Short Teaching Module: Spatial Histories of Law, Race and Empire

Sanne Ravensbergen
Painting of The Batavia Castle seen from the Kali Besar West


Law is not only to be found in doctrine and documents, but also in structures and materials, in buildings and in cloth, in paintings and in photos. World historians use visual and material evidence to examine colonial courtrooms and other imperial legal spaces and to address broader questions of law, race and empire. This module uses a painting and a photograph from colonial Indonesia as examples of the construction of legal spaces within larger colonial dynamics and ethnic hierarchies.  


Spatial microhistories of colonial courtrooms and other imperial legal spaces offer a distinct way to think about law, race and empire. Law is not only to be found in doctrine and documents, but also in structures and materials. In buildings and in cloth. In paintings and in photos. 

In my work, I ask how legal spaces in colonial Indonesia were constructed, and what the consequences are of these fabrications. Indonesia is a large island nation -- an archipelago or nusantara -- in Southeast Asia and the Southeast corner of the Indian Ocean. Nowadays it is the fourth most populous country in the world – after only China, India and the US. It has the world’s largest Muslim population and is at the same time known for its diversity in religions and cultures; reflected in the nation’s slogan of “Unity in Diversity.” 

This emphasis in Indonesia on pluralism, with all of its nuances, problems and realities, also translates, now, as it did in the precolonial and colonial past, into the legal pluralism of adat—which means unwritten customs or customary law, later influenced by Islamic law. Now and in the past, adat, Islamic law and state law each play out in different ways and constellations on the many different Indonesian islands. In this module, we’ll take a closer look at issues of law, race and empire in Java, the most populous Indonesian island that was increasingly and heavily impacted by Dutch colonialism from the early seventeenth century until 1942.

The following historical anecdote shows how complex racial hierarchies and identities were central to and shaped colonial law. Pangeran Aria Achmad Djajadiningrat was a prominent Indonesian bupati (regent) under Dutch rule, who depicted the following childhood memory in his memoirs. One night, in the 1890s, when he was a Hogere Burgerschool (HBS, secondary school) student in Batavia, he and his friends decided to go on a quintessential teenage boys’ adventure; they attempted to visit a boarding school for girls at night. The boys were caught by the police and sent to the assistant resident (a Dutch administrator). But, upon arriving at his office, the assistant resident sent Djajadiningrat to the jaksa (local prosecutor) for punishment because he was Javanese. Djajadiningrat felt humiliated:
"One by one we were summoned by the assistant resident... However, when it was my turn and I mentioned my name, the assistant resident said: “Ah, so you are a native. Then you should go to the jaksa, who will refer you to the police law. [This action] severely hurt me.” 

Djajadiningrat was culturally and socially part of the highest class of society. He lived with a Dutch host family and was a student at a Dutch school in Batavia. He formally fell under the jurisdiction of European law courts through a privilegium fori (privilege of legal forum). This also exempted him and other elites from being punished by police law. Yet, when Djajadiningrat encountered the colonial system in Batavia, what counted foremost to the European resident was his Javanese background.

Multi-ethnic Batavia was constituted by a wide variety of people from around the Indian Ocean and Europe. A longstanding creolization, starting in the seventeenth century, had formed Indo-European, and Chinese-Dutch, Indo-Chinese, Indo-Arab and other elites through both marriage and concubinage. Throughout the four centuries of Dutch colonialism, the daily reality of a multi-layered and mixed hierarchy continued to exist, while simultaneously a binary legal system, especially regarding criminal cases, was put into place. The Landraden—law courts that were initially introduced in the countryside—were later introduced in the cities, physically separating law courts for Europeans and non-Europeans, but with a patchwork of exceptions such as the privilegium fori for different ethnic groups, mixed populations, professions and classes.

A loose category of “Natives and those equal to them” were tried by the pluralistic Landraaden, whose court members included a range of representatives from different elites such as the Chinese Captain and the Islamic advisor (penghulu). The Landraad was presided over by a Dutch colonial official, in court buildings that resembled the neo-classical style of their European counterparts, though on a smaller scale with less impressive pillars. At the Landraad, buildings were smaller, the procedures shorter and the punishments harsher.

This bifurcated legal system made colonial Batavia a space of uncertainty. This uncertainty - which emerged from continuous maneuvering, from always needing to read the room, from living in unwritten segregated, unequal overlapping spaces - was a burden, carried solely by those who did not have the full privilege of the white elite. The Indo-European, the Javanese, the women living in concubinage: they had to decide in each moment what their rights were, or might be. These rights could be taken away easily through systems such as the police law, political measures and interpretations of the manifold regulations that purposefully left room for flexibility when placing people in binary categories. The power of this uncertain system was mostly in the hands of the colonial officials, who could strategically use the partly overlapping spaces and flexible categories to impose their power and uphold a system of difference and inequality.

Non-white elites moved through this city well aware of its overlapping spaces of law, filled with written and, especially, unwritten rules. Where in one space the privilege of class and connections was enough to move freely, in other spaces race became an impenetrable barrier. In the case of the young Djajadiningrat his class connections ended up partially helping him when he faced the jaksa:

“Luckily, the family Meister (host family) had told me that the descendants of a regent in service, up to the fourth grade, cannot be adjudicated by the police magistrate. I told the jaksa that I was the son of the regent (bupati) of Serang, with the effect that I received only a reprimand, but not from the assistant resident, but from the jaksa...” 

