Amsterdam’s stock exchange grew out of ships. It was common throughout the medieval period for wealthy people to invest in an individual voyage; they paid for outfitting the ship and the goods it would trade. If the ship returned, they made a lot of profit. If it sank or was attacked, they lost their investment. (Shakespeare nerds may remember that’s how a merchant in Venice defaulted on his loan.) The Dutch East India Company (VOC) distributed out that risk by selling shares in itself as it made multiple voyages and set up colonies. It made Amsterdam incredibly rich, at untold cost to the people where it set up its colonies in modern-day Indonesia.
The story of an enslaved Indonesian man who became a leader and defied the VOC was always going to be fought over. It’s no surprise that his story varies – not only between Dutch and Indonesian sources but also between communities within Indonesia. Between their ballads, novels, letters, and records, we can glimpse a truth that begins with a man living in Bali who was sold into slavery to a man who brought him to Batavia, the Dutch colony on the western end of Java.
Surapati likely became enslaved over a debt or by being captured by one side of a Balinese power struggle. However Surapati ended up in the house of Pieter Cnoll, he became one of the highest-ranking members of the household. Surapati was still in his teens when Pieter died and Surapati became a low-ranking servant in a new household. According to some sources, Surapati was caught having an affair with his new master’s daughter and severely punished. Regardless of what prompted him, Surapati escaped to the jungle-covered mountains outside of Batavia.
Surapati gathered an army of followers and created his own power base in the jungle. Five years later, he negotiated with the VOC. They hired Surapati’s company for ongoing campaigns, giving Surapati not only official sanction but weapons and training. Once on campaign, however, the VOC officers mistreated the company and threatened to enslave them. Surapati’s breaking point came when he was humiliated by an ensign named Kuffeler. Surapati had captured a rebel named Purbaya, but Kuffeler slapped Surapati and demanded he turn over Purbaya. Surapati and his men attacked the camp, freed Purbaya, and then escaped to Mataram, on the eastern side of Java.
When Surapati defeated the VOC garrison sent after him, the ruler of Mataram offered Surapati his daughter in marriage and helped Surapati establish himself as the independent ruler of Pasuruan in East Java. Surapati ruled his city-state of more than 10,000 people in peace for almost twenty years, with his leadership described in even Dutch sources as sovereign and tranquil. Finally, the VOC made alliances with other Indonesian groups to come after the rebel who’d defied them decades before. Surapati died in his third battle against the Dutch, although his death was kept secret for months to keep his troops motivated. His sons spent most of the 18th century keeping East Java free of the VOC, and he is still a national hero of Indonesia.
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