Soul Catcher: Java's Fiery Prince Mangkunagara I, 1726-95.
This fascinating book by Merle Ricklefs depicts Java's eighteenth-century history through the lens of Java's two apical personages of the period. One is Mangkunagara I, as featured in the book's title, and the other is Mangkubumi, who wavered between being Mangkunagara's fervid ally and bitter enemy. Both were descendants of the renowned Sultan Agung, who founded the Mataram Dynasty that controlled much of seventeenth-century Java. During their lifetime, Mangkunagara ensured that his son Hamengkubawana II became crown prince of Yogyakarta, while Mangkubumi became sultan of Surakarta--both of these recognized in modern Indonesia as cities in their own right rather than as provincial capitals. Both personages perceived their important role in shaping Java's history and, to enhance this, they adroitly negotiated a complex political landscape that included, amongst others, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in its period of decline, the economically powerful Chinese minority, numerous pretenders to the Mataram and other Javanese thrones, and mercenary troops from across Indonesia.
Ricklefs skillfully weaves together the array of sources at his disposal. Two of these were written in Mangkunagara's palace, the Serat Babad Pakunegaran, which may have been composed by Mangkunagara, and the Mangkunagara Chronicle-Diary. Another major source is the Babad Giyanti, probably composed by the Surakarta poet Yasadipura I, which offers Mangkubumi's point of view on events. Although written in verse, they provide abundant detail and complement each other; the Babad Giyanti, in particular, is in Ricklefs's opinion (344) "both a masterpiece of Javanese literature and one of the finest examples of Javanese historiography". There are also important VOC sources, which report Dutch intelligence on goings-on in Java's heartland, as the VOC attempted to stabilize political events and maintain the profitability of its trading operations along Java's northern coast. The VOC repeatedly negotiated with both Mangkubumi and Mangkunagara, and on multiple occasions installed pliant candidates on the thrones of Java's various kingdoms. Accordingly, the VOC documents take as partisan a view as do the Javanese sources.
Mangkunagara was a colorful character, and this may be why Ricklefs focused on him rather than on Mangkubumi as the story's protagonist. He was a pious devotee of a Sufi order that Ricklefs calls the Javanese Mystical Synthesis, with its reverence for traditional Javanese spiritual forces, notably the Goddess of the Southern Ocean, whose spirit infused Mataram, and the spirit of the Mount Lawu volcano, venerated by the Surakarta and Yogyakarta courts to this day. Mangkunagara was also very fond of alcohol (which, in Java, was not frowned upon until the nineteenth century) and also of his wives and numerous concubines. Indeed, Mangkubumi chastised Mangkunagara for his festive excesses. These, however, did not soften Mangkunagara, who was able to bear dangers and privations during the several times he was on the run. Moreover, Mangkunagara was charismatic and valiant in battle, and one of the names for which he is remembered in history, Samber Nyawa (the Soul Catcher), comes from the standard that his troops bore into battle.
Ricklefs is a prolific writer on Indonesia's history and best known for A History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1200, which was published in its fourth edition in 2008. The present work is far more limited in scope, but it should appeal to an audience well beyond specialists in Javanese history. It is beautifully written, exhaustively documented, and exemplifies the quality of information that can be extracted from an insightful treatment of indigenous Indonesian historiography.
The Australian National University
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|Title Annotation:||ASIA AND THE PACIFIC|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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