Part 2: Colonialism, Family Relations & the Regulation of Belonging in the Dutch East Indies

By Dr Kathryn Pentecost, edited by Sierra Jacobs

The series is based on PhD thesis (2013) entitled:  Selamat Jalan, sampai jumpa lagi (Farewell, until we meet again): Transcultural family stories from colonial and postcolonial Indonesia

Click here to read Part 1

Section Two: INTRODUCTION

Figure 1: My Maternal family The Berlers in Bandung 1939

Our metis (mixed) family composition – including people from various religious groups, social classes and ethno-cultural communities – exemplifies the complexity of the Indies society through the period c.1807 – c.1957[1]. Importantly, according to Pamela Pattynama:

The late colonial Indisch community is often portrayed as a static in-between group squeezed in somewhere between native and totok population. This is a stereotype that does not do justice to the differences and contrasts that existed within this group. The differences in economic well being and status were so vast that it is actually impossible to categorise them as a single group. Moreover, the image of this community as an oppressed group elides the dynamic processes they were involved in. Ideas, norms and habits were constantly changing and traditions were forever being modified as an effect of social and political developments. (2005: 49)

 

Nevertheless, Pattynama claims that ‘certain community traits can be ascribed to pre-war Indisch society’ (2005: 49). These traits characterise family life and include: ‘daily rituals of bed and bath, traditional ways of eating food, dressing, greeting, showing hospitality, and methods to raise children’ (2005: 49).

Coté also describes the society of the Dutch East Indies as one whose ‘racial heterogeneity’ created a ‘static tension’ or what he suggests was ‘a permanent ambiguity’; one which was ‘ritualized’ by the 1920s (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 19). Coté agrees with Pattynama in saying that, by the very last stages of Dutch colonialism, the Indisch/Indische mensen had their own ‘traditional lifestyle’ which was very distinct from both Dutch culture in the Netherlands and from the totok (newcomer) Dutch who had migrated from the Netherlands in the last stages of colonialism (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 19) and were still migrating even after 1945[2] (Gillisen, 2010).

The topic of social hierarchies of the Netherlands/Dutch East Indies is a contested area of research amongst scholars. The stories of what happened to Eurasian families have seldom been told. Joost Coté explains:

There has been no attempt to cover the long history of the evolution of this community from the 1600s to the beginning of the twentieth century since, largely, that history is coterminous with the broader history of Dutch colonialism for which good general histories exist. (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 19)

 

Defining an Indisch/Indische community is problematic. Ulbe Bosma suggests that it was only ‘at the end of the colonial period that the historical roots of the Indisch community were at last defined’ (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 20-21). Jean Taylor maintains that ‘ethnicity’ was ‘not a dominant issue’ until the late colonial period and stresses instead the ‘fluidity of racial, religious and ethnic categories’ within a group quite ‘distinct’ from the late colonial migratory Dutch (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 18). Stoler and Taylor broadly concur that European social mores only had a strong influence in the late colonial period, when the pressure to cultivate a European sense of identity meant ‘mixed-blood’ people/Indo-Europeans needed to adequately perform middle-class values (Protschky, 2011: 548). Coté and Westerbeek maintain that the boundaries of the Indisch community were never clearly defined (2005: 18). Interestingly, female (and/or feminist) scholars Stoler, Hellwig, Protschky (et al) emphasise the nexus between race and gender within the colonial mechanics of control, whilst male scholars, such as Bosma, Wiseman, Cribb (et al) seem to largely ignore this dynamic in their examinations of the social stratification of the society in the Dutch East Indies.

Presently, those who claim an Indisch/Indische/Indo identity[3] (or family connection) are keen to share stories about the former Dutch colony and the lives of their ancestors. All the more surprising, perhaps, is that second and even third generation descendants of those who left the Indies/Indonesia, are interested in knowing about their ancestral ‘home’, ‘histories’, ‘traditions’ and the events that forced their families to relocate. Bosma makes the point that:

For the second generation, free from the clutter of their parents’ painful memories, being ‘half-Indonesian’ can now be an exciting discovery. Some decades ago, this was not the case in the Netherlands[4]. It was also not possible in the racist climate of white Australia, where one interviewee has recalled, it was assumed in the late 1970s she must be Aboriginal since no other dark-skinned person had been let into the country. (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 2)

 

On a Postcolonial Search for ‘Home’

Figure 2: My Opa Andreas Bruno Berler 1933 with his new Chevrolet

 

To date, very little of the history of the Indisch Dutch, according to Coté, has been published in the English language (2009: 14). In the Netherlands, there has been some resistance over the years since World War II to conducting frank discussions about the former colony (Coté, 2009: 14). According to Willems, the process of decolonisation that has been taking place since Indonesian independence is still incomplete and it is only since the 1980s that interest in ‘the history and contemporary position of these colonial migrants’ has increased (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 252). Willems claims that the first research was conducted by the Dutch government in the 1950s but stopped after the assumption that the assimilation of new migrants from the former colony had been achieved (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 252). In the 1980s, novels and stories began to appear about the Indisch which led to a wider interest amongst journalists, sociologists and historians (Willems cited in Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 252). From the end of the 1980s and into the 1990s, a small group of academics at the University of Leiden initiated a series of conferences whose focus was Indische mensen and the Indies, and this created stimulating exchanges of ideas. (Willems cited in Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 252).

