Batavia was the headquarters of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). As such, it was the most powerful center of trade and power in Southeast Asia, and dominated the region until the founding of Singapore in 1819.
Batavia was built near the site of the Sundanese principality of Jayakerta. The Dutch East India Company had established relations with the prince in 1610, but it was only in 1619, after a local conflict, that Governor-General Jan Pieterszoon Coen took full possession, destroyed the old town and palace, and chose the site as VOC's permanent headquarters. Initially the city was dominated by Company personnel, above all military, a small but thriving Chinese business community, and slaves. After mid-century, the nature of Batavian society changed rapidly. Ambitions to turn Batavia in a European settlement colony were cast aside.
Behind the façade of a European town, much admired by visiting Europeans, was an Asian city of truly cosmopolitan dimensions. At its highest point in the 1720s, the city harbored almost 30,000 inhabitants and Company personnel within its walls and more than 80,000 in its vicinity. It became a magnet for Chinese, Malay, Indian and Arab traders, Javanese labor migrants, and military auxiliaries from the archipelago. But above all it was the slave trade that dominated the demography of Batavia. The cultural boil of slaves and migrants gave rise to the typical Betawi (Batavia) culture, combining traits of the many immigrant groups into its own idiosyncratic blend.
In the eighteenth century two disasters befell Batavia. First were the malaria epidemics that held the city in its grip since 1732, taking an immense human toll of all newcomers to the city. Only the shift of the city several kilometers inland around 1810 took away the most glaring effects of the endemic malaria.
Second was the massacre inflicted upon the Batavian Chinese in October 1740. In only a few days, around ten thousand Chinese were murdered in a frenzied panic by Europeans as retaliation of a revolt of desperate Chinese laborers in the countryside. Chinese migrants soon returned to Batavia, but were concentrated more intensively than before in their own quarter in the area called Glodok—still a predominantly Chinese neighborhood in present-day Jakarta.
Batavia's growth was reversed by epidemics and by the official ban on slave trade in 1812. Besides, the colonial state after 1799 was manned much more sparsely than its Company predecessor. After the Napoleonic wars and the British occupation of Java (1811–1816), Batavia developed as the capital of a expanding exploitation colony. More than anything else, the city was the seat of colonial administration and heavily bore the imprint of in the form of a strictly hierarchical society, dominated by European officials. But a truly imperial city it never became. Architectural pomp never was a characteristic of the Dutch "empire."
Batavia remained a commercial center. Until about 1870, trade was primarily geared towards channelling the fruits of the infamous Cultivation System, with its forced delivery system of agricultural produce to the Dutch government, to be sold at the world markets. Industry was hardly an asset of Batavian economy and would be developed to the full only after independence. By 1880, harbor functions were concentrated in the new facilities at Tanjung Priok, eight kilometers east of the old town, offering a deep harbor where ships could load and at quays. The old concentric town of VOC days had evolved into a tripartite structure of administrative and residential area at Weltevreden (nowadays around Medan Merdeka), services and trade offices in the old town (Kota), and shipping and industry in Tanjung Priok.
After 1900, new technologies, modern lifestyles and education left their marks on Batavia, first mainly among the European classes. Gas lamps lighted the streets, cars took over the streets from after 1900, movie theatres became wildly popular, and shops offered an increasing range of international fashion clothing and technical novelties. These products became increasingly available to Indonesians and Chinese, as was western education. Batavia harbored many institutions of higher education, such as a medical school, law school and school of arts. These curricula brought together Indonesians from around the archipelago and became the hotbed of Indonesian political activities.
In March 1942, Japanese forces occupied the city without as much as a gunshot fired, changed its name into Djakarta, and made it into the headquarters of the 16th Army, the new authorities over Java. Now it was the Europeans who were evicted from the city and imprisoned in guarded city quarters and camps.
The centrality of Batavia in nationalist visions of an independent Indonesia became clear by on 17 August 1945, when Sukarno and Hatta proclaimed the independent Indonesian Republic in the city. For some months the city was the theater of revolutionary and counterrevolutionary violence. Under pressure of the returning Dutch, the seat of the Republic was moved to Yogyakarta, only to return after the formal handing over of sovereignty on December 27, 1949. Jakarta retained its dual character as center of the political establishment as well as of intellectual dissent until the present day.