Semarang History Facts and Timeline

(Semarang, Central Java, Indonesia)

One of the major port towns during the Dutch colonial era, Semarang remains an important centre of commerce, industry and local Javanese culture.

Though it can trace its history back as far as the 9th century, when the town went by the name of Bergota, Semarang has a modern history that is truly a product of Dutch colonialism. It also has a tradition of revolutionary inclinations, from leftists as well as nationalists and Communists.

A Boarding School is Born

In the 1500s, an Islamic missionary from Java named Kyai Pandan Arang travelled from the neighbouring Sultanate of Demak and established a new village and Islamic boarding school where Semarang stands today. The missionary was later named the first regent (bupati), giving official birth to the town in the eyes of the rulers of Java.

Payment for a Debt

Roughly a century later, in 1678, the ruling regent of the time, Sunan Amangkurat II of the Mataram Dynasty, agreed to hand over governance of Semarang to the Dutch East India Company to repay a debt he had incurred. The Dutch colonial powers continued to squeeze the local sultans over trade balances, essentially forcing the Javanese lords to pay their bills with land and resources.

The history of Semarang has always been at the heart of the Dutch colonial effort to take over control of Indonesia. After years of occupation, the city was officially handed over to the Dutch in 1705 in another deal to wipe clean the debts of neighbouring Mataram. The Dutch East India Company received exclusive trading rights to the region and then began to transform Semarang into one of their main trading centres on Java.

Growth and Expansion of the City

The Dutch planted massive tobacco farms in the region around Semarang, built railway lines and roads to transport goods, and turned the town into Java's third-biggest city by the end of the 1700s. Much of the history of Semarang during this era of prosperity was influenced by its position in northern Java. It became the centre of colonial governance for the region, with many important Indo-European officials basing themselves here.

The Red City

The modern history of Semarang has largely been shaped by its revolutionary leanings. In the 1920s, it was one of Java's main hubs for nationalist and leftist activism. When the first Communist Party of Indonesia was formed around that time, Semarang was named the Red City.

Like the rest of Java, Semarang was occupied by the Japanese in 1942, during WWII. A Japanese governor was appointed and the residents of the city quietly simmered with rebellion under the occupation. When Indonesia gained independence in 1945, following the Japanese defeat in WWII, the city was immediately named the capital of the Central Java province.

Indonesia Gets Its Turn

As the youthful new nation of Indonesia grew, Semarang continued along its established path as an important port city and trading hub. This role continues today, evident around the bustling harbour and diverse ethnic makeup of the population, which includes a large community of Chinese.