises of Travel through Java in the Nineteenth Century

Dr Judith E. Bosnak, Researcher of Indonesian Languages and Cultures, Leiden University, shares with us some insights into her work on Purwalelana and his Javanese travels for the recent Hakluyt Society edition:

Judith E. Bosnak and Frans X Koot (2020), The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana. A Nobleman’s Account of his Journeys Across the Island of Java (1860-1875)


When traveller Candranegara, alias Purwalelana, woke up he was startled. The guardhouse where he had just spent the night had been completely covered with a fine silken cloth and, moreover, a lavish breakfast awaited him – comprising coffee, sticky rice balls, eggs and sliced seasoned deer meat. As it turned out the village head had organized this special treat when he learned – late at night – that a nobleman had arrived near to his village, seeking refuge in a simple hut. So, replete with food and drink the traveller continued his journey through Java, at that time part of the Dutch East Indies in the Malay Archipelago.

The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana (henceforth The Travels) is a remarkable travelogue in many respects. At the time of publication in 1865/67 readers must have been surprised and maybe even confused about its literary format and content. They were used to stories from the past, composed in poetry, about courageous heroes and their adventures in battle. This book, however, provided a contemporary setting with a not-particularly-heroic traveller who presented himself in the first person. It recounted his travel experiences in prose. Was this to be considered literature? Moreover, this was one of the first books printed in Javanese script in a society where hand-written manuscripts were the norm. For several critical readers it would take a while to embrace this innovative type of book, but in others it immediately aroused a sense of longing for more. As a result, The Travels represents the birth of a new Javanese genre: the travelogue.

Who was this writer who inspired other fellow Javanese to hit the road and recount their adventures? His pseudonym ‘Purwalelana’, which could be interpreted either as ‘wanderer of the past’ or ‘first traveller’, hints at the importance of undertaking a journey and reporting about this endeavour. He certainly took a risk with his pioneering approach, describing it as follows in his introduction: ‘For a long time I have been looking for ideas that would lend themselves to be made into a book for the enjoyment of a large audience. This effort has, however, produced no results. But because of my strong determination to achieve my goal I finally decided to search for material by travelling in Java, and visiting places with stories to tell.’ He adds, with what may sound like a disclaimer, followed by a profound wish to reach out to his audience: ‘I do not, by any means, write to flaunt my abilities, but only to disseminate stories of our time, with the intent that many will find pleasure in writing, and that our literature will prosper, to the joy of connoisseurs.’

Behind the veil of pen-name Purwalelana we find the Javanese nobleman Candranegara V, Regent of Kudus (1837-1885), a town situated on the northeast coast of Java. He became known for his encouragement of education and he established a school in Kudus. A picture taken around the time The Travels was published shows the Regent in traditional Javanese attire with his left hand resting on a book, positioned on a flower-adorned cloth.

Figure 1: Regent of Kudus, Candranegara V, Woodbury & Page, c. 1865, Rijksmuseum.

The image below ended up in a commercial album published by the renowned British photographers Woodbury & Page who owned several studios on Java between the 1860s and 1880s. It resembles a carte de visite image that features the nobleman with a book – this time in a standing position.

Figure 2: Carte-de-visite of Candranegara V, Woodbury & Page, 1867, Leiden University Libraries, KITLV.

Candranegara, who became a member of several Dutch learned societies after The Travels saw the light of day, must have used this elegant business card to connect with his (overseas) networks. He was one of the first Javanese noblemen to take part in the world-wide craze for cartes de visite that started in France in the 1850s. This ‘cosmopolitan’ stand went hand in hand with the writer’s ‘inward’ eye for the beauty of his native land.

Landscape is at the core of the lyric poetry that – unexpectedly – brightens the prose of the travelogue. Purwalelana, apparently, had to switch from his (innovative) prose into (age-old) poetry in order to do justice to the splendour of nature. He explains: ‘The sights in the mountainous area where I am walking are exceptionally delightful. I can only poorly describe this magnificence, unless I express myself in poetry’. So the writer returns to those age-old Javanese literary traditions in which poets – through the aesthetic experience of composing their verses – strove to be united with the ‘Deity of Beauty’. Meanwhile they expressed their knowledge of flora and fauna. Birds are flown in by Purwalelana as follows: 

The sparrow, the turtledove,
The sooty-headed bulbul, the white-headed munia, the pipit, 
A reedbird boastfully inviting me to join them,
A cuckoo ticking against an earthen pitcher,
All these birds along the route
Epitomise a traveller’s delight.

Delights of travel were not only found in nature, but equally in crowded cities. Purwalelana observed the liveliness of big markets, met people from different ethnic backgrounds and commented upon the architectonic layout of government buildings. He was fascinated by the vehicle called a ‘tramway’ in Batavia, which he described as a ‘big coach on small iron wheels, running in iron grooves. It works and operates like a steam train. It is, however, drawn by a team of three horses.’ 

Figure 3: The horse-drawn ‘tramway’ in Batavia, J.C. Rappard, 1888-1890.

The illumination of Batavia’s streets also attracted the traveller’s attention and he explained the technical and financial logistics behind it: 

From the tubes which have been dug in along the roads, the gas is distributed to peoples’ homes through little tubes that enter the houses and lead to the lamps. But first it has to pass a small iron box containing a device that measures the consumption. The key to this iron case is in the hands of the Dutch owners of the gasworks. Once a month the Dutch come and open the container in order to register the quantity of gas consumed by each house. Once they have established how much this usage is, they ask the owner of the house to pay in accordance with the quantity of gas registered by the meter. 

Apart from reporting on the gasworks Purwalelana made sure that he updated his readers with several other technological developments that enriched Java: he described steam engines at work in sugar factories and explained the purpose of dams, barrages and locks built across rivers. He carefully deployed similes to make his audience acquainted with new phenomena: ‘Next we visit the dock, a floating structure that resembles in fact the wooden chest for storing wayang puppets, but without a cover. It floats near the shore, not far from the arsenal’.

Figure 4: The dry-dock in Surabaya harbour, W.J. Olland, c. 1870, Leiden University Libraries, KITLV.

The Travels presents the rare perspective of a Javanese nobleman living in colonial times. Candranegara did not shy away from commenting upon developments – positive and negative – that affected his homeland, but his critique of the colonial power was mild. After all, Candranegara had a key position as regent in the colonial government and he operated within the constraints of the political system. Moreover, the principal aim of The Travels was to sing the praises of Java and to invite his fellow Javanese to discover the marvels of their native land.


Judith E. Bosnak holds a PhD in Indonesian Literary Studies and Linguistics with a thesis about Javanese theatre. She has carried out several seasons of ethnographic fieldwork in Java, Indonesia and has lectured in the field of Southeast Asian Studies in different parts of the world. She is currently affiliated with LUCAS, the Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society, where she participates in the research project ‘Voicing the colony. Travellers in the Dutch East Indies, 1800-1945’ in which Dutch and Indonesian travel writing is studied in comparative perspective.