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Indonesia: The Ruins of Dutch Colonialism, Jakarta

October 30, 2015

I couldn’t wait to see what remained of old Batavia, the Dutch colonial port on Java and the center of its East Indies trade.  We had purposefully found a hotel at the edge of the old city, within easy walking distance. The hotel is the large modern building on the far right of the photo below.

Our first discovery was the Kali Bezar. This river flows through the old city and at first glance seems quaint.

Nothing could be further from reality.  In truth the flow is near solid sewage. A shame in this day and age for a city that boasts such extravagant wealth.

The smell is appalling.  Luckily the windows in our hotel room didn’t open.

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The grinding poverty became apparent immediately. Here a man forages in the sewage under a bridge, searching in the filth for recyclable items to sell.

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The crumbling remains of Dutch trading houses stand watch in the background.

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A few blocks further and we reach Batavia’s main square, Fatahillah, with its splendid European architecture. The square is dominated by the old town hall, now a museum.

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Maintenance does not seem to be a priority for the Indonesians. Frankly I don’t blame them.

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But one side of the square contains a swish modern coffee shop and restaurant, so the tourists can gaze at the past in air-conditioned comfort.

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The museum in the town hall is instructive. One sees old portraits of puffed-up colonial officials, who look secure in their delusions of racial superiority.

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They lived well, despite the heat and the squalid swamps that surrounded the old city.

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Batavia was perhaps the worst “White Man’s Grave” in the world. When Captain James Cook put in to port after exploring Australia he lost more of his crew to disease than he ever did to the ocean.

These days the square is a popular place for out-of-town Indonesians to visit, and these tourists have fun around the square. Here a school girl practices her English with Diana,  taped by her father for later presentation in class.

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I took the time later to walk along the Kali Bezar to further explore the old city. Of special interest is the 17th century swing bridge, amazingly still functional.

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I wanted to walk all the way to the port and harbor, which we could see from our hotel room despite the polluted city haze and the window that hadn’t been cleaned for some time.

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I found another museum inside the fort that guarded the old port.

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Very few of the exhibits were marked but the museum contained an interesting collection of native craft.

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Ultimately, however, we must remember that Jakarta is a modern, thriving city of millions and a major center of commerce for Southeast Asia.

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And we should also reflect on how Jakrarta is the capital of a country with a long history both of colonial exploitation and locally-grown dictatorships  The poverty is a constant, and never very far from the gleaming skyscrapers..

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Photography by Kit and Diana Herring

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