Literature Lack Lament

Jul 9th, 2010, in Opinion, Society, by

Why does Indonesia inspire so little quality literature, except novels about sexy bar girls?

Where are the books? A lament for the lack of literature on Indonesia

Some days back, on his impressively productive new blog, our own Ross begged the question of why so few of “us” write books about “life here”. By “us” he meant foreigners in Indonesia, of course; and by “life here” he meant the life these foreigners lead in Indonesia – and he was, naturally, alluding to his own role as chronicler of the little slice of grubby bohemia that is Jalan Jaksa. Ross does, it seems, suffer a certain amount of sniping about his books, but all issues of taste, style and politics aside I certainly wouldn’t criticise anyone for writing about what they know, and Jaksa must certainly offer ample inspiration for story-tellers.

Asian SleazeAsian SleazeHowever, I’m sure that everyone – the Poet of Pappa Cafe himself included – would acknowledge that the idea of Jaksa and its denizens constituting a meaningful part of the Indonesian scene is debatable in the extreme. And what’s more, books about that particular alleyway (though it is in fact a thoroughfare, in literary terms I might be tempted to call it a cul-de-sac) surely form a sub-set of the genre best known as Asian Sleaze, or perhaps “the prurient expat memoir”. This genre is one of the best represented in the English-language publishing industry of Southeast Asia. Take a look at the “local titles” next time you’re in Periplus – all those dominant-black covers with silhouettes of mini-skirted Asian females beneath the title! Yikes!

For me the question is not why so few of “us” chronicle our adventures here in book form; it is why there are so few serious, informed, interesting and genuinely well-written books about Indonesia itself and its people, in English, by foreigners, for a non-specialist, non-academic readership.

Take a look at the meagre annual global English-language output of mainstream books about Indonesia and it generally looks something like this:

  • My New Life in Bali
  • My Long Holiday in Bali
  • Schapelle – the True Story (Pt XII)

something with a title along the lines of

  • The Glittering Scimitar – the terrifying true story of how al Qaeda has infiltrated the Indonesian government, by Australia’s 104th-best non-Indonesian-speaking journalist
  • My New Villa in Bali

and – if we’re very lucky indeed – a mediocre travel book full of linguistic and historical howlers, heavy-handed “unity in diversity” references and patronising caricatures of “the locals”, with a title along the lines of

  • The Emerald Islands, or;
  • Between the Volcanoes

Oh, and something from a regional publisher with a black cover and a silhouette of a petite Asian woman on the front…

Given Indonesia’s richness, its vastness, its sheer capacity for inspiration it’s a pretty poor showing.

Now take a look at the general output of books in English, by foreigners, about another large Asian country – India. (Apologies – I know my habit of using India as a warped mirror in which to view Indonesia is tiresome but it does so often work).

There is an absolute wealth of magnificent, informed, intelligent books about India, still aimed at a general readership and written by foreigners. So high is the bar there that the Orientalist clichés and shameless self-indulgence that typifies even the best output about Indonesia is scarcely to be found. Even the two-bit journalists and second-rate travel writers dealing with Indian subjects generally wipe the floor with almost all the miniscule band who tackle Indonesia.

William DalrympleKerry B CollisonSome of these India-focused writers are so spot-on, so steeped in the Subcontinental scene and unlikely to drop a clanger – and such good writers – that that they have become virtual adoptees of the country they write about. But where is Indonesia’s William Dalrymple? Where is Indonesia’s Mark Tully? What does Indonesia have to hold up to those colossi? Kerry B Collison?

Indonesia – or rather the body of foreigners who might want to write about it – does of course have some mitigating excuses when this comparison is made. India is, as everyone knows, a partly Anglophone country. Even a journalist or travel writer with no other language besides English can go to the country and talk, directly and without the facilitation of a translator (and all the insurmountable sense of separation and superiority on both sides that such a device engenders) to a far broader sample of people than just tourism workers and the urban elite.

Likewise for those dealing with historical matters. Because of its particular colonial history India as a subject offers a massive, staggering wealth of accessible archival material in English. Fancy writing a biography of a swashbuckling imperial archetype? Or retracing the steps of a 19th Century explorer? Or investigating some totally forgotten but totally fascinating historical episode from the 1920s? Can’t speak a foreign language but can handle old-fashioned handwriting? Then the eternal wellspring of the India Office Records will never run dry.

But to do the same for Indonesia, English will be of very little use, and even Indonesian won’t get you much further. You need Dutch and, to really make headway, Javanese too – and how many non-Dutch, non-Javanese, non-academic writers have those?

KrakatoaNathaniel’s NutmegThis is largely the reason why in the only two recent major books of popular narrative history for which Indonesia is the backdrop – Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa and Giles Milton’s Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, both excellent – the country itself is largely incidental.

However, this excuse alone is not enough to get the English-language writers of the world off the hook. Even with the admitted linguistic challenges Indonesia still offers enormous potential for high quality, literary journalism, reportage, travel writing and cultural investigation. So where is it?

A Shadow FallsCity of DjinnsMainstream books that fit this bill are so few and far between that they send me into an over-compensatory frenzy of delight on the rare occasions that they do appear. The most recent example was Andrew Beatty’s A Shadow Falls, which we discussed on this site, and which I think very highly of. But even that is a slightly odd book, still too rooted in its academic foundations and obscure in its subject matter to have the impact of something like William Dalrymple’s Indian debut, City of Djinns.

And for every A Shadow Falls Indonesia inspires a dozen books about middle-age divorcees finding themselves in Bali, and many honourable attempts that fall hopelessly flat (John Keay, who does very well indeed on Indian soil, missed the mark when he came to Indonesia in the 1990s; Cameron Forbes’ recent Under the Volcano is best left unmentioned).

There are, of course, plenty of very well-versed foreigners writing very seriously about Indonesia, but they are almost all academic historians or anthropologists, and few of their books turn up amongst the Asian Sleaze in Periplus. MC Ricklefs and Dr Peter Carey are very fine historians and decent writers (and the former gets at least some attention beyond the library shelves, having written a “standard text”); the work of the late Clifford Geertz had some real literary merit, and Adrian Vickers would certainly cut it as a non-academic writer. But it seems unlikely that any of them ever will take the time out – and lower their brows – to pen a colour-filled travelogue or a vibrant narrative history for the masses.

And that mention of the masses leads me on to a possible – and thoroughly disheartening – final explanation for this paucity of proper literary books about Indonesia. It’s all very well penning a magnificently researched, impeccably structured and informed and very well written book about Indonesia – but then you have to find someone to publish it. And publishers are, being concerned with the business of making money, loathe to put out something that no one will buy. Is that the problem? Is it the market itself, not the writers, who keep so much of the Indonesia-focused output so near the level of utter dross? Is that why those with literary capabilities and a genuine knowledge of Indonesian subjects either don’t bother at all or concentrate on purely academic efforts?

India has an advantage in that it has a huge English literate – and English literary – class; William Dalrymple almost certainly sells more books in India than in his native Britain. But there are clearly still thousands of outsiders buying all those books about India – backpackers, tourists, armchair travellers and idle observers willingly consuming weighty tomes (and non-English-reading China and Japan still manage to inspire a respectable output of respectable books too).

