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An Island-Hopping Historical Lesson

Farah Fitriani Faruq
Farah Fitriani Faruq
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An Island-Hopping Historical Lesson
You don’t have to hop on a plane to get away from the city. The best way to escape another weekend spent exercising your credit cards in the city’s malls is to hop on a boat instead and explore the tiny islands which dot the northern shores of Jakarta. Known as Pulau Seribu (the Thousand Islands, although there are really only 298 of them), these sandy sanctuaries from the city can be reached by boat from Marina Bay in Ancol, North Jakarta or Muara Kamal in Cengkareng, West Jakarta. I recently joined a tour run by the Indonesian Historical Community (KHI) that covered three islands in one day — Kelor, Onrust and Cipir. For only Rp 125,000 ($15), the community offers up a full day of sightseeing, sunbathing as well as the chance to soak up some local history. Kelor Island Setting off from the Muara Kamal seaport at 6 a.m., our first stop on the tour was Kelor Island. This small, remote island is uninhabited, except for a few cats that, legend has it, were brought all the way from the Netherlands by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) around the 17th century. Another lasting legacy of the Dutch occupation is a red-brick fortress in the middle of the island, known as Mortelo Tower. From this vantage, the VOC were able to send warning signals to nearby islands about approaching enemy forces, such as warriors from the Mataram Kingdom coming from the Java Sea. Although parts of the tower collapsed in 1883 due to the eruption of Mount Krakatoa — still considered the biggest explosion in modern history — large sections of the five-meter-high circular tower still remain, along with evidence of platforms set into the walls that were used to mount rifles and cannons. None of the original artillery remains on the island, but the crumbling fortress is a striking reminder of the nation’s colonial history. Onrust Island Just 10 minutes away from Kelor Island by boat, Onrust is a fascinating spot marked by layers of history. The Dutch word “onrust” can be literally translated as “unrest,” which is why the place is known as the “island that never sleeps.” History has certainly not let the island sleep, at least since the 17th century, when it was used as a dockyard by the VOC for spice ships that were coming to and from Europe. Like Kelor, Onrust Island features the remains of a defense tower built by the Dutch. When the area was captured by British forces in 1801, the tower was destroyed. It was later rebuilt by Dutch statesman Baron Van De Capellen when the island was recovered by the VOC in 1811. But after the explosion of Krakatoa, the tower again collapsed and fell out of use, until it was rebuilt in the early 20th century to be used as a quarantine stop for travelers returning from the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The barracks were converted into a sanitorium to stop diseases such as tuberculosis and cholera from entering the country. Housing built for the doctors who worked at the sanitorium has since been converted into a museum. An additional 35 barracks were built by the Dutch for pilgrims returning from Hajj. They were organized into a neat little street, which can still be seen today. In the 1930s and 40s, the Dutch found yet another use for the island, converting it into a prison for rebellious slaves. The slaves were executed on the island, and it is said that their bodies were buried in the same place as the captured leader of the Darul Islam movement, who fought for the establishment of a Shariah state in Indonesia. The island was used as a prison once again under the occupation of the Japanese, who brought their own cultural influences to Onrust. An open space in the middle of the prison building was said to have been used by the Japanese to stage fights between the prisoners. After Indonesia formally gained independence, the island once again became a quarantine for travelers before becoming an exile for homeless people and beggars in the 1960s. Since 1971, the island has been mostly abandoned and many of its buildings were demolished. These days, it is simply a place of historical ruins, although it was recently granted cultural heritage status by Jakarta Governor Fauzi Bowo. Cipir Island Last but not least, the KHI tour ended with a trip to Cipir Island. Just like Onrust, Cipir also served as a stronghold and quarantine center the Dutch, as seen by the abandoned barracks and hospital rooms still left standing on the island. Some have been reduced to ruins while others remain intact. The remains of Dutch cannons can also be seen along the edge of the island. As you arrive in Cipir, you are greeted by the sight of it’s welcoming shade. Big trees and old buildings stand back to back, creating a blanket of cool darkness over the island and plenty of places for the island’s monkeys to swing around. The island is so close to Onrust that the two were once connected by a bridge, which later collapsed during the explosion of Krakatoa, leaving only its ruins on the beaches of Cipir. Being able to see traces of these island’s past live makes for a thought-provoking visit. Unfortunately it seems like these crumbling ruins may disappear over time if no efforts are made to preserve these important reminders of our country’s colonial history. While there are plenty of transportation options for getting to and from the islands, the absence of proper infrastructure to maintain the islands’ heritage has left them in a sorry state of affairs. But in any case, a weekend of island-hopping is certain to give you more to think about than just another trip to a shopping mall. For more information, please visit:www.komunitashistoria.org taken from The Jakarta Globe

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