Gusti Dertik in Batakland

May 19th, 2011, in History, by

Gusti Dertik (Dr.Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk) was, so we are told, the greatest nineteenth century Western student of Indonesian languages, possibly rivaled only by Brandes, a quite different type of scholar (and different type of human being). He laid the foundation for the comparative study of Indonesian languages by the formulation of two phonetic laws “without which”, according to the later testimony of the scholar of Malay Van Ronkel , “no scientific treatment of an Indonesian language is possible.”

He was born in 1824 in Malacca just before this place, through the London Treaty of 1824, exchanged its Dutch administration for a British one. His father was a totok Dutchman who had married the daughter of a totok German and a Eurasian. This latter fact explains Van der Tuuk’s rather ‘exotic’ appearance. On one of the few photographs available of him he looks, as Rob Nieuwenhuys rightly said, like nothing so much as an old fashioned elderly Chinese toko owner.

Van der Tuuk

The change over in Malacca to a British administration necessitated Van der Tuuk Sr., who occupied a position in the judiciary there, to move, in 1825, to Surabaya where he became president of the district court (‘landraad’). Thus his son spent the first twelve years of his life in an environment where he, through his playmates (and the servants), made his first acquaintance with Malay and Javanese. At the end of this period he was sent, for further education, to Holland where he was admitted, at the age of 15, to the University of Groningen to study law. But he only did a first year exam in that subject and then shifted to his lifelong interest: languages, among others Arabic, Javanese and Malay. Ultimately he moved to Leiden University where there were greater opportunities for such studies and where he added Sanskrit and Persian to his repertoire. I have not been able to get much information about his personal life in this period except for a fragment of a letter to a friend he wrote soon after his arrival in this old university town. The servant girls here, he wrote, get themselves screwed ‘pro deo’ adding ‘I have screwed only once’. Perhaps his studies kept him too fully occupied. There was then in Leiden no degree study in oriental languages (that only came about in 1877) and so Van der Tuuk left this university without any degree (his later doctorate was ‘honoris causa’) but with a phenomenal reputation for his aptitude for languages. The Arabist Professor Juynboll Sr. persuaded him to take up a job with the Dutch Bible Society that was then looking for a person to translate the bible into a Batak language and to compile a Batak grammar and a Batak-Dutch dictionary. Van der Tuuk was far from religious, a thing that was rather clear to that Society from the start, but both parties needed each other here. So, end 1847, he received his official appointment and one of his first moves was to go to London where he hoped to find some Batak manuscripts. In the libraries of East India House and the Royal Asiatic Society he did find some, half a dozen in fact, that he had to copy by hand. He also used the opportunity to draw up two catalogs of the Malay manuscripts to be found there.

Almost two years later, in Sept. 1849, he arrived in Batavia where he promptly fell sick and ended up in the Military Hospital there. He was, and remained, a fanatical worker though, and in this hospital he conceived a study of what he called ‘Centralisatie Maleis’ (standard educated autochthonous Malay).

He finally departed for the Batak lands in 1851.


He travelled to Padang in a salt vessel owned by Arabs. From there he had to go on to Siboga overland. Since he was not a civil servant he was not entitled to their perks re transport and he had trouble to get his things moved there. Years later he reported that he had been asked to pay 4,000 guilders for this. It is unlikely that he actually paid this sum, which I estimate to be at least the equivalent of 20,000 Euro today.

Siboga was not exactly the ideal place for his study of Batak since Malay merchants were the main inhabitants there. The Bataks who used to live there had withdrawn to the interior. Van der Tuuk managed however to find a native speaker willing to live with him and gradually his house also came to be used by Bataks coming for trade from the interior. A military officer who used to know him at that time wrote later that he often found up to half a dozen Bataks sleeping on the floor in his house. Van der Tuuk used the opportunity to babble with them.

But as said Siboga was not the ideal place for his studies and ultimately he moved to Baros, where the VOC had once a trading post. The place was reoccupied by the Dutch in 1839. The Batak population there was relatively affluent because of its long established trading activities, with camphor (‘Kapur Baros’) as its main trading item.

