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26 September 2022

Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler and his wife as collectors of Javanese manuscripts in the early 19th century

This guest blog is by Prof. Peter Carey, University of Indonesia, Jakarta.

As a collector of Javanese manuscripts, the name of Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler (1758-1836), has long been recognised. In 1977, when Merle Ricklefs and Peter Voorhoeve first published their benchmark catalogue of Indonesian Manuscripts in Great Britain, the German is mentioned in four entries for Javanese manuscripts from the collection of Col. Colin Mackenzie, Chief Engineer from 1811 to 1813 during the British administration in Java (1811-1816).

Two manuscripts, both Javanese histories or babad, may have derived from the five-day (20-25 June 1812) plunder of the Yogyakarta court library following the British attack on the Sultan’s palace or keraton. MSS Jav 7, Babad Pajajaran, which was dated by Donald E. Weatherbee (2018: 87) to AJ 1713 (1786), is almost certainly from the Yogyakarta keraton as it has a dated note at the back referring to the Swedish army surgeon, 'Dr Stutzer' (Johan Arnold Stutzer [1763-1821], spelt erroneously as “Studzee” in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 58), who participated in the British attack. The date, 6 July 1812, is just a week prior to the departure of the last British troops, Mackenzie’s engineers, from the Sultan’s capital on 14 July (Carey 1992: 483 note 394).

Babad Pajajaran, 1786
Babad Pajajaran, 1786. British Library, MSS Jav 7, ff. 3v-4r  Noc

From Mr Rothenbühler
‘From Mr Rothenbühler', pencilled note at the beginning of the volume. British Library, MSS Jav 7, flyleaf. Noc

‘From Djocjokarta / From Dr Stutzer July 6 1812’
‘From Djocjokarta / From Dr Stutzer July 6 1812’, note at the end of the volume. British Library, MSS Jav 7, f. 141r  Noc

Another manuscript, MSS Jav 40, Babad Kartasura, is less obviously from the keraton library (it was not identified as such in the listing compiled by Ricklefs) but it is a finely decorated volume and the date of writing – AJ 1723 (31 August 1796) – would be consistent with a Yogya court manuscript taken in June 1812.

Babad Kartasura, 1796
Babad Kartasura, 1796. British Library, MSS Jav 40, ff. 4v-5r  Noc

Inscription at the begining of Babad Kartasura, 'received from Mr Rothenbuhler at Sourabaya
Inscription at the begining of Babad Kartasura, 'received from Mr Rothenbuhler at Sourabaya'. MSS Jav 40, f. 6r Noc

Rothenbühler's name is also linked with two of the most beautifully illustrated early Javanese manuscripts known held in the British Library, MSS Jav 28 and MSS Jav 68, both dated to AJ 1731 (1804/5). Both of these manuscripts are inscribed as belonging to Rothenbühler’s wife, referred to as Nyonyah Sakeber, ‘Mrs Gezaghebber’, her husband’s title as Chief Administrator of the Eastern Salient of Java (Oosthoek), in the decade 1799-1809. The Javanese text reads in both manuscripts: punika serat kagunganipun Nyonyah Sekaber, ‘this manuscript belongs to Mrs Gezaghebber', and in MSS Jav 68 continues, ing panegri Surapringga, 'in the town of Surabaya’ (see Ricklefs and Voorhoeve 1977: 61, 68).

MSS Jav 28, Serat Selarasa, which has the date 28 Sapar AJ 1731 (8 June 1804), recounts the tale of the Ni Rumsari, the daughter of a respected sage, who dreams of three handsome suitors, one of whom, Raden Sélarasa, eventually becomes her husband. This was one of the first Javanese manuscripts in the British Library to be digitised in 2012, and has since become well known all over the world, adorning numerous covers of books relating to Java.

Sailing ships in Serat Sela Rasa, 1804
Serat Sela Rasa, 1804. British Library, MSS Jav 28, ff. 105v-106r  Noc

Newly digitised this year through the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project is MSS Jav 68, Panji Jaya Kusuma, erroneously dated within the text as 29 Besar AJ 1701 (20 February 1776), which Weatherbee (2018: 95) corrected to 29 Besar AJ 1731 (31 March 1805). Among the sumptuous coloured illustrations in both manuscripts are several depicting contemporary Dutch warships flying the Dutch tricolour from their mastheads and sterns. One wonders if Nyonyah Sakeber, possibly a native of Surabaya, chose these maritime themes herself given her proximity to Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak harbour and the crowded shipping lanes of Java’s foremost naval port?

