Untung Surapati: From Forbidden Romance to Rebellion in Colonial Indonesia

A forbidden love affair between an enslaved man in colonial Indonesia and a young Dutch woman marked the beginning of a life of anti-imperial rebellion, propelling him into Indonesian history as a powerful national hero known as Untung Surapati.

Untung Surapati, born in 1660, most likely in Bali, was sold during his childhood as a slave to the Dutch military officer Deler Mur, who happened to have a daughter, Suzanne. Stories claim Surapati and Suzanne grew close through association and, eventually, fell into some kind of romantic attachment. But they happened to live in Batavia of the Dutch East Indies, which would enact one of the first anti-miscegenation laws (prohibiting marriage between Europeans and enslaved locals). Whether or not Surapati and Suzanne actually married depends on your source (and many draw upon the rich folklore and legends swirling about Surapati and his legacy). Still, any such relationship, official or not, would have violated Dutch authority.

According to Identity in Asian Literature, which summarizes the historical facts of Surapati’s life, “Gathering a band of loyal followers, Surapati subsequently fled to the mountainous tract of West Java.” Some versions of Surapati’s past give a more dramatic take on the consequences of the illegal tryst — that Surapati landed in jail where, like another Spartacus, he would come to ignite a slave revolt, leading his fellow men out of prison in noble opposition to the Dutch colonists.

Regardless, Surapati would go on to continue his rebellion against the Dutch East Indies, with notable success, as described in Identity in Asian Literature:

With his band he proceeded first to Cirebon and then to Kartasura where he was welcomed by the Sushunan of Mataram and granted a village near the raton. In 1686 Dutch troops under Commander Tack, were dispatched to Kartasura in order to intimidate Sushunan and to arrest Surapati. They were, however, defeated and Tack was killed, after which Surapati moved on to East Java where he founded a kingdom at Pasuruhan. Repeated Dutch attempts to oust him were to no avail. He ruled more or less undisturbed until 1705. … A gauge to the threat posed by Surapati comes from the fact that when the Dutch forces were finally victorious [against Surapati and his sons] they desecrated his grave, burned his remains, and scattered the ashes.

It’s no wonder that Indonesia has extolled Untung Surapati as a shining example in history.

You can learn more about Untung Surapati (including his brief ties with Suzanne) through the books Identity in Asian Literature and Surapati: Man and Legend, or explore additional narratives of Untung Surapati in this paper and through this short story.

P.S.: If you’re interested in posts like this, peruse the AMWF History archives for more, including stories of Australian women who pushed for Indonesian independence alongside their Indonesian husbands.

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2 thoughts on “Untung Surapati: From Forbidden Romance to Rebellion in Colonial Indonesia

  • June 10, 2019 at 4:33 pm
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    Thanks you for introducing to us this wonderful tale of AMWM love interwoven with anti colonial struggles. I did a bit googling online after reading this, and found out that the Indonesian Navy has a warship named after Surapati.

    Reply
    • June 11, 2019 at 9:22 am
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      Shao, thanks for the comment! That’s cool the Indonesian Navy added his namesake to a warship — it speaks to how revered Surapati is in the country.

      Reply

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