Bali s Early Days: Widow Sacrifice, Slavery & Opium

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Bali s Early Days: Widow Sacrifice, Slavery & Opium
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                      At the turn of the 19th century, opium addiction amongst Bali’s adult population was so widespread that in some royal palaces the opium smoke was so thick that geckos fell stoned from the walls. On average, one person could consume a pellet of opium in 20 days, and induced a marked laziness and short-temperedness in the character of the Balinese which was “so different from their natural diligence and charm.” Perhaps the most sensational aspects of Balinese history from a Western perspective, the drug’s hold on the general population, widow sacrifice and slavery are the subjects of three short but engaging essays that comprise Bali’s Early Days. After a period of constant war, the end of the 19th century saw Bali broken up into eight kingdoms, each led by a powerful liege lord who supported and endorsed these ancient practices for their own political and personal ends. A chapter is devoted to each topic in this small 81-page book which can be read in one or two sittings. At the outset, six full pages relate eyewitness accounts of widow sacrifices by burning or dagger which took place from 1000 A.D. to the middle of the 19th century. The most detailed and harrowing dates from the cremation of a King of Gianyar in 1848 when three of his wives all sacrificed themselves before a gathering of 50,000 people in an “atmosphere gripped with sadness and pity.” From a Balinese perspective, the widow sacrificial rite (mesatya) was imbued within the romantic belief of eternal faithfulness between husband and wife, whether the life in this world or in the life hereafter, rendering the Western marriage vow of “death to us part” short lived by comparison. Through political intervention, the Dutch Indies government abolished mesatya by the beginning of the 20th century. Rushing to stop a widow-burning rite, an agreement between the Dutch Resident and the King of Tabanan was signed in 1904. The colonial authorities subsequently drew up agreements between the rulers of Klungkung, Badung and Bangli in 1905. The second chapter deals with Balinese slaves which were much sought after from the early 17th century when sailing boats plied the waters between the tiny island and Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies. Slaves from Bali raised a higher price than slaves from other parts of the archipelago as the men were reputed to be fierce soldiers and willing to learn new things, while the women were valued for their beauty, kindness and care giving skills, (exemplified by the touching countenance of a Balinese slave girl in a sepia tone photo on page 28). Although the Dutch abolished self-sacrifice and slavery, because of the immense profits involved they continued to maintain and promote the opium trade. Opium was Bali’s first import commodity and the colonialists established their own set of laws in efforts to monopolize this valuable source of income. In order to wrest control of the trade from Bugis and Chinese traders, the Dutch established an opium factory in Kuta in 1839 which brought in 300 cases of raw opium annually. Working through appointed middlemen, the monopoly was strictly controlled, the number of dens operating on Bali regulated according to population size. To maximize profits, the colonial government took over full and direct control of opium trading in 1894. Run like a franchise, each den had to show a numbered wooden signpost in Dutch, Balinese and Chinese. Opening an hour before the stroke of midnight and closing at six in the morning, only cash transactions were accepted with no credit extended. A photo on page 68 shows a lethally efficient mechanized government operated opium factory, with the look of a modern beer distillery, that produced pure opium. Finally, Dutch heavy-handed wealth mongering, the erosion of traditional regional authority and unrelenting criticism from moderate Dutch citizens who voiced their concerns that distributing the poisonous drug was “sapping the energetic charisma” of the Balinese, the consumption of opium had all but been wiped out by the late 1930s. The book’s three essays are condensed from the research papers of A.A. Gde Putra Agung, a graduate of history from the University of Gajah Mada, who carried out much of his work in the 1980s shifting through the massive archives of the colonial government in Den Haag and Leiden in Holland. As can be seen from the extensive bibliography of Dutch, English and Indonesian books and documents and newspaper and magazine articles found at the end of each chapter, most Dr. Agung’s primary research materials were in Dutch which makes the information gleaned unimpeachable. Completing his doctorate at Gajah Mada University in 1996, he held the position of Head of Research in Culture and Tourism at Udayana University in Bali for many years. Rodney Holt, who wrote the introduction, initiated the translation and publication of the work, placing these traditions into the perspective of Bali’s history of power-building and conflict between kingdoms. Holt established the Puri Karangasem Historical Society. He is presently in the process of creating the Puri Agung Karangasem Museum and is a planning future biography of the last Raja of Karangasem, a history of Kuta, and a maritime history of Bali. Perhaps the most compelling raison d’être for this first work put out by the Puri Karangasem Historical Society is that it contradicts the image of Bali seen through the rose-tinted glasses of Westerners as “an island of peace and harmony,” of a people living in an earthly paradise. In reality, life for the average Balinese through the ages was somewhat different.