Illustration of ships in the sea
Panji Jaya Kusuma, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, ff. 34v-35r Noc

All four manuscripts were presented by Rothenbühler to his superior on the Mackenzie Land Tenure Commission (1812-13), Colonel Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821), on different dates: the two illustrated manuscripts being handed over in February 1812, when Mackenzie was passing through Surabaya on his first survey tour of East Java, and the two babad sometime after July 1812.  So, who was Frederik Jacob Rothenbühler, and, more pertinently, who was his wife, the eponymous “Nyonyah Gezaghebber”, and why might they both have been collectors of Javanese manuscripts?

Rothenbühler was born in Zweibrücken (Pfalz), a town in the Rhineland-Palatinate, on 9 November 1758. There are different accounts of under what circumstances he came out to Batavia. One account states states that he arrived in Batavia in 1769 with his parents. When his father, Frederik Hendrik, then serving as a senior surgeon (opperchirugijn) in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) died shortly thereafter (1770), the young Rothenbühler is also said to have joined the VOC. Other, perhaps more reliable, sources (Ketjen 1880-81:71; Encyclopaedia 1905, IV:638; De Haan 1935:634) hold that he joined the VOC as a cadet through the Amsterdam Kamer in the Netherlands on 11 January 1771, having just turned twelve, and sailed for Batavia on the ship Huis te Bijweg, arriving in the colonial capital on 10 August. He then worked his way up through the VOC bureaucracy, applying himself to the study of Javanese and becoming an official VOC translator (Gezworen Translateur) following his move to Semarang in 1780. After promotion as boekhouder (accountant) and secretary of police (secretaris van politie) in the North Coast city, he became Resident of Pekalongan (1794-99). Unlike many aspiring VOC officials who went to the Indies with recommendations from well-placed patrons and soon secured promotion to profitable positions, Rothenbühler was one of those who pulled himself up by his bootstraps. By dint of skill, diligence and linguistic talent he eventually achieved high office. The most important here was his ten-year incumbency of the Gezaghebber (Chief Administrator, 1799-1809) post in Surabaya. He was also more briefly a supernumerary member of Daendels’ Council of the Indies (Raad van Indië, 1809-11) and the Mackenzie land tenure commission (1812-13) established by Raffles’ British interim administration ( Encyclopaedie 1905:638; De Haan 1935:634).

The German was particularly renowned for his love of the Javanese and he appears to have married a local (pribumi), almost certainly a Javanese who most likely conversed with him in her mother tongue and shared his love of Javanese culture. We can surmise this from two sources: first, there is no trace in the very comprehensive Dutch Indies genealogical records of his wife’s name as one might expect if she was a totok or full-blooded Dutch woman or a scion of a prominent local Dutch-Javanese family (although his three childless daughters do make an appearance, one of whom, Frederika Jacoba, married a German from Stuttgart). Secondly, Frederik de Haan (1863-1938), the colonial state archivist (landsarchivaris, 1905-22), described Rothenbühler as “a very handsome man [...] with an exaggeratedly good idea of the natives [een zeer knap man […] met een overdreven goed idee van den Inlander]”, which indicates that he may have been seen, even in the richly diverse mestizo society of the late VOC Indies (1603-1799), as a man who had aligned himself closely with Java’s local inhabitants (pribumi) (De Haan 1935:634). Certainly, he was appreciated by the local inhabitants of Surabaya for his concern for public health and social welfare issues, including public sanitation, the eradication of smallpox (by the provision of vaccination) and the rehabilitation of beggars through the creation of a special community at Kali Pegirian where the urban poor were fed, clothed, housed and provided with pocket money and medical care. He was later credited by no less an authority than Cornelis van Vollenhoven (1874-1933) with writing the first ever description of Javanese customary law (adatrecht) (Van Vollenhoven 1928:47).

