by Karen Williams

In 1657, five years after the start of Dutch colonialism in South Africa, an indigenous1 man, Doman, was sent to the Dutch “prize colony” of Batavia, present-day Jakarta. The Dutch colonisers who had landed in South Africa wanted to acquaint him with Dutch culture as well as help him to improve his Dutch-language skills.

Doman was a Khoi man and his Khoi name is believed to be Nommoa. Until then the Dutch had used him as an interpreter and believed him to be completely friendly with the Dutch and supportive of their colonialist aims.2

In Indonesia Nommoa/Doman received an education: but it stretched much further than improving his language skills. This included Nommoa/Doman acquiring a knowledge of firearms while in Batavia.

The city of Batavia had been recently established and the Dutch could only have a foothold in Indonesia as a colonising power at war with the country. The city’s lifeblood was the slaves brought from across Asia, as well as the Chinese merchants, whom historians regularly portray as an apolitical trader class.

Nommoa/Doman believed that he would die in Batavia, or that he would be killed and would never return home. As a ploy, he told the Dutch that he would serve them faithfully when he returned to South Africa and that he wanted to become a Christian and would renounce his fellow Khoikhoi and go to live with the Dutch. But the political impact of Nommoa/Doman’s stay in Batavia was unmistakable and would serve him well when he returned to South Africa, where the first war with the Dutch was about to break out.

In Batavia Doman would likewise have been aware of the raiding, arson and destruction of houses, gardens, plantations and sugar mills immediately outside the city walls. The Javanese inhabitants were expelled on account of the potential threat they formed, and the Dutch position was further undermined by slaves absconding from the city and joining the Bantamese forces on the outskirts.3

Nommoa/Doman’s return to South Africa a year later in 1658 came at a time of great social and political upheaval. The KhoiKhoi’s fight against the recently-arrived colonialists would soon intensify, resulting in the first Khoi-Dutch war in 1659. Nommoa/Doman would grow into a key resistance leader, now well-schooled in the guerilla hit-and-run tactics of the Javanese and having seen the weaknesses and façade of Dutch colonial enterprise, which the Indonesian resistance laid bare.

Unlike many other examples of colonial resistance, Nommoa/Doman’s fight against the Dutch was different: his stay in Indonesia had given him an internationalist experience of colonialism, particularly since the historical arc of colonialism had gone on for much longer than the recently-established station in South Africa. War broke out between the Dutch and Bantam in Indonesia in 1656, just before Nommoa/Doman was due to arrive in Batavia.4 Nommoa/Doman rose to prominence in the anti-colonialism fight in South Africa largely because during his Indonesian stay he was able to witness the guerilla warfare waged by the Indonesians against the Dutch. When he returned to South Africa, he applied what he saw in Indonesia in a new front against Dutch colonialism.

Jayakarta, in 1605, before Batavia was established on its ruins.
Jayakarta, in 1605, before Batavia was established on its ruins.

Batavia was recently established by the Dutch in 1621 and it came about after the Dutch military razed the existing city of Jayakarta/Jacatra. The Dutch destroyed the official residence of the Sundanese king, known as the kabupaten, as well as the mosque. These two buildings had served as the twin centres of power under Sundanese rule. Batavia was built on the ruins of the destroyed Indonesian city, and a wall was erected around the Dutch town, which aimed to work in isolation from the rest of Indonesia, and with the local population largely expelled to outside of the city walls.5 The slave market established in the colonial city has been referred to as a “Batavian institution”.6

The war with the kingdoms that made up the Indonesian archipelago would continue for centuries, including wars against the people of Sumatra, Java, Kalimantan, Bali, Lombok and Aceh.7 The resistance to the Dutch is also seen in the number of Indonesian royal households who were exiled to South Africa.

Nommoa/Doman was a significant figure in the forging of historical links across the Indian Ocean between Indonesia and South Africa. From the arrival of the Dutch, this would increase, as South Africa became the place of exile and banishment for the various Indonesian royal houses, and Indonesian slaves formed a core part of the colony’s enslaved population, with their descendants still a significant part of the population today. Chinese Batavian prisoners and exiles would also form some of the earliest Chinese citizens of South Africa. Crucially, these exiles and slaves would lay the foundations for the establishment of Islam in South Africa. The link would continue into the 20th century and set a trend, where Nelson Mandela’s signature patterned “Madiba shirts” that he loved wearing were batik shirts made for him in Indonesia, and one of the ways in which he wanted to honour the links between South Africa and Indonesia (that is, besides liking the fashion after decades of prison clothes).

Nommoa/Doman would not be the only African in Indonesia at the time. Africana: The Encyclopaedia of the African and African-American Experience writes that,

Founded in 1602, the Dutch East India Company brought slaves from the Dutch holding in Elmina, in present-day Ghana, and several other Dutch posts on the west coast of Africa, to the Dutch holdings in the Cape Colony (today part of South Africa) and Indonesia.8

The Encyclopedia also notes that much like the transport of Africans to places like India, Africans were also recruited into the colonial military and police in Indonesia.

