Review: The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana. Translated, with introduction & notes by Bosnak & Koot (The Hakluyt Society, 2020).

by Lionel Knight

“The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana. A Nobleman’s Account of His Journeys across the Island of Java 1860–1875. Translated, with an Introduction and Notes, by Judith E. Bosnak and Frans X. Koot. Pp. Xii, 272. Published by Routledge for the Hakluyt Society, London, 2020.” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society 32, no. 1 (2022): 263–65. doi:10.1017/S1356186321000444.

Reposted with permission

The Hakluyt Society’s list of published historic travel accounts is strongly international but authors from outside Europe have been few, and Java was last visited in 1944 with Armando Cortesão’s edited translation of Tomé Pires’ Suma Oriental. Nearly all the Hakluyt Society volumes date from before the age of high imperialism. This is an exception. The author Purwalelana, the nom de plume of the nobleman Radèn Mas Arya Candranegara V (1837-1885) came from a Regent family in Pasirir on the north coast of East Java during the heyday of Dutch colonial rule. A French translation of his Travels appeared in 1986, and Bosnak and Koot, who published a Dutch version in 2013, are now offering an English translation for the first time. They have edited the work to the impressive standards of scholarship expected of Hakluyt Society volumes, but at the same time they have made it highly accessible to readers with more general interests, for example in travel history and comparative colonial studies. An Introduction and nine appendices deploy with concision and clarity much fascinating material relevant to the historical and cultural context. It is superbly illustrated with maps, diagrams, twenty-five colour plates and 73 photographs, many by Woodbury and Page, the Batavia-based British photographers. The original was a simple text, so these plates and photographs which are more or less contemporary add the possibility of a further interpretive richness to the reader’s experience.

Purwalelana published The Travels in 1865-6, one of the first works in Javanese to be printed, but this translation is from the 1877-80 reprint which the author revised and enlarged. He changed a few ngoko, ‘Low Javanese’, linguistic features to krama, ‘High Javanese’, forms in which most had been written; and written, innovatively, in prose. He abandoned the experiment in the first version of dividing the continuous text into ‘words’, which he copied from what he had learned of the modern printing of Sanskrit. Javanese literature, he tells the reader, has hitherto ignored contemporary events. Hoping to enlarge its range, not to disparage its past, he offers his account of four journeys totalling five thousand kilometres beginning and ending at the town of Salatiga in central Java.

Cover, The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana.

Purwalelana and his brothers were said to be the first Javanese – presumably priyayi, high status people- who knew Dutch. Their Regent family had close relations with the Dutch authorities, which no doubt made travel easier, or even possible. At that time it was expensive, communications were poor and before 1900 a special licence was needed to travel beyond the main cities. Nor was it easy to receive permission to use the Great Post Road, legacy of Governor-General Daendels. This was far from the modern Java of agricultural involution and a population of 140 million. It was a place of geographic and human variety, where in 1800 the population had been a mere 4-5 million. Different islanders and the Chinese spoke their own languages; visiting Besuki, he found that the Madurese palace guard could understand neither his Javanese nor Malay. Regulations –for opium, for example- differed in the various residencies, and tigers prowled the forests. However, the details of Purwalelana’s Travels point to an integrated future. He is constantly interested in language, he visits the new schools in the towns on his journey, and his record of his first encounters with railways is memorably vivid.

If we ask what is not there, we may be deceived by the serenity of tone which records the beauty of the land and the interesting details of travel where all difficulties are rapidly resolved. Other people, who are named only if they belong to princely families, scarcely exist in their own right. Though he stays for a month in Surakarta, he presents himself as a total stranger when he visits Prince Mangkunegara. The editors helpfully remind us that he was his father-in-law. Then, we are not made aware of the violence of colonial rule. Sick Dutch soldiers are noticed in hotels and sanatoria, but there is no mention of the contemporary Acheh War in the far west. There are a few historic references to Dipanegara’s war from which Yogyakarta has not yet recovered, and he notices a spiked skull still displayed from the Eberveld Conspiracy of 1742. But for all their contemporary relevance, one might recall that in the not very distant past there will have been alive Londoners who remembered the spiked heads on Temple Bar. When he began his travels, an ethical debate about the Culture System, triggered by the novel Max Havelaar, was raging in Batavia and in the Netherlands – with interest, too, in British India. Of this, there is no explicit mention. Superficially, relations of the priyayi with the Dutch seem close; they too were direct beneficiaries of the Culture System, and the great wealth of the Regent of Bandung is noted. Purwalelana records the details of cultural assimilation, dress, way of eating, furniture, often with approval, sometimes with surprise. At Temanggung, he thought it ‘remarkable’ that those waiting for the Prince were sitting on chairs. Criticism is rare. On the approach to Madium, he blames the run-down state of the country on Dutch leaseholders. The beautiful homes of the Dutch and Chinese in Surakarta prompt a reflection on the exploitation of the Javanese, though he allows that some priyayi share the responsibility and the profits.

A close reading guided by Bosnak and Koot reveals another level of interpretation. A recurring element in his description of important towns is his attention to the alun-alun, the central square with its surrounding buildings, especially the kraton, or palace of the local ruler, whose compass orientation Purwalelana always records. His account of the alun-alun, the Koenigsplein, at Bogor/Buitenzorg, the site of the Dutch governor-general’s residence notices the absence of fenced banyan trees whose symbolic presence would have been indispensable for the legitimacy of indigenous rule. In his travels he seeks out the graves of pious Muslims and chides superstitious practices that he encounters. But he respects the pre-Islamic ancestral achievements he finds at Borobodur and, as the editors point out, he draws on the tradition of older spirit-wandering tales and on the vocabulary of the wayang, the shadow puppet plays based on the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. To interpret The Travels, Bosnak and Koot use the term ‘autoethnographic expression’ to describe the way ‘colonized subjects undertake to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s terms….[It] appropriates the idiom of travel and exploration writing, merging or infiltrating them to varying degrees with indigenous modes.’

Purwalelana may have been a pioneer but he was closely followed by others, notably Sastradarma whose Description of Batavia (1867-9) was also trying to come to terms with the colonial transformation. In the same decade, international interest was focused through some powerful writing which still commands attention. E. Douwes Dekker’s Max Havelaar (1860) turned a harsh searchlight on its economic dimension, while a favourable comparison was drawn by James Money in his Java: or how to manage a colony, showing a practical solution to the questions now affecting British India (1861).  British Indian comparisons interested Dutch officialdom as can be seen from remarks in the novels of Louis Couperus. In 1869 Alfred Wallace published his classic The Malay Archipelago (1869) which matches the rich topographical description of The Travels. This foreign literature can no longer be confidently read without also listening to the subtle indigenous voice of Purwalelana.


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