An insight into just how richly diverse this society was in late eighteenth-century Surabaya can be found in a document in the Royal Asiatic Society entitled “Miscellaneous memorandum on Surakarta” (circa November 1811) (Carey 2008:181 fn.71). This relates how Ratu Kencana, the mother of the future Pakubuwana VII (born 1796 - died, 1858; r. 1830-58; known as Pangeran Purbaya before 1830), who would later facilitate the copying of Dipanegara’s requested manuscripts in the Surakarta kraton library in the mid-1840s (Carey 2022), was sent to Surabaya for her education in the late 1770s. A daughter of the seventh Panembahan of Bangkalan (West Madura, r.1780-1815; after 21 July 1808 known as Sultan Cakradiningrat I), she was apparently lodged with the family of Ambrosina Wilhelmina van Rijck (1785-1864) who was the wife of Jacob Andries van Braam (1771-1820), no.2 in the Daendels’ administration (1808-11), and, according to some accounts, the Marshal’s secret lover. Born around 1770, Ratu Kencana seems to have spent the period 1778-84 in Surabaya so would not have overlapped directly with Rothenbühler (in post as Gezaghebber, 1799-1809), but her presence in Surabaya in a prominent mixed-blood 'Indo' family, who saw to her education, gives an insight into the relationship between members of the native and Dutch Indies elite in this great East Javanese port city in the waning years of the VOC. Rothenbühler’s wife could well have stemmed from this milieu.

Rothenbuhler’s grave in Surabaya
Rothenbuhler’s grave in Surabaya.

Seemingly agnostic in religious matters, and possibly a Free Mason (Jordaan 2019:56, 146), Rothenbühler elected to be buried at the ripe old age (at a time when life expectancy for European males in Java was around 45) of 77 on his Gunungsari estate in Surabaya rather than in consecrated ground. Post-February 1914, when the Surabaya, now Ahmad Yani, Golf Club was opened, his grave abutted on the northern boundary of 18-hole course. Revered to this day as the tomb of “Mbah Deler [Grandfather Edelheer/member of the Council of the Indies]”, memories of Rothenbühler’s deep concern for the cleanliness, health and welfare of Surabaya and its inhabitants remain vivid for contemporary Surabayans, where he is also known as the “Father of Public Sanitation [Bapak Sanitasi]”. These concerns were also expressed in his writings such as his voluminous “Rapport van den staat en gesteldheid van het landschap Soerabaja [Report on the state and condition of the Surabaya area]”, which he left for his successor. His direct contemporary and senior VOC colleague, Wouter Hendrik van IJsseldijk (1757-1817), wrote of him: “if one were to make a recommendation to the next Governor-General regarding the most effective way of managing Java’s domestic economy and containing corruption, Surabaya’s Gezaghebber, Rothenbühler, is, in my view, best placed to introduce the changes and improvements which will correspond most effectively with local conditions” (Ketjen 1880-81:72).

It is thus fitting that this German collector and lover of all things Javanese should live on in the memory of the inhabitants of the East Java city, which he made his home, and in the manuscripts which he presented to his boss, Colin Mackenzie, over two centuries ago.

Peter Carey Ccownwork

Peter Carey is Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College, Oxford and Adjunct (Visiting) Professor of the Faculty of Humanities, University of Indonesia (2013 to present). His latest books (with Farish Noor) are Racial Difference and the Colonial Wars of 19th Century Southeast Asia (AUP, 2021) and Ras, Kuasa dan Kekerasan Kolonial di Hindia Belanda, 1808-1830 (KPG, 2022).

Carey, Peter, 1992. The British in Java 1811-1816: A Javanese Account. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
_________ 2008. The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the end of an old order in Java, 1785-1855. Leiden: KITLV Press.
_________ 2022. Ratu Ageng Tegalreja, Prince Dipanagara, and the British Library’s Serat Menak manuscript. British Library, Asian and African studies blog, 18 July 2022.
Encyclopaedie, 1905. “Rothenbuhler (Frederik Jacob)”, entry in Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indië, 4: 638.
Haan, Frederik de, 1935. “Personalia der periode van het Engelsch bestuur over Java, 1811-1816”, Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 92: 477-681.
Jordaan, Roy, 2019. De politieke betekenis van de vrijmetselarij op Java tijdens het Britse Tussenbestuur (1811-1816). ‘s-Gravenhage: Ritus en Tempelbouw. (Quatuor Coronati – Studieblad; 4).
Ketjen, E., 1880-81. “Levensbericht van E.J. Rothenbühler”, Verhandelingen van het Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen 41: 71-73.
Ricklefs, M.C. and P. Voorhoeve, 1977. Indonesian Manuscripts in Great Britain: A Catalogue of Indonesian manuscripts in British public collections. London: Oxford University Press.
Vollenhoven, Cornelis van 1928. De Ontdekking van het Adatrecht. Leiden: EJ Brill.
Weatherbee, Donald E. 'An inventory of the Javanese paper manuscripts in the Mackenzie Collection, India Office Library, London, with a note on some additional Raffles MSS.' SEALG Newsletter, 2018, pp. 80-111.