When a Chinese trading ship under Dutch protection ran aground on a coral reef off the southern coast of Bali, the islanders took a traditional view of the accident. By the custom of tawan karang, or “reef right,” any cargo they recovered bobbing in the turquoise waters of the Java Sea was considered a gift from the maritime deity Baruna.
The Dutch didn’t see it that way. Or, as some historians would have it, they chose not to see it that way, and used the locals’ exercise of reef rights as a pretext for completing their conquest of Bali. The resulting invasion of the southern half of the island in late 1904 not only set in motion the fall of the last remaining independent Balinese kingdoms but also one of the largest mass suicide protests in modern times — if anyone is keeping count.
Suicide is very negative in Bali. Puputan isn’t suicidal, it’s a fight to the death.
Magaret Weiner, author, Visible and Invisible Realms: Power, Magic and Colonial Conquests
At the time, the Dutch already controlled northern Bali, a process of conquest and colonization that had begun in the early 19th century. And now the Europeans issued an ultimatum to the rajas of the rebellious Hindu kingdoms in the south: Compensate the Chinese traders for the cargo the locals “stole” from the grounded ship, disarm and end the practice of slavery, or prepare to become casualties of war or vassals. When the kings rejected the demands, the Dutch prepared to march south.
In September 1906, Gen. M.B. Rost van Tonningen and his army of hundreds of soldiers, cavalry and artillery batteries met only light resistance as they advanced through mountainous jungles to the capital of the kingdom of Badung, now Denpasar, at the island’s southern tip. Accompanying the expeditionary force was Dutch war journalist H.M. van Weede, who noted that when the troops arrived outside the capital’s puri — a combination temple and palace — they were met by an eerie silence marked only by a low thrum of drumming.
Then, a strange procession emerged from the puri. In front was a palanquin carrying the raja of Badung, followed by an entourage of priests, guards, women and children, all dressed in white, wielding ceremonial kris daggers and marching trancelike toward the invaders. Van Weede and other Europeans present speculated that members of the procession had consumed opium — abundant in the region — before exiting the puri. Disobeying orders to halt, they continued to march toward the Dutch and stopped at a distance of about 100 paces. Then the raja gave the signal, and a priest stabbed him through the chest. The puputan was on.
The word means “to finish” in Balinese and generally refers to a last, desperate attack. The most literal translation into English is “slaughter protest.” The sense, though, is closer to “ritual self-sacrifice.”
Some men and women began stabbing themselves while others charged the soldiers. A stray rifle shot was said to have triggered a Dutch volley that mowed down the front lines of the procession. Those who hadn’t been shot continued to kill themselves or other Balinese. Those who were only slightly wounded finished off the ones who were more seriously hurt. The women in the group mockingly tossed jewels and gold at the Dutch troops while begging the soldiers to shoot. Hundreds of bodies piled up around the empty palanquin, the white ceremonial garb of the slain stained scarlet with blood. Van Weede took photos for posterity.
By the time the puputan ended, as many as 1,000 Balinese lay dead, according to Dutch estimates. It wasn’t the first time the colonists had encountered the ritual: In 1894 the rulers of the island of Lombok, just to the east, had initiated a mass suicide in response to a Dutch invasion. In 1908 — following a second and final ritual suicide by the raja and his followers in the Bali kingdom of Klungkung — the Dutch completed their conquest of the island.
Not all puputans were suicidal, and not all ended in defeat. But the Badung populace must have known what was coming when they faced the colonial troops. “For them perhaps, the puputan was indeed more symbolic than strategic, the last act of a tragic dance-drama, natural for a people whose genius for theater is unsurpassed,” writes Robert Pringle in A Short History of Bali.
It’s better to see the puputan as a last act of resistance rather than one of despair, says Magaret Weiner, author of Visible and Invisible Realms: Power, Magic and Colonial Conquests. “Suicide is very negative in Bali. This isn’t suicidal, it’s a fight to the death. It’s determination.”
Since the Dutch conquest and the events of the early 20th century, Weiner says, the concept of puputan has morphed into drastic resistance to foreign influence. With Indonesian independence, the deadly defiance is remembered with pride. Every year the island commemorates puputans in re-enactments that call on European expats to play the role of the colonial Dutch.
Calls have even been made by activists for modern pupuptans against that new form of colonialism — tourism.
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