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The Forgotten Image of Bali  

by on Wednesday, 29 August 2007No Comment | 2,439 views

The first European visitors to Bali saw much different Bali than nowadays visitors have seen. The first foreign visitors saw Bali as an island of theft and murder, full of menace with ferocious inhabitants, a warlike nation. In the mid-seventeenth century Bali was a dangerous place, wild and untamed, where Europeans loath to go. In the eyes of European writer Bali was a heathen land where barbarities such as widow burning practiced in much vigor.


During the flourishing time of slave trade in seventeenth century, the rebellious nature and great tendency of run amok of Balinese male slave contributed a great deal to form warlike image of Balinese. Jan Troet, one of the prominent slave traders in the archipelago, gave much information on Bali as a place of brutality through his letters of complaints to the VOC rather than any comprehensive account of Bali or Balinese slave. In 1661 Troet sent a complain letter to the company about male Balinese slaves.

A whole boatload had ‘run amok’ and taken his ship, leaving him and his cargo stranded on Sumatra. This was one of the first of many complaints about the tendency of Balinese slaves to run amok. The VOC eventually received so many of these reports that in 1665 it put a ban on its employees owning Balinese slaves, and in 1668 banned the import of Balinese slaves altogether in favor of other who less likely to show resistence.

The best example of rebellious Balinese male slave is Surapati. He began as slave and end up as a king. Some sources say that Surapati was born on Bali. He was sold as a young man, and suffered servitude and maltreatment from the Dutch. He was unbending and recalcitrant when he served in his youth as a slave to one VOC’s high trader in Batavia. In keeping with the reputation of the Balinese to run amok rather than surrender to slavery, he escaped and pursued by the Dutch. The VOC, however, recognized that his military brilliance could be put to their use, and hired him and his followers to serve in their irregular forces.

This did not satisfy Surapati, and in Central Java he became part of the palace guard of the Sultan. In a complicated plot he murdered the VOC’s envoy to the court and fled to Pasuruhan in East Java, where he made himself king and with his sons was known as the scourge of the VOC from the end of the seventeenth century. In October 1709 the VOC sent an expedition to Surapati’s kingdom in Pasuruhan to ease their frustration at his hindrance of their control over Java. Surapati’s kingdom survived the attack, but the king himself was wounded, and, as a result, died the next month.

Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles gave a tamer description of Balinese. To Raffles, the Balinese had ‘a higher cast of spirit, independence, and manliness than belongs to any of their neighbors’. He further said ‘to a stranger their manners appear abrupt, unceremonious, coarse and repulsive; but upon further acquaintance this become less perceptible and their undisguised frankness command reciprocal confidence and respect’. He added ‘the individual retains all the native manliness of his character and all fire of the savage state.

Materials for this writing were taken from Adrian Vickers’ Bali: Paradise Created.

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