Sat, 16 Sep 2000

Ex-Dutch shipyard now trendy cafes

By Ida Indawati Khouw

The VOC shipyard in Old Jakarta, which was once among the busiest in the region, has turned into an upscale dining and wining complex. This 56th article on old and protected buildings in the city provides a glimpse of the history of one of Jakarta's oldest surviving buildings.

JAKARTA (JP): "VOC" is probably the best known acronym in the Indonesian history books although few people know what it stands for. Even if they know, few can pronounce the words Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie correctly.

In the old city, capitalists have twisted the abbreviation that refers to the famous Dutch trading company of the 17th and 18th into "Very Old Cafe" for business sake.

The (original) VOC and its logo is now attributed to a protected building on Jl. Kakap No. 1 in the Kota area of North Jakarta.

The place was a shipyard in Dutch colonial times but has been recently transformed into an elite complex of cafes, restaurants and galleries. This makes the estate one of the rarely well- preserved buildings in the city, thanks to the private sector's participation in the preservation of old buildings.

All signs that indicate the place was once a major shipyard have gone, except for the row of rooms along the two-story VOC building. In the 1600s it was a very busy place where large and small ships were refurbished before embarking on journeys to Europe or other countries.

The Scheeps en Timmerwerf van de VOC (the shipyard and carpentry of the VOC) was located at a very strategic location at the mouth of the Ciliwung river across from the Batavia fort, the center of the VOC government.

Batavia port (Sunda Kalapa port, see Save Old Batavia, The Jakarta Post, July 9, 2000) was one of the busiest and well- arranged ports in Asia with hundreds of ships docking there every day.

Susan Abeyasekere, in her book Jakarta, a History, said that the coasts along the Malacca Straits (including Batavia port) were natural stopping places for travelers and sailors whose vessels sailed in this direction on one monsoon and could load and refurbish while awaiting the change of winds which would carry their vessels back again.

At Batavia port, ships loaded and unloaded cargoes like cloves, peppers and gold from various places throughout the Indonesian archipelago. The commodities were bought by VOC agencies and stored at warehouses before transporting to other countries.

Commercial ships, facing long journeys from Asia to Europe via the dangerous Java Sea, Indian Ocean, China Sea and Atlantic, definitely needed maintenance, equipment, food, maps and so on.

There are no documents to determine exactly when the shipyard was built. Adolf Heuken and Grace Pamungkas in their book Galangan Kapal Batavia Selama Tiga Ratus Tahun (Batavia Shipyard in the Course of Three Hundreds Years) mentioned that the construction had existed in 1632.

However, during the building's restoration in 1998, an inscription was found on one of the beams showing the year 1628.

"But it is impossible that the roof was constructed in that year because at that time the area was still inundated by seas. Probably, the beam was taken from an older building which had been demolished," Heuken and Pamungkas say.

The shipyard was a hive of activity with administrative affairs and all the crafts related to repairing ships. There were blacksmiths, carpenters, sailmakers, shipwrights, ropemakers and of course all the necessary services like barber shops, cafes, etc.

All of the skilled workers were assisted by slaves supplied by kings of Bali and slave traders from Makassar, South Sulawesi.

Heuken and Pamungkas describe the slaves as "a group of people who received poor treatment. They were forced to work hard, fed bad quality foods, were tortured and severely punished for their mistakes even for trivial ones."

"There was also no attention to their health and they died untimely," the writers said.

Workers were under the auspices of equipagemeester, an important high ranking official who was in charge of all affairs related to the port and ships docked in Batavia. Every morning the equipagemeester appeared before the governor general, the authority of the Dutch East Indies (old name for Indonesia).

The building, with simple architecture resembling a warehouse, was the residence of some of the workers and even the equipagemeester.

In 1721, some parts of the estate were damaged by a big fire. The VOC and other buildings survived and that is why the building is one of the oldest in the city today.

Heuken and Pamungkas said that in 1809 Chinese workers took over works at the shipyard because Governor General Herman Willem Daendels refused to maintain the building any longer.

Three years later the office and residence of the equipagemeester at the main part of the shipyard was sold by the government. Besides changing ownership, its functions were also expanded. For example, it facilitated small boats taking passengers to ships, forced to anchor offshore after the harbor became shallow due to silt deposits.

When it was purchased by the present owner, Susilawati, in 1998, the building was in the very poor condition.

She has restored the estate, turning it into a beautiful complex of cafe, restaurant and gallery.

The cafe owner keeps the old name VOC in the spirit of preserving the heritage. "I named it Gedong Galangan (the shipyard mansion) and keep the VOC abbreviation as the Very Old Cafe," Susilawati says.