How Surabaya Got Its Name, Part 2: Steel Forged in Conflict

Heroism and strength course through the East Javan metropolis’ veins like lifeblood. But from which wellspring did this mentality originate?

According to lore, Surabaya’s roots lie in the clash between two great creatures. Before the city’s formation, the shark Sura and the crocodile Baya stalked the water and land, lording over their respective domains like colossi: the shark became one of the masters of the water, and the crocodile rose to equal prominence in the swamps and marshes and rivers of the mainland. 

And as they established their authority, the pair became aware of one another’s presence. Inevitably, they would clash in bloody and terrible battles over the things one would expect; food and supremacy. But as the saying goes, the unstoppable force met the immovable object, and strength soon came to recognise strength. 

With no clear victor, the two long-lasting foes developed a bond of mutual respect of the kind shared by equals. Their fierce clashes saw Sura and Baya give no quarter. But one day, the pair fought so desperately that even they could fight no more. They succumbed to their wounds. But even in death, the pair’s essence raged. Sura and Baya’s fighting spirit became immortalised in their final resting place, so much so that the inhabitants of this area combined their names into a new word that symbolised the symbiosis of strength and determination and the refusal to back down. The perfect foundations for the birth of a new city.

Read more: How Surabaya Got Its Name, Part 1: The Shark and the Crocodile.

And thus did Surabaya come into existence, with a name that reflected the bloody battles between its first inhabitants. The two creatures formed the city’s logo, circling one another in perpetual readiness for combat. Theirs is an existence of harmony and equilibrium: neither enjoys prominence over the other. 

And so, the people of Surabaya adopted the predatory instincts shown by the shark and the crocodile: strength and survival. 

Foes vanquished

Courage became the bedrock of Surabaya. In the thirteenth century, a psychic from the court of the Kediri Kingdom foresaw a battle between two brutish creatures: a giant white shark and an equally ferocious crocodile. But rather than being founded in lore, these visions symbolised a more vivid encroaching threat in the form of the Mongol invasion of Java in 1293.

At the time, the Majapahit Kingdom, led by Raden Wijaya, waged war with the Mongol forces. The invaders, under the control of Kublai Khan, represented the shark, an approaching threat from the water. The Javanese adopted the form of the crocodile defending its territory. Here, the language surrounding Surabaya acquired further depth. For some, ‘sura’ referred to survival, while ‘baya’ meant danger. Symbolically speaking, ‘Surabaya’ could translate as the courage to face impending conflict.

This danger became apparent in 1292. Khan wished to expand the Yuan dynasty’s reach. He thus extended his tendrils into Java, with tens of thousands of soldiers at his command. The incursion’s original intent was punitive, to punish Kertanegara of Singhasari, who refused to pay tribute to the Yuan and maimed one of their emissaries. But Kertanagara was of stubborn stock and refused to submit until his eventual overthrow and death at the hands of the Kediri Kingdom. Headed by Jayakatwang, these usurpers assumed the mantle of power in Java.

Perhaps groaningly, Khan redirected his efforts toward attaining submission from the Kediri successors. The invading tartar army stormed into their Javanese foes with the force of a tidal wave, aided by the support of Wijaya, Kertanegara’s son-in-law. A fierce campaign brought about Kediri’s surrender and the death of Jayakatwang. But it did not bring power to the Mongols. Wijaya was a shrewd tactician who used the Mongol forces for his own end.

With his Mongol allies exhausted by the fighting, Wijaya struck with rapier-like swiftness. He turned on the Mongols and drove them away to China. The ensuing vacuum gave him the power, space and freedom to form the Majapahit Kingdom, with a reach that extended far beyond the archipelago. 

And thus did the prophecy of the shark and the crocodile come to pass. Only this time, the reptile overcame the fish and became the dominant force. Come the Second World War, this never-back-down attitude served the populace well, especially in light of the proclamations of the seer-king Jayabaya.

Much like Nostradamus, Jayabaya prophesied many scenarios. Some were so vague as to appear nonsensical. But others resounded with unerring accuracy. Jayabaya foresaw the arrival of Dutch colonists in the sixteenth century, and his power of divination extended a further 400 years: the arrival of Japanese forces on Java in 1945. These invaders, Jayabaya wrote, would occupy the land for the lifetime of a corn-stalk.

Violence dawns

However, even the short-lived corn-stalks can bear witness to many violent acts. Jayabaya foretold a great clash between the Javanese and the occupiers. Although the Japanese fell, the British replaced them, seeking to place Indonesia under NCIA rule. This hostile period led to the Battle of Surabaya from 28 to 30 October 1945. The participants: the Suroboyo youth and the British.

Events escalated. At first, the Javanese overcame the unsuspecting occupiers, and the authorities brokered a ceasefire. The three-day conflict had ended. But the death of a British official sparked further antagonism and an ultimatum. The residents of Surabaya would have to surrender their weapons by 9 November or face the consequences.

But Sura and Baya awoke once more and defiantly swished their mighty tails. The Suroboyo would back down to no one. Undaunted, they allowed the ultimatum’s deadline to pass and braced themselves for the British onslaught. The next day, the fight for Surabaya city began. 

Three weeks of bloodshed solidified Surabaya as the City of Heroes. Its people did not buckle against the might of the allied forces, whose advanced weaponry trumped the defenders’ sharpened bamboo and cunning. Tens of thousands died defending their homeland, which provided a foretaste of the bloody steps they would have to endure in Indonesia’s march to independence in 1949.

And close to the citizens’ hearts, a crocodile and a shark continue to circle one another. Never once have they retreated, and their fiery spirit still rages through the veins of Surabaya.


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