Although they never figured as prominently in the capital's history as the ethnic Chinese, Arabs and their descendants have resided in the city since the 17th century. Several prominent Indonesians, including current Minister of Foreign Affairs Alwi Shihab and his predecessor Ali Alatas, are of Middle Eastern descent. This is the 74th article in our series on Old Batavia. When people in Batavia, now Jakarta, needed to borrow money in the past, they had options other than banks.
They often went to moneylenders in the Arab community, who were known as prudent in managing money and for their acumen in trade and business. The community settlement, Pekojan, in the present downtown Kota area, came into being 300 years ago and a thriving community lived there until the 20th century. Pekojan was named for Koja (Moors), as immigrants from Gujarat in western India were originally called. Some of their heritage, in the form of the oldest mosques in the city, remain to this day, namely the Al-Anshor mosque, probably dating back to 1648, and Kampung Baru and Annawir mosques, both of which were erected about 1750.
Another legacy is Langgar Tinggi, a raised prayer house. Unfortunately, population counts during the era of the Dutch East Indies Company seldom had a special category for Moors, let alone for Arabs, said Huub de Jonge in his monograph A Divided Minority, The Arabs of Batavia in Jakarta-Batavia, Socio-Cultural Essays, edited by Kees Grijns and Peter J.M. Nas. "After 1800, however, Arabs start to be mentioned in population figures. At the beginning of the 19th century, about 400 'Arabs and Moors' lived in Batavia, a number which changed little during the following decades," de Jonge said.
Another expert on Jakarta's history, Susan Abeyasekere, said there were never more than a few hundred Arabs in Batavia, although today not much was known about them. "In some way they replaced the role of Moors and Indians of previous centuries," she said in her book Jakarta A History. But de Jonge said that in 1885 Batavia had 1,448 registered Arab inhabitants, while between 1900 and 1930 the Arab minority increased from 2,245 to 5,231, comprising more than 7 percent of the total Arab population of the Netherlands Indies.
"The census of 1930 made clear that the Arab minority had developed into an established community. Although each year newcomers from Hadhramaut (in Yemen) arrived in Batavia, particularly after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, most of the growth was accounted for by those born in the Indies," said de Jonge. Adolf Heuken, in his paper Arab Landowners in Batavia, noted that people from Hadhramaut were usually small traders who lived in Pekojan and Krukut (West Jakarta); after improving their social status, they usually moved to Pasar Baru and Tanah Abang, both in present-day Central Jakarta.
The Arab population also spread to other neighborhoods like Petamburan and Tanah Tinggi (Central Jakarta), Sawah Besar (West Jakarta) and Jatinegara (East Jakarta). Literature mentions that trade and money lending were their principal ways of making a living. Lending money, usually at an exceptionally high interest rate, was especially popular among new immigrants, said de Jonge "If a debtor could not pay back his debts, the creditor was usually eager to lay his hands on the possessions left."
Arab immigrants were also famous as traders of commodities, mostly fabrics, especially imported cotton, batik and clothing. They were also involved in trading furniture, precious stones, perfume, leather goods and foodstuffs. Itinerant Arab vendors were well known for allowing customers to pay in installments, with the profits often invested in houses, shops and land. Unlike the Chinese, who owned and cultivated their land, Arabs usually leased it to others or made a profit through resales.
"The Arabs wanted to make quick profits, they didn't care about land cultivation," said Heuken. A few of the Arabs were among the richest people in Batavia. Moreover, starting from the 19th century the ethnic group was the second most important foreign Asian trading minority after the Chinese, according to de Jonge. I In 1885 the value of real estate owned by local Arabs in Batavia amounted to 2.5 million guilders, Several among them owned whole estates, like Sayid Ali bin Sjahab and Bassalama, landlords of Menteng and Kwitang Oost respectively, both in the present Central Jakarta area.
Abeyasekere wrote that among the reasons the Arabs did well economically was apparently from the fact that by the late 18th century several merchants in town belonged to the slave owning business elite. One of the richest Arabs at the end of the 19th century was Said Abdullah bin Alwi Alatas, a third-generation immigrant, who, besides large tracks of land, owned a foundry and machine works and imported horses. In about 1890 he bought the neoclassical country house that today is the Textile Museum near Tanah Abang and Jl. K.S. Tubun in Petamburan, still an Arab area of the city.
"The purchase of the mansion marked the move of wealthy Arabs from Pekojan to Tanah Abang," Abeyasekere said. Arabs also played a significant role in the religious field - as preachers or scholars - especially the sayid (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad). Abeyasekere said that because they came from the Arabian peninsula, the origin of Islam, they were highly respected as religious leaders by local Muslims in Batavia. A famous propagator of Islam was Sayid Abubakr bin Abdullah al-Aydrus, a grandson of Sayid Abdullah bin Hussein al-Aydrus who was buried in the old Luar Batang Mosque, North Jakarta.