From Baros, a coastal place, Van der Tuuk made various trips into the interior attempting at one stage to reach Lake Toba. Earlier attempts by British and Dutch travelers had floundered on Batak resistance against foreign intrusion into this area. Even the famous Junghuhn had not managed to get there in a trip he undertook in 1840. He in fact denied the existence of the lake altogether. Van der Tuuk at first planned to travel together with the then well-known Austrian female explorer Ida Pfeiffer but she finally preferred to travel alone, perhaps having been put off by the linguist’s strange manners. However, she didn’t reach the lake (she was regarded as a witch and forced to return) but Van der Tuuk did, becoming the first Westerner to do so. He had set out with twelve travelling companions among whom a Malayan horse dealer whose advice would later save his life. In Bakkara, the Toba seat of the Batak ‘priest king’, the Sisinga Mangaradja, the travelers did not exactly get a friendly reception. His companions had thought to facilitate their passage through the Batak lands by spreading the rumour that Van der Tuuk was the returning older brother of the Sisinga Mangaradja who had been kidnapped in a Padri raid some thirty years earlier. The established Prince, fearing competition, didn’t take kindly to that and at one stage the linguist and his companions were in a precarious situation. They were surrounded by thousands of people, armed with lances, who according to Van der T., were arguing whether or not to let these intruders end up in their pots. The travelers had only two pistols and a hunting rifle between them but Van der T. put these pistols, on the advice of the Malay horse dealer, to strategic use. He wrote

“at the moment that some gentlemen were talking and licking their lips about the most tasty of us I got from the Malay horse dealer the wholesome advice to move with my pistols as close as possible to His Holiness and to put these at the least movement in front of his holy mouth, I saw at this my gesture that he considerably changed his tone …Our withdrawal from Bakkara was more a flight than a departure”.

Elsewhere however he received a far more friendly reception and he encouraged people who had some literacy to write things in their language, all kinds of things, songs, stories, riddles, proverbs etc. In this fashion he gathered twenty folio volumes, each of about three hundred pages, which are now in the university library at Leiden.


Van der Tuuk did not only gather oral information but set great store by the study of texts and copied manuscripts wherever he could. This was not always easy. He wrote at one stage:

“In the region Aek na oeli I got to read, at an important Batak chieftain, a pustaka in which there was also a story about the creation of the world. One can safely deduce from this that there are in the Batak lands still stories and chronicles. One of these days I hope to get hold of a pustaka that describes the foundation of the state Nai Pospos. It is a pity that the Bataks have become horribly wise in these things and ask you with incredible impudence a present for borrowing a book. Thus the chieftain mentioned above asked me as a price for borrowing this pustaka a European dog of the size of a calve, twelve large bottles of jenever (Dutch gin AB), ten Spanish ‘matten’ (old Spanish silver coins worth about two and a half guilders AB) and three padang rusaks (a sort of shawl of Acinese make). So I had to forget about making a copy.”

Meanwhile he had to get on with his translation of the bible which bothered him a lot because he thought it an absolutely useless task that took him away from his real linguistic studies. He wrote in 1854 to the Bible Society:

“I know that my letter would be more agreeable to you, if I came up with the frequent lie that “the Bataks feel the need of a Saviour, they thirst for the Holy Word” etc. I know that such fine words would be more agreeable to you and give you more courage for our cause, but it has been until now impossible for me to write such a thing, and I even take the liberty to doubt such niceties when applied to the Dayaks, the Javanese and other peoples, and to ascribe these things for the larger part to a lack of intimate social intercourse with the native in general”.

And on another occasion he wrote:

“I have often asked myself the question whether this zeal among Protestants in spreading Christianity is not a form of comedy, to throw dust in the eyes of the dumb herd, since the way in which this task is approached, must look ridiculous to the native.”

Though Van der Tuuk had obviously very little enthusiasm for the attempt to christianise the Bataks yet he was also irritated by what he saw as the tacit pro-Islam attitude of the Dutch administration. He had a lot of critique on this administration in general blaming its ignorance of the local language for the dependency on local clerks who could be easily manipulated and bribed by the local chieftains. Thus the complaints of the common man hardly ever reached the ears of those in authority and the chieftains used the liberty this gave them among other things to distribute corvee services (‘Herendiensten’) arbitrarily, according to the bribes they were paid for absolving some from these duties. On the other hand one gets the impression that the civil administration resented what it saw as the unwarranted interference of missionaries in general. There was also a wider political aim for this tacit pro-Islam attitude having to do with the fear that a diversity of religion would lead to unrest and strife – a vision that, ironically, has come to be substantiated after independence. Van der Tuuk’s skepticism about the whole matter was also fed by his clear awareness that the christian missionary was in an impossible position anyway because he belonged to a social category that was not recognisable to the Batak. Thus he could not compete with the proselytizing efforts by moslem Malays who were traders and recognised as such. And then there was, of course, in addition the ‘obstruction’ by the Dutch government.