But I have to ask myself, how many Jakarta resident expats or Bali-bound tourists would happily pick up a copy of an Indonesian equivalent of The Last Mughal or India: a History, or Liberty or Death, or even – poke me in the eye and call me a hypocrite – A Million Mutinies Now?

Many? Enough for even a small regional publisher to justify putting such a book out? Any at all?

In truth, I really don’t know the answer. I hope many; I hope I’m not the only one with such complaints, because otherwise the only option is to head down to Jaksa, crack open the Bintang and start making notes for something called “Jakarta Velvet” with a backlit image of long-haired bargirl in a miniskirt on the cover…

63 Comments on “Literature Lack Lament”

  1. BrotherMouzone says:

    @Andrew Beatty

    On Indonesia’s invisibility in the West: file under national disasters. The only time I’ve seen Indonesia as lead item on the BBC News (and it was Nias!) was the earthquake that followed the tsunami. But the little things that pass notice are ultimately more interesting.

    So true. The Onion once poked fun at this with a story headlined; Thousands Dead in Indonesia Again – I looked it up;

    JAKARTA, INDONESIA—Several days of relative calm in Indonesia came to an end Monday when a massive volcanic eruption buried most of Jakarta, killing thousands of Indonesians yet again. “I had a feeling we were due for another mass death,” said Ende Palopo of Jakarta. “There hadn’t been a disaster since Friday, when that train derailed, killing 513. And it had been well over a week since we last had an earthquake, typhoon or some other natural disaster that killed over 1,000.” A public memorial service for the dead was held Tuesday, during which an unexpectedly large turnout caused hundreds to be trampled to death

  2. countnomis says:

    Here’s a collection of short stories: Women’s Voices: An Anthology of Short Stories by Indonesian Women Writers by Pamela Allen

    I, myself, am in the process of finishing a number of fictional short stories which I’ll put together soon. If anybody’s interested in some of my other works of fiction, here’s a link:

  3. Patrick says:

    Recently, I went to and submitted some samples of my writing to see which famous author I most resembled. To my great surprise (ok shock is more accurate) it was a very talented & young Indonesian writer & published author. I now brag to all my friends & family that I am going to be the next Marisa Duma. Watch out world there is now 2 of us to contend with…ha ha ha!

  4. Dirk says:

    A wonderful book about Bali (first published in 1937) : A Tale from Bali, by Vicky Baum.

    I bought this book in 1989 in Singapore. (ISBN 0 19 580287 X)

    Another book covering all of Indonesia : Indonesian Images, The Culture of the Public World, by Niels Mulder, first published in 2000 by Kanisius Publishing House, Jl Cempaka 9, Deresan, Yogyakarta 55281, Post Box 1125/Yk, Indonesia.(ISBN 979-672-656-4)

    Niels Mulder attacks the Indonesian education system and the pegawai negeri culture.

  5. stmichael says:

    A good book by an Indonesian author that has been translated into English is “Defeat and Victory” by Sutan Takdir Alisjahbana. It takes place in Indonesia during the Second World War and has 3 main characters: Hidayat the Indonesian nationalist, Okura a Japanese soldier stationed in Indonesia and Elizabeth a Swiss national. We see the War and what it means for Indonesia, Japan and the world as a whole, from the perspectives of each of the characters. It is a book that should be of interest to anyone interested in the creation of Indonesia, for nearly everything that happens to the Indonesian and Dutch characters in the book is true. It describes Japanese culture during the Second World War, the culture of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment and the Indonesian culture that is in the process of being created. It is also a passionate defence of democracy, but ultimately it is a book about people and the light in people. This is a serious book but if one perseveres to the end it is well worth it. The book won the Japan Foundation Award and also a star form the Emperor of Japan. It is available at Gramedia and can be ordered. The publishers are PT Dian Rakyat.

    Perhaps the best book that takes place in Indonesia from the colonial period is “The Ten Thousand Things” by Maria Dermout. It takes place in the Moluccas and became an international best seller when it came out.It is an extremely sensitive and wise book. Very human.

  6. countnomis says:

    Where can I get Defeat and Victory? I tried with no luck.

  7. countnomis says:

    The Ten Thousand Things . . . the author is not Indonesian?

  8. Arie Brand says:

    Maria Dermout was born in Pekalongan. Her maiden name was Ingerman, The Ingermans had been in the Netherlands Indies for four generations and as was the case with most long established Dutch families in the Indies she probably had some “Indonesian blood”. The English Wikipedia entry on her calls her an “Indo” but I think that in colonial times that term was reserved for Dutch people who had a far clearer Indonesian ancestry (often because the mother was fully Indonesian).

    She apparently was herself not much interested in such classifications. By ancestry, education and language she was Dutch but the world of her imagination was Indonesian.

  9. Arie Brand says:

    Dutch belletristic literature about the Indies is, as Madrotter already said, fairly rich. It can boast of some major writers such as Douwes Dekker (Multatuli), Louis Couperus and Eduard Douwes Dekker. All three of these had close ties with the Indies: Douwes Dekker spent some twenty years there in a civil service career, Couperus stayed there during part of his youth and wrote his book “De Stille Kracht” (trsl. as “The Hidden Force”) during a later temporary stay and Du Perron was born and bred there. There is an English language translation of their novels on the Indies – there are even several of that by Multatuli (the last one with a preface by D.H.Lawrence).

    However, I want to say something here about a writer of far less renown than these three, P.A.Daum, who adopted the pen name “Maurits”. Daum arrived in Java in 1878, at the age of 28, and founded, after a period in Semarang where he worked for the newspaper “De Locomotief”, in 1885 the “Bataviaasch Nieuwsblad” which became one of the largest newspapers in the Indies. Though as managing director and editor-in-chief of that paper he must have been one of the busiest men in Batavia he found time to write, in a period of about ten years, seven novels on the Indies that were originally published in serial form in his newspaper. As far as I know only one of these (and not his best one) has been translated into English: “Ups and Downs of life in the Indies”.

    Virtually all of his books were originally as ephemeral as his newspaper but it was mainly Du Perron who drew attention to their merits in the thirties of the previous century and since then the Amsterdam publisher Querido reprinted quite a few of them in paperback. I recently reread one of them, “Goena-Goena”, that was originally published in 1889.

    If one knows something of Dutch literature of that period it is surprising that this novel, in contrast to much else that was published at that time, has remained so readable. Daum wrote for his own local public and did not aspire to a place in Dutch literature. So his books are mercifully free of the literary humbug of that period. Daum wants to tell a story and he does so with surprising directness and humor – though his humor was called “cynicism” by some. The only nineteenth century English language writer I can compare him with is Anthony Trollope. He is as entertainingly “pedestrian” and factual as his famous English contemporary, though his plots are considerably less ingenious (but therefore more believable). Also, he did not believe, as Trollope did, that to make his ware attractive he had to insert a love story in it.

    “Goena-Goena” has a simple intrigue. An impoverished “Indies” (not Indo) widow, Mrs. Den Ekster, known as Betty, who has originally tried to bump off her “totok” Dutch husband, whom she hates and despises, through the “goena-goena” of her old maid Sarinah, also has her maid’s bag of tricks applied to the richest man of the little Javanese town where the story takes place. She wants him to divorce his staid and rather boring Dutch wife to subsequently marry her.

