Navigating the History of Canals in Indonesia: From Classical Times to the Dutch Colonial Era

Since classical times, the Indonesian archipelago has been known for its many man-made waterways, showcasing the technical prowess and perseverance of its people in engineering the environment. Examples include the Chandrabaga and Gomati Rivers, remnants of the Tarumanegara era. In eastern Java, there is the Serinjing River, a relic of the ancient Mataram Kingdom. These canals were built to control river flow, prevent flooding, and provide a water source for agriculture.

During the colonial era, the Dutch, who ruled Indonesia, continued the canal construction. In the Netherlands, canals were used for transportation, sanitation, and security. In Indonesia, the Dutch built several canals in Jakarta and Semarang, some of which still exist today. One of them is the Kali Baru Timur, or Oosterslokkan, flowing from Bogor to Jakarta, following the course of the Ciliwung River.

The Ciliwung River has been an important route since prehistoric times, serving as an entrance to Bogor besides the land route. Tome Pires, a Portuguese explorer in the 16th century, noted that the journey from Sunda Kelapa Port to Dayo (around present-day Bogor) took two days via this river. The Ciliwung River served as the main link between the inland royal center and major ports like Sunda Kelapa, Banten, Pontang, Cigede, and Tangerang.

From the late 17th to the early 18th centuries, the VOC (Dutch East India Company) expeditions to the southern part of Batavia resulted in the discovery of ancient cities. The VOC then built villages around Bogor, which later developed into districts. To transport goods from the interior, the VOC constructed water channels, one of which was built by Demang Marta Wangsa in 1739, using the Ciliwung River as its source.

This canal construction was continued by Governor-General van Imhoff in 1749, extending the canal to Batavia, and completed in 1753. However, the canal could not be used due to insufficient water flow. In 1776, the government built another canal called the Westerslokkan to increase the water flow of the Oosterslokkan by connecting the Cisadane River and the Ciliwung River.

Although the Westerslokkan successfully increased the water flow of the Oosterslokkan, the VOC’s plan to turn it into a navigational canal failed due to irreparable damage. In later years, there were ideas to revive this plan, but they remained plans and were never realized.

From this historical record, we can see the significant role that man-made canals have played in the development of infrastructure and agriculture in Indonesia, as well as how ambitious plans to develop canal systems as transportation routes have not always been successful.