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Muhammad Asyrafi MA

PhD candidate


Area(s) of interest: Asian History, Colonialism & Postcolonialism, Dutch History

Cohort/Start PhD: 2023-2024

Judicial Violence in the 17th and 18th Century Batavia; A Study of the History of Torture and Executions in the Colony

Leiden University

Supervisor(s): Prof.dr. J.J.L. Gommans; Dr. L.J. Verheijen

On the morning of 12th December 1733, Martha Bientang was standing on the scaffold in front of the crowd. A moment later, on the scaffold, she was executed by breaking on the cross, and the Raad van Justitie van Batavia had her head impaled on a pike and then exposed to the crowd to see. After that, her head and the rest of her body were burned under the scaffold. As a convict, she has been stripped of her right to burial. Under the painful torture, she had confessed to helping to murder the former Ontfanger General Joachim Guilbaut by providing the poison used in the murder. The crime was initiated by Susanna Elizabeth Roselaar, the wife of the deceased victim, Joachim Guilbaut. However, Susanna had committed suicide during the criminal process.  The executioners were paid 17 realen for performing Martha Bientang’s execution. However, that day, she was not the only one executed. There were seven other convicts who met their end on the very same scaffold that day. Six of them are slaves, and one is European. In total, the two executioners were paid 137 realen for their service that day.

The story above is a brief example of the scene of capital punishment in Batavia under the Dutch East India Company rule. Capital punishment was a ritual meant for the entire Batavian society, and torture was a sine qua non for the colonial legal system. The society in Batavia was one of the earliest colonial societies. The practice of judicial violence, that is, torture and punishment, in colonial societies is complex and multidimensional. From the brief example, we can see that status, gender, race, power and societal structure are intertwined together in one affair. That alone is enough reason to conduct research on the topic. Looking at the stories of execution in Batavia, I wonder, what is the meaning of judicial violence for colonial society? How did coercive power work in this context? To what extent does the development of penal practice in the colony reflect the development in the metropole? The proposed research is not the first to question these. Such questions intrigued numerous scholars who have been discussing the topic of violence and punishment. Scholarship on the early modern penal history is vast, especially the history of the Western European penal experience. However, there is a large gap left concerning the area that now is Indonesia. Utilizing the Dutch East Indies Company’s archives, the proposed research aims to fill in the gap and shed light on the history of colonial penal practice.