Race against time to preserve Jakarta’s 400-year-old fortified walls

JAKARTA (CNA) – When archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat heard that the Jakarta city government was planning to widen the flood-prone Ciliwung River last year, he was immediately alarmed.

Part of the river cuts through Jakarta’s heritage area and the normalisation project would see the capital’s main waterway broadened by up to 15m, threatening the few remaining sections of the 400-year-old perimeter walls built by the Dutch East India Company.

Only less than 500m of the 4.6km fortified walls still stand today.

While some sections are well preserved, others are left in varying stages of decay, overrun with trees and vegetation.

In one area, the walls are sinking into the subsiding ground below with more than two-thirds of their 8m body now sitting below sea level. Jakarta has one of the worst subsidence rates in the world due to over-extraction of groundwater.

But the walls’ biggest threat is modern development. Throughout their history, huge parts of the walls have been dismantled to make way for houses, buildings, streets, railways and toll roads.

Attahiyat and other archaeologists are racing against time to have the walls declared as conservation sites.

“Right now, we are able to keep various development projects from damaging the walls. But we need the heritage site status because future administrations might not be so attentive about the walls’ presence,” the 62-year-old archaeologist told CNA.

ABOVE & BELOW: One of the few surviving sections of a 17th Century fortification wall protecting Batavia, now known as Jakarta, Indonesia; and archaeologist Candrian Attahiyat stands in front of an enlarged copy of a 17th Century map of Batavia. PHOTOS: CNA

Candrian standing on top of a section of the fortified walls in Jakarta
One of the last remaining sections of a defensive wall protecting Batavia

But even after more than a year of advocating for the walls’ heritage status, they still have not succeeded and the plan to have the Ciliwung River widened has been merely postponed but not repealed.

Meanwhile, Attahiyat would soon end his tenure as one of Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan’s advisors on cultural preservation, a position which had provided him leverage in the mission to keep the walls intact.

The walls represented a time when Jakarta, or Batavia as it was known at the time, was a small seaside town no bigger than 1.3 sq km.

The Dutch East India Company intended Batavia to be its regional headquarters, complete with houses, buildings, facilities and city planning modelled after those found in the Netherlands.

After a series of confrontations with the locals and attacks from neighbouring kingdoms, the company decided to build defensive walls in 1620 to protect itself. The walls were completed in 1650.

The company wanted Batavia to be occupied exclusively by Europeans and selected Arab and Chinese merchants. Meanwhile the local population was evicted and made to live outside of the walls in poor living condition.

The only indigenous people allowed inside the walls were slaves, mercenaries and those facing execution.

“The town was very exclusive and very segregated. Trespassers would be severely punished. In fact, the indigenous people would get shot for even approaching the walls,” Attahiyat said.

“The walls served as a reminder of how the city came to be. An edifice of the struggle of the indigenous people living outside of the walls. A reminder of what life was like back then. They are a part of our history which need to be preserved for future generations.”

The walls stand about 6m to 8m tall. Their thickness ranged between 1.5m and 1.8m, complete with footpaths to allow heavily armed guards to patrol the perimeter. A system of moats and ditches was dug around the walls for extra protection.

The fortified walls were linked to a total of 27 bastions equipped with cannons, strategically placed to keep enemies at bay as well as to protect the entrances into the city. Only two of the bastions remain today.

The fortification subsequently became obsolete in the beginning of the 19th Century.

Batavia, with its Dutch-style architecture and city planning, proved to be unsuited for Indonesia’s tropical climate and weather. The town was often flooded since its canals and drainage system were not designed to handle torrential rains during the archipelago’s rainy season.

By 1790, Old Batavia was virtually abandoned by its European inhabitants who moved into the suburbs to build villas with large front lawns and porches.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government took over control of the archipelago after the Dutch East India Company became entangled in financial woes. The company eventually ceased operation at the end of 1799.

The new ruler was not interested in keeping Batavia as a small segregated town and wanted a thriving colonial capital.

Between 1808 and 1811, all of Batavia’s important administrative buildings were relocated further south in what is now Jakarta’s city centre.

To save cost, much of the fortified walls were dismantled to serve as materials for the new buildings.

“For the first time, Old Batavia became desegregated,” Attahiyat said.

The Dutch, the archaeologist said, only allowed the original defensive walls to stand if they were part of existing warehouses.

These centuries-old warehouses were located on the seaside northern section of Old Batavia.

“The rest were dismantled, right down to the foundation,” Attahiyat said, adding that for the last 34 years, he had been trying to find remnants of the demolished walls with very little luck.

But today, the 400-year-old warehouses are largely abandoned and the perimeter walls protecting them are crumbling.

The only pristine and well-preserved sections of the walls are the 155m stretch which protected the northern part of what is now the Indonesian Maritime Museum and the 70m walls surrounding a 19th Century watchtower built on top of a 17th Century bastion. The walls there survived because the museum and the watchtower has been declared as cultural heritage sites.

However, even the well-preserved walls are under threat from land subsidence.

At the Maritime Museum, only the upper half of the 8m walls is visible from street level and the moat surrounding the museum has long been paved.