    The goena-goena was not really used for her first husband who obligingly died of natural causes before Sarinah could try out her art on him, but the man Betty has her eye on gets the full measure, mainly through powder in his coffee, though there is a lot of other rigmarole with his hair etc. Betty seems to be well on her way because her intended victim, normally as clear eyed and “cynical” as Daum himself seems to have been (though not as good hearted as the latter had the reputation to be), starts to suffer from a (temporary) weakening of his faculties, which makes him vulnerable to Betty’s wiles.

    This Betty, whose physical attractions Daum manages to suggest within the limits of the period’s proprieties, is the kind of woman one might dream of after a too copious meal. I know in Dutch literature no other portrait of such a complete snake. I fear that a politically correct commentator of today might suggest that we have an attack here on the “Indisch” part of the Dutch community but this theory holds no water because her direct relatives are portrayed in a far more favorable hue.

    Speaking of them it must be admitted that there is in “Goena Goena” so much light on the main protagonists, Betty, her intended victim, and, to a lesser extent, his “totok” wife, that the surrounding personae remain a bit cardboard like. Betty’s uncle for instance, Captain Borne, the local garrison commander, is the prototype of the loud mouthed, good hearted, hard drinking and card playing officer, who would have done well in the cheap melodrama of the period.

    Well, Daum has no love story in the style of Trollope, but his novel has a ‘happy ending’ of a sort. The European community of the place will not stand idly by to see one of its main notables, the notary public who is also the local banker, involved in a scandalous divorce case. The “Resident” (bupati) himself gets involved in the matter and manages for Betty’s sister, who is conveniently married to one of the “Resident’s” underlings, to come over and take Betty away after a hilarious scene in which she, who has a loud fit of nerves, is by mistake, instead of treated with vinegar (that was believed to be therapeutic in such cases), doused with a bottle of ink – which did her charms no good at all. Exit Betty.

    When one compares Daum’s story to Couperus’ “The Silent Force”, that has also a case of ‘goena-goena” at its heart, it is immediately obvious that the minor writer and the major one (at least as far as reputation is concerned) wrote for a different public. There is in Daum nothing of the humbug of the mysterious East. Couperus, by contrast, wrote of a case of “black magic” which remained unexplained: the incestuous wife of the local “Resident” is, when she is in her “kamar mandi”, bespat with “sirih” that seems to come from above, the “Resident’s” bed is mysteriously besmirched (symbolically this?), glasses shatter without any visible reason, the strong liqueur gets spoiled and one hears the sound of hammer blows. I remember that Hein Buitenweg cites somewhere an official report by a “Resident” of the 1820’s who went through similar unexplained turmoil (his house was for instance continuously bombarded with stones even though he had a double cordon of soldiers around it). Perhaps Couperus, who stayed at the time of writing of this novel in Java, with his brother in law, a “Resident”, knew of this report.

    One final remark: what is conspicuous to the reader of today who is inclined to look at colonialism from a certain moral point of view, is how at ease all these small town European residents felt about their place there – as if they were the rightful occupants of the town and the indigenous world merely a matter of décor. If history writing is also the art of looking through the eyes of one’s subjects it might be well to take this into account.

    The Enlish language Wiki on Daum claims that he is now acknowledged as “one of the great authors of Dutch literature”. This seems to me a gross exaggeration (who writes these things?). Whether he deserves to be so acknowledged is another matter.

  10. ET says:

    One final remark: what is conspicuous to the reader of today who is inclined to look at colonialism from a certain moral point of view, is how at ease all these small town European residents felt about their place there – as if they were the rightful occupants of the town and the indigenous world merely a matter of décor.

    I couldn’t agree more, exception made for Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, who at least made an honest attempt to interweave a personal story of indigenous characters – Saidjah and Adinda – from their own standpoint and without recurring to the usual laments à la Couperus about the climate and the local peculiarities.

  11. Arie Brand says:

    There is in Daum’s “Goena Goena” also a chapter that touches on the indigenous scene. Sarinah’s son, the fat Ketjil who is the mastermind behind Sarinah’s ‘goena-goena”, has to travel to the South of Java to obtain from fishermen tears of the dying duyung that were supposed to have magical potency – but it is very much an interlude (but so, of course, is the Saidjah and Adinda story)

  12. Arie Brand says:

    Correction: In the first paragraph of my earlier letter “Eduard Douwes Dekker” should read “Eduard Du Perron” . I had already mentioned Dekker.

  13. timdog says:

    Arie Brand,
    Thanks for the imput. Apart from the obvious Multatuli I’m not well-versed in the subject of Dutch colonial-era literature on Indonesia.
    I am, however, very much impressed by Albert Alberts short story collection, The Islands. Although it was written in the post-colonial era, it is about experiences of the colonial period. Stylistically and in terms of atmosphere it is the best foreigner-written fiction about Indonesia that I’ve read.

    My original piece was not really intended to be about either fiction, or literature from an earlier period. I was more interested in contemporary non-fiction writing for a non-accademic, non-specialist audience about Indonesia, be that reportage, travel writing, comment, popular history – in short the kind of writing that abounds in English about the Indian Subcontinent, but which is in very short supply when it comes to Indonesia.

    Is there much of this kind of writing in Dutch?

  14. Arie Brand says:

    Hey Timdog

    I am not the best person to ask. For one thing I have mainly lived abroad (for the last thirty three years in Australia) and for another my interest in Indonesia is mainly historical.

    Such Dutch language books as have come my way when I assisted in reviewing books for RIMA (Review of Indonesian and Malaysian Affairs) invariably had a historical theme of some kind.

    If you enjoyed Alberts (who, as you say, published in the post colonial era but dealt with experiences of the colonial period) I am sure you will enjoy Rob Nieuwenhuys’s ‘Faded Portraits’ (which you can pick up through There is also an Indonesian translation of it, published under the alias Nieuwenhuys used for the original Dutch version: Breton de Nijs (the reference is: E.Breton de Nijs, Bayangan Memudar, Pustaka Yaya, 1975).

  15. timdog says:


    Books with “a historical theme” would very much come under the broad type of work I’m interested in here.
    Are any/many of the Dutch language books on Indonesian subjects with “a historical theme” that you have reviewed, or are simply aware of, intended for a general audience, rather than for accademics?
    You know the kind of books I mean; in English there are hundreds of narrative pop histories about various empire-related subjects. The only such books in English about Indonesia that spring to mind are the two I mentioned in my original post – Nathanial’s Nutmeg and Krakatoa.
    Are there many books in this sort of style (that is, books that may well have involved primary source research, but which have then been put together to be read principally for fun) about Indonesian history written in Dutch, available in the history sections of mainstream bookshops rather than only from specialist suppliers of accademic texts…

    As you say, you’ve been in Australia for a long time so perhaps don’t have the full picture, but have you seen any such books at all?

  16. Arie Brand says:


    There is a fairly long list of mainly such books on the website of the Rotterdam amateur historian Aad Engelfriet. Here is the address:

    I do not always agree with Engelfriet’s historical judgments which seem to me too ‘politically correct’ (and therefore in my view basically unhistorical) but he does provide a great deal of material.

