When Javans ruled Spain

The other day I serendipited upon a review in Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde van Nederlandsch-Indië (1853) of Abraham Benjamin Cohen Stuart‘s translation of what sounds like an absolutely brilliant Javanese epic poem dealing with the life and loves of one Baron Sakendher, Geschiedenis van Baron Sakendher. Een Javaansch verhaal van vertaling, aanteekeningen en woordenlijst voorzien (1851).

The The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia describes the work as literary myth, although the death of the hero and his absence from the final sequence, as well as historically accurate references to Dutch traders and soldiers, carry it closer to quasi-history. The Dutch bits are most interesting, but but I’d be fascinated to hear from anyone who can throw light on the Spanish connection.

Here’s my plot summary:

Baron Kawit Paroe [I’ve used Stuart’s transliterations here] is a rich Spanish merchant who lives on an estate called Boekit Tarbi. He has 12 wives but no children, so he does a deal with an evil spirit, Mintoena, which gives him sons in exchange for the spirit’s right to come and claim one. Unfortunately, Kawit Paroe has shut one of his wives in a shed round the back, so she and her wetnurse give birth to a seashell and a fruitstone, which in turn reveal four sons, Soekmoel and Sakendher, who are handsome, and Soehoelman and Sakeber, who are ugly.

One day Mintoena comes and selects Sakendher, who leaves Soekmoel a ring, the stone of which will reveal if he is in trouble. Sakendher rapidly discovers that Mintoena is a cannibal, and that he is next, so he kills Mintoena and brings his other victims back to life with a magic potion given him by a magician. He dreams that he has married the daughter of the king of Spain, and the magician advises him to go to Spain. On the way he recruits a serpent, a winged horse and an eagle.

The king of Spain’s daughter has meanwhile dreamed that she is destined to marry Sakendher, and goes in search of him, leaving the king to promise her hand and the succession to whoever brings her back. Sakendher and the princess—who is never named—meet under a tree and go back to the court, where the king keeps his promise and Sakendher, with the eagle and the horse, puts down a rebellion of jealous nobles.

Meanwhile the daughters of evil spirit Mintoena have discovered his death, and one of them, Sajempraba, changes herself into a Frankish maid and goes to Spain in order to take revenge on Sakendher. The king falls in love with Sajempraba and forgets his other 800 wives, one of whom is eaten every night by his new bride. She arranges for Sakendher to be sent away to bring back various oddities, knowing that he will be killed, but Sakend, to the great pleasure of the Spanish king, completes all her missions—all but the final one. So the king banishes him, and immediately discovers that his new wife is a harpy. Sakhender kills her, but is then eaten by her sisters, along with his wife and zoo, after losing a game of dice. The sisters take over most of Spain.

Meanwhile, back at Boekit Tarbi Baron Kawit Paroe and his sons are doing well, but Soekmoel knows from the stone in his ring that Sakendher is in trouble. He plays dice against the sisters, wins, and cuts them open to rescue and return to life his brother, who decides to return to Spain. There the king welcomes him and abdicates in his favour. It turns out the Kawit Paroe is the now ex-king’s older brother by another mother, born by Caesarean section and banished to Java. Kawit Paroe and Sakendher’s mother are brought to Spain, and the kingdom is divided up between Sakendher and his brothers.

Sakendher, however, is frustrated by Spain’s poverty and decides to seek a new empire, so he flies off to seek the advice of fellow-genies (did I mention that he is a genie?), leaving Soekmoel in charge. The other brothers rise up against Soekmoel, bankrupting Spain, and Sakendher returns, flies into the middle of the battle, and by magic causes the guns to stop firing and water to run out of their barrels. Sakendher then gets his father, Kawit Paroe, to draw up an act dividing Spain among the brothers, and Kawit Paroe makes them pool their property in a well-administered trading fund called Company’s Good, the dividends of which will provide them with income for life.

Sakendher sets off for Java to seek a new empire, telling Soekmoel to follow him with a trading party if he doesn’t return. Java is protected by a local deity, and above Loewak he is felled from the sky, together with the horse and eagle. Despite the liberal use of pig fat, he is unable to fly again, so he decides to change shape, mix with the spirits, and offer his services at court. He becomes a white Lawejan, an animal as big as a hill but otherwise unknown, the eagle becomes a golden dragon, the hippogriff becomes a gilded cow, and his brother Sakeber becomes a wild white buffalo with a human head. They save the ruler from a demon and that is the last that is heard of them. The prince is advised by somoene else not to trust the words of a wandering star.

Soekmoel and his brothers have meanwhile become extremely rich with their trading company, so Soekmoel decides it’s time to go to Java. They arrive off Jakarta after three months of indescribable dangers, having not seen the sun for the last seven days of their voyage. The locals take to them rapidly because they are content to pay ridiculous prices for all kinds of rubbish. Soekmoel buys the island Odroes/Onrust/Unrest from the prince for 1000 reals so that he can build a warehouse and the Dutch are so happy they get very drunk.

Soekmoel trades three artillery pieces for a princess (the daughter of another princess and her spiritual guru) from another part of Java and takes her with him to Spain. She bears him a son called Moer Djang Koeng [Jan Pieterszoon Koen] who one day finds out from his mother the reason why he differs so in colour and manners from other Spaniards. He sails to Java with a trading fleet, where the prince of Jakarta initially mistakes him for Soekmoel and takes to him so much that after a while Koeng purchases from him for 1000 reals as much land as he can enclose with a rope fashioned from a buffalo skin. Javan women start marrying Dutchmen and exchanging the Javan language for Malay.

After building fortifications using Jakarta’s rubbish, and with the Javans morals weakened by contact with the Dutch, Koeng drives the prince out of his palace by mistakenly shooting cannonballs at it. The prince builds a new palace, but eventually war starts. Many Javans are killed, and even the prince’s brother PoerbÃ¥jÃ¥, who is good at flying, can’t help them.

Soekmoel hears of the war and, sailing as fast as he can, arrives at Jakarta in four months. To bring a rapid end to the war, he proposes firing not balls but coins. The Javans run out to gather them up, and the Dutch swap back to iron and steel, killing huge numbers of Javans. The prince flees, and his retreat is covered by PoerbÃ¥jÃ¥, who makes the foreigners so nervous that they shoot at every flying thing, killing all the birds that showed themselves. The prince, contemplating a life of misery, attempts to console himself with the thought that he too is subject to God’s will.

Eat your heart out, Richard Wagner and telenovelistas everywhere.

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  1. Wait,.. Since i am a javanese, i know almost all of the names above, but knew only little. Father used to tell me about them, as a legend/just a common story.

    My question, how did you find the story there?

  2. Japan Times: In the southern Spanish city of Coria del Rio, citizens with the family name of Japon gathered for a Japan Week program this month to talk about their Japanese ancestors who settled here in the 17th century. Some 650 Japons live in this city of 24,000 near Seville at the center of Andalusia. Daimyo Date Masamune of Sendai sent a delegation led by Hasekura Tsunenaga to Europe in the early 17th century. It reached this city via the Guadalquivir River. Some delegation members settled here, while others went home after visiting Madrid and Rome. (H/t PB)

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