Bengkulu, capital and largest city of Bengkulu Province, is not only the center of the provincial administration and facilities but it is also a city steeped in history. Traces of the great bygone era decorate major parts of the city and radiate a distinct classic ambience.
With a total area of 245.67 km², the city of Bengkulu is situated on the south-west coast of Sumatra directly facing the Indian Ocean. The city was once named ” Bencoolen” by the British and “Benkoelen” by the Dutch. It is said that the name “Bencoolen” was derived from the English word “Bent Coal land” since the area was blessed with an abundance of coal. However, another version suggests that It is derived from the local language Bangkahulu or Bangkahuluan from the Javanese language, where “Bang” translated means coast, and “Kulon” means west.
Following the rule by the Kingdom of Banten on Java and the Minagkabau of West Sumatra over the area , Bengkulu fell to the British in the 17th century. At the time when the Dutch established the Verenigde Oost Indië Compagnie or VOC, the British founded the East India Company (EIC) and the two would engage in an endless battle for control over the spice trade in the area around the Malacca Strait, especially in the trade of pepper. To protect their interest here, in 1714 the British built Fort Marlborough. The Fort is known as the second largest fortress built by the British's EIC in Asia and has been well preserved until today. However, Bencoolen was never financially viable, because of its remoteness and difficulty in procuring pepper. Despite these drawbacks, the British persisted, maintaining their presence there for 150 years.
The British colonization of Bengkulu was faced with many conflicts and resistance from the local population. In 1719, the British were driven out of Bengkulu, although they managed to return. In 1807, the British Resident or Governor Thomas Parr was assassinated by a local of Bengkulu and was later replaced by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. To commemorate his services, in 1808 the British ruler erected the Thomas Parr Monument about 100 meters from Fort Marlborough, which can still be seen today.
Immortalized in thename of the gigantic flower Rafflesia Arnoldi , which has become the icon of Bengkulu Province, Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was the last British Governor before the British finally ceded the territory to Dutch in exchange for the island of Singapore. During his reign in Bengkulu, the British governor occupied a residential house which was also used for government activities. Nowadays, the building of the British Governor’s House still stands in its original architecture and is used as residence for the present Bengkulu Provincial Governor.
The British eventually ceded Bengkulu to the Dutch colonial as part of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 to focus their attention on Malacca. Like the rest of present-day Indonesia, Bengkulu remained a Dutch colony until after World War II, when Indonesia declared her Independence in 1945.
Probably, the most notable of all the British traces in Bengkulu is the British Christian Cemetery which became the final resting place for British troops in colonial times. The cemetery is also acknowledged as the biggest Christian cemetery in South East Asia.
During the imprisonment of Soekarno by the Dutch in the 1930s, the future first president of Indonesia lived in exile briefly in Bengkulu City. Here he met his wife, Fatmawati, who gave him several children, the most famous being Indonesia’s first female President Megawati Sukarnoputri. The house of exile of Soekarno remains well preserved along with some of the most historical items that once were used by the country’s first President.