    The review copies of Dutch language books that reached RIMA largely came from the KITLV (the Royal Institute for Anthropology and Linguistics in Leiden) and did not fall in the category you indicated. Two books that I have reviewed that come near to it are:Van den Berge, T. (1998), Karel Frederik Holle, Theeplanter in Indie, 1829-1896. This did not come from the KITLV but was published by Bert Bakker, Amsterdam and ‘Across Madura Strait’ (see below).

    Holle was a curious figure in the Indies of the nineteenth century. He had a tea plantation but he was also intimately involved in the affairs of the Sundanese (he fluently spoke the language). He took their interest to heart and was an intimate personal friend of some Sundanese leaders. Ultimately he became an adviser of the government on indigenous affairs.

    Van den Berge was led to this topic by his interest in Sundanese poetry in colonial times about which he wrote a Ph.D. thesis.

    A related book is the novel by Hella Haasse, Heren van de thee (The gentlemen of the Tea Plantations), Amsterdam 1992. Haasse was born in the Indies and some of her material concerns her family’s history.

    A totally different kind of families, namely those of the lower ranking colonial soldiery, is described in the books of Lin Scholte, whose father came from Amsterdam and whose mother was an Indonesian: ‘Anak Kompenie’ (1965) and ‘Bibi Koetis voor altijd’ (1974) published by Querido.

    On the topic of colonial biography I enjoyed Cees Fasseur’s ‘Indischgasten’ (Bert Bakker 1997) and the earlier ‘Batig Slot” by D.M.G.Koch (De Brug-Djambatan N.V. , Amsterdam 1960). Fasseur’s book is about nineteenth century figures, that of Koch about people, including Indonesians, he has personally known.

    To avoid misunderstandings I did not review Haasse, Scholte, Fasseur and Koch.

    A book I did review and is still more or less in your category (more less than more) is Van Dijk, de Jonge and Touwen-Bouwsma, Across Madura Strait – The Dynamics of an Insular Society, KITLV 1995, Leiden. This however is already a bit too ‘academic’ to be enjoyed by the general reader, unless s/he has a special interest in Madura.

    I haven’t finished what I would like to say on your thread but it is Saturday morning and we are getting weekend guests.

  17. timdog says:

    Thanks for that Arie.

    I’ve seen “Across Madura Strait”. I think you’re right; it wouldn’t have much pulling power beyond accademics or people with a particular interest in Madura. And it was a pretty slim little book if I remember correctly.

    I’m also enjoying a weekend after a week of staring at early 19th Century handwriting. I’ll look forward to whatever else you have to add…

  18. Arie Brand says:

    The book has in fact 232 pages and was longer than I wanted it to be because, truth to tell, it is a bit of a mishmash only loosely held together by its regional theme.

    One of the most curious pre-war Dutch language novels with an Indonesian theme that I have read was in fact written by an Indonesian. I am referring to Suwarsih Djojopuspito’s novel ‘Buiten het Gareel” (Out of Bounds), a novel I picked up second hand in Holland. Teeuw states in his “Modern Indonesian Literature’ that it was originally written in Sundanese but when it was offered in that form to Balai Pustaka, the colonial government organization whose mission it was to spread literacy and Indonesian culture, it was refused, apparently because it was not deemed politically neutral enough. Suwarsih then rewrote it in Dutch and ultimately it was published in Holland (Utrecht, 1940) with a preface by Du Perron, who had, according to Nieuwenhuys, also been a source of advice for the author while she was working on her manuscript. Holland had then just be invaded by the Germans (Du Perron, who had been staunchly anti-fascist, died from a heart attack when the invasion was taking place) and people had other worries. So it apparently never got the attention it deserved.

    The main protagonists of this novel are a married couple that tries to function in one of the so-called ‘wilde scholen”, unsubsidized non-government schools which were a source of worry for the colonial government because they were suspected of spreading nationalist propaganda (there was an attempt to regulate them in the so-called “wilde scholen ordonnantie”).

    The nationalist theme as such is very mooted in the novel, though there is a description here and there of tense relations with the police. The novel’s real theme is human relations, that of husband and wife and those of the nationalist leaders among each other. The young Sukarno also plays a role in it but his portrait remains vaguer than we would like it to be.

    Teeuw deems it to be the best pre-war novel written by an Indonesian. I don’t know whether it was ever translated into the vernacular, or whether the original Sundanese version was ever published. Teeuw’s bibliography lists other work by Djojopuspito but not a translation of this novel.

  19. Arie Brand says:

    Correction: “very mooted” should of course be “very muted”.

  20. timdog says:

    I read Across Madura Strait very quickly in a library while doing something else. All I actually remember was the picture of the Kamal ferry on the cover and the fact that it didn’t seem really to address what for me has always the most interesting thing about the Madurese: the way they are viewed by other Indonesians… And also that subtitle – “insular society”… not quite sure about that…

    But anyway…
    You’ve flagged up an interesting little list of authors that I knew nothing about (and also served to remind me of my regret that I don’t speak Dutch – I think I’ve seen you mention elsewhere that issue, namely how baddly crippled in attempts really to make sense of Indonesia knowing no Dutch leaves one. I couldn’t agree more).

    I wonder if you have any thoughts on my pondering points in the original post here: why are there so few mainstream non-fiction books on Indonesia published in Indonesia?

  21. Arie Brand says:

    I am afraid I can’t add much to what you have already remarked yourself (language difficulties, smaller market), except that the more of that type of writing is around the more it is likely to generate. The more readers the more potential producers. People must be inspired by their reading to visit places and write about it. And it is of course a fact that, especially pre-war, there was vastly more semi-popular English language literature about India than about Indonesia.

    There was a particular genre in this English language literature that was almost entirely lacking for Indonesia : the sporting tales and tales of adventure. Think of the stuff that was published in Blackwood’s Magazine or Blackwood’s series of “Tales from the Outposts”. I have myself about a dozen volumes of these but I learn from the flyleaf in them that the whole series counted 170 vols. They are still floating around the second hand bookshops and might, among youthful readers, inspire an early interest in particularly India. And this is only one example.

  22. Arie Brand says:

    The ‘tales of adventure’ for pre-war Indonesia were mainly to be found in the pages of the Journal of the Royal Dutch Geographical Society. The reports concerning the military exploration of Papua that took place in the first decade of last century also came near to it.

    One novel by Szekely-lulofs, who has been mentioned earlier on this thread, has more to do with a misadventure, unfit for ‘Tales from the Outposts’. It was published in 1936 under the title ‘De hongertocht van 1911′ (The hunger march of 1911) and concerned the patrol of a certain lieutenant Nutters (nomen est omen) who had managed to get lost with all of his men in the Aceh jungle. They wandered around for a month without food and nineteen of them died of hunger. The relief patrol found its route marked by skeletons. The case of Nutters’ patrol later served as an example of how not to go about things but the man himself kept feeling that he had been misjudged and sent, twenty five years later, his patrol report to Szekely-Lulofs who made a ‘documentary novel’ of it. Unfortunately it has, as far as I know, not been translated into English.

