In the introduction to Soul Catcher: Java’s Fiery Prince Mangkunegara I, 1726–95, MC Ricklefs notes that fifty years ago the prospect of writing such a biography of a pre-20th-century Javanese figure would have been unthinkable. That such a project is now possible is surely in no small part down to the remarkable work that Ricklefs himself has done in the intervening half-century, opening up a wealth of archival sources as one of the foremost international scholars of Javanese history.
Though he is best-known to general readers for his A History of Modern Indonesia Since c 1200—a standard text, originally published in 1981 and now in its fourth edition—Ricklefs’s major research focus has long been the complex shifts of religious identity around the royal courts of Java, and in wider Javanese society, between the 18th and 20th centuries, a topic he has charted in a series of fascinating books. Now, having retired from his final professorship at the National University of Singapore, Ricklefs has gone back to the beginning of this period, with a rich scholarly biography of the mercurial rebel prince, Mangkunegara I, a man he describes as “a worthy companion in my retirement”.
Mangkunegara I, also known as Mas Said in his youth, was born at the Mataram court in Central Java in 1726, a nephew of the reigning king Pakubuwana II. He was later described by a Dutch official as “small in stature but amazingly animated and nimble of foot, with fire radiating from his eyes.” This energy and dynamism was in general contrast with many of the more senior Mataram royals of the day. As Ricklefs points out, since the death of the mighty Sultan Agung in 1646, Mataram “had not been blessed with another great or even moderately competent King.”
Royal ineptitude, amongst other factors, precipitated the outbreak in 1746 of a lengthy bout of civil war, which led, ultimately, to the Dutch-brokered partition of Mataram and the establishment of the jigsaw of Javanese royal houses that endures to this day. Mangkunegara was one of the major players on the rebel side, in uneasy alliance with his uncle, Mangkubumi, who would become the first Sultan of Yogyakarta in 1755. Eventually, after a bitter split with Mangkubumi, and following many years of rebellion, Mangkunegara came in from the cold and was granted a large appanage within Surakarta, the rump of the now bifurcated Mataram. Towards the end of his life, through canny allegiances with the Dutch, he succeeded in turning this personal fiefdom into a hereditary estate, the Mangkunegaran—in effect a permanent kingdom-within-a-kingdom, which survives in the 21st century.
Ricklefs charts this convoluted history with the assurance of one who commands the sources and knows the contexts intimately. This is a formal academic work, replete with footnotes and weighted with appendices, but it is delivered with the sharp prose and flashes of color and humor that have always made Ricklefs’s books eminently readable.
The most engaging chapters are, inevitably, those which cover the years of war, as Mangkunegara’s fortunes wax and wane, and as his uneasy allegiance with the more senior rebel, Mangkubumi, shifts. The personal tensions between these two men who would be king is convincingly conveyed, and the impression of land in a state of chronic flux is apparent—with Dutch forces, Madurese mercenaries, and various disgruntled royal cousins variously ranged around the hapless central court.
Fascinatingly, Ricklefs makes clear the hostility that rebel leaders such as Mangkunegara could often face from the villagers through whose communities they passed. In later mythologies a rebel prince might be portrayed as a faultless romantic hero, but for a local peasant of the time, he was often little more than a rarefied looter. Mangkunegara’s party was sometimes subjected to a sort of rough music, with hostile villagers beating pots and pans as they passed.
The major sources for this book are Javanese-language babads and serats, contemporary chronicles describing 17th-century battles and courtly intrigues, in particular the Babad Giyanti and Mangkunegara’s autobiography, the Serat Babad Pakunegaran. Ricklefs’s career-long engagement with texts of this sort gives him what must by now be an instinctive surefootedness in their handling. It is refreshing to see Dutch sources relegated here to the second rank of precedence.
Ricklefs also knows how to present such Javanese concepts as wahyu (divine radiance) and prophecy as concrete components of realpolitik. He points out that, in an 18th-century context, such matters ought not to be seen as lurid exotica: in the same period Europeans also “had a capacity for interpreting natural phenomena in supernatural ways.”
The book’s scholarly analysis of the political contexts is enlivened by well-considered tidbits of color. On his eventual rapprochement with the established court, Mangkunegara had to be convinced by the Dutch official Nicolaas Hartingh to drink red wine instead of his preferred gin, “a drink consumed only by common people and not suitable for a prince.” At one point, at the height of the civil war, the ears of dead opponents were apparently served up to those rebel soldiers judged insufficiently brave in battle, with an accompaniment of prawn crackers and chili sauce!
At one point, recounting a key battle in 1754, Ricklefs includes an excerpt from War and Peace by way of analogy. It’s a telling literary reference, and the career described in this book does indeed have an epic quality worthy of Tolstoy, though ultimately, for a common reader, Mangkunegara himself is not quite so compelling a character as Mangkubumi (whose tale was told in full in Ricklefs’s first book, Jogjakarta under Sultan Mangkubumi), or as the later, and equally mercurial, Diponegoro (whose life is superbly described in The Power of Prophecy by Peter Carey, the other great non-Indonesian scholar of Javanese history). But Soul Catcher is nonetheless a fascinating account of the life and times of a man “made up of many strands”:
warrior to the tips of his fingers, devout Muslim of the Mystic Synthesis style, lover of Javanese culture, father (of 25 children) and grandfather, frustrated and sick prince, devotee of beautiful women and Dutch gin.
Students of Javanese history will surely hope that Ricklefs continues researching and publishing in his retirement. But if this turns out to be his valedictory contribution to the field, then it is certainly a fitting high-note on which to finish.