Sat, 12 Aug 2000

Once a dreaded court, now museum

By Ida Indawati Khouw and Cecile Prevost

The Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics in downtown Kota is a window into the way the Dutch colonial authorities treated people convicted of crimes. This is the 51st article on historical sites of Old Batavia.

JAKARTA (JP): The history of the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics in Chinatown (or Kota), wasn't always fine, nor had it anything to do with the arts.

The spacious complex, which has a majestic classical style with its big porticoes and wide high doors, was designed as a court building during the Dutch colonial times.

The complex was built between 1866 and 1870 to function as the new Raad van Justitie (court of justice), which previously occupied a part of the Stadhuis or City Hall building. The old hall is now the Jakarta Historical Museum and is located nearby.

The Dutch authorities decided to construct a new building for the court due to the growing number of cases which the City Hall could no longer accommodate.

The architect of the court building was W.H.F.H. van Raders, who worked with a construction company called Drossacras & Co.. The construction project cost 269,000 guilders, according to the Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics guidebook.

The institution was the highest court during the reign of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC) and right up to the middle of the 19th century.

From the time it was founded in 1690, the court was made up of five appointed citizens and four VOC officials, according to Adolf Heuken's book Historical Sites of Jakarta.

It dealt with all the usual legal cases of the citizens of Batavia. Cases were heard concerning large debts and all things related to the general welfare of the citizens including licensing and regulations for the building and maintenance of the city's streets, bridges and canals, controlling public foundations, taxes, weights and measures, markets and prices.

The court functioned not only as an institution to preside over criminal cases but it also heard cases of subversion against the colonial government and of efforts to undermine the authority of colonial officials.

Those who were sentenced to imprisonment were sent to the Stadhuis which had several prison cells while those who were sentenced to death were executed at what is now Fatahillah Square in front of the City Hall (see also Save Old Batavia, The Jakarta Post Aug. 21, 1999).

Stories abound about the cruel methods of punishment for convicts, some of which can be read in Heuken's book.

One particular story involves teenager Sara Specx, the illegitimate daughter of an Indies council member, Jacques Specx. Sara was entrusted to the notorious Governor General Jan Pieterszoon Coen when the father left for the Netherlands.

The lover of the 13-year-old Sara, Pieter J. Cortenhoeff, often visited her until late at night after bribing guardians of Coen's house.

Coen was so angry when he learnt of the covert affair happening in his house that he ordered the couple beheaded. Only after the intervention of the Raad van Justitie chairman did the case reach the court.

Under heavy pressure from the governor general, the court decided to sentence Cortenhoeff to death at the Fatahillah square while Sara was severely whipped at the entrance.

During the English occupation between 1811 and 1816, the function of the justice institution was extended under the name "Supreme Court of Justice".

The Dutch government, when it regained power, established several councils of justice, while in 1870 the court of justice was moved to the present Museum of Fine Art and Ceramics, which was called the Paleis van Justitie (Palace of Justice).

According to Batavia als Handel, Industrie en Woonstad (Batavia as a Commercial, Industrial and Residential Center), people could obtain legal advice from some 50 lawyers and barristers and four notary public offices.

There is no data regarding the last days of the court of justice. But during the Japanese occupation (between 1942 and 1945), the building was used as a military barracks and equipment storage center until the end of the independence struggle in 1949.

After that, for about 13 years, it was turned into military accommodation. It was given a new function in 1967 when the beautiful building became the office of the West Jakarta Mayoralty until 1973.

On June 10, 1977 it was made Museum of Fine Arts and Ceramics, inaugurated by the then Jakarta Governor Ali Sadikin.

At present, the building which is located on Jl. Pos Kota No. 2 is protected by law. There is no sign of past cruelty and probably few people in the street are aware of its past history.

Its two shady courtyards in the center of the complex are an ideal place for people enjoying the museum's collections to sit and relax.

The front part of the building is double-storied, with a pair of round well-ornamented iron staircases. It is the place where about 2,000 ceramic pieces can be seen, most being donated by (the late) vice president Adam Malik and the Indonesian Ceramic Society.

The ceramic collection include Chinese pieces from the Ming and Yuan dynasties, as well as pieces from Thailand, Japan and Europe.

It also displays locally made ceramics and antiques from the ancient Javanese kingdom of Majapahit, pottery from Sulawesi and Palembang in South Sumatra, Plered in West Java and Kalimantan.

While rooms at the sides of the courtyards are used to display paintings and drawings, as well as several statues of the great Indonesian artists.