In 1857 Van deer Turk wrote to the Bible Society:

I cannot forego either to warn you against the direction of the Van Brugghen-Simons government because this cannot be favorable to you. Mr. Simons might be orthodox protestant for Holland, here in the Indies he is a moslem and equally so Mr. Mijer, who has suddenly turned his coat. If the Bible Society is too credulous about the intentions of these gentlemen it will achieve nothing to speak of. Mr Simons is totally Delft, that is against christianity.

(the city of Delft was then the seat of the training college for future civil servants for the Indies, a task that later was allocated to the faculties of “Indology” at the universities of Leiden and Utrecht).


The stay in Baros became finally too much for Van der Tuuk. He complained that it was a ‘miserable hole’ where he couldn’t find a bookbinder and where the climate was so humid that he often had to copy his documents three or four times to prevent them from becoming illegible. What particularly irked him was that he couldn’t live with a woman there because of his connection with the Bible Society. This also enhanced the dubiousness of his social position with the Bataks who had contempt for an unmarried man. Moreover he had to forego another excellent avenue for getting more intimately acquainted with the language

He wrote:

“How did Winter get his great knowledge of Javanese? Not because he was born in Java but because he could start living like a Javanese. If I, who is regarded as a missionary, would get married to a native girl, the whole world of the Indies would claim that I was keeping a harem … The Bataks find it very strange that I am not keeping a girl like the others, and they still present me daily with an opportunity to get related to them. They just cannot understand why I am not willing to enter into that …”

and on another occasion:

“There is only one means to stick it out here without becoming prey to a melancholy that drags body and soul to the grave, and that means is inducing a stupor either through opium or through drinking, or by being continuously on the move … I could attempt to live as a Batak but it may be doubted whether I would be allowed to live in a kampong here because the Batak always thinks that there is something political behind it.”

So in 1857 he departed for Holland, a country he had never found congenial and soon we find him complaining that when he was out and about in that rainy climate and needed a piss he found it almost impossible “to simultaneously hold on to his pecker, his cigar and his umbrella”.

Nevertheless the decade he spent after this in Holland allowed him to order and publish the host of materials he had gathered in the Batak lands and to continue his linguistic studies. In 1868 he departed again for the Indies, this time for Bali where he would lay the foundations for the massive Kawi-Balinese-Dutch dictionary, a work that after his death was completed by Brandes. I would later like to say something about this period as well.

There is in Wikipedia an extensive entry on Van der Tuuk that also provides a concise bibliography of his writings.


18 Comments on “Gusti Dertik in Batakland”

  1. avatar David says:

    Brilliant stuff again Arie, remarkable industrious man, and he does look like a Chinese merchant. This is a classic:

    I know that my letter would be more agreeable to you, if I came up with the frequent lie that “the Bataks feel the need of a Saviour, they thirst for the Holy Word” etc.

  2. avatar JakartaJaap says:

    Thanks for that, extremely interesting, although I am concerned at his ‘pecker-cigar-umbrella’ nexus. Perhaps if the cheroot was in the appropriate receptacle….

  3. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Yes David, to judge from these two photographs his Chinese appearance became more pronounced with age. Apparently Van der T. had no clue about the Asian part in his mother’s ancestry. He preferred to believe that he had some Portuguese ancestors way back – and Portuguese was one of the first languages he studied. Malacca was of course occupied by the Portuguese before it was taken over by the Dutch.

    The “Chinese’ photograph was taken around 1890 (when Van der T. was in his late sixties) in the time that you still had to remain motionless for a while to get your picture taken. To judge from his facial expression he didn’t particularly enjoy that. But he was neatly dressed for the occasion. Normally, so we are told, he just walked around with a sarong around his hips.

    Jaap it does indeed sound a bit like a conundrum. He never told us how he managed.

