Bali first caught the eye of the West in the early 16th century, when Portuguese and British fleets crossed the seas in search of sources for the lucrative spice trade. But it was not until the Dutch adventurer Cornelis de Houtman landed on Bali in 1597 and sent home reports of an exotic island of lush beauty, peopled by charismatic kings and overflowing with riches, that Bali claimed a place in the European imagination. De Houtman’s reports, published in Holland, captured the interest of other explorers, and a steady stream of treasure-hunters set sail for the fabled isle seeking a share of its bounty. But the Bali they found disappointed. It had none of the goods — the exotic spices, the precious gold, or the valuable opium — that were filling the pockets of those early European traders with such fantastic wealth.
Bali’s growing reputation as a warlike land ruled by royal barbarians and populated with fierce fighters who worshipped strange gods and manipulated the pagan forces of magic also helped keep the island free of foreign influence. While Holland was busy building its colony that would eventually grow to span most of the length of the Indonesian archipelago, Bali remained relatively untouched by the tremendous changes that were sweeping across neighboring Java and Sumatra. Until the 19th century, Bali attracted the interest of the colonial powers mainly as an exporter of slaves, those prisoners of war, peasants, debtors and criminals who were sold by the powerful Balinese nobility in the markets of Batavia – today’s Jakarta — where they commanded a high price for their renowned beauty and skill.
But Bali’s freedom from colonial rule was not to last. Beginning in the 1810s, Bali again attracted the notice of Europe. The Napoleonic Wars had set Holland and England against each other, and the victorious British took control of the East Indies, the vast empire the Dutch had built. In 1811, Sir Stamford Raffles — who would later become famous as the founder of Singapore — was appointed governor of the colony. Raffles soon became a great admirer of the Balinese, whom he described as possessing “a higher cast of spirit, independence, and manliness than belongs to any of their neighbors.” Raffles was fascinated with Balinese culture, which he saw as a “living museum” providing a glimpse into the past of neighboring Java. Bali, he believed, offered a pristine picture of a glorious Hindu civilization, free of the influence of Islam, a religion which he perceived, like many Westerners of his day, to be threatening and barbaric.
When Holland again gained control of the East Indies, Raffles’s devotion to Bali aroused the suspicion of the Dutch, who feared the British were planning to set up another Singapore on the island and threaten their trade monopolies. Determined to block any British attempt to gain a foothold in the land they believed should be rightfully theirs, the Dutch set out to conquer Bali once and for all. But victory did not come so easily. In 1846, the Dutch led a large military force against North Bali, but they met with stunning defeat when they faced down a fearsome army led by a Balinese commander, Gusti Ketut Djelantik. To the great embarrassment of the Dutch, Djelantik and his warriors were able to hold back the Dutch in a violent series of battles that lasted until 1849, when the Balinese force was destroyed by an army from Lombok, who saw the conflict as a chance to take control of Bali for themselves. Eventually, the Dutch and the Balinese signed a treaty giving the colonial powers rule over the north of Bali, and a tense peace held until the turn of the 20th century.