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Jakarta’s earliest history centres on the port of Sunda Kelapa, in the north of the modern city. When the Portuguese arrived in 1522, Sunda Kelapa was a bustling port of the Pajajaran dynasty, the last Hindu kingdom of West Java. By 1527 the Portuguese had gained a foothold in the city, but were driven out by Sunan Gunungjati, the Muslim saint and leader of Demak. He renamed the city Jayakarta, meaning ‘victorious city’, and it became a fiefdom of the Banten sultanate.

At the beginning of the 17th century the Dutch and English jostled for power in the city, and in late 1618 the Jayakartans, backed by the British, besieged the Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) fortress. The Dutch managed to fend off the attackers until May 1619 when, under the command of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, re­inforcements stormed the town and reduced it to ashes. A stronger shoreline fortress was built and the town was renamed ‘Batavia’ after a tribe that once occupied parts of the Netherlands in Roman times. It soon became the capital of the Dutch East Indies.

Within the walls of Batavia the prosperous Dutch built tall houses and pestilential canals in an attempt to create an Amsterdam in the tropics. By the early 18th century, the city’s population had swelled, boosted by both Indonesians and Chinese eager to take advantage of Batavia’s commercial prospects.

By 1740 ethnic unrest in the Chinese quarters had grown to dangerous levels and on 9 October violence broke out on Batavia’s streets; around 5000 Chinese were massacred. A year later Chinese inhabitants were moved to Glodok, outside the city walls. Other Batavians, discouraged by the severe epidemics between 1735 and 1780, also moved, and the city began to spread far south of the port.

Dutch colonial rule came to an end with the Japanese occupation in 1942 and the name ‘Jakarta’ was restored, but it wasn’t until 1950 that Jakarta officially became the capital of the new republic.

Over the next four decades, the capital struggled under the weight of an ever-increasing population of poor migrants, but by the 1990s Jakarta’s economic situation had turned around. This all changed, however, with the start of an economic collapse at the end of 1997. The capital quickly became a political battleground and protests demanding longtime leader Soeharto’s resignation increased in intensity in early 1998.

After months of tension the floodgates opened on 12 May 1998 when the army fired live ammunition into a group of students at Trisakti University; four were killed. Jakarta erupted in three days of rioting as thousands took to the streets. The Chinese were hardest hit, with shocking tales of rape and murder emerging after the riots.

Over the past few years Jakarta has braved a spate of natural and unnatural disasters. In August 2003 the US-owned Marriott Hotel was bombed and in September 2004 Australia’s embassy experienced a similar fate; both nations were targeted for their involvement in the Afghanistan and Iraq occupations. Flooding disabled many parts of the city in 2002, 2003 and 2006, causing massive damage to homes and public services, and bringing more misery to the abject poor.

However, the biggest problem facing the city may still be its ability to handle protesters. A proposed increase in fuel and utility prices in January 2003 caused thousands to hit the streets and forced the government to backtrack on its plans. However in October 2005 it went through with fuel increases amid widespread protests; fortunately military intervention was not required to maintain calm, but if fuel prices are raised once more violence could easily erupt on the streets of the capital.