  4. avatar Rune Ellingsen says:

    This post is very informative and idealistic. Everyone should know the importance of history just like Gusti, he made his purpose through its success and it so amazing how people do this way.

  5. avatar ET says:

    Besides his reputation to the end of his life in Bali as an eccentric his name there lives on in the after him and Hans Frederic Liefrinck, a contemporary controleur and one of the most outstanding scholars on Balinese culture and social structures, named library of lontar-manuscripts in Singaraja, the largest collection of Balinese manuscripts in the world.

  6. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Thanks for mentioning this ET. I missed out on Singaraja when I was in Bali. But isn’t the Liefrinck Van der Tuuk library now called Gedong Kirtya? It would be pleasing to encounter an exception to the general rule that in Indonesia, other than in the Philippines, there has been a massive endeavour to erase all names reminiscent of the “ci-devant regime”.

  7. avatar Lairedion says:

    Interesting read, Arie.

    Worth noting is that the Toba eventually adopted a German-influenced Lutheranism which resulted in HKBP, the largest Protestant church in South East Asia. The Karo, however, went for a Dutch-style Calvinist Protestantism.

  8. avatar Arie Brand says:

    I was aware of the work of the German missionary Nommensen (who seems to have been another outstanding personality) and the’ Rheinische Mission’ in general but I didn’t know that the Karo were converted to a Dutch style Calvinism, as you say. Neither do I know which missionaries had that on their conscience.

    I have never seen any comments by Van der Tuuk on Nommensen’s Batak translation of the New Testament though it is quite likely that he had a critical look at it.

    You are probably correct in saying that the HKBP is the largest Protestant church in Southeast Asia. However when it comes to the question what the largest Southeast Asian protestant church is in general then some might nominate the Filipino Iglesia ni Cristo which has branches all over the world including in Sydney (and Jerusalem). Its precise membership is not known but some estimates claim that it is as high as ten million. It has an extraordinary political influence in the Philippines because its membership tends to come up with a bloc vote.

    Through personal circumstances I got to know something about that church and I would not hesitate to call it Protestant of the fundamentalist variety (for one thing it is fiercely anti-Catholic and has declared the RC Church to be an apostasized one). However, many INC members would be uncomfortable with that label, I think, because it came about almost one century ago as an entirely indigenous Filipino church and no foreign church organisation or missionary had anything to do with it.

  9. avatar David says:

    I find it baffling that Calvinism could take hold among any group here, not that I’m hostile to Calvinism at all as I find it very appealing in a way, it appeals to my ascetic, pessimistic and fatalist (although to a Calvinist fatalism is pagan) bent, but… Catholicism I can understand, in that it’s kind of softer, more flexible in accommodating indigenous beliefs and customs, and it has pagan aspects to it built in, but Calvinism seems altogether too harsh and dour for ‘tropical’ peoples. It would be interesting to know how it occurred, whether it was a top down thing or what, etc.

  10. avatar Lairedion says:

    Arie, you are probably right about the INC. For me the Catholic image of the Philippines is hard to get rid of.

    David, the VOC, in an era of fierce Calvinism, banned Catholic missions, but Dutch efforts were limited to small non-Muslim areas. With conversion mission schools arrived and both the Ambonese and Minahasa embraced education enthusiastically. This education also put them in higher positions and social status than other indigenous peoples. I think this element of education was equal importance as Calvinist ideology for the Dutch to succeed in Maluku and Minahasa,

    Today we see that the Gereja Masehi Injili di Minahasa (GMIM) (where many of my relatives are member of), the Gereja Protestan Maluku (GPM) and even the Gereja Kristen Indonesia (GKI) have their roots in Calvinism and are members of the World Communion Of Reformed Churches. But not in a way they resemble the various classical Calvinist churches in the Dutch Bible Belt in austerity and rigidity. For instance 65% of the GMIM pendeta are female and services often display a positive and joyful atmosphere.

  11. avatar ET says:

    Indeed, the library is now simply referred to as Gedung Kirtya after the in 1928 established Kirtya Liefrinck-Van der Tuuk. If you ever happen to be in Singaraja, it’s located in Jl. Veteran N° 22. If you’re lucky you may witness a staff member copying old lontar inscriptions onto new palm leaves or being practicing the art of prasi (drawing on palm leaves).

