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Kota Museum Horrors: Jakarta, West Java

Picture Jakarta during the Dutch colonial era and imagine how people were tried and punished at the time. You can visualize it from the balcony of the Jakarta History Museum in Kota Tua, the Old Town quarter, in West Jakarta. The building was originally the Stadhuis, or the City Hall, of the colonial period. Today, if you stand on the balcony and face north, you will see the gray stone square below you, known as Taman Fatahillah. The square honors Fatahillah, the commander of the Muslim Demak army which conquered Sunda Kalapa on June 22, 1527. He renamed the coastal Sunda kingdom Jayakarta, or Town of Triumph, after defeating its king. When the Dutch eventually took control, they renamed the area Batavia.

At the square’s center is the town fountain; not the original, but a remake. The square was not just the prime meeting point for the town folk, it was also where public executions were held.

The judges would stand on the balcony to witness their verdicts carried out. Behind the balcony on the wall is an oil panel depicting King Solomon’s trial.

The painting portrays Solomon wearing a crown and a red cape, sitting on his throne passing judgment on two women arguing over a baby.

The artwork was presumably created to imbue judges with a sense of fairness and humanity. However, what the painting tried to inspire and the reality of the judicial system were worlds apart.
The most infamous execution was perhaps that of Pieter Erberveld on April 22, 1722. Erberveld was the son of a German landowner and Asian mother. Erberveld became one of the richest men in Batavia but could not get into the milieu of the powerful because he was Eurasian.

Erberveld got into a property row with the then governor general Zwaardecroon. The governor general owned two lots of land separated by a parcel belonging to Erberveld. Despite numerous acts of intimidation, Erberveld refused to sell his property to Zwaardecroon.

The account is detailed in a book on the history of the museum, Dari Stadhuis Sampai Museum, (From City Hall to Museum), by Hans Bonke and Anne Handojo. As you turn the pages, the story becomes more grim, even gruesome.

In December, 1721, the governor general received a report from a slave that Erberveld was purportedly plotting with a Javanese prince, Raden Kartadria, to murder the Dutch on the first day of the New Year.

The plan was that Erberveld would become the overlord of Batavia and Kartadria to rule the outskirts.

Both men were arrested and tortured at City Hall. The governor general had them tried before a tribunal of his own executives, bypassing the normal court process. The tribunal could not find hard evidence of a planned uprising.

Despite finding no smoking gun, the accused were declared guilty based on their torture-inflicted confessions. Erberveld was pinned to a cross with meat cleavers. His gut was ripped open and his heart torn out.

As if that were not enough, Erberveld was quartered, mirroring the fate of Guy Fawkes, the Englishman convicted of conspiring to blow up parliament houses in London in 1606.

Erberveld’s four body parts were left to the birds to feast on.

The authorities did not stop there. They demolished Erberveld’s house and erected a stone slab placing a skull on top. The slab carried a chilling message in block letters chiseled into the stone in Dutch and in Javanese script.

It warned the public not to commit what “traitor Pieter Erberveld” did. Visitors can see the two-meter-high slab in the grassy back court of the museum today.

Warief Djajanto Basorie