    Books of her that have been translated into English (and quite a few other languages) are ‘Rubber’ (London Cassell 1933) and ‘Coolie’ (london 1936). ‘Rubber’ deals with the life of European employees at the rubber plantations of Delhi in North Sumatrra but ‘Coolie’ is a very meritorious attempt to look at what was going on there through the eyes of a contract coolie. I thought that it was well done but, though Szekely Lulofs had tremendous popular success, she didn’t make the grade in the eyes of the then most prestigious Dutch literature reviewers: the editors of the journal ‘Forum’ (Du Perron, Menno ter Braak, Simon Vestdijk, Jan Greshoff). Ter Braak complained about her lack of psychological depth, the fact that all persons could easily be interchanged without the reader being able to notice it, her cliches etc. But he could have been a bit more appreciative of the fact that she had tried to do what nobody in the Indies had done before: to see the world through the eyes of a contract coolie. Nieuwenhuys gives her a better report card but maintains that Szekely -Lulofs doesn’t sufficiently distinguish between novel writing and sociography.

    During the German occupation of Holland SL worked for the resistance. This might have inspoired her to write a novel about an Acehnese resistance figure, namely Tjoet Nja Din, the wife of Teuku Umar, who kept up the fight after he was arrested (ultimately she too was captured and banished from Aceh to Java). The novel appeared with the title ‘Tjoet Nja Din: de geschiedenis van een Atjehse vorstin’ Amsterdam, Moussault 1948. There is an Indonesian translation ‘Tjoet Nja Din: riwajat hidup seorang puteri Atjeh” Penerbit chailan sjamsjoe 1954 Jakarta.

    I would like to say a bit more about Du Perron but will keep that for a following post.

  23. Arie Brand says:

    Du Perron was one of the literary heroes of my youth. Reading him aroused my interest in the Indies and quite a few other things besides. In retrospect I am amazed that such a cosmopolitan and critical spirit could come from the rather provincial society that the Dutch community in Batavia must have been in the first few decades of last century.

    He didn’t stay long in Batavia after his adolescence. When he was in his early twenties he came to Europe with his parents and the other amazing thing about him is that he, who had no friends or relations there, ultimately befriended some important French, Dutch and Flemish literary figures. He had, beside his writing talent, a talent for friendship. These talents were interlinked. He regarded the authors he liked such as Stendhal and Multatuli as personal friends whom he defended against all comers (his writings on Multatuli are an important part of his work).

    He could, until his mid thirties, exercise both talents unhampered by a job, because his father was then still rich. The family settled in the Belgian Chateaux de Grouhy, which in spite of its name was a big mansion rather than a castle. Du Perron entertained there some of his Flemish and Dutch friends. He liked , in the “Indisch” style, to bestow presents on them and gave, for instance, Andre Malraux, then an ardent leftist and later De Gaulle’s Minister for Culture, an Indonesian island that belonged to his family. Malraux dedicated his novel ‘La Condition Humaine’ to him. I don’t know what came first, the dedication or the island. Neither do I know what has happened to that gift.

    After his parents had died it turned out that the family fortune had somehow disappeared. Du Perron returned to the Indies. Those who have read his “Country of Origin” will understand why. Curiosity drove him to Europe, nostalgia (and the hope to find a job there) got him back to the Indies. But congenial company was hard to find there then. He had left the Indies just when the second of the two most ‘ethical’ Governors General ( Van Limburg Stirum who succeeded Idenburg) finished his term of office. He came back when one of the most reactionary of them, De Jonge, repatriated. There was then in the Indies among the European community, particularly the Indo part of it (where the competititon from educated Indonesians was more and more feared), strong sympathy for the Dutch National Socialist Party. Its leader, Mussert (executed after the war), had been received with ‘hormat’ twice by De Jonge. Congenial company was hard to find. Du Perron found it among the contributors of journals critical of the colonial situation such as ‘De Fakkel’ en ‘Kritiek en Opbouw’. He also found it among Indonesians with literary aspirations.

    But literary development in Indonesia was, as Teeuw has made clear, out of sync with that in Holland. The writers of the ‘Pudjangga Baru’ group were still inspired by the Dutch literary revolution of the generation of 1880, the so-called ‘Tachtigers’, which they had got to know from anthologies and school textbooks. In Holland this had all been left behind and for Du Perron , who detested the ‘verbal art’ of the ‘Tachtigers’ and was a champion of the ‘ordinary word’, there was little common ground there. He soon returned to the Netherlands where he died from a heart attack an hour after the capitulation to the German invading troops was announced, and at about the same time as his friend Ter Braak who committed suicide.

    The Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar, who was just an adolescent when Du Perron was in the Indies and is unlikely to have met him, translated at least one of his poems. I found it in an old issue (March 1948) of the journal ‘Gema Suasana – Madjallah Bulanan untuk Indonesia’. It is, characteristically, about friendship and I will transcribe it here because it is probably hard to come by. It is, needless to say, in the old spelling:


    Kawan, djika usia kelak
    melontjer kita sampai habis-habisan
    djika seluruh tubuh, pehong lagi bengkok,
    hanja entjok tinggal menentu kemudi,
    menjerah: “Sampai sini sadjalah !”,
    akan menjingkirkah kita bertambur bisu
    mentjari djalan belakang

    Ini tersurat djuga bagi pengantin pilihan:
    sekeras batu laun akan terkikis,
    dan ini karkas, barang sewaan,
    meninggalkan kita dan tida lagi berpaling.
    Tjukup ! Berkeras sampai gerum penghabisan

  24. Arie Brand says:

    I have thus far overlooked a book that really satisfies Timdog’s demand for a semi-popular English language history of Indonesia. I am referring to the Indonesian Heritage series which is supposed to provide a sort of latter day encyclopedia of Indonesian history.

    I wonder why I overlooked it because I reviewed at length for RIMA (1999 Vol.33 No 2 pp. 168-175) the volume entitled ‘Early Modern History’ , that was edited by Anthony Reid and published by the Singapore Archipelago Press in 1996. Here I merely wish to pick up some points that have to do with the reproach once made by one of the contributors to this blog that I was ultra sensitive to criticisms of Dutch colonialism. The same contributor was of the view that (contrary to what was held by contemporary witnesses) Dutch colonialism represented the ‘bottom of the barrel’.

    Neither of these points hit the mark. I agree, in general, with many of the views of pre-war Dutch critics of colonialism but neither they nor most foreign observers of what was going on in the Netherlands Indies held that this represented the worst form of colonialism – rather the opposite. I also object to what I regard as politically correct views of Indonesian history. I will presently identify an example of these.

    The Indonesian Heritage series, though composed by experts in the field, is not meant for their professional colleagues. For this the articles are too succinct and the scholarly apparatus attached to each volume too slight. This attractive and richly illustrated series is meant for a wider public and one cannot escape the impression that it caters in part to widely held prejudices.

    Let me elaborate. Of the roughly sixty articles in this volume only nine are exclusively about the 19th Century (though another thirteen can be considered to include the 19th century in their discussion). Of these nine only three are about Indonesia’s heartland, Java, one is about the whole of Indonesia, and five are about the outer regions. These last articles have mainly to do with the demise of indigenous sultanates and the Dutch military activities that led to these. Of the three articles about Java one is about the Java War. So the educated lay reader could be forgiven for getting the impression that in 19th century Indonesia nothing much more was going on than the exploits of colonial soldiery and indigenous resistance against these.

