The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana: A Nobleman’s Account of His Journeys Across the Island of Java, 1860–1875, by Judith E. Bosnak and Frans X. Koot (eds.)

In: Bijdragen tot de taal-, land- en volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia
Tom Hoogervorst Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) The Netherlands Leiden

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Judith E. Bosnak and Frans X. Koot (eds.), The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana: A Nobleman’s Account of His Journeys Across the Island of Java, 1860–1875. London: The Hakluyt Society [Series III, Volume 36], 2020, xxii + 272 pp., ISBN: 9780367530051, price GBP 96.00 (hardcover).

Southeast Asianists have long realized the importance of travelogues in studying the region’s past. While the majority of travel-writers were outsiders, a homegrown tradition—of a less mystical, more descriptive character than anything previously attested—arose during the course of the nineteenth century. Southeast Asia’s best known authors of travelogues, such as “Munsyi” Abdullah Abdul Kadir, Ahmad Rijaluddin, and Abdullah bin Muhammad al-Misri, wrote in Malay. Diplomatic voyages formed another category, exemplified by a Siamese description of Bali (Graves & Kaset-siri 1968) and multiple Vietnamese reports on their neighbors to the south (Salmon 2013). In addition, a number of pilgrims and scholars described their journeys to the Middle East and/or Europe from the second half of the nineteenth century. The writings of Javanese aristocrats (priyayi) strike me as less conspicuous in the field of Southeast Asian Studies. I know of only one book-length study discussing a selection of their works (Dhanu Priyo Prabowo et al. 1995).

The book under review here focuses on Raden Mas Arya Candranegara, the son of a westernized, multilingual family based in Demak. Candranegara served as the regent (bupati) of Kudus (1858–1880) and Brebes (1880–1885) and was the uncle of the famous women’s rights activist Raden Ajeng Kartini. His pseudonym Purwalelana can be translated as “Wanderer of the Past” or “First Traveler” (p. 22). During his lifetime he was indeed among the very few Javanese people in a position to travel independently. The publication in 1865 of his travel accounts—involving a first-person narrative, prose rather than poetry, distribution through a printing press, and even footnotes—represented a watershed moment in Javanese literature. Similar works soon followed and the tradition continued into the twentieth century.

The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana differs from earlier annotated translations of this text (e.g. Bonneff 1986; Bosnak & Koot 2013) in its broad accessibility, including to non-Javanists. The volume contains useful and extensively cross-referenced front and back matter: a note on the illustrations; a note on edition, translation, and orthography; a glossary; a detailed introduction situating the travelogue in its historical context; a translation of the Javanese text; and nine appendices, consisting of a) a brief summary of pre-nineteenth century Javanese history; b) information on royal palaces (kraton) and the square areas in the center of Javanese towns (alun-alun); c) the Javanese calendar; d) the colonial administration in Java; e) Javanese titles, functions, and honorifics; f) the Javanese language; g) Javanese poetic conventions; h) weights and measurements; and i) botanical names. In addition, the book is adorned with four maps, twenty-four color plates, seventy-three figures, and five diagrams, most of which are relevant to the story. Such a wealth of information is hardly redundant to fathom Candranegara’s locally embedded and culturally textured experiences. To appreciate all the things this nobleman described, we are invited to also study the world he inhabited.

Candranegara’s story itself (pp. 35–226) was originally divided into two volumes, both containing two journeys each. For his first journey, our protagonist traveled westward, to Batavia and West Java. The second journey took him in the opposite direction, to Surabaya, Banyuwangi, and Java’s north-eastern coast. The third journey brought him to Surakarta and other parts of central Java. During his fourth journey, he visited Yogyakarta and the surrounding areas. Throughout his travels, Candranegara described the rich variety of clubs, hospitals, gardens, offices, warehouses, Chinatowns, harbors, barracks, schools, factories, forts, and modes of transportation he encountered. With the exception of most of Java’s north-west coast and the Banyumas area, he explored almost every part of the island he could reach, providing valuable snippets of local history from a non-European perspective. I was particularly struck by his description of gigantic animal bones excavated in the residency of Rembang (p. 180), which local villagers associated with supernatural beings and Dutch scholars with prehistoric elephant species (Veth 1875: 112).

