Surabaya History Facts and Timeline

(Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia)

Indonesia's second-largest city, Surabaya is the gateway to eastern Java and a long-standing centre for Javanese pride and autonomy. Nicknamed the 'City of Heroes', Surabaya has a deep connection with the struggle for Indonesian independence.

Today, the city serves as one of the country's main ports of trade, travel and industry, with a richly diverse population and a bustling urban scene set to remain one of Indonesia's economic engines.

Early Records

Although the city is centuries old, not much is known about the early history of Surabaya, due to a lack of records. It was first mentioned in a book by Zhao Rugua (Chou Ju-Kua) written in 1225, in which he called it Jung-ya-lu, its ancient name. It is also known that the great Chinese explorer Zheng He sailed his treasure ship into the port at Surabaya in 1433, thanks to documentation by the historian Ma Huan.

The Spread of Islam

Much more is known about the happenings of this important East Java port city following the spread of Islam throughout the region in the 14th century. Evidence of the first sightings of Islam in the city can be seen at the Ampel Mosque in the Arab Quarter. The tomb of the famous Islamic preacher Sunan Ampel is still visited by thousands of Muslim pilgrims every year.

A War of Sultanates

By the 15th century, Surabaya had become a powerful sultanate. It was the main military and political force in eastern Java for decades until it ran into trouble with the Sultanate of Mataram, ruled by the legendary Sultan Agung at the time.

Sultan Agung captured Surabaya in 1625 in what emerged as one of the fiercest military campaigns ever waged by the powerful Mataram kingdom. Before Sultan Agung could attack, he first had to conquer Madura and Sukadana, its two principal allies. Once they were subdued, Agung laid siege to Surabaya and after several weeks was able to capture the city. With the city under his control, the Mataram kingdom ruled all of Java, except for the Dutch settlement at Batavia (Jakarta) and the strong Sultanate of Banten.

The East Indies Company

When the great Mataram kingdom was seriously weakened in the 1700s, the Dutch East Indies Company moved in and took control of Surabaya in 1743. With its prime coastal location, the Dutch quickly turned this into its main colonial naval base in the region. For many years, the history of Surabaya became intertwined with the trade and exploitation of the Dutch colonial power.

History of a Rebellious City

A revolt in 1917, led by the Indies Social Democratic Association and its local Surabaya sailors and soldiers, was the first instance of rebellion against foreign occupiers. This revolt was crushed, but it planted the seeds of rebellion that later sprouted in the 1940s, when the Japanese and then the British occupied the city.

After the Allies bombed Surabaya in 1944, the Japanese were crippled and the city was seized by Indonesian nationalists. This act was one of the first major movements in the fight for Indonesian independence following WWII and Surabaya was right in the heart of the action.

The Battle of Surabaya

The British stepped in to look after the Dutch colonies in the region, but the Indonesian nationalists were having none of it. They saw their chance for freedom and refused to back down, even in the face of an Allied ultimatum.

The Battle of Surabaya that followed in 1945 became pivotal in the fight for Indonesian independence. Though thousands of lives were lost, it was seen as a victory for the local rebels, and today the date of 10th November is commemorated as Heroes' Day, a national holiday.