    The few articles on Java I find rather unsatisfactory. Take Peter Carey’s article on the Java War. It reads more like a political pamphlet than an encyclopedia item. Carey mentions as one of the scandalous Dutch deeds leading to the revolt that the “Dutch took advantage of the confused economic situation to rent lands from impoverished Javanese nobles and exploit the unpaid labour of their tenants.” That this was indeed scandalous, of both parties, was exactly the opinion of the then Governor General, Van der Capellen, who tried to abolish this practice. He had a very low opinion of private entrepreneurs whom he regarded as ‘parasites’ living at the expense of the indigenous population. It is generally held that Van der Capellen’s attempt to abolish this ‘parasitical’ practice, plus the obligation he imposed on the Javanese grandees to reimburse their tenants’ payments for concessions which could no longer be enjoyed, was an important cause of the revolt. When I say “ it is generally held” I am referring to some standard works on the history of Southeast Asia such as ‘The Cambridge History’, Hall’s ‘History of Southeast Asia’, Bastin’s and Benda’s ‘A History of Modern Southeast Asia’, Furnivall’s pre-war ‘Netherlands India’ and, not to forget, the ‘Sejarah Nasional Indonesia’ by Professor Sartono et al (2nd ed. Vol.IV p.168). Carey does mention, in a shocked tone, the leasing of land, but says nothing about Van der Capellen’s attempt to abolish it and the possible importance of this as a factor in the outbreak of the war. Lack of space could not have been the reason for this. Some of the works I mentioned allocated even less space to this war but they did not omit this particular point. Now it could be that Carey had other weighty reasons to ignore this factor but my suspicion is that his weightiest reason was that a colonial reform measure inspired by a humanitarian motive which, ironically, became a contributory cause for a war that was at least partly fuelled by sectorial interests did not fit into his script for a “national liberation struggle” “avant la lettre”.

    I have more criticisms along this line but will keep those for another post.

  25. timdog says:

    Arie Brand – apologies, I had missed your previous posts since my last reply.
    I am spectacularly busy right at the moment, so I will have to wait to reply properly.
    But a couple of very quick points:
    On “bottom of the barrel” Dutch colonialists, I think it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that in the earlier VOC period very many of the Dutch involved in Indonesia weren’t from the bottom of the barrel; they were scraped off its underside (the same could probably be argued for the “company” period of British colonialism too, mind).
    That the “quality” improved later seems obvious, but that probably has as much to do with the fact that the apparatus, the financial health, the management and the infrastructure of the entire project were far better established as with the idea that the motivations of those involved were somehow more honourable…

    What I’d be keen to hear would be your thoughts on the 1811-1816 British interregnum, which so often gets presented by Anglophone writers as an interlude of upright decency and good colonial management between the decades of Dutch perfidy. I’m working on this period at the moment and I’m far from convinced about this interpretation.
    Your thoughts?

  26. Arie Brand says:

    Hi Timdog,

    There are, as you probably know, some exceptions to this Anglophone glorification of Raffles’ government (a glorification that started with the man’s own writings): I am referring to Furnivall’s Netherlands India and you are probably also acquainted with the lesser known work of Clive Day ‘The policy and administration of the Dutch in Java’. Both these works are based on intimate acquaintance with the sources. Furnivall’s work is well known. About Day’s much earlier work (it was first published in 1904) Professor John Bastin wrote on the occasion of its reprint by the Oxford University Press that it still remained ‘a standard work on the subject’ and was unquestionably ‘the most stimulating account ever written in English on the Dutch colonial system in Indonesia’.

    Day was, as you probably know, an American and therefore not much troubled by the urge to blow the British trumpet.

    His account of Raffles’ government is that of high slogans and very imperfect execution. R’s attempt to introduce the Indian “ryotwari system’ of land tax in Java (a system for which all the necessary facts about Javanese land tenure and the required government personnel were lacking) can only be called a total failure. He made an attempt to reorganise the administration of justice, and that was laudable because it was a mess, but his attempt to introduce the British jury system in Java was just one more example of his ethnocentrism.

    I must say that I cannot but agree with the rather irritated statement by a Dutch historian (Bernard Vlekke in ‘Geschiedenis van den Indischen Archipel’): “He worked , throughout his life, on building up his reputation, first in the service of leading humanitarian statesmen, then by creating in his writings a historical legend about his administration in Java and finally by a brazen and unscrupulous expansion policy that led to his greatest success, the foundation of Singapore. And he wrote in such an attractive style that even a century after his death historians and politicians judged Raffles on the basis of his stories, instead of his governmental measures.’ After his death Lady Raffles worked successfully to spread further the fame of her late husband.

    Raffles harped systematically on the ‘cruelty’ of and ‘oppression’ by his Dutch predecessors who dealt for their forced deliveries with the population through the indigenous aristocracy. He wanted these intermediaries to be pushed aside and deal directly for his land tax with the individual cultivators. Since all reliable information about their land tenure was lacking his system could in actual practice also only lead to arbitrariness and thus oppression.

    And when his personal interests or those of his friends were at stake his humanitarian impulses suddenly failed him. When the ‘resident’ of Bandjermasin, Alexander Hare, a personal friend of Raffles needed labourers for his own agricultural enterprise Raffles allowed him to take away 30,000 Javanese, allegedly for vagabondage, of whom few saw their place of origin again. Since they were transported as cattle in overcrowded ships many died during transport – and of the survivors many others died because they were burdened with too heavy labours. The fact is known, but not from the writings of Raffles or those of his wife, as ‘the Bandjermasin enormity’.

    Perhaps Raffles greatest merit was that he stimulated the systematic study of Java even though Lady Raffles exaggerates the ignorance of which his poor predecessors had suffered – as if there never had been a Francois Valentijn and his multi volume work, or a Rumphius or a Justus Heurnius. But these people were not attractive stylists and moreover …they wrote in Dutch.

    I found somewhere this statement by a French observer of the English interregnum, De Jancigny: “L’occupation anglaise a laisse peu de traces de son passage, et son influence nous parait avoir ete desorganatrice de fait, bien que liberale et paternelle d’intention’. (sorry for the lack of accents). That this interregnum left no traces is debatable – but ‘desorganatrice’ it seems to have been.

    Do I understand correctly, Timdog, that you are writing, or at least studying, the history of this period? If so you have no doubt your own views on the man and his work. I am curious to hear them.

  27. timdog says:


    I think that your quote from Bernard Vlekke largely sums up my own take on Raffles:

    He worked , throughout his life, on building up his reputation, first in the service of leading humanitarian statesmen, then by creating in his writings a historical legend about his administration in Java and finally by a brazen and unscrupulous expansion policy that led to his greatest success, the foundation of Singapore. And he wrote in such an attractive style that even a century after his death historians and politicians judged Raffles on the basis of his stories, instead of his governmental measures.