Candranegara’s Javanese erudition permeates the book, even in translation. We see it in his allusions to classical literature and the encapsulation of a traditional poem (pp. 197–205) in the main text. Graves of saints and other religious sites enjoyed his attention, as did local music and dance performances, the dress and accents of people he met, and the stories they told, supernatural or mundane. Few non-Javanese authors would have recognized traders from Kudus away from home, or commented on the encroaching habit of sitting on chairs. Conversely, Candranegara barely mentioned the reportedly atrocious traffic we read about in contemporaneous European descriptions of Java (pp. 25–26), even though he was clearly fascinated by infrastructural development, engineering, and architecture. His critical side cropped up whenever he disparaged the quality of the roads, the houses of local regents, or the information provided by his informants. On quite a few destinations, he curtly reported that there was nothing interesting to see.

The editors are to be commended and congratulated for their careful translation of Candranegara’s Javanese prose, which is innovative in its departure from several stylistic conventions, yet continues to draw heavily from the language’s poetic repertoire. I can only think of some very minor points to be made here. The word wringin technically denotes the benjamin fig (Ficus benjamina) rather than the banyan tree (Ficus benghalensis). While the editors rightfully point out that the Javanese plant names temu lati and walulin—like innumerable Indonesian botanical terms—have not been satisfactorily ascribed to known taxa (p. 258), the word merakan can be identified as black speargrass (Heteropogon contortus). Regarding the unidentified “Sidney thoroughbreds” (p. 58), or kapal téji sidni in the original text, we may recall that New South Wales provided the ideal climate for horse-breeding. By the mid-nineteenth century, a robust Australian breed counted as a status symbol in the Indies and elsewhere in Asia, although these “Sydney horses” never replaced the smaller, sturdier horses of Java’s mountainous interior.

If one has never dabbled in Javanese literature, this book is one of the best companions to cross the threshold. It is of interest to historians and other scholars of the humanities, perhaps more so than philologists who already have the original source at their disposal. It deserves to be read by Indonesianists, Southeast Asianists, and arguably by historians of the nineteenth century in general. I hope that Candranegara’s keen observations, complemented with those of the book’s rigorous editors, will find their way into the broader literature on his region and time period. It is only apposite—and in fact long overdue—that the nobleman’s views are now available to the English-speaking world. On a final note, The Javanese Travels of Purwalelana offers the perfect foundations for a digital humanities project where one can reenact Candranegara’s journeys and receive information about the sites he visited. Thus far, similar infrastructures have predominantly been developed around western “explorations”.


  • Bonneff, Marcel (1986). Pérégrinations javanaises. Les Voyages de R.M.A. Purwa Lelana: une vision de Java au XIXe siècle (c. 1860–1875). Paris: Editions de la Maison des sciences de l’ homme Paris.

  • Bosnak, Judith E. and Frans X. Koot (eds.) (2013). Op reis met een Javaanse edelman: Een levendig portret van koloniaal Java in de negentiende eeuw (1860–1875). Zutphen: Walburg Pers.

  • Dhanu Priyo Prabowo, Adi Triyono, Imam Budi Utomo, and Sri Haryatmo (1995). Kisah Perjalanan dalam Sastra Jawa. Jakarta: Pusat Pembinaan dan Pengembangan Bahasa.

  • Graves, Elizabeth and Charnvit Kaset-siri (1968). ‘A Nineteenth-Century Siamese Account of Bali with Introduction and Notes.’ Indonesia 7: 77–122.

  • Salmon, Claudine (2013). ‘The Hạ châu or Southern Countries as Observed by Vietnamese Emissaries (1830–1844).’ Archipel 85: 135–150.

  • Veth, P.J. (1875). Java: Geografisch, Ethnologisch, Historisch. Haarlem: Erven F. Bohn.

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