Out of this, has come a growing awareness that people from the Indies are themselves a rich source of knowledge about Dutch colonial history in the archipelago (Willems cited in Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 252). A large oral history project has taken place in the Netherlands[5] (Willems cited in Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 252) and another has recently been initiated in the USA (Dias Halpert, pers. comm. 2011[6]). Indies people in the Netherlands have also made a formal request for ‘a reassessment of their history in the colonial and postcolonial periods’ which has led to the development of a three-volume history (Willems cited in Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 253). One wonders whether the development of a ‘grand narrative’ about Indische mensen could lead to a simplified or less nuanced version of the period, than might be evident in a collection of oral histories.

In the last few years, new avenues of communication (via the internet), between the former inhabitants and their descendants have also arisen on such sites as the Old Dutch-Indonesian community on Facebook, The Indo Project and through online journals such as Inside Indonesia, to stimulate a growing interest in hidden histories and previously silenced voices. Even within Indonesia itself, some Indonesians are happy to acknowledge their Dutch ancestors and they have an interest in knowing more about their whole family history. This perhaps coincides with an emerging interest on the part of ‘younger researchers, novelists and artists’ in examining ‘from new perspectives’ the intertwined history of the colonials and their Indonesian ancestors (Coté, 2009: 14).

So, why should the particular history of the Indo-Europeans/Dutch-Indonesians be at all contentious? Is it because they were regarded as an ‘unstable’ group whose potentially divided loyalties were perceived as threatening to the established Dutch colonial order, the Indonesian nationalists and the Japanese occupiers? After repatriation[7] to other countries, did they find peace and security, or did they face prejudice and/or other issues in their adopted homelands?

In 2010, journalist Tifa Asrianti filed a story in The Jakarta Post entitled ‘Dutch Indonesians’[8] search for home’ (2010: 1). Asrianti reported on part-time teacher and history buff, Michael Hillis’s intention to make a documentary about the approximately 200,000 Dutch Indonesians living in the United States of America (2010: 1). The report claims that many Indos who initially repatriated to the Netherlands, subsequently left and settled in the USA because of racism they faced in Europe (Asrianti, 2010: 1) According to the article:  ‘As Eurasians, the Dutch Indos’ physical features vary greatly, with some having blonde hair and blue eyes, and others having a dark complexion and black eyes. Many of these were believed to be Hispanic immigrants and faced racial slurs’ (Asrianti, 2010:1). Hillis believed that racism was the main reason that Indos left Europe, though his view has been contradicted by other people from the very group he insists to speak for, and the film project has failed to eventuate. This is just another example of how contested the postcolonial territory is regarding the history of ‘Dutch Indonesians’ or the Indisch/Indische Nederlanders/Indische mensen/Indos.

In Coté and Westerbeek’s Recalling the Indies: Colonial Culture & Postcolonial Identities former residents describe their ‘homeland’ in ‘Chapter Four – Our Indies Home: Memories of a Colonial Childhood’ (2005: 99 -132).  Here the reader is presented with reminiscences of colonial childhoods by a ‘broad cross-section of former residents’: some ethnic Indisch, others echte (real/white) Dutch (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 99 -132). We are offered glimpses into family lives and the complex society of the Indies in the late colonial period in the words of the people themselves. Mr S, for instance, describes his family composition:

I am actually third generation Indisch. My great grandfather was a Hollander, from Friesland. I can remember there was a fine photograph him hanging in the living room in my grandparents’ house. He was a fine well-built man and he had married a tiny Indonesian woman who only reached up to here on him. So that was the first mixing, which produced my grandfather. Well, it was the same on my mother’s side. I do remember my great grandmother and she didn’t speak a word of Dutch… (Coté and Westerbeek, 2005: 109)

 

In Mr S’s words, I hear resonances with my own family stories; particularly in the descriptions of ‘difference’ between the Indonesians and the Dutch. I also note that, intentionally or not, the colonial framework seems to be the dominant one for these descriptions, especially when the author details the physical attributes of his great grandfather (‘fine well-built man’) and great grandmother (‘tiny Indonesian woman who only reached up to here on him’), and the linguistic differences (that his great grandmother on his mother’s side ‘didn’t speak a word of Dutch’). Similar ways of describing the family composition amongst my forebears indicate to me the internalisation of colonial racial ideology.