    Raffles – and therefore his administration – has, by way of his own writings and by those of several generations of hagiographers, somehow become established as “the liberals’ favourite colonialist”, and “the colonialist that it’s still OK to like” (this also has something to do with his status in modern Singapore, which has had a very unusual trajectory as a colonial and post-colonial nation).
    That this idea has been so firmly established strikes me as odd, as it really doesn’t stand up to a great deal of close scrutiny.

    I am indeed currently researching and writing about Raffles in the context of the British occupation of Java, taking as one of my starting points the oft-heard Indonesian claim that “it would have been better if we’d been colonised by the British”. This is, of course, a monumentally flawed idea based on very crude logic and overlooking entirely the radically different starting conditions of Singapore and Malaysia, the fact that while the top sector of modern Indian society has some seriously rosy prospects the bottom sector are markedly worse off than their Indonesian counterparts, and the simple fact of Pakistan, Bangladesh and large swathes of Africa. But it’s a very widespread idea amongst Indonesians of all ages and classes.
    What is curious is how very few of them know that they were colonised by the British – and that that five-year interim had some serious impacts.

    A quick dip into contemporary sources throws up plenty of challenges to the “good” interpretation of the Raffles administration – not least the “Banjarmasin enormity”. Poke into his own correspondence and you’ll find Raffles deciding, once he gets on the ground that, well, y’know, maybe slavery isn’t so bad; you’ll find him as tormented drugs baron, realising that they’ve flooded the Java market with opium and wondering how to get rid of it while “preventing an improper and injurious consumption of that Drug amongst the Inhabitants of the Country”; you’ll find pretty strong grounds for the later Dutch claims that the massacre of their countrymen in Palembang came with Raffles’ tacit – though perhaps accidental – encouragement, and a sense that above all else here was a man with an extreme case of mythomania, surrounded by plenty of sycophants of the first order.

    On the subject of his reforms, incidentally, here’s his arch-nemesis Rollo Gillespie, commander of the British forces in Java, writing to the India Council board investigating allegations against Raffles:

    “The reduction of the power of the Regents has been most sudden. To these Men the Natives have been accustomed for centuries past to look up with awe and veneration. Thus stripped of their power, the link which existed between the Government and the people, has been destroyed.
    “Nor must we forget the great influence of their Priests, whose obedience to those Chiefs has hitherto been implicit, and who are probably connected throughout by ties, of which the Government are hardly aware; thus, feeling a dimunition of those means which formerly added to their ease and comfort, they will naturally exert their influence for the subversion of this new order of things.

    Gillespie clearly had his own motivations of frustrated ambition, but he was by no means the pantomime villain drawn by the Rafflesophiles.

    What particularly interests me are the later impacts – on ideas as much as anything – of the British interregnum. I wouldn’t agree for a moment with your Frenchman that the episode “a laisse peu de traces de son passage” – but not necessarily in a good way.

    Some major totems of the current popular discourse on Indonesian history seem to me to stem entirely from that period:

    1. The idea that the Dutch in Indonesia were two-dimensional Very Bad Men (late-period VOC they certainly were bad, but rather through moral and financial bankruptcy than active wickedness. The genesis of the rapacious black-hatted bogeyman lies, I suspect, in British writings from the early 19th Century).

    2. The idea that the partition of Mataram territory was a plain and simple case of nefarious “divide-and-rule” policy engineered by the Dutch – taken as a given by most Indonesians today (a very simplistic reading, not least given that by the mid 18th Century the VOC was in terminal decline and Royal Java was showing signs of resurgence). You find this idea crudely proclaimed all over contemporary British writing.

    3. And of course, the concepts of an idolised, idealised classical Javanese past, not least in the form of the myth of Majapahit. These ideas, of course, have played a fundamental role in the forging of an Indonesian national identity; I would suggest that they were initially posited by the British. Even before he reached Java Raffles was pondering the idea of reinstating a story-book Majapahit Empire.

    This last is rather ironic considering the far-from-nurturing impact the British had on the institution of the Javanese royal courts. Peter Carey suggests that the Diponegoro War was at least in part a knock-on result of the goings-on of the British period. This seems fairly obvious.
    And then, of course, we drive on the left in Indonesia because of the British.

    That there is very little popular awareness of this in Indonesia today (or indeed in the UK – mention Raffles and you’ll get a vague look and an uncertain “Singapore, wasn’t it?”), strikes me as odd and sad, especially given that tired old line: “It would have been better if we’d been colonised by the British” (to which I’m increasingly inclined to reply, “You wouldn’t be where you are now if you hadn’t been…”

    I wasn’t aware of Clive Day’s work; thank you – another one for the list…

  28. Arie Brand says:

    Timdog thanks for your very interesting reply to which I will react later. I had already written the following post so I will place that first:

    I have a further bone to pick with another of the very few articles on Java in the volume of the Indonesian Heritage series that I discussed in an earlier post. I am referring to Roger Knight’s article on ‘New Crops for World Markets’. The article itself is businesslike enough but it is disfigured by an insert on the cultivation system that is also of a far shriller tone than one would expect to find in an encyclopedia. I feel that this particular topic should have either been left alone (in view of the editor’s parsimony in dealing with other aspects of 19th Century Java) or that it should have had the same space as the other items – it is, after all, just about the most discussed aspect of Dutch 19th-Century colonial policy.

    The bit of information on Douwes Dekker’s (Multatuli’s) novel ‘Max Havelaar’ which, as Knight correctly says, ‘did much to alert public opinion in the Netherlands to the abuses of power and the cruelties which underlay the system’ suffers also from a wonderful selectiveness. First of all the novel was set in the ‘residency’ of Bantam where the cultivation system had not been imposed. And the ‘abuses of power and the cruelties’ Dekker was talking about where in the first place those of the (indigenous) ‘Regent’ of Bantam, Raden Adhipathi Karta Nata Negara. and the indigenous chiefs subordinate to him. These abuses – such as the continuous requisition of buffaloes, the imposition of corvee ‘beyond the regulations’, the murder of complainants and, indeed, as Dekker believed, the poisoning of his immediate predecessor who had also entertained the idea of accusing this ‘Regent’ – were not even directly related to the Cultivation System. There is no reason to assume that they did not exist before the introduction of this system or before the imposition of direct colonial government for that matter. Dekker reproached the colonial government not for having introduced these abuses but for tolerating them, tolerating them because it needed the support of those indigenous chiefs. Losing that ‘would have been bad for the coffee auctions of the Dutch Trading Company’.

    Even on this point Dekker had not all that much of an argument. His own attempt to get the ‘Regent’ in the dock failed, in the first place, because of the maladroit way he went about it. After having been in office as Assistant Resident of Lebak for just over four weeks he wanted the highest Indonesian dignitary in the district, who had been there for many years, to be arrested and taken to the seat of the ‘Resident’ in Serang. And when the latter official, Brest van Kempen, wanted, quite reasonably, to know the specific evidence that would justify this drastic measure, Dekker refused to give this because opening up the case might, he claimed, endanger his witnesses or expose them to intimidation and/or bribery (and him, as he did not say openly, to the risk of being poisoned). The ‘Resident’ would and could not accept this and submitted the affair to the judgment of the Governor General, Duymaer van Twist. The GG consulted the Council of the Indies that advised Dekker’s dismissal. Van Twist decided to give him another chance and transferred him, in the same rank, to Ngawi. Dekker resigned and has until his death pursued Van Twist with his (brilliantly worded) vitriolic contempt and sarcasms.