A Javanese nobleman like Djajadiningrat temporarily losing his legal privilege is a rather exceptional story. Only few non-Europeans could even think about attempting to cross colonial legal borders in this fashion. Yet, the story opens up a way to think about Batavia through the lens of spaces of law. The stark legal segregation and identification of certain individuals as “other” co-existed with the daily reality of a multi-ethnic Batavia, a city framed through centuries of creolization and hybridity. 

How the various spatial layers (of law) co-existed within this larger urban dynamic becomes more visible by turning away from the documents and casefiles to situate ourselves in the (partially overlapping) spaces of law. A view from the court chambers helps us see who ends up walking through the doors or appears before an open-air court and who does not. Visual sources help us to follow the legal strategies employed to avoid, use or obscure those spaces that constituted the city of Batavia.

Primary Sources

The Batavia Castle

Painting of The Batavia Castle seen from the Kali Besar West

Seventeenth-century market in the city Batavia (nowadays Jakarta, Indonesia), the central node of Dutch imperial activities in the Indian Ocean region. The Batavia Castle is visible in the background and to its right the Council of Justice with the gallows and whipping post in front of it. The Dutch artist depicts a varity of people at the market. Inhabitants of different parts of the Indonesian archipelago, Chinese, Eurasians, Arabs, Japanese and Europeans are walking around, chatting, and buying or selling goods. Among these people are both free and enslaved persons, as more than half of the inhabitants of Batavia were enslaved at the end of the seventeenth century. Batavia became the central slave market of the region, where Europeans and Asians traded enslaved people, who were of non-European descent and originated from near or more far-flung places around the Indian Ocean.   

Questions for discussion: Who and what do you see on this painting? What were conversation topics the people depicted in the painting could have been talking about? What do the clothing, objects and goods tell you about Batavia and its inhabitants? The painting was made by a Dutch artist; how might this influence the painting and the impression of Batavia it presents to modern viewers? What kind of court cases do you imagine were adjudicated at the Council of Justice we see in the painting? How do you think this law court functioned in the early-modern imperial city?

This source is part of the teaching module spatial histories of law, race, and empire

The landraad in Pati

Photograph of the landraad in Pati in 1865

This is a photo of a mixed colonial law court, the landraad, in Pati, a town located on the island of Java, now part of Indonesia. The photo was made by the British photographers Woodbury & Page on the request of the bupati (regent) Raden Adipati Ario Tjondro Adhi Negoro. We know the names of a few of the court members. Seated on the chair on the left side is the Chinese Captain Oei Hotam. The third chair on the left side is occupied by the Javanese bupati (regent) Raden Adipati Ario Tjondro Adhi Negoro. Seated in the middle of the table is the Dutch resident P.W.A. van Spall, who is assisted by the Eurasian secretary H.D. Wiggers. Seated on the chair at the utmost right side is the Javanese-Islamic advisor penghulu hadji Minhat. The photo is taken around 1865, two centuries after the painting of the market in Batavia was made, when the Dutch had moved beyond the larger cities and colonized large parts of the island of Java. Control over coffee, indigo and tea plantations, sugar, later rubber – all supported by a growing colonial criminal law system – were the most important colonial reforms, with profound consequences for the Indonesian population of Java, Sumatra and increasingly also other Indonesian islands. The number of mixed courts, of landraaden, in Java increased from 2 in 1800 to 89 in 1874. Until the end of colonial rule in 1942, the landraad continued to function as a mixed court with all original officials present. 

Questions for discussion: Who and what do you see on this photo? What do the cloth and objects tell you about this law court and its members? The photo was made on the request of the Javanese bupati; how might this influence the depiction of the court and our impression of this law court as a modern viewer? What kind of court cases were adjudicated at this law court? What is different and what is similar about this depiction of Java, compared to the seventeenth-century painting of the market in Batavia?

This source is part of the teaching module spatial histories of law, race, and empire


Sanne Ravensbergen is a cultural historian of law in colonial Indonesia. Her interdisciplinary research connects the study of legal pluralism, materiality, and Dutch empire in Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean world. She obtained her PhD in History from Leiden University in 2018. From 2018-2021, she worked as a postdoctoral researcher on spatial and material encounters in law making and colonial commissions of inquiry in Southeast Asia. She is the co-editor of Islamic Law in the Indian Ocean World: Text, Ideas, and Practices (Routledge 2021) and has published articles and book chapters on colonial legal cultures in Indonesia and the postcolonial legacies of Dutch empire. She has taught undergraduate and graduate courses on the history of the Indian Ocean world, Indonesia, empire and law, colonial collecting (and repatriation), and decolonizing historical methods at the History department and the Honors College at Leiden University, the History department at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the Museum Studies program at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.

How to Cite This Source

"Short Teaching Module: Spatial Histories of Law, Race and Empire ," in World History Commons, https://worldhistorycommons.org/short-teaching-module-spatial-histories-law-race-and-empire [accessed June 13, 2024]