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  • Fiadhira Rasyah

Gaming the Narrative: Colonial Games as Expressions of Indonesian Independence

Indonesia's historical narrative is marked by a turbulent and complex interplay of colonization and enslavement, culminating in a relatively recent attainment of independence a mere 78 years ago. The proclamation of independence on August 17th, 1945, prompted jubilant celebrations that happen annually. The European ‘discovery’ of Indonesia marked a significant juncture in its history. The British, Dutch, and Portuguese discerned the potential for ‘making money’ through the flourishing spice trade, motivating their subsequent colonization of the region. Specifically, the Dutch solidified the authoritative area all over Indonesia, subjecting Indonesians to enforced labor on their own native soil. This labor-intensive endeavor (cultuurstelsel) revolved around the forced cultivation of spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves, destined for exportation to The Netherlands.

World War II introduced a significant disruption, as the Japanese assumed control of the Dutch East Indies from 1942 until the war's cessation in 1945. This transitional phase witnessed the relinquishment of authority by both the Dutch and Japanese, offering Indonesian leaders an opportunity to assert their national sovereignty. Although a struggle for power persisted in the years following this declaration, Indonesia ultimately secured its freedom, and August 17th is now celebrated as Independence Day.

On this date, various commemorative activities take place. Flag-raising ceremonies occur nationwide in schools, workplaces, and other institutions. This represents the formal aspect of the celebrations. Conversely, informal activities include competitions and games such as panjat pinang (greased pole climbing competition), makan kerupuk (eating crackers contest), lompat karung (sack race), and jalan egrang (stilt walking).

Figure.1 Source: KITLV Leiden De Volksspelen te Palembang op de verjaardag van koningin Wilhelmina in 1917, met rechtsachter de bioscoop 1917 Palembang

Fig.2 source: KITLV Leiden, Walking on engrang during folk games at Boenisari company near Garut, possibly on the occasion of Queen's Birthday, Garoet 1911

Historically, the practice of these games was conducted annually on the 31st of August, serving as a commemoration of Queen Wilhelmina's birthday (reign ca. 1890-1948). The activities encompassing the games are called "volkspeel," which translates to "folksplay." As depicted in figure 1 with the title “the folksplay in Palembang on the birthday of Queen Wilhelmina 1917” (Palembang De Volksspelen te Palembang op de verjaardag van koningin Wilhelmina) people were gathered in a vast football field, people stood behind a wooden fence as a spectator anticipating a performance. A half wooden frame is also perceivable as it lies in the middle of the field presumably used for the starting line; it is set in the middle of the field, since there is no clear distinction of the end or the start of the field. The aforementioned statement is supported with photographic evidence, Fig.2. The half wooden frame is utilized for tying up a spherical object and later in time replaced by kerupuk, or cracker, for lomba makan kerupuk.

Figure 3. Source: Paardenmarkt Viannen Volkspelen, 2019

In contrast to the contemporary practice of panjat pinang or mastklimmen, the prizes desired by participants were staples such as rice, sugar, and flour. Due to the socio-economic difficulties during the Dutch colonization (1800-1942) fighting over basic needs was used as the main motivation for the colonized Indonesian, their enthusiastic involvement in this competitive activity.

Figure 4. Source: KITLV Leiden, Volksspelen vermoedelijk ter gelegenheid van koninginnedag in Nederlands-Indië circa 1910

Figure 5. Source: KITLV Leiden, Zaklopen tijdens de Volksspelen te Palembang op de verjaardag van koningin Wilhelmina in 1917​ ​

Figure 6. source: KITLV Leiden, Zaklopen in Pantaipadjang te Benkoelen

Zaklopen in Dutch or balap karung in Indonesian, is enacted on an open field. As we all know, the mechanics of the game are straightforward; contestants go into a sack and proceed to jump towards the designated finish line.

By now, you would have come to the realization that all these archival pictures date back before 1945 and were thus taken way before our Independence Day. In conclusion, it is intriguing and somewhat ironic that Dutch games endured in Indonesia and have been played to commemorate Indonesia's liberation from Dutch colonial rule. However, it is likely that this is the case, as these games became ingrained in the daily lives of our Indonesian ancestors and took on a more Indonesian identity than Dutch. Indonesian people fought long and hard for their freedom, and all over the archipelago, you will see the people joyfully celebrating Indonesia’s independence and shouting “Merdeka!” at the end of the day. But as the sun goes down, what is Independence Day for you? What happens after the sang merah putih is brought back down?



1917 Palembang De Volksspelen te Palembang op de verjaardag van koningin Wilhelmina in 1917, met rechtsachter de bioscoop Volksspelen, vermoedelijk ter gelegenheid van koninginnedag in Nederlands-Indië


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