A dilapidated Fortress Benteng Vredeburg

A dilapidated Fortress Benteng Vredeburg c. 1970

The Black Armada (Armada Hitam) exhibition about Australian support for the early years of Indonesian independence just after WWII opened at the Australian National Maritime Museum on 20 August 2015. You can see the display in the Tasman Light gallery over the next few months. Black Armada is a collaboration with the Museum Benteng Vredeburg in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. A travelling version of the exhibition opened there on 31 August.

Mr Peter Dexter AM, Chairman of the Australian National Maritime Museum Council, Curator Dr Stephen Gapps, Indonesian Ambassador His Excellency Mr Nadjib Riphat Kesoema and Museum Director and CEO Kevin Sumption at the opening of Black Armada

Mr Peter Dexter AM, Chairman of the Australian National Maritime Museum Council, Curator Dr Stephen Gapps, Indonesian Ambassador His Excellency Mr Nadjib Riphat Kesoema and Museum Director and CEO Kevin Sumption at the opening of Black Armada on 20 August 2015. Photo: Andrew Frolows

As curator of the display, I travelled to Indonesia to assist in the installation and attend the opening. Working with an Indonesian museum has been an amazing insight into Indonesian museums, history and culture.

Yogyakarta (Yogya for short) is a large, bustling town in south central Java, probably most well-known for the amazing night life on the Malioboro ‘strip’. The long street down the centre of Yogya comes alive at night, when the thermometer drops a little and the street bands start up. It is jam-packed with humanity and hawkers. You can get a vast array of food (the Lesehans are now my favourite stop — shoes off, sit down on mats and order away your favourite Gudeg) and almost any sort of souvenir or batik shirt.

Yogya is also famous for its architectural legacies of both the Sultan of Yogyakarta and the Dutch colonial administration. The fortified walls around the Sultan’s palace once housed acres of gardens, bath houses, redoubts and the residences of the Sultan’s retinue. A small city within a city, the complex — called a Kraton — draws swarms of both Indonesian and overseas visitors.

So too the remnants of colonial Dutch architecture — redolent now with the decay of over 300 years of Dutch rule bypassed by a modernising independent Indonesia after 1945 with other things on its mind than preserving colonial architecture — solemnly remain prominent features in the centre of what is a low-rise and ever sprawling city. The wealth exploited from Indonesia by the Dutch East Indies empire seeps out of the arcades and columns of the Central Post Office and the grand Governor’s residence.

A reminder of how the rich spice trade from Indonesia to Europe was controlled for over 300 years lies across the road from the Governor’s Residence in the bastioned form of the Benteng Vredeburg — a fortress created by the Dutch in the mid-18th century.

An interesting thing about Yogya is that was declared a ‘Special Region’ and that the Sultan was the only one of many Sultans to survive the Dutch, then Japanese conquest and then the modern Indonesian republic. The special region status was accorded for the city’s role in the struggle to uphold the Indonesian declaration of independence from 17 August 1945.

Benteng Vredeburg

Museum Benteng Vredeburg Yogyakarta. Photo: Stephen Gapps

When the Dutch returned after being kicked out by the Japanese during WWII, they wanted their colony back. A growing number of Indonesians felt differently about that. At one point, as Dutch forces gained control of much of the country, Yogya was declared the republic’s capital city. The Dutch managed to take control of Yogya, but a successful guerrilla war fought the Dutch tooth and nail until they had to give up on dreams of re-colonising by 1949.

The Sultan was an important figure and supporter of an independent Indonesia. In recognition of this, the Sultanate was allowed to continue within the modern Indonesian state — much like the role of the Governors in the Australian states.

The origins of the benteng (fort) are tied up with the Sultan of Yogya. In one of those classic colonial politico-military manouvres, the always slightly overstretched Dutch were not quite in control of the creation of the Kingdom of Yogyakarta — born of a mid-18th century civil war in Java — so they convinced the new Sultan Hamengku Buwono I (who the Dutch had sided with) that he should have a Dutch fortress constructed just near his new palace. For protection of course, and within cannon shot range. Cornelius Donkel, the Dutch Resident in Yogya, was no fool. He also got the Sultan to provide the labour to construct the fortress.

The first iteration of the fort — somewhat ironically called Rustenburg or ‘resting place’ — was completed in 1756 and work continued until 1787 under the aegis of the VOC, or Dutch East India Company. The British under General Raffles had a brief period of occupation when they conquered the Dutch East Indies during the Napoleonic Wars, from 1811 to 1816.

The fort was substantially rebuilt after an earthquake in 1867 and in a spirit of cooperation with the Dutch again, renamed it Vredeburg or ‘peaceful place’.

Museum Benteng Vredeburg Yogyakarta

Museum Benteng Vredeburg Yogyakarta. Photo: MBV

The next lot to occupy the fort were the Japanese during their occupation of Indonesia between 1942 and 1945. The fort was used as a headquarters for the local Kempetei military garrison. At the end of the war in August 1945 the Japanese had surrendered but the Dutch had not yet returned, so a group of Indonesian nationalist took the opportunity of the power vacuum to proclaim independence. This time it was the nascent Indonesian military forces — an army built from scratch with captured weapons — that took over the fort.

But the Dutch were not done with just yet. Determined to regain their colony, they pressed the Indonesian armed forces and re-took Yogya in December 1948. The benteng was then used as a military headquarters and vehicle compound until the fort once more changed hands. On 1 March the Indonesians — forced into a guerrilla war and desperate to have important tactical victories to sustain their fight — swept through Yogya and only a massive counter attack by the Dutch pushed them out again.

Yet this brief re-conquest of the fort that changed many hands had firmed Indonesian resolve and proved to the eyes of the world that — despite what they claimed — the Dutch had not conquered Indonesia and their struggle continued, ultimately, with recognition of their independence by the international community in 1949. The fort had returned to the Indonesian Army.

It was used as a military academy and for the internment of communists in 1965, but had decayed substantially. With some great foresight it was earmarked for preservation as an iconic historic building. Its status as part of an important moment in the Indonesian anti-colonial struggle undoubtedly helped. In 1980 the Sultan of Yogya came into play again and worked with the Indonesian government to conserve the museum. In 1984 it was decided to turn Benteng Vredeburg into a Museum of National Struggle. With its layers of colonial occupation, shifting alliances and multiple occupations and uses, the walls, moat, kitchens, quarters and gun ports of Vredeburg very much reflect the many shifting stories of Yogya and Indonesia’s colonial history and independence.

– Dr Stephen Gapps, Curator

Black Armada is on show at the Australian National Maritime Museum until 24 February 2016. Stay tuned for more in the Black Armada blog series.


Stephen Gapps

Stephen is a Curator at the Australian National Maritime Museum. In 2014 he developed the War at Sea - The Navy in WWI exhibition. He was previously responsible for the collection areas of Environment and Industry. In 2015 Stephen developed a display showcasing Australian and Indonesian maritime connections. He has research interests in early colonial Australian history, Pirates and Vikings.

Posted in: Black Armada