Blacks served in the East Indian Army in Indonesia from the early nineteenth century to the twentieth century. Noting that these West Africans and West Indian blacks were Europeanized and Christianized, local Indonesians called them Blanda Itam, meaning Black Hollanders. In Dutch colonial societies these black servicemen formed a community separate from both the white Dutch, who gave them lower pay and fewer benefits than white soldiers, and from the peoples whom they policed. Still, in Suriname and Indonesia, these soldiers often took local wives and settled after their retirement from service.9

In turn, the first known groups of Muslims who arrived in Cape Town in 1658 were “the Mardyckers of Amboya in the East Indies, who were brought as solders to support the Dutch in the face of Khoisan resistance. However, it was as slaves that the vast majority of Muslims were deployed in the colony.”10

Batavia, the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, circa 1780
Batavia, the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company, circa 1780

The Dutch East India Company (VOC) was headquartered in Batavia, and the administration there was also responsible for VOC operations across Asia as well as South Africa. The reach of the administration in Batavia also extended to laws and after 1642 Batavian laws were implemented at all VOC outposts.11

The Javanese people were prohibited from living within the city walls, so great was the Dutch fear of their rebellion. This in turn led to their guerilla attacks from the outer reaches of the city.

Chinese people were a prominent feature of Batavian society and were often traders and merchants. They are often represented as an industrious merchant class. However, most of the Chinese prisoners, exiles and slaves to South Africa in the 1700s came from the Chinese in Batavia. This includes Chinese prisoners like Ongkongko, who was sent in chains to South Africa in 1747 after being convicted of high treason in Batavia and who lived to become the richest Chinese person in the South African colony after his release. This in turn would point to the possibility that the Chinese were not as apolitical as is often portrayed.

Depiction of the Batavia Massacre of 1740, where at least ten thousand Chinese people were massacred (Illustrator unknown)
Depiction of the Batavia Massacre of 1740, where at least ten thousand Chinese people were massacred (illustrator unknown)

The Chinese were also represented in the poorer sections of society. In 1740 an estimated ten thousand Chinese people were killed within the walls of Batavia in an anti-Chinese pogrom known as the Batavia Massacre. It followed an uprising by Chinese sugar mill workers in which they killed 50 Dutch soldiers. During that time, the authorities had also issued a decree to deport “suspicious” Chinese to Ceylon/Sri Lanka. In the ensuing violence the Dutch troops killed thousands of Chinese. After rumours were spread that the Chinese would commit atrocities against some of the other Asian groups in the city, they also retaliated against the Chinese.12 Chinese survivors of the 1740 Batavia Massacre escaped from Batavia to join the Javanese resistance. The Java War (also known as the Chinese War) took place between 1741-1743 when joint Chinese and Javanese anti-colonial fighters launched attacks against the Dutch in Indonesia.13

But the power of the Indonesian archipelago was not contingent on the Dutch presence: it had for years been the centre of learning, trade and civilisation. The Indonesian archipelago was also the centre of commerce, with centuries of trade recorded with Australia’s northern coastal Aboriginal communities, particularly around the Aboriginal pearling industry. Sulawesi in Indonesia was a primary point of the pearl trade for Aboriginal groups for more than 500 years.

Asian slaves were critical to the functioning of Batavia, and the mixed-race women who partnered the Dutch men have passed into colonial legend, being characterised as vicious, lascivious, indolent and spoilt. Soldiers’ ballads and letters from that time constantly refer insultingly to availability of “black women” (the enslaved Asian women) in Batavia. Enslaved Asian women were used largely within the colonial households, meaning that they were vulnerable to almost unfettered rape by their enslavers14. As a measure against “lasciviousness”, the early Batavian governments had at times tried to limit the number of women slaves per household, particularly of unmarried Dutch men. What was understood, but not stated, in this context, was the premise that the women were sexually enslaved.

An enslaved Balinese woman in Batavia. The Dutch brought in slaves and traders from outside Indonesia as a way to reduce the chance of revolt. (Artist: Cornelis de Bruyn)
An enslaved Balinese woman in Batavia. The Dutch brought in slaves and traders from
outside Indonesia as a way to reduce the chance of revolt. (Artist: Cornelis de Bruyn)

Lower-ranking officers and soldiers generally partnered with Asian and Eurasian women (although that did not mean that the women returned with the Dutch men to Europe.) Their children would often be absorbed into their mother’s society in colonial Batavia: the male children as soldiers and the young women at times partnering with other Dutch and European men.

