Lost History of the Depokkers; A Review of the Book ‘The Christian Slaves of Depok: A Colonial Tale Unravels’
by Dr. Kathryn Pentecost
The Christian Slaves of Depok: A Colonial Tale Unravels (2021) by Dr Nonja Peters is a highly readable and thoroughly researched book which details the little-known history of a group of colonial slaves that were once ‘owned’ by Dutch merchant Cornelis Chastelein (1657-1714) in Java. In addition to extensive historical and sociological research into the Christianisation of the Depokker slaves, Peters interviews contemporary descendants of the original group of slaves to whom Chastelein offered up parts of his extensive land holdings in his will.
Life and Death of Cornelis Chastelein and the VOC
Chastelein was a fourth-generation member of a highly entrepreneurial and innovative family. Born in Amsterdam, he was a member of the Calvinist Reform Community (which included Walloon Protestants). The unofficial state religion of the Republic of The Netherlands, the Calvinistm played a prominent role in socio-cultural, public and administrative life in Europe and South-East Asia.
Before ‘Indonesia’ was a colony of the Dutch government, it was the locus of a thriving international trading company, which we know colloquially as the ‘VOC’, Netherlands East India Company, or Dutch East Indies Company. VOC stands for Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie. Essentially, it was the first multinational company in the world, and the largest trading and shipping enterprise during the years of The Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
In August 1675, Cornelis arrived in Batavia with his sister Ida and they both quickly became part of the Indisch aristocracy because the Chastelein family were related by blood or marriage to people in the top echelons of the society. Belonging to such a group also ensured for Cornelis a quick passage up the ranks of the VOC. Dutch historian L. Busse described the VOC thus:
“VOC was a ‘strange company’ as some VOC officials sought something more than material profits – ancient oriental knowledge, treasures, cultures, medicines, languages, scientific discoveries.” (Peters, 2021: 65)
Despite their ‘superior knowledge, vision, mission’ however, VOC officials all owned slaves (Peters, 2021: 65). Many VOC administrators established country estates in the Batavian hinterlands where they combined business, entertaining and family life with slave ownership.
In 1687, after his wife died, Chastelein became a plantation owner and kept expanding his land holdings over the years. In 1699, he also had a country house built. His slaves cultivated the land–across the Depok estate–and produced pepper, coffee, and indigo. In addition to his other children by his wife, he had two daughters by the Balinese nyai/concubines – only one of whom he adopted.
In his final testament dated March 13, 1714, Castelein offers us a unique perspective of his estate and his visions for the future of his ‘freed’ Depokker slaves (Peters, 2021: 123). He offers the lion’s share to his only son Anthony, while also providing for his adopted daughter Catherina to whom he leaves a parcel of land.
The demise of the VOC and the birth of the Netherlands East Indies colony (1816) leaves in-tact the lifestyles of many former VOC employees and merchants. Slavery ends officially in 1860, but the hierarchical feudalism of its inception continues into the state-sponsored colonial era.
In-Betweeners of Depok
Depok was a place of isolation. Consequently, the Depokkers were prevented from mixing more widely with groups of equal status in Batavia and Bogor. This led to what is termed ‘endogamy’ and their Christianisation also contributed further to creating a community forced to ‘marry-in’ because they were discouraged from mixing with Javanese Muslims or the Chinese.
After Chastelein’s death, the Depok estate became essentially a ‘dessa bestuur’ – or village municipality. Even great changes in the Indies over the late colonial period of the 19th century had minimal impact on Depok because of its relative isolation. Missionaries kept track of births, deaths, marriages; translated the catechism book into Malay; built churches and educated the Depokkers.
In 1854, it became possible for Depokkers to apply to be considered ‘legally Dutch’ (Dutch Nationality Act) and this Gelijkgesteld (equivalence) put those that succeeded on a similar social footing generally as ‘Indos’ (Indo-Europeans) (Peters, 2021: 234-5). From the late 1870s, some Depok families began to use Dutch education and status as landowners to apply to be registered as Staatsblad Europeanen (Gazette-Europeans), and this offered them the chance to apply also for Dutch passports (Peters, 2021: 235).
It is not known how Depokkers acquired their surnames (Peters, 2021: 241). Somehow the 150 – 200 freed slaves morphed into twelve family names: Soedira, Jacob, Leander, Laurens, Jonathan, Tholense, Joseph, Bacas, Isakh, Loen, Samuel and Zadokh (Peters, 2021: 243). Peters (2021: 245) makes the point that:
“Information on the early histories of the Depok families is scant. The available aspects of their histories in this book are told by current members of the family post-diaspora in the mid-20th century. Most were born overseas after 1950 and have few documents at their disposal. The older ones have only their memories… A major drawback is that most family albums and documents were lost when Indonesian revolutionaries destroyed Depokker homes in October 1945. To make matters worse, most older family members stayed in Depok when the younger ones left for NL.”
Indeed, recovering ‘lost’ histories is no mean feat. Peters’ work resonated with me because I had spent five or more years researching my own ‘Indo’ family history in Java. While my ancestors were not slaves, nevertheless, like many of those of ‘in-between’ status in the late colonial period, their situation mirrored the ‘Dutchification’ of the Depokkers, the hardships experienced in World War II, and the Indonesian revolution and their ‘exile’ to the Netherlands (etc.)
Today, many Depokkers describe themselves as ‘in-betweeners’ floating between the Indonesians and the Dutch – seen as Indonesian in the Netherlands, seen as Dutch in Indonesia (Peters, 2021: 433).
Cornelis Chastelein gained mythical status amongst the Depokkers of Java and the Netherlands. Fact and fiction are much enmeshed (Peters, 2021: 426). Peters’ book pays homage to the resilience of the original Depok slaves and rescues from potential obscurity the stories of this specific group of people.
Dr Kathryn Pentecost has written for Inside Indonesia and continues to write for The Indo Project. Her doctoral thesis is titled: Selamat jalan, sampai jumpa lagi (Farewell, until we meet again): Transcultural family stories from colonial and postcolonial Indonesia (www.academia.edu).
The author and publisher disclaim any liability in connection with the use of the information and content of this article.
Did you enjoy learning about the Depokkers? What other subjects history of the Dutch East Indies would you like to know more about? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nonja Peters’ book “The Christian Slaves of Depok” is a fascinating read but very expensive. However, for anyone interested, the Kindle eBook is available now and can be read on any device with the free Kindle app. https://www.amazon.com/Christian-Slaves-Depok-Nonja-Peters/dp/1527570827