Behind the palace walls: gendered social practices in early nineteenth-century Bali
In March 1828, at the height of the Java War, Pierre Dubois, a minor and relatively unknown colonial official, took up his appointment as Civil Administrator to the Prince of Bali-Badung. For the next three and a half years Dubois was stationed at Kuta; for most of that period he was the sole European in Bali. His only official responsibility was to recruit soldiers for service in the colonial army. Then, in June 1829, he received and accepted an invitation from the Batavian Society of Arts and Sciences to document his observations of Bali. Over the next decade, until his death in May 1838, Dubois worked on his Bali project, revising and refining his richly detailed account of the island’s politics, religion and society. In this first sustained and detailed eyewitness ethnographic account of Bali, he regularly turned his attention to the lives of women and, in particular, to the two major social institutions that affected the women of the court: the self- immolation of royal widows at their husbands’ funerals, and the system of institutionalised prostitution that generated substantial revenue for the royal coffers. Dubois was an exemplary ethnographic proto-fieldworker, whose nuanced and sensitive treatment of these gendered elite social practices is an important new resource for the history of sexuality in the Indonesian archipelago.
Helen Creese is Associate Professor in Indonesian in the School of Languages and Cultures at the University of Queensland, Australia. Her research interests include Balinese history and literature.