Asrianti’s article also makes mention of Jan Krancher’s 1996 compilation of stories entitled The Defining Years of the Dutch East Indies, 1942-1949: Survivors Accounts of Japanese Invasion and Enslavement of Europeans and the Revolution that Created Free Indonesia (2010: 1). This book contains first-hand accounts by people who were children or teenagers during the Japanese occupation; it and Shirley Fenton Huie’s (1994) The Forgotten OnesWomen and Children Under Nippon have been invaluable sources of background detail with regard to camp life during the Japanese occupation and the period known as Bersiap[9], especially since the details of these traumatic years are little known to many descendants of survivors, including me.

What follows on from this introduction is essentially from Chapter 3 of my doctoral thesis. It aims to throw light on the relationship between the colonial state and family life in the former Dutch East Indies, especially in the late colonial period ( after the British interregnum in the nineteenth century), when the pressure to perform a ‘Dutch identity’ was markedly greater than in the early days of the colony.

To be continued…

Dr Kathryn Pentecost studied at Charles Sturt University (NSW) and the University of South Australia (SA).

Author: Dr Kathryn Pentecost studied at Charles Sturt University (NSW) and the University of South Australia (SA).

Dr Kathryn Pentecost studied at Charles Sturt University (NSW) and the University of South Australia (SA). She teaches memoir and writing skills in country South Australia. Her Indo family lived in many places in Java, including Rangkasbitung, Surabaya, Jember, Puger etc. Van der Poel relatives now live in Netherlands, South Africa, Australia and Indonesia.

The series is based on PhD thesis (2013) entitled:  Selamat Jalan, sampai jumpa lagi (Farewell, until we meet again): Transcultural Family Stories from Colonial and Postcolonial Indonesia

A thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

School of Communications, International Studies and Languages, Division of Education, Arts and Social Sciences

University of South Australia

 

Footnotes:

[1] This is not meant to define the period of late colonialism, which is better described as mid-late nineteenth century to first half of the twentieth century. These dates are an indication of the time period during which many of my ancestors and immediate family lived in colonial Indonesia before ‘repatriating’ to the Netherlands and Australia – though other relatives remain in Indonesia still to this day.

[2] According to Albert Gillissen, who worked in Java and Sumatra as an immigration officer 1946-9, civil servants were still being recruited and sent to the Dutch East Indies after the declaration of independence (2010). The Dutch government was also recruiting  administrators and plantation managers, oil company executives, entrepreneurs (and so on) with the purpose of returning to ‘business as usual’ (Gillissen, 2010).

[3] Loes Westerbeek makes the point that that ‘the  question of ‘who is Indisch’ in relation to (future) research among second generation migrants is best answered by women, who often are referred to as the bearers of culture. She believes that they ‘are largely responsible for the intergenerational transmission of culture and as such shape and inform their children’s sense of cultural identity’ (2005: 291). The word Indo is often used now by younger generations in the diaspora, with positive connotations, but I have reason to believe that in colonial times, it was used (sometimes) in a derogatory manner by the Dutch (Gillissen, 2010).

[4] Bosma’s point here is contested anecdotally by my colleague Lolo Houbein who grew up in the Netherlands and suggests that ‘Although there were and are racist Dutch people …, the Dutch population had the liberty for each person to decide for him or herself whether to embrace the newcomers or to shun them, and anything in between. There was soon intermarriage. The Indies people, once organised, put on an annual cultural feast and market in The Hague which became hugely popular with the wider population. This gave impetus to a change in food culture of the Dutch who adopted nasi goreng …’ (2013: 1-2).

[5] This involves The Royal Institute of Language and Anthropological Studies (KITVL) in Leiden, in collaboration with the Department of Asian Studies at the University of Amsterdam and the State Institute for Research on World War II (NIOD).

[6] The project is under the auspices of Professor Azian Tajuddin, Chair of the Department of Sociology at the University of Pittsburgh, USA.

[7] See further discussion in Chapter 5.

[8] Asrianti makes no attempt to define ‘Dutch-Indonesians’; suffice to say, it is a broad term which encompasses all those who repatriated after the independence, whether they were ethnically mixed-bloods or echte (real) Dutch who had lived in the Indies.

[9] Bersiap literally translates as ‘rise up’ or ‘purge’ and was a term used by the pemudas (young revolutionaries) after 1945 in the struggles against the Dutch (who were trying to reimpose colonial authority after World War II and the declaration of independence by Sukarno and Hatta).

 

2 Comments on “Part 2: Colonialism, Family Relations & the Regulation of Belonging in the Dutch East Indies

  1. Excellent,
    Finally I see some numbers about how many are still in Indonesia.
    On a cruise to Japan many servers were Indonesians. One recalls calling her grand father “Opa”. IOW she was an Indo

  2. In the Netherlands there is an organisation Stichting Halin, that supports the Indo’s who were not able to leave Indonesia after the indepandence in 1949.

Leave a Reply to Walter Klein Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *