The History of Bencoolen

History

In the past, a kingdom named Selebar existed in this area. A vassal state of Banten, it was the latter’s main source of pepper, cloves, nutmeg and coffee, the trade commodities on which the Javanese Kingdom thrived. On July 12, 1685, Selebar signed a treaty with the British East India Company, gave the latter the right to establish a warehouse and fortification. First, the British built Fort York. Then, another one arose, located more to the north. Built in 1713-1719, this latter fortification was named Fort Marlborough. It was the British power seat and influence in these western parts of the archipelago until 1825, when under the terms of the London Treaty, England handed over the Dutch territory in exchange for others, ended 139 years of British power in Bengkulu.

Bengkulu had used to be the only British colony in Southeast Asia for over 140 years. It was founded as an alternative source for pepper, after the Dutch got rule over Banten in the 17th century. This small British outpost along a low populated shore however has never been of much value: the importance of pepper on the world market was rapidly descending and Bengkulu was too far away from the main trade routes to mean anything. From 1685 to 1825 the books of the British East Indian Company reports very bad trade, boredom and early death because of malaria.

Fortress York, the first British base, was founded in 1685, followed by the construction of Fortress Marlborough two kilometers ahead in 1715. The British thought that the local population was ‘indolent’ and it was usual to punish their leaders. When William Dampier was in Bengkulu in 1690, he found two of those leaders chained because ‘they didn’t bring in the demanded amount of pepper to the Fortress’. Outside protests of the British government, this form of punishment was common into the beginning of the 19th century. Bengkulu was awakened from apathy during Raffles reign (1818 – 1824), but in 1825 the colony was transferred to the Dutch, in trade for the acknowledgement of the British influence on the Malaysian peninsula and Singapore. During his stay in Singapore, Raffles started to explore the sea, what eventually ended in the foundation of Singapore. His enjoyment over the booming economy of his new colony was overshadowed by the sad fact that three of his four children died in Bengkulu. The British influence was kept limited to the small coastal planes. The Dutch annotated the mountainous hinterlands in the 19th century after a number of military expeditions. Shortly before the turn to the 20th century the Dutch discovered that the mountains near Bengkulu contained tremendous gold deposits and the province soon became the biggest gold-producing province of the Dutch Indies.

Bengkulu population consists of four main groups. The Rejang are the mountain people and form the majority. They are divided into two groups: the highland Rejang and the coastal Rejang, which have moved to the western lowlands. In the south live Serawai, which are related with the Pasemah in the highlands around Pageralam and Mount Dempo. In the capital, there are many Malay people. Bengkulu province has been inhabited ever since the pre-historic times, which is proved in the findings of stone tools in the northern area, and the discovery of megalith constructions and old drums from the Dongson type in the south. The isolated Enggano Island just of the southern beach, living another group habitat. For a long time the Engganese were protected by influences from outside, because of their remoteness, but eventually pocks and other diseases, which were brought to the island by Western expeditions at the end of the 19th century, struck them. Around the end of the 19th century it is tried to bring fresh blood into the group, but that didn’t succeed as well. During the reign of Soekarno, the island has temporarily been a prison island as well.

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