  12. avatar Thalassa says:

    Arie, amazing write-up! Could you also perhaps discuss a bit about why the history of the Mandailing Batak have been so divergent from those of the other Batak tribes. Why did Islam succeed with them and not the others?

  13. avatar Arie Brand says:

    Thalassa, perhaps the real question is why the other Bataks were christianised because it seems to me that Islam was really the default option here. There were to begin with many more Islamic Malay traders, who often proselytized for their religion, than Christian missionaries. Being traders they belonged for the Batak to a recognizable social category whereas with the Christian missionaries Bataks wondered why they were there at all. The attitude of the Dutch government that was pro-Islam by commission and omission also played an important role. Wherever that government established itself Malay and Malays started to play an important role. The government schools had teachers proficient in Malay who were mostly Moslems. They did apparently not hesitate to engage in some religious teaching on the side.

    Also, the governmental clerks, who were intermediaries with higher authorities, were often Moslems. This encouraged the chiefs, who had a vital interest in having good relations with them, in that direction as well because, as Van der Tuuk said, a pork eating individual couldn’t even approach them.

    I understand from Van der Tuuk’s letters that all these factors played an extra strong role in Mandailing because the commissioner (“Resident”) of the division Tapanuli had his seat in Mandailing, in Padang Sidempuan.

    In Van der Tuuk’s time that was a certain Mr. Netscher who has published himself quite a bit on the Batak lands. Van der Tuuk feared only obstruction from him and was therefore not inclined to settle temporarily in Mandailing to study the language more thoroughly. He wrote on the 10th January 1855 to the Dutch Bible Society about his study of Mandailing:

    I have made considerable efforts with this dialect, as you can gauge from the enclosed documents. Much is of course still lacking because I don’t have the opportunity to listen to Mandailing on a daily basis and my stay in that region would not only cost me too much but encounter in all probability obstruction from the sweet boy we have now as divisional commissioner. That man is scared that in that way his arbitrary actions might come to light . . I will only try to stay in the Mandailing districts after Mr.Arbitrariness has been removed.

    And elsewhere he wrote that in:

    the governmentschools in Mandailing Batak script was neglected, that the pagan districts Lower – and Upper Angkola were placed under Moslem chiefs, that no work was done during Ramadan on the specific orders of the governor and that – as if the whole population had already become Moslem – this month was made so holy that even the children of pagan chiefs who were educated at government schools were obliged during that month to daily remain for twelve hours without food or drink … this was on the advice of Mr.Netscher of Tapanuli…

    So I get the impression that right from the start Mandailing was staying behind as far as missionary efforts were concerned and that that made it easier than elsewhere in the Bataklands for Islam to get a foothold there.

  14. avatar ET says:

    that no work was done during Ramadan on the specific orders of the governor and that – as if the whole population had already become Moslem – this month was made so holy that even the children of pagan chiefs who were educated at government schools were obliged during that month to daily remain for twelve hours without food or drink

    Apparently not much has changed since.

  15. avatar Lairedion says:

    ET, I normally share your concerns and criticism on Islamization but during Orde Lama and even Orde Baru Ramadan had little impact on daily life. Islam as a whole was considerably less dominating. So saying not much has changed since is somewhat ignorant. An awful lot has changed for the worse since Soeharto’s downfall.

  16. avatar ET says:

    An awful lot has changed for the worse since Soeharto’s downfall.

    Lairedion, what do you conclude from this?

  17. avatar Lairedion says:

    My point is during OL and OB Islam’s influence in Indonesian society was mediocre. In my childhood I spent two years in Garut, West Java, which is a well-known center of Islamic fundamentalism. Even there, during bulan puasa, it was easy for non-Muslims to eat in resto’s and warung, even PKL’s were operating normally.

    After 1998 Indonesia is slowly sliding back to the situation where non-Muslims are forced to dhimmitude.

  18. avatar ET says:

    Your remark is an indication that Indonesia probably needs an iron fist to keep Islam in check.
    If so, then if the ‘Arab Spring’ succeeds and the present tyrannic regimes are replaced with softer leaderships and more democracy it may also turn into an opportunity for fundamentalist Islamic movements to gain influence and get a stronger foothold. What is happening now in Egypt between Muslims and Copts is certainly cause for concern.

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