The Koran requires a written contract of marriage and dowry for a wife, sets the number of wives at four, prescribes equality of status between the wives and their equal treatment by the common husband. Islam does not limit a man in the number of slave girls he may have in his household. The Koran describes attendance by many virgins as a man’s reward in paradise. Indonesia’s Muslim kings reproduced this vision by maintaining households filled with women. European travelers record huge numbers of women in the households of seventeenth-century archipelago kings: three thousand women in the palace of Sultan Iskandar Muda of Aceh, twelve hundred in the Banten palace, four hundred owned by a king of Tidore, ten thousand in the palace of Amangkurat I of Mataram.
Java’s kings exhibited no obedience to Islamic regulation where equality of wives was at issue. Principal wives were ranked as queens and officialway for a more favored newcomer. Javanese terms for women below the rank of consort express the degrees of their servility. Priyantun-dalem were women residing at court who were married by the king during their pregnancy and divorced after birth, so that the child was legitimate and the number of legal wives at any one time never exceeded four. Lelangen dalem translates as “royal playthings”; they were palace women such as dancers whom the king did not marry, but any children they had by the king were recognized and raised by him. Lembu peteng, which means “dark cows,” was the term applied to girls whom the king sampled on tours. Children born from such brief encounters were neither recognized nor raised as royal.
The inner part of the palace was a city of women. In addition to wives and concubines, personal attendants and female officers were in charge of preparing and tasting the king’s food and carrying his regalia. Four thousand women in Amangkurat I’s palace were textile workers. Aceh’s sultans had boys castrated and employed as palace eunuchs to guard their households of women. In Java’s palaces women armed with pikes and muskets guarded the household and protected the king against assassination. When he ventured in public they formed a human wall around him. Guards often became temporary wives.
Royal polygamy was a mechanism by which a king acquired allies. He took into his household women who were daughters of all classes of men: princes, nobles, army commanders, vanquished princes, village heads, religious teachers, artisans. The daughters born from the king’s liaisons could be distributed to other men. Princesses were married to vassals of royal descent and to military commanders; girls born to commoner mothers were bestowed on village heads or Chinese merchants. Men receiving a wife from the king could boast of enjoying royal favor.
There was always a web of tangled relationships in court and country-side. Men summoned to court to pay homage were in the presence of the many women reserved for the king. Women used their powers to secure the king’s attention, to detach him from other women and their kin, to form cliques of supporters. They competed to further the fortunes of their sons and relatives.
An immediate consequence of royal polygamy was to create many claimants to the throne among sons and brothers of the king. Polygamy introduced a multigenerational dimension to the royal family, for a ruler who lived to old age could be surrounded by sons who were themselves already fathers and even grandfathers, as well as sons who were still infants. A king’s adult sons might be very close in age, born within weeks of each other to different mothers. Succession did not automatically pass from father to oldest son, but to the son who could demonstrate highest status through his mother. Where a king had no son by a queen, the highest status claimant could be a brother, uncle, or nephew. Adult men passed over for succession by a boy were likely leaders of revolt.
Men whose origins were a mystery readily claimed a royal for a father. Babad literature contains episodes of young men appearing at court to lay claim on the king. Their unruly behavior and their inability to conform to the norms for men raised by abandoned women were held as proofs of royal paternity.
In scholarly literature on power, Java’s royals are presented as preoccupied with inner quietude and spiritual power. The reality was that half-brothers could never accept the elevation of one of their number as king.
For eighty years, royals raised armies to compete for the throne of Mataram. They recruited Bugis, Balinese, and Dutch mercenaries to shore up their throne or attack a rival. Java’s kings were rarely able to win loyalty or affection from their subjects, so they were exposed to challenge from siblings. Royal polygamy weakened Mataram and created conditions in which the Dutch became the rulers of Java.