From the beginning there was the freest intercourse with slave women. Most were household slaves, and there were already upwards of eighty slaves of both sexes in the Jacatra fort recorded in the 1618 roll call. One man who survived the long siege has left a journal noting nightly orgies within the Dutch compound and marriages rowdily celebrated between Company servants and “black women”…15



The fear that Indonesians engendered in the Dutch cannot be overstated. Whether as citizens in Indonesia, or as enslaved people, the Dutch often drew up laws to deal specifically with what they perceived as the threat simply from having Indonesians near them.

In Dutch policies in south-east Asia and in South Africa, there is a constant fear of slaves going “amok”. There are numerous South African court records of Indonesian (and at times other Asian) slaves who went “amok”, usually killing or injuring anybody who was near them, usually with knives.

In South Africa and in Batavia, there were policies and practices to deal with the Dutch fear of slaves going “amok” and it was this fear too that led to some changing patterns in importing male slaves from Indonesia to South Africa.

Batavian merchant Pieter Cnoll, his family and the family’s slave
Batavian merchant Pieter Cnoll, his family and the family’s slave

In Batavia, no Makassarese or Balinese male slave child older than twelve were brought into Batavia after 1685,16 as these two groups of male slaves were deemed as particularly troublesome. In South Africa, the Indonesian male slaves in general were seen as a “discipline problem”. Researcher Joline Young remarked that the view of Indonesian slaves at the time was: “If you slapped an Indonesian slave, he would slap you back.”

It is interesting for me to read the history on how often “going amok” is mentioned within south-east Asian slave narratives, and in describing Asian slaves in South Africa. Historians focus on it as a violent act, but I see it as a moment of transcendence and escape, and within the context of enslavement, a very physical act of transcendence and escape.

One of the consequences of the long resistance to Dutch colonialism in Indonesia, and the transportation of Indonesian slaves to South Africa, was the impact on South African culture, including in south-east Asian rituals practiced till today.

Ratiep is an extraordinarily spiritual ceremony performed by Muslim descendants of Indonesian and Asian slaves and political prisoners brought to South Africa from the 1600s onwards and who continue to live in the country. Through an incredibly fast beat of a small drum with accompanying music, participants enter such a deep trance that they can be pierced and lanced with knives and metal objects. There is no blood; no injury and there are no marks left afterwards on the participant.

The Indonesian spiritual heritage in South Africa is also possibly reflected in the history of the ceremonial kris/keris dagger, mentioned in slave narratives. In Indonesia it has for centuries been both a weapon as well as a spiritual object.17 Across the Indonesian archipelago, and into Thailand and Malaysia, there are various practices associated with knives, and I’ve wondered how much of that south-east Asian cultural layover has been absorbed in the knife culture of Cape Town gangs, who are descended partly from the Asian slaves.18

Indonesia was also the source of a number of notable exiles to South Africa, besides the Batavian Chinese prisoners who were sent to South Africa and who became a key part of life in Cape Town. Historian Robert Shell writes,

The geographically isolated Cape was a perfect exile for overthrown political leaders from the Eastern possessions. At the top of the prisoner-slavery hierarchy, for example, were a few important ex-sultans. Some were give the right to live quietly at the Cape with large retinues of slaves to attend to their creature comforts, and they were never sent to Robben Island or to the Lodge. The lives of the prisoner-slaves were grim. An important status distinction was whether the slave was wearing chains or not.19

There were numerous Indonesian nobles, princes, kings and political figures exiled to South Africa. There were also key spiritual figures, who would entrench Islam in South Africa.

The Rajah of Tambora was exiled by the government in Batavia in 1697 for fighting the Dutch.20 The Rajah cut an enigmatic figure and he reputedly spent most of his time transcribing the Koran from memory, which he presented to the Governor, Willem Adriaan van der Stel21. (Other accounts have him translating the Koran into Dutch.22) The modern-day location of the Rajah’s handwritten Koran has not been found.

The first exiles from Makassar/Macassar in Indonesia arrived in 1670 and Makassarese royalty were also sent to South Africa, as well as some of its leading spiritual figures. Cape Town still has a suburb called Macassar.

The exiled royalty were often allowed to keep their retinue and they cut a sharp contrast to the Indonesian slaves in the city.

One of the most enigmatic cases of exile at the Cape is that of Cakraningrat IV, the deposed ruler of Madura. Sent into exile by the VOC high Government in Batavia, he arrived at the Cape in December 1746…It is not clear whether local Company officials realised that he was one of the most prominent enemies of the Company. Governor Hendrik Swellengrebel decided that for security purposes Cakraningrat should remain a prisoner at the Castle rather than being sent to Robben Island or into the countryside, as had been the fate of some of the other exiles from the region.

