Untung Surapati: the robber made hero
During my school days Untung Surapati, one of the national heroes during the VOC* time, was mentioned so often in our history books. Not that they bother to give attention to different aspects of his career as hero. They simply repeat the story that Surapati was so heroic as to kill a Dutch soldier or freeburgher (I don’t remember the details). Afterwards he became a leader of some group of outlaws and caused the VOC so much trouble that he was declared a hero. At least, that is the story they want us to believe.
I’ve read two books which depict another version of Surapati’s story. I believe there are more of them, Surapati being such a notorious renegade in the VOC’s eyes.
The first book (Blussé van Oud-Alblas, 1986) mentions briefly of his past as a humble slave, however of good rank, since he was a payong or parasol bearer of his master, Pieter Cnoll. In Indies payong was only permitted to those of rank of super-merchant and above. According to Georg Meister (Der Orientalisch-Indianische Kunst- und Lust-gärtner, 1692), after the death of his master in 1672, he was passed on to the son, Cornelis. The slave was treated so badly by his new master, a freeburgher, who was not even allowed the privilige of using a payong, that the former escaped to the Ommelanden (hinterland of Batavia) where he eventually became a formidabble robber chief and nuisance to the VOC.
The second book, De moord op kapitein François Tack 8 februari 1686 (The murder of Captain François Tack Feb 8, 1686), written by de Graaf (1935), sheds light on Surapati’s career as ‘hero’ when Amangkurat II reigned in Surakarta. Surapati was a robber in the first place, so when Amangkurat II (described as meek and cowardice by the VOC) who felt deeply insulted by some comments made by the VOC in public, plotted to get captain François Tack murdered, Surapati was the perfect man for the job. Afterwards Surapati was established as robber king in Eastern Java.
If the Cnoll’s had shown better judgement and manumitted Untung, as was the habit of Portuguese colonial society and Batavian slave-owners at that time, they might have save the VOC army the necessity of undertaking a number of expeditions. They might have prevented the deaths of hundreds of its soldiers; and they might have saved hundreds of thousands of guilders expended over the next twenty years on the campaign in pursuit of the runaway Surapati. Consequently, Indonesian historians would have one lie less to tell the next generation.
Blussé van Oud-Alblas, Johan Leonard. Strange company: Chinese settlers, meztizo women and the Dutch in VOC Batavia. Dordrecht [etc.]: Foris, 1986.
Graaf de, Hermanus Johannes. De moord op kapitein François Tack 8 februari 1686. Amsterdam, 1935.
*VOC = Verenigde Oost-indische Compagnie (United East Indies Company), 1619-1795.