    It is worth mentioning here that there was after Dekker’s resignation a governmental inquiry into the conduct of the Raden Adhipathi Karta Nata Negara that led to an official reprimand and the dismissal of some subordinate chiefs. There have been other 19th Century cases of similar governmental interference with indigenous ‘Regents’ that led to similar results and also, in some cases, to the dismissal of the ‘Regent’ – this happened even under Van Twist. It is equally worth mentioning that the debate about this matter has never really died down in Holland even though to a foreign observer such as Furnivall this was an open and shut case. A man who was by his own admission so insubordinate, he said, could hardly expect to be dealt with in any other way (for those who are interested in a very precise analysis of this 19th Century civil service conflict and can read Dutch: and

    Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter Holland owes its greatest Nineteenth Century prosaist to it. And his influence on later officials in the Inland Civil Service and on the governmental spirit in the Indies in general has been enormous.

    That Dekker attacked, in the first place, Javanese society (and the people who he believed had made him suffer an ‘injustice’) was, as far as the first bit is concerned, clear to an Indonesian historian, the late Onghokham, a contributor to this volume. He said in an interview with a Dutch paper (NRC Handelsblad of 25/4/1992) inter alia: ‘Multatuli with his ‘mission civilisatrice’ was not anti-colonial – he was against Indonesian feudalism. The first great, weighty critique of Javanese society came from Multatuli.’ Onghokham ascribed the fact that the film based on the novel was originally forbidden in Indonesia, because it was deemed to be ‘colonial’, to this attack on Javanese society. That for those who are not interested in Multatuli’s personal fate it is this, and only indirectly a critique of the colonial system that, in his view, tolerated this society’s abuses, should be clear to anyone who reads the book. I assume that Knight has done so. Why then didn’t he even mention what was so obvious to Onghokham (or, alternatively, not mention the book at all)?

  29. Arie Brand says:


    In describing Raffles’ ‘Bandjermasin enormity’ a zero crept in where it should not have been – the number of Javanese involved was 3000 not 30,000.

    Radenn Adhipathi Karta Nata Negara was ‘Regent’ of Lebak, not Bantam.

  30. Arie Brand says:

    I owe to Emily Hahn’s chatty biography of Raffles a quote from one of his letters to Lord Minto that, I believe, characterizes the man. In this letter, which dates from the 25th of June 1812, R. describes the capture of Jogyakarta and its Sultan by Gillespie’s troops. He remarks about the aftermath:

    “A population of not less than a million had been wrested from the tyranny and oppression of an independent, ignorant and cruel prince; and a country yielding to none on earth in fertility and cultivation, affording a revenue of not less than a million of Spanish dollars in a year, placed at our disposal … The Craton having fallen by assault, it was impossible for any provision for Government to cover the expenses of the undertaking; consequently the whole plunder became prize to the army. It is considerable, but it could not be in better hands; they richly deserve what they got. I cannot speak too highly of the conduct of the army.”

    This man had for all his exploits the pious excuse that he was demolishing some heinous tyranny or other. I do indeed believe that the bad reputation of Dutch colonialism among the British, of which I still saw traces among former high ranking British colonial civil servants from Malaya who were serving the UNTEA during its interregnum in Papua, is partly due to Raffles’ writings, though it probably goes further back than that. The Anglo-Dutch rivalry in the Archipelago, with its dramatic climax in the murder of the British in Ambon, dates from the Seventeenth Century, when the Dutch and British were at loggerheads in Europe as well. The three Anglo-Dutch naval wars then with, at one stage, De Ruyter’s fleet sailing up the Medway and causing panic in London (Pepys has a vivid description of it) left a legacy of nasty feelings, more on the British than on the Dutch side I guess (think of the unflattering British sayings with the word ‘Dutch’ in it).

    But more about the man’s government. It was Francois Bernier, who served in the Seventeenth Century for about a dozen years as the personal physician of the Moghul Emperor Aurangzeb, who introduced in European literature the notion that the Oriental Prince was the sole owner of the land. Raffles believed this for him convenient theory because it bestowed possession on the ‘legitimate’ colonial successor of that Prince (the idea had an interesting further career in that Marx picked it up to base his concept of the ‘Asiatic Mode of Production’ on it – he had actually read Raffles but I don’t know whether he got this legal fiction from him).

    So Raffles continued the bad recent practice to sell indigenous land to Europeans and Chinese. Under his administration territories were sold in Krawang, Cirebon, Priangan, Semarang and Surabaya. In Sulawesi lands originally belonging to the Boni Prince, Aru Palakka, were gifted to people that had supported the Brits in their war with Boni.

    Raffles’ meddling in the Central Javanese Principalities – where, after the Craton in Jogya was taken by Gillespie’s troops, the Sunan and Sultan were forced to cede considerable districts to the English government – led to a reorganization there which caused considerable frictions and feuds of which the full details were later difficult to trace. The relevant entry in the first edition of the ‘Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indie’ says that “the intimate history of this reorganization of the Principalities seems to be lost – could it be that Raffles took it with him?” During the interregnum we also saw the curious case of a Chinese who had supported the British cause, being elevated (under British pressure) to the considerable Jogya rank of Raden Tumenggung Secadiningrat with a hereditary ‘apanage’, I wonder how this went down with the Javanese aristocracy.

    The first Dutch Governor General after the British interregnum, Van der Capellen,
    set himself against this practice of selling and leasing land to Europeans and Chinese because it led to small local despotisms in which the indigenous occupants were ‘corveable et taillable a merci’. He wrote :”When I perceive that in the Netherlands liberalism is supposed to imply the protection of European land owners at the expense of the native population, and to totally lose sight of them, that are so dear to me, in order to let the enterprise of some speculators and adventurers succeed, I have to declare myself an ultra anti-liberal.” (quoted in Vlekke).

    It has been said that Van der C. was merely reverting to the old Company jealousy of private enterprise but the man’s antecedents do not provide reason for this suspicion. He merely picked up the more enlightened sentiments of the day, as did Raffles. However, unlike Raffles, he tried to act on them with as paradoxical consequence that he helped to bring about the Java War (that, as I pointed out above, Peter Carey was quick to blame on those greedy Dutch, totally bypassing the after effects of Raffles’ rule).

    Van der Capellen’s belief that indigenous land should not be alienated and become European property remained a more or less constant theme in the 19th Century colony and led in 1870 to the so called Agrarian Law (or the Law De Waal) that allowed only Indonesians to acquire property rights in land.

    D.K. Fieldhouse, who wrote a comparative study of colonial empires, said about the Dutch one: “They were the first European country to assume that in a tropical dependency the interest of the non-European should remain paramount. Hence, despite considerable European settlement after 1815, there was never any question of Indonesia becoming a ‘white man’s’ country dominated by expatriates … within contemporary conventions of colonial rule the Dutch record was impressive” (Fieldhouse, D.K. (1971), The Colonial Empires – A Comparative Survey from the Eighteenth Century, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, pp.328, 334).

    After so much negative British writing it is nice to see a compliment.

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