It is not recorded exactly where in the Castle the Madurese royal – known at the Cape as Raden Djoerit – was housed. He was, however, spared the indignity of public labour and was served by two of his male slaves, Datan van Aroe and Njasrie van Madura.”23

The exile of Indonesian noblemen and their advisors had a lasting impact not only on the culture of South Africa, but they would also help forge a new language, and with it, a new identity. The resistance which started in the 1600s would culminate in the independence of Indonesia centuries later, as well as the start of a liberation fight by descendants of Indonesian slaves and exiles in South Africa.



Other notables exiled from Indonesia included (but were not limited to):

  • Daeng Mangale, a prince from Makassar

  • The Javanese princes (Pangerans) Selongingpasar and Dipanagara, who also lived with their retinue and slaves

  • Pangeran Wargo Digma, Raden Satja Dinata and Raden Soera Dierapa from Bantam24

  • Sheikh Abdurahman Matebe Shah, who arrived in chains in Cape Town in 1667. He was the last Malaccan Sultan and his forebears had established the Malaccan Sultanate.25 He was a key Islamic figure in the Cape and established relationships with the local slave community.

  • Sayed Mahmud, a spiritual leader from the Malaccan Sultanate26

  • Sayed Alowie a leading Muslim figure in Cape Town, was a Yemeni who was an important advisor to the court of the Javanese ruler, the Susuhunan, based at Kartasura in Indonesia. Eventually he was exiled to South Africa in chains as a political prisoner, where he was also imprisoned on Robben Island, centuries before Nelson Mandela would be imprisoned there too as a political prisoner.



South African History Online: Doman. First accessed 21 August 2016.

Robert C-H Shell, Children of Bondage, Witwatersrand University Press, Johannesburg, 2012.

Kerry Ward, in Cape Town between East and West: Social Identities in a Dutch Colonial Town, ed. Nigel Worden, Jacana Media, Johannesburg, 2012.

Ross and Schrikker, in Cape Town between East and West: Social Identities in a Dutch Colonial Town.

Africana: The Encyclopaedia of the African and African-American Experience.

South Africa’s Stamouers: Van Tambora, Rajah. Accessed 21 August 2016.

RootsWeb: Rajah of Tamborah & Rustenburgh Estate, the governors’ residency. Accessed 21 August 2016.

Gabeba Baderoon, Regarding Muslims: from slavery to post-apartheid, Wits University Press, 2014.

Karel Schoeman, Seven Khoi Lives: Cape biographies of the seventeenth century, Protea Book House, Pretoria, 2009.

Hein Willemse, The Hidden Histories of Afrikaans.

Jean Gelman Taylor, The Social World of Batavia: Europeans and Eurasian in Colonial Indonesia, University of Wisconsin Press (2nd Ed), 2009.

1740 Batavia massacre (Wikipedia). Accessed 22 August 2016.

Indonesian Kris. Accessed 22 August 2016.

Kramat of Sayed Mahmud. Accessed 22 August 2016.

Kramats – Cape Mazaars. Accessed 22 August 2016.

Dutch East Indies (Wikipedia). Accessed 24 August 2016.

Java War (1741-43) (Wikipedia). Accessed 24 August 2016.

South African History Online: 1700-1799. Accessed 24 August 2016.


1 Doman was a Goring-haiqua Khoikhoi man.

2 Schoeman, p.43.

3 Schoeman, p.52.

4 Ibid.

5 Taylor, p.19.

6 Taylor, p.70.

7 Dutch East Indies (Wikipedia). Accessed 24 August 2016.

8 Africana: The Encyclopaedia of the African and African-American Experiencep. 1414.

9 Ibid.

10 Baderoon, p.8.

11 Ross and Schrikker, pp.28-9.

12 1740 Batavia massacre (Wikipedia). Accessed 22 August 2016.

13 Java War (1741-43) (Wikipedia). Accessed 24 August 2016.

14 The vulnerability of enslaved women in households is critical, particularly given the misogynistic, ahistorical “house/field” trope originating from the United States.

15 Taylor, p.15.

16 Taylor, p.18.

17 Indonesian Kris. Accessed 22/08/2016.

18 Recently I also read an anecdote of a South African academic singing a Afrikaner folksong, Suikerbossie (Sugarbush), to friends while in Germany. An Indonesian man apparently took umbrage, saying that it was actually an Indonesian folk song.

19 Shell, p. 197,

20 South Africa’s Stamouers: Van Tambora, Rajah. Accessed 21 August 2016.

21 William Adriaan van der Stel was the son of the iconic governor of the Cape, Simon van der Stel, a black man whose father was Dutch and whose mother and grandmother were enslaved Indian women.

23 Ward, pp. 87-8.

24 Ward, pp.89-90.

25 Kramats – Cape Mazaars. Accessed 22 August 2016.

26 Kramat of Sayed Mahmud. Accessed 22 August 2016.

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.

Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

Indian Ocean SlaveryZanj rebellion 2 is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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