Spatial Perspectives on Law in Batavia


View of Batavia, by Andries Beeckman, ca.1662. (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, TM-118-167). Batavia Castle with on the right side the Council of Justice with in front of it the gallows
and whipping post. At the market, a variety of people is depicted by the Dutch artist; Europeans, Chinese, Eurasians, Japanese and inhabitants of different parts of the Indonesian archipelago.

Pangeran Aria Achmad Djajadiningrat was a prominent Indonesian bupati (regent) under Dutch rule, who depicted the following childhood memory in his memoirs. One night, in the 1890s, when he was a Hogere Burgerschool (HBS, secondary school) student in Batavia, he and his friends decided to go on a quintessential teenage boys’ adventure; they attempted to visit a boarding school for girls at night. The boys were caught by the police and sent to the assistant resident (a Dutch administrator). But, upon arriving at his office, the assistant resident sent Djajadiningrat to the jaksa (local prosecutor) for punishment because he was Javanese. Djajadiningrat felt humiliated:

"One by one we were summoned by the assistant resident... However, when it was my turn and I mentioned my name, the assistant resident said: “Ah, so you are a native. Then you should go to the jaksa, who will refer you to the police law. [This action] severely hurt me.”1

Djajadiningrat was culturally and socially part of the highest class of society. He lived with a Dutch host family and was a student at a Dutch school in Batavia. He formally fell under the jurisdiction of European law courts through a privilegium fori (privilege of legal forum). This also exempted him and other elites from being punished by police law. Yet, when Djajadiningrat encountered the colonial system in Batavia, what counted foremost to the European resident was his Javanese background.

European law court (Raad van Justitie), by Tio Tek Hong, ca.1918. (Leiden University Libraries, KITLV 1400818)

A court translator, in blue coat on the right, swears in a “first-class Vellale” jury. Former Landraad building in Jatinegara (Meester
Cornelis), East Jakarta, 2012. (own photo)

Multi-ethnic Batavia was constituted by a wide variety of people from around the Indian Ocean and Europe. A longstanding creolisation, starting in the seventeenth century, had formed Indo-European, and Chinese-Dutch, Indo-Chinese, Indo-Arab and other elites through both marriage and concubinage. Throughout the four centuries of Dutch colonialism, the daily reality of a multi-layered and mixed hierarchy continued to exist while simultaneously a binary legal system, especially regarding criminal cases, was put into place. The Landraden—law courts that were initially introduced in the countryside—were later introduced in the cities, physically separating law courts for Europeans and non-Europeans, but with a patchwork of exceptions such as the privilegium fori for different ethnic groups, mixed populations, professions and classes.

A loose category of “Natives and those equal to them” were tried by the pluralistic Landraden, whose court members included a range of representatives from different elites such as the Chinese Captain and the Islamic advisor (penghulu), presided by a Dutch colonial official, in court buildings that resembled the neo-classical style of their European counterparts, though on a smaller scale with less impressive pillars. At the Landraad, buildings were smaller, the procedures shorter and the punishments harsher.

Landraad session in Meester Cornelis (Jatinegara) in Batavia, before 1900. (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, TM-10001913)

This bifurcated legal system made colonial Batavia a space of uncertainty. This uncertainty - that emerged from continuous manoeuvring, from always needing to reading the room, from living in unwritten segregated, unequal overlapping spaces - was a burden. A burden carried solely by those who did not have the full privilege of the white elite. The Indo-European, the Javanese, the women living in concubinage: they had to decide in each moment what their rights were, or might be. A right that could be taken away easily through systems such as the police law, political measures and an interpretation of the manifold regulations that purposefully left room for flexible interpretation when placing people in binary categories. The power of this uncertain system was mostly in the hands of the colonial officials, who could strategically use the partly overlapping spaces, the flexible categories to impose their power and uphold a system of difference and inequality.

Landraad session in Batavia (staged in photo studio), oath taking by the penghulu, ca. 1890. (Leiden University Libraries, KITLV 90757)

Non-white elites moved through this city well aware of its overlapping spaces of law, filled with written and, especially, unwritten rules. Where in one space the privilege of class and connections was enough to move freely, in other spaces race became an impenetrable barrier. In the case of the young Djajadiningrat his class connections ended up partially helping him when he faced the jaksa:

“Luckily, the family Meister (host family) had told me that the descendants of a regent in service, up to the fourth grade, cannot be adjudicated by the police magistrate. I told the jaksa that I was the son of the regent (bupati) of Serang, with the effect that I received only a reprimand, but not from the assistant resident, but from the jaksa...”

A Buddhist monk swears a witness. A Brahmin priest and an imam stand ready to do the same. The painting’s argument for the beneficence of British justice depended on depictions of ecumenism.Portrait of Pangeran Aria Achmad Djajadiningrat, ca.1930. (Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen, TM-10018661)

A Javanese nobleman like Djajadiningrat temporarily losing his legal privilege is a rather exceptional story. Only few non-Europeans could even think about attempting to cross colonial legal borders in this fashion. Yet, the story opens up a way to think about Batavia through the lens of spaces of law. The stark legal segregation and othering co-existed with the daily reality of a multi-ethnic Batavia, a city framed through centuries of creolization and hybridity. How the various spatial layers (of law) co-existed within this larger urban dynamic become more visible by turning away from the documents and casefiles to situate ourselves in the (partially overlapping) spaces of law. A view from the court chambers helps us see who ends up walking through the doors and who does not; to follow the legal strategies employed to avoid, use or obscure these spaces that constituted the city of Batavia.



1. Djajadiningrat, Achmad Pangeran Aria (1936). Herinneringen van Pangeran Aria Achmad Djajadiningrat, 78. “Één voor één moesten wij voor den Assistant-Resident komen. ... Doch toen ik aan de beurt kwam en mijn naam noemde, zeide de Assistant-Resident: “Zoo, dus jij bent een inlander. Dan moet je naar den Djaksa gaan, die zal je voor de politie-rol brengen.’ Gelukkig had ik bij de familie Meiser gehoort, dat nabestaanden van een in hunctie zijnden Regent tot in den vierden graad niet voor den politie-rol mochten worden getrokken. Ik vertelde den Djaksa, dat ik een zoon was van den Regent van Serang, zoodat ik tenslotte ook maar een standje kreeg, doch niet van den Assistant-Resident, maar van den Djaksa, hetgeen mij erg griefde.

Sanne Ravensbergen, Leiden University