By Peter J.M. Nas
By Peter J.M. Nas
The name Palembang is perhaps derived from the word limbang. This means panning for alluvial gold and, according to Van Rijn van Alkemade, during the latter half of the nineteenth century people still dived for gold in the Musi. However, the quantities found did not amount to much (Van Rijn van Alkemade 1883: 66). A more mythically-tinged account of the origin of the name runs as follows: When emissaries were sent from the great kingdom of Majapahit to establish a colony on the East Coast of Sumatra, it happened that the ship in which the passage was being made, sank near the mouth of the Musi. All that remained, a coconut (the ship had a cargo of coconuts), had to be used to reach the goal, so the coconut was cleft into two halves. These two halves were used as vessels, and the four people saved, who were brothers, took their places in them two by two. So they sailed up the river, lurching (limbang-limbang) through the rippling of the water, and finally they reached a place, which they dubbed Palimbang, which people corrupted to Palembang (Van Rijn van Alkemade 1883: 66).
One can build up a picture of the city and its inhabitants several centuries after it had degenerated into the haunt of pirates, from the impressions of the Europeans who visited Palembang in the course of last century. Just as it was in the recent past, Old Palembang was also built partly on piles and partly on rafts of bamboo and wood floating alongside the banks of the Musi. Besides these there were a few brick buildings, including the kraton and the royal graves. Transport was principally carried out by boat and De Kock thought that the river was too wide to be spanned by a bridge (De Kock 1846: 281). The built up area was situated on Ilir, the north bank. Here the remains of the old kraton are to be found, next to which a new brick built kraton with an alun-alun was constructed in 1780 (Van Sevenhoven 1823: 45). Behind the kraton stands a brick mosque dating from 1740, the architecture of which shows Western influences. Later on European districts developed in this part of the city. More downstream are a number of royal cemeteries, which also use brick. Upstream, on the north bank of the river near Bukit Seguntang, is another old cemetery (Van Sevenhoven 1823: 45; Sturler 1843: 184-190).
During the colonial period Palembang was divided into kampung, which all had names but which were also numbered. The Chinese, the Malays, and other foreigners mainly lived on rakit. These were not inhabited by either Palembang people themselves, or by Arabs. Initially the Dutch were accommodated in floating homes, which Van Rijn van Alkemade thought were nicely appointed and provided a dwelling that was both pleasant and cool (Van Rijn van Alkemade 1883: 67). The Arabs had a separate district but the other foreigners mainly lived among the other inhabitants. Van Sevenhoven said that the Chinese were forbidden to live ashore. The reason given for this was that the ruler feared the danger should this population group settle permanently and was to expand even more. As it was, whenever danger threatened, their rafts could be easily set alight. Later, however, the Chinese were able to establish a camp ashore, but on the south bank, where there were many richly appointed brick houses to be found during the colonial period (Van Sevenhoven 1823: 56). Here, by the way, once stood the small Dutch fort, which was conquered by a ruse by the sultan of Palembang in 1811, whereafter its inhabitants were massacred (De Kock 1846: 327).
As already mentioned, many Chinese lived on rakit. The floating homes of the wealthy among them mainly consisted of three parts: a front house, used as shop and warehouse; a rear section on a separate raft which contained kitchen and living quarters; and between them a raft which served as a sort of courtyard. It was also possible to come across floating bathrooms. The renovation of the rafts, after they had begun to rot, was achieved in stages, taking out the old bamboo and replacing this with new (Van Rijn van Alkemade 1883: 68). Commerce was carried out in the Chinese shops and also in small boats. Wholesale trade was dominated by Chinese and Arabs. When the Dutch arrived in Palembang they found no markets.
Van Sevenhoven (1823: 62-67) thought that the population of Palembang could be divided principally into the nobility (the priyayi) and the commoners, between whom there was a large gap. The ruler or sultan was elevated far above the nobility over whom he exercised fairly arbitrary authority. The group itself was formed of people of aristocratic descent or by those who had been raised to it by royal decree. The nobility were subdivided into pangeran, which was not a hereditary title and could only be awarded by the ruler himself; raden, the children of two pangeran; and mas-agus for the sons from a marriage between a pangeran and a commoner woman. The ordinary people were subdivided into three classes, namely the ki-mas, i.e., the sons of a marriage between the wife or daughter of a mas-agus with an ordinary man and the ki-agus, the sons of lower-ranking officials (mantri) and raden, the last-mentioned being married to a woman from the common people. The rest, the ordinary people, were divided into orang-miji, orang-fenan (servants, craftsmen, and soldiers who worked for the nobility), and debt-slaves and slaves (craftsmen and servants who did not work for the aristocracy). Besides these should also be mentioned the clergy and the officials who, it is true, formed a separate group but not a separate class. They came from the class just mentioned and were appointed or installed by the ruler. The various classes and ranks enjoyed specific rights and duties.
The gap between the ruler and the aristocracy, on the one hand, and the people, on the other hand, was great, but all the same it should not be overestimated. The aristocracy was directly related to the ordinary people, which can be seen in the fine distinctions in rank which have been mentioned above. This gap and the unity can be symbolized by the Indonesian waringin tree. As the waringin rises out of the ground, once it is firmly established it then sends out aerial roots downwards, this is exactly the way a rulership establishes itself on the humble respect of the masses, with whom it seeks and is given a genealogical tie (Van Mook 1926: 368).
On the south bank of the Musi, a few kilometres downstream, lies the oil harbour of Palembang: called, like the part of the city in which it is located, Plaju. This is where the Batavian Petroleum Company, which took over the already existing oil exploitation in 1907 and built a refinery, established itself. The oil is transported from three oil fields situated in the near vicinity: Muara Enim, Toman, and Baju Lencir. It produced petrol, kerosene, motor oil, and lubricant. Nearly one-fifth of all production of the Batavian Petroleum Company took place here. In 1912, the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey began its operations and set up a refinery in conjunction with the Netherlands Colonial Petroleum Company at Sungai Gerong on the opposite bank of the Komering. In 1922 Blink mentions that a large collection of factory buildings, tanks, and chimneys, connected to each other by pipes, rails, and electric cables, was to be seen at Plaju. He thought it the very picture of industry (Blink 1922: 173). Although logically it is part of the city of Palembang, Plaju can easily be characterized as a company town. It is a Western industrial enclave in an Indonesian setting, which had little direct influence on the city of Palembang itself. Both oil companies employed a large number of Western members of staff, engineers, geologists, doctors, and other employees. These had separate housing in well situated private areas provided with every possible convenience.