In the 19th century, Java was divided into administrative residencies that each consisted of different regencies. The Regents and their families formed the Javanese aristocracy, the hereditary local administrative corps (pangreh praja, ‘the rulers of the realm’). They were at the top of the local administrative pyramid that also consisted of district heads and village chiefs.
Considerably fewer European officials worked for the Local Administration, namely the Residents, Assistant-Residents and the district commissioners. Collectively, the local and European officials administered an area. The relationship between the Regent and the Resident or his representative, the Assistant-Resident, was one of a younger to an older ‘brother’. This social convention subtly expressed the power relationship: each person respected the other’s status, but authority was not unambiguous to say the least. Navigating these relationships required a sufficient degree of diplomatic skills on the part of European officials. There were incidents despite this: in 1856 Assistant-Resident Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820–87) accused the Regent of Lebak of abusing his power and extortion. It inspired one of the most important books in the history of Dutch literature, Max Havelaar, written by Douwes Dekker using his pseudonym Multatuli.
The Javanese population had always held their rulers in high regard. The Dutch used this to their advantage and gave the Regents crucial roles in the colonial administration, where they functioned as essential links between the Dutch colonial government and the local population. In return they received a salary that enabled them to maintain the lifestyle and appearance that was so important to perpetuating their rule over the population. ‘The European has a bourgeois lifestyle; the Regent lives, or is assumed to live, as a lord’, was Multatuli’s analysis.
Regents always travelled with large retinues. They lived in small but magnificent palaces, steeped in ceremony and had an entourage that included gamelan orchestras and dance groups. They also organised tiger fights, the rampok macan. Tigers were released on the main square (alun-alun) that was encircled by rows of spear bearers. Regardless of how much the tiger tried it could not escape and the animals died cruel deaths. Tiger fights were originally part of the festivities celebrating the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, in the courts of the principalities. They used to be preceded by a fight between a tiger and a water buffalo, in which the powerful water buffalo usually prevailed. Some believed that the tiger, a symbol of evil, represented the Dutch oppressor, while the triumphant buffalo represented the Indonesians. By the 19th century the ritual was still practised in those regencies that still had tigers in their lands, but it had become a form of popular entertainment.
21,1 x 27,3cm (8 5/16 x 10 3/4in.)