Home » The Prince on Horseback: The Origins and History of Diponegoro’s saddle and reins

The Prince on Horseback: The Origins and History of Diponegoro’s saddle and reins

Mark Loderichs, researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH) in the Hague.

Lecture presented at the seminar Objects, Museums, Histories. The Case of Prince Diponegoro, held at the Museum Nasional in Jakarta, 18 May 2016, by Mark Loderichs, researcher at the Netherlands Institute of Military History (NIMH) in the Hague.

Your excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues and friends. Prince Diponegoro stands out as the towering figure of the Java War and it is appropriate that today, 18 May 2016, the International Museum Day, we share our views and thoughts on his life, legacy and historical significance in an international context. I am honored to be here today in the Museum Nasional in Jakarta. The subject of this short presentation are the reins and saddle of Diponegoro’s horse, the horse on which he rode during the years of the Java War. Today these two objects are exhibited simultaneously, but on different locations. The saddle is exhibited here in the Museum Nasional in Jakarta and the reins are exhibited in Museum Bronbeek in Arnhem in the Netherlands. In this presentation I would to share with you, firstly, what the contemporary Dutch military archives have to say about the possible capture of Prince Diponegoro, secondly, what information these archives give us about the circumstances in which Diponegoro’s horse, reins and saddle, were captured, and, thirdly, what we know as to what has happened with these objects in de period after the Java war. But before I can address these topics, I would like to say a few words in regard to the Prince himself.

As the main, but certainly not the only opponent, to Dutch colonial rule in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is hardly surprising that Prince Diponegoro received scant appraissals from Dutch colonial military historians. But even among these adversairies words of praise and respect can easily be found. One of them is the well-known Dutch military historian, luitenant-kolonel Eduard Servaas de Klerck. Together with a fellow officer of the colonial army, Pieter Johan Frederik Louw, De Klerck wrote a six volume handbook on the Java War. This series was published between 1894 and 1909. Despite its age, this study is still the most complete and thorough history of the Java War. A point of interest is that this publication was initiately commissioned by the Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen, which at the time, was actually located in the building of the Museum Nasional, where we hold this seminar today. When we take a closer look at what De Klerck has to say about Diponegoro it is interesting to note, that despite his criticism, in De Klerck’s final judgment of the Prince a trace of sympathy and humanism shines through. According to De Klerck the rebellious Prince is to be seen as a man of talent, but one who, in his view lacked a gift for leadership, and a man who had no real military talent or qualities. But Prince Diponegoro was an exceptional man nonetheless, because, in the final analysis, and I quote: Diponegoro ‘is […] to be regarded and praised as a man endowed with extremely high ideals.’ [unquote]

As the central figure of the Java War Diponegoro figures prominently in the contemporary military archives. It was clear to the Dutch that capturing Diponegoro was the key to winning the war. As all attempts to entice the Prince to end the war voluntarily failed, in their view only his surrender, capture or death could bring the war to a conclusion. However the Dutch officers were completely at a loss as to how to accomplish this. The terrain of Central Java and the tactics Diponegoro employed, left them clueless in the first years of the war. Nor did their battlefield experience of the Napoleonic Wars proved to be very helpfull. We tend to look at them as Dutch officers, but a more accurate description would be: officers in the service of the Dutch colonial army. One must remember that at the time the Kingdom of the Netherlands comprised not only present-day Holland, but also present-day Belgium. Quite a large number of the senior officers surrounding the commander-in-chief De Kock and who were instrumental in the Dutch war effort came in fact from what was then known as the Southern Netherlands. The experience during years of fighting on Java taught these colonial officers that capturing the elusive Prince Diponegoro was nearly impossible. The Dutch army commander, general De Kock, stated this very clearly in a document in which he outlined his overall strategy in early 1829. No doubt in an attempt to lower the expectations of his political superiors in Holland, he wrote, in the elegant Dutch prose of the time, that the capture of Diponegoro was ‘een niet te verwachten omstandigheid’ – a circumstance that was not be expected. One of the more desperate proposals I found in the archives was a plan to stop chasing Diponegoro altogether. That would, so it was hoped, lure the Prince into settling down somewhere permanently – preferably in a fortified position on a mountain top where he would feel save. Only then could the colonial army hope to surround and capture him. As we know Diponegoro never obliged them in this respect. And apart from that, the last thing the colonial authorities were interested in, was a long term solution to end the war. For this meant prolonging an already very costly war, in terms of finance and manpower.

In the eyes of the Dutch therefore, the capture or death of Prince Diponegoro on the battlefield, could only be a matter of luck, coincidence or fate. And off course, the same can be said of many of Diponegoro’s personal belongings. It is quite remarkable that several objects have survived the Java War at all and that they can be seen on display in museums such as the Museum Nasional. Original historical objects posses the magical ability to bridge the gap between the present and past. The saddle and reins of the horse on which Diponegoro rode into battle, bring the times of the Java War vividly to life. There are two Dutch accounts that are of interest here, because in both Diponegoro’s reins and saddle are explicitely mentioned. The first account, published in 1902, was written to glorify the exploits of the Dutch cavalry that participated in the Java War. It describes how in september 1829 Diponegoro was nearly captured on horseback during an engagement with Dutch hussars near the Progo river. The text reads as follows:

