Gusti Dertik in the Lampong Districts

Jun 3rd, 2011, in History, by

Van der Tuuk used the time in Holland (1857-1868) to work on the rich material he had brought from the Batak lands. But he had a combatative disposition and got involved in a lot of polemics. His main target was the orientalist Taco Roorda who enjoyed great, and according to Van der Tuuk undeserved, authority in Holland. The linguist thought, among other things, that Roorda’s idea of Javanese as a foundational language from which all other Indonesian languages were derived was nonsense, a judgment with which modern authorities agree.

Van der Tuuk’s own activities received growing appreciation and when a proposed doctorate ‘honoris causa’ in Leiden was prevented by professor Roorda (who must have acutely suffered under his attacks) he got it at the University of Utrecht. His Toba Batak grammar and dictionary were then his main claim to fame and were still spoken of with respect almost a century later.

The linguist Uhlenbeck said in 1956:

“At the end of the 19th century there were an impressive number of dictionaries, grammars and linguistic treatises available … of which a few have not been surpassed until today. I will give here as examples Kleinschmid’s admirable 1851 description of the Eskimo language spoken in Greenland and Van der Tuuk’s equally great achievement: his description of Toba-Batak (1864-1867)”

In 1868 Van der Tuuk returned to the Indies with the idea of going as soon as possible to Bali but an internal war there between two Balinese princes forced him to postpone the journey. The Dutch government asked him to go for the time being to the Lampongs to gather materials about the local language there and he consented, getting, post facto, permission from the Bible society.

In the Lampongs he lived for almost one and a half year far from other Europeans, wandering, mainly on foot, from place to place or living in primitive dwellings. He had long been convinced that there is no other way to learn a language well than being on the most intimate terms with its native speakers. He wrote about this to an old study friend when he was still in Holland (1866):

“To learn a language well one has to be on familiar terms with the people, and this is with some nations only possible by adopting their religion. And exactly this would, by a Society that is based on bigotry, be charged to someone as a mortal sin. I do not believe that a European is able to produce a good translation in one of the indigenous languages. Those who have published their translations without being required to do so, like me, were all incompetent. Take the test with someone or other who prides himself on his knowledge of a language. Ask him whether in the language he has studied differences can be expressed as, for example, between “is he ill?” and “would he be ill?” He will, if he belongs to the species that happily translates, cheekily reply that one doesn’t have to be so very particular. And yet all those fine distinctions are made as well in those languages as in ours. In my studies of Batak I have never done anything else than precisely trace those shades of meaning and yet I have to confess that much has remained dark to me. I understood that there was nothing for it then but to denationalize myself and when I dared to propose that to Professor Millies, then an oracle with the Bible Society, and started by saying that I wanted to enter into a Batak marriage, I drew a storm on my head and the answer “that that girl would then have to be baptized first”. This convinced me that with the best will in the world I couldn’t achieve anything. I was after all in the service of a bunch of saints who didn’t care a hoot about studies and speculated on the pockets of pious cheese buyers.”

Well, in the event he achieved quite a lot.

Though he didn’t marry a girl from the Lampongs he was apparently on intimate terms with its people. They were in fact the only people surrounding him.

He wrote in 1868 to the Bible Society:

“ I am very busy with the Lampong language and have gathered a great store of words but still must report about the various pronunciations. There is much to be learned here and any knowledge (?) for me a gold mine. So I am rather happy …

There is not much news from here, unless it is that I find the Lampongs a good people … they remind me of the Bataks, whom I would like to visit again. I don’t lose sight of Bali because I hope to learn there even more than here.”

And in the same year:

“I am sitting here in an open building, right opposite the river Seputik, and surrounded by forest. My dwelling is a house without front – or backdoor, and in the middle part that separates the two miserable dens occupied by myself and my two servants, there is a pipe of burning banana leaves mixed with melted resin, the lamp that has to keep the Sumatran tiger, that lets you hear his hiccupping sound here, away from us.

I am writing this by the light of a small kerosene lamp and am smoking like a steam vessel to keep the insects that, in the rainy season, keep floating on to one, away from me. …

My stay here is of great interest to the Bible society because I have learned here to be alone. I am planning to exile myself from that card playing Indo European community in Bali as well because it takes so much of your time and doesn’t provide any real pleasure. My time here will probably be extended a bit and if not I will be pleased to leave this land of forests, crocodiles, swamps and royal tigers. I don’t want to stay here, because there is almost no literature here, so that I have to get everything orally from natives.”

However, when later he was in Bali flooded with local literature, and the number of variant readings drove him to distraction (particularly when he couldn’t quite make out whether he was dealing with a variant or a writing error), he sometimes wished he had stayed in the Lampongs where the work was so much simpler.

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