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Introduction to Bengkulu

Bengkulu is the smallest and least populated province of Sumatera - less than one million people on a surface of 21,168 square kilometers. The province covers an area of 500 km long stretch of unspoiled beaches, protected by a stretch of mountains which soon flow into the mighty Bukit Barisan. Tigers and elephants wander through the remains of the original rain forest, where exotic rafflesia's and orchids grow.

Bengkulu used to be the only British colony in Southeast Asia for over 140 years. It was founded as an alternative source for pepper, after the Dutch got rule over Banten in the 17th century. This small British outpost along a low populated shore however has never been of much value: the importance of pepper on the world market was rapidly descending and Bengkulu was too far away from the main trade routes to mean anything. From 1685 to 1825 the books of the British East Indian Company reports very bad trade, boredom and early death because of malaria.

Fortress York, the first British base, was founded in 1685, followed by the construction of Fortress Marlborough two kilometers ahead in 1715. The British thought that the local population was 'indolent' and it was usual to punish their leaders. When William Dampier was in Bengkulu in 1690, he found two of those leaders chained because 'they didn't bring in the demanded amount of pepper to the Fortress'. Outside protests of the British government, this form of punishment was common into the beginning of the 19th century.

Bengkulu was awakened from apathy during Raffles reign (1818 - 1824), but in 1825 the colony was transferred to the Dutch, in trade for the acknowledgement of the British influence on the Malaysian peninsula and Singapore. During his stay in Singapore, Raffles started to explore the sea, what eventually ended in the foundation of Singapore. His enjoyment over the booming economy of his new colony was overshadowed by the sad fact that three of his four children died in Bengkulu.

The British influence was kept limited to the small coastal planes. The mountainous hinterlands were annexed by the Dutch in the 19th century after a number of military expeditions. Shortly before the turn to the 20th century the Dutch discovered that the mountains near Bengkulu contained tremendous gold deposits and the province soon became the biggest gold-producing province of the Dutch Indies.

The population of Bengkulu consists of four main groups. The Rejang are the mountain people and form the majority. They are divided into two groups: the highland Rejang and the coastal Rejang which have moved to the western lowlands. In the south live the Serawai, which are related with the Pasemah in the highlands around Pageralam en Gunung Dempo.

In the capital there are many Malay people. The province of Bengkulu has been inhabited ever since the pre-historic times, which is proved in the findings of stone tools in the northern area, and the discovery of megalith constructions and old drums from the Dongson type in the south.

The isolated island Enggano just of the southern beach is the living habitat of another group. For a long time the Engganese were protected by influences from outside, because of there remoteness, but eventually they were struck by pocks and other diseases which were brought to the island by Western expeditions at the end of the 19th century. Around the end of the 19th century it is tried to bring fresh blood into the group, but that didn't succeed as well. During the reign of Soekarno, the island has temporarily been a prison island as well.

Last revised on October 24, 2009
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