[quote] In the middle of the struggle they [the Dutch troopers] suddenly saw a rider on a fine black horse, followed by some seventy followers also on horseback, race towards the exit of the valley. With the dark turban, the green waving shirt and the white silk under clothing, they recognized the head muteneer. When Diponegoro and his followers reached the Progo they forced their horses into the river, but so did their pursuers almost simultaneously somewhat more upstream.[…] When they reached the other side of the river, the fleeing Prince, although protected by his faithful followers, was immediately attacked by a hussar by the name of Doorenboom, who with a tremendous effort reached the other side of the river almost at the same time as the Prince. He rode up at a galop along side Diponegoro, fired his pistol, but missed. Then he tried to grap the reins of the horse of the Prince […] but at that moment he fell dead from his horse, struck by many lances of Diponegoro’s personal guard. [unquote]

The second account gives us information in detail on the capture of Diponegoro’s horse and his personal belongings. Our source is a letter, dated 10 November 1829, send by majoor Michiels to general De Kock. Michiels writes that, more or less by accident, his soldiers intercepted a lone messenger of Diponegoro carrying a letter. The messenger informs them, or more probably is forced to inform them, that Diponegoro is nearby and that he is planning to move to another location. Michiels immediately jumps into action and sends out a group of fifty soldiers – the letters speficies them as a group of two officers, 25 European and Ambonese riflemen and 25 Menadonese infantrymen – and instructs them to try and intercept Diponegoro on a mountain road that he is most likely to travel by. The soldiers climb the mountain by night and in the morning they lie in ambush beside the road, waiting for things to happen. Then the text of the letter reads:

[quote] In the distance we could make out the sound of horses approaching and of men chattering. […] Coming down the road were a group of men, all of them on horseback and most of them unarmed. They were preceded by only one retainer on foot carrying a sword. We grapped the retainer, who when asked who they were, proudly answered that it was the sultan, as if we would be impressed by his majesty. The lieutenant pushed the retainer aside and then the soldiers opened fire on the riders. The road was steep, slippery and narrow. On one side it was confined by a ravine which made it impossible for the riders to turn their horses around quickly. Some fell dead from their horses into the ravine, others jumped into the ravine themselves. Ten horses were left on the road. We chased the fleeying men, who led their horses by the hand into the ravine. Diponegoro himself, wearing the white clothing of a priest, fell from his gray horse, stood back up again and also went down into the ravine. […] All the horses of Diponegoro and of his followers, in all thirty five animals, fell into our hands, four horses fell dead into the ravine. We also captured a pike, inset with small juwels, which was said to belong to Diponegoro, and all of his clothing, although it was not and extensive wardrobe. [unquote]

This long extract gives us an insight, not only into the very narrow escape that Diponegoro made in november 1829, but also in the brutality of the war itself. It puzzles me why the colonial soldiers opened fire on the mostly unarmed Javanese, who by their own admission posed no immediate threat to them. Were they under instruction by Michiels to do so? Or did the lieutenant acted on his own accord? If ever there was a chance of capturing Diponegoro alive, then this was it.

So we know how and when the saddle and reins of Diponegoro’s horse fell into the hands of the Dutch. What happened next is more difficult to establish. We believe that they were given to an officer as a reward for his services, as was customary at the time. And that after some time the objects were shipped to the Netherlands. The most likely candidate of course is majoor Michiels. But Michiels he did not travel to the Nederlands. For he pursued a career in the colonial army. A fair guess who be that the saddle and reins were send to the king William I in the Netherlands. Further research in the Koninklijk Huis Archief, were the archives of the Dutch royal family are being kept, is needed to establish this. The saddle and reins then reappear nearly forty years later. On 17 february 1863 a koloniaal invalidenhuis or colonial retirement home was officially established by order of King Willam III of the Netherlands. This house for military invalids, comparable to the Royal Hospital Chelsea in Londen and the Hôtel National des Invalides in Paris, was established at Landgoed Bronbeek, a former estate of the king in Arnhem. From its opening the Bronbeek Estate was intended also as a museum and a showpiece of the Ministry of the Colonies. On 13 May 1868 a short entry of a gift to the museum was made by the administrators. It read: ‘Donated by Mr. Ver Huel, resident of Arnhem. Name of the object donated: Headpiece, reins and saddle. Previous owner: belonged to Pangeran Diponegoro.’ According to this entry the gift orginally consisted of three objects. Over time they became separated.

Many objects that were given to Bronbeek were put on display, not as objects in a museum, but to embellish the halls, stairways and rooms in the building. In the Gedenkboek van het koloniaal-militair invalidenhuis Bronbeek, a Book of Memoir published in 1881, the saddle is mentioned as one of the objects on display in the hall. At the top you can see the saddle, draped beneath it are flags, which according to the book of Memoir came from Sulawesi and Kalimantan and had absolutely nothing to do with the saddle. In one of the oldest inventory lists from 1892, the headpiece of Diponegoro’s horse is also mentioned, but this time with the ominous addition: ‘Is probably lost’. We have to wait for nearly ninety years for the next entry. As part of the cultural agreement between the Netherlands and Indonesia it was decided that all artefacts belonging to Prince Diponegoro in Dutch museums would be returned to Indonesia. On a card of registration from 1975, a head piece of a horse of Diponegoro, was mentioned, with the only addition: ‘Dipo Negoro was the chief insurgent in the Java War, he was captured on 30 March 1830’. A final entry in the adminstrative system of Museum Bronbeek was made on the first of september 1977. It read: ‘Handed over to the Dienst Verspreide Rijkscollecties, to be handed over in property to the Government of Indonesia’. But what of the reins? Apparently, as they were not kept together with the saddle, they were simply forgotten by the transfer of objects in 1977. But legally they fall under the agreement of the transfer. It is off course very likely that the reins and the saddle belong together, but in accordance with standard procedures of Museum Bronbeek that has to be established first. After this has been done the reins will be handed over to government of Indonesia to be reunited again with the saddle. I hope that I will be in Indonesia at that time to witness the event.

I thank you for your attention.