Cirebon (formerly referred to as Cheribon in English) is a port city on the north coast of the Indonesian island of Java. It is located in the province of West Java near the provincial border with Central Java, approximately 297 km east of Jakarta. The urban core of Cirebon is very small in extent, however, its dense suburbs sprawl into the surrounding regency. The seat of a former Sultanate, the city’s West and Central Java border location have seen its history influenced by both Sundanese and Javanese culture as well as Chinese.
Being on the border of “Sunda” (i.e., West Java) and “Jawa” (i.e., Central Java), many of Cirebon’s residents speak a dialect that is a mix of Sundanese and Javanese. It is thought that the word “cirebon” derives from the Javanese word, caruban, meaning “mixed”, a reference to the city’s mix of Sundanese, Javanese, Chinese, and Arabic cultural elements. Alternatively, it could be derived from the Sundanese words of “Ci” (water or river) and “Rebon” (“shrimp”). (Indeed, the main production of the city is fishery including shrimps).
Aside from fishery, its harbour, Tanjung Emas, on the Java Sea has been a major hub for timber from Borneo. A small landing site “Penggung” also serves the TNI-AU. The city lies on Jalur Pantura (Pantai Utara Jawa), a major road on the northern coast of Java that stretches from Anyer, passes through Jakarta, and ends at Surabaya.
According to the manuscript Purwaka Caruban Nagari, in the 15th century Cirebon started as a small fishing village named Muara Jati. At that time the port of Muara Jati already attracted foreign traders. The port master at that time was Ki Gedeng Alang-Alang, who was appointed by the king of Galuh kingdom, located inland in Kawali, Ciamis. Ki Gedeng Alang-Alang moved the port to Lemahwungkuk, 5 kilometres southward. As the new settlement leader, Ki Gedeng Alang-Alang was bestowed the title “Kuwu Cerbon” (Cerbon village leader).
A prince from Pajajaran, Prince Walangsungsang, converted to Islam and was appointed as Adipati of Cirebon with the title Cakrabumi. He established the new kingdom of Cirebon and declared independence from Galuh. The establishment of the Cirebon sultanate marked the first Islamic rule in Western Java, which grew from the modest fishing village of Muara Jati to a busy port on Java’s northern coast. Cirebon grew as one of the independent sultanates under the leadership of Sunan Gunungjati, in the early 16th century.
The kingdoms of Banten and Mataram fought over Cirebon, which declared its allegiance to Sultan Agung of Mataram. But the later Mataram king ceded the city to the Dutch in the 1677. A treaty in 1705 saw Cirebon become a Dutch protectorate jointly administered by three sultans whose courts rivalled those of Central Java.
During the time of the Dutch “Culture System” a flourishing trade in colonial cash crops attracted many Chinese entrepreneurs and the Chinese influence is still evident in the batik for which Cirebon is famous. Cirebon suffered a famine in 1844, apparently triggered by a combination of drought and the shift from subsistence agriculture to cash crops, particularly indigo and sugarcane.