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Soul Catcher: Java’s Fiery Prince Mangkunagara I, 1726–95 (Review)

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Merle C. Ricklefs. 2018.
Soul Catcher: Java’s Fiery Prince Mangkunagara I, 1726-95
Singapore: NUS Press
ISBN 9789814722841

In Soul Catcher: Java’s Fiery Prince Mangkunagara I, 1726-95, Merle Ricklefs brings us another history of Java, this time through the lens of the first Mangkunagaran prince. Drawing upon not only Dutch sources, but also on Javanese sources, including Sĕrat Babad Pakunĕgaran, Mangkunagara I’s own account of his war years until 1757, this is an ambitious biography exploring Mangkunagara’s jockeying for position within Java and against the VOC. Providing an in-depth portrait of Mangkunagara, it also explores the political and social tensions within Java at the time.

Organized chronologically, the biography begins with Mangkunagara’s birth in 1726, exploring the politics of a kingdom already divided into factions since Sultan Agung’s death in 1646. Pakubuwana II, the king during Mangkunagara’s childhood and into his adulthood, was widely regarded as weak, and other actors, including his own grandmother, worked toward their own ends during his reign. It was into this tumultuous political atmosphere that Mangkunagara was born, and though he did not start out as a major player, by the second chapter, we see that at the age of 17 Mangkunagara was already making moves in that direction, rallying troops and riding into battle. Indeed, much of the focus in this volume is on Mangkunagara’s rebellion against the VOC and his various alliances and rivalries with other major powers in Java. In particular, most of the work deals with Mangkunagara’s alliance and subsequent break with Mangkubumi, a relationship that would remain important and contested throughout Mangkunagara’s life.

The second half of the volume chronicles the rest of Mangkunagara’s life, exploring the establishment of his court and his efforts to maintain this court as a true power, able to hold its own between the courts in Surakarta and Yogyakarta. Possibly because Sĕrat Babad Pakunĕgaran does not cover this part of Mangkunagara’s life, this section lacks some of the depth of the first section, in which individual battles, spiritual encounters, and anecdotes hinting at Mangkunagara’s character were explored in some detail. While this second section argues that Mangkunagara continued his struggle against the Dutch, even as he used them to shore up his own position politically, the reader may be left with questions as to the veracity of this argument. However, due simply to the lack of Javanese sources, a certain amount of ambivalence is to be expected, and we can instead conclude that, irrespective of Mangkunagara’s fluctuating loyalties, he remained a force to be reckoned with on and off the battlefield. Indeed, Ricklefs certainly demonstrates how Mangkunagara managed to balance the various powers vying for power in Java: Mangkubumi, Pakubuwana, and the VOC, all while maintaining his own position.

The backmatter includes maps, a family tree, and appendices discussing the most important Javanese and Dutch sources consulted, including the history of these sources and the possible circumstances surrounding their inscription. For example, Ricklefs posits that works such as Sĕrat Babad Pakunĕgaran were written in a rough form at the time of the events described and then copied over into a more finished, sekaran form. The appendices also include a brief exploration of other historical figures and events tangential to Mangkunagara’s life, such as Seh Ibrahim, an enigmatic Turk who played a significant part in brokering peace between Mangkubumi and the VOC. This backmatter expands on some of the historical context of Mangkunagara’s life and provides for some avenues of further investigation.

An important theme throughout the work is the inclusion of Islam. From the beginning, Ricklefs makes it clear that Islam was an important aspect of Javanese court life, referencing everything from Pakubuwana II’s Sufism-inspired grandmother to the framing of war against the VOC as a holy war.  While the permeation of Islam throughout Javanese society is now accepted, its inclusion in this volume is nevertheless important. The complexities of Muslim identity in Java are discussed in some detail. For example, Ricklefs notes that despite the holy war rhetoric there were also Muslims who fought on the side of the VOC. Furthermore, Mangkunagara exhibited a fondness for liquor and women, but nevertheless considered himself to be Muslim. Moments are even included when Javanese people discuss their own practice of Islam, demonstrating the existence of debates within Javanese society about how best to be Muslim, even as being Javanese was inextricably linked to being Muslim. As Ricklefs demonstrates, Islam permeated all aspects of Javanese life and of Mangkunagara’s life, with wayang wong performances occurring alongside Quran recitations.

This is a new and expansive work, demonstrating not only the space and need for biographies of important figures in Javanese history within English-language scholarship, but also the efficacy of using Javanese sources – which comply to a different set of standards than western histories – to trace Javanese history. Ricklefs skillfully draws upon the interplay between Javanese and Dutch sources, discussing the inconsistencies between both and what these inconsistencies might mean. Ultimately, Ricklefs demonstrates the wealth of information available in Javanese sources and the need for more scholarship in this area. Thanks to this melding of sources, Ricklefs has provided us with a portrait of Mangkunagara and his life, as well as a portrait of Java at a specific moment in time, while still situating the man and the island within the broader history of Java.

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