by Grieko Enter
A Family Connection Inspired by TIP
To her surprise, my wife Henny Haarlem recognized “Oma Filon” in the Indo Profile of Charles L. Pieters from April 20, 2021 TIP story. When her husband Maurits Pieters died in 1954, Erna Madeline Filon married Opa Dirk Kuipers (the second Opa in the Indo Profile), a former police commander. When Opa Dirk died, Oma Erna Filon and Henny’s father, Jacobus Haarlem, got into a relationship and moved to Gouda. Almost forty years ago, Henny and I visited Oma Erna in Alkmaar when still living at the time with her youngest son Humphrey.
Oma Erna Kuipers-Filon died on December 16, 2002—four years later followed by Jacobus Haarlem on October 13, 2006, both at the age of 94.
East Indies Verlofgangers: A Sponsored Trip to the Homeland
In 1936, Charles L. Pieters’ grandparents Maurits Simon Pieter and Erna Madeline Filon and four children lived at Hendrik van Deventerstraat 81 in The Hague for a six month visit. The young children included: Julius Edward, from a previous marriage with Dora David, was ten years old; Charles Robbert, was four years old; Augustinus Ferdinandus, was three years old; and Maurits Edwin was one year old.
In the 20th century, Dutch East Indies civil servants and employees of colonial business were entitled to eight months leave and a visit back home every six years (with reduced leave of absence pay)—there individuals were often referred to as verlofgangers. When your employer offers you a free return passage “home”, with eight months reduced pay, you happily bundle your family on a boat and go with an open mind to this often-unknown homeland. Six weeks at sea and six months in Europe: to renew ties with the fatherland, to enjoy a long holiday in the Old World, or to satisfy homesickness. Not so much for the Pieters family, all were born in the East Indies and none of them had ever been to Holland.
The leave of absence could be quite beneficial for a social career in the East Indies. It proved that an employee and his family in the colony belonged to the elite. Life in East Indies very much revolved around status, and their status may actually increase after a stay in Europe.
Based on the registration date of the Pieters family at the Municipality of The Hague and considering the usual travel time, we expect the family to have travelled with the M.S. Modjokerto of the N.V. Rotterdamsche Lloyd. Once on board, a trip at the highest level in terms of reliability, comfort and punctuality started.
Journey to The Netherlands
The atmosphere on board was mostly pleasant. The day on mailboats was largely determined by the meals: breakfast, the eleven o’clock broth, the dejeuner, the afternoon tea and in the evening the formal dinner. The meals service and other services was mainly provided by Mandoerese djongossen. Children were mostly trusted in the care of the baboes. If a family did not have its own baboe, a so-called ‘zeebaboe’ could be hired for the trip or the mother would take the task on herself.
One of the first transitions on board to Holland was the interest in its atmosphere, guided by the daily weather reports: “Moderate to strong southeast to southwesterly wind: heavily cloudy; frost and snow.” Another transition was the change of colors, specifically the clothing. The farewell at the quay in Tandjong Priok was in the usual bright white. The six months in Holland however would require a different set of clothing. On the way, somewhere before Port Said, the suitcase was opened and the tropical clothing swapped for a casual European attire.
Port Said was a port that the passengers were looking forward to. They had an opportunity to go ashore for a few hours to visit the duty-free shops and visit the internationally acclaimed Simon Arzt’s department store. Port Said also made passengers aware that the journey was approaching its destination. A few days later, the ship arrived at Marseille.
On the morning of arrival at Marseille, the passengers quietly sniffed into the dense, chilly fog off Europe’s coast. The cool, calm welcome of a strange “other” and “temporary” environment, compared to the well-known, steady place called home.
The Rotterdamsche Lloyd, in consultation with the French railway authorities, started a Marseille-Holland train transport for the mailboat passengers and cargo. The train, Rotterdam Lloyd Rapide, runs directly from Marseille to The Hague in twenty hours. Couchettes and a restoration wagon were part of the train. The route was fast and traveling comfortable. It also gave the travellers the opportunity to see something of Europe immediately upon arrival. In addition, some people were afraid of seasickness on the last stretch of sailing: wary of the rough seas of the Bay of Biscay. The train shortened the journey by eight days.
Locked in a velvet couchette, the verlofganger crossed France and Belgium without stopping. The night seemed endless—only the train rushed on, noisy in frantic speed over switches, roaring across bridges, hissing and whistling through stations, feverishly heading north through tunnels and cities.
Until the Lloyd Rapide stops at dawn, next to unusual crowds on a platform. Passengers take a peek out of their couchettes: running, shouting, stuffing in the corridors and then moving forward again, slowly this time as if the engine has grown tired. Not long after that, the train finally slips across the Dutch border to the customs exam. Here the tropical authority of the verlofganger gets its first crack: “Passports”, “Open suitcase”, “Declare this, customs”, and “Hurry up, the train won’t wait”.
The fields hum of a very different beauty than the Tropics. Beautiful pastel shades stretch across meadows and fields, shades, competing with the lavish East Indies in the mind of the verlofganger.
In the years between the two world wars, most verlofgangers settled in the provinces of North Holland, South Holland, Utrecht and Gelderland. They initially returned to the places from which they had once departed. It’s a matter of family ties. As far as the cities are concerned, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, but above all The Hague stood out. That city had the highest population from the Dutch East Indies in the Netherlands for most of the 20th century. On average, 30% of all verlofgangers ended up there.
It was a crisp morning, around freezing point to light frost, when the Pieters family arrived at The Haque Hollands Spoor station. The family had taken the train at Marseille and reached their temporary residence in about twenty hours. Maurits Simon Pieters, being an employee of de Staats Spoorwegen in the East Indies, may have enjoyed some perks from his employer. And finally took up their temporary residence at Hendrik van Deventerstraat 81.
Arrived in the hospitable Netherlands! Hospitable? The day after arrival, a gentleman from the Shipping Company appears at the door to ask which boat you think you are going to take back to the East Indies—closely followed by a taxman to remind you of the duties of your temporary citizenship and an invitation to spend a morning at the population office. Agents of Life Insurance Companies, with memento-mori faces and the fairest rates, and several salesmen of fridges, stoves, and razorblades come knocking on the door. Like hungry vultures, all prying.
Many municipalities did their best to get the East Indies verlofganger. It was assumed that the families had a lot to spend. That image was not always in line with reality. Leavers came from all walks of life. As consumers, they certainly formed an interesting target group and they noticed that. On the other hand, some verlofgangers were quite demanding. In the colony they were used to servants and that behavior did not suddenly change after arriving in the Netherlands. Despite such mutual misunderstandings, the image of the verlofganger is positive, ‘familiar’, but still ‘different’. Something like a tropical fruit in the Dutch garden.
Between 1920 and 1940, the absolute number of verlofgangers in The Hague was around 600 to 700 a year. Because there were so many people with Dutch East Indies connections in The Hague, tropical shops, trading houses and the Ministry of Colonies were established there.
On October 1936, the Pieters family had themselves deregistered as residents of The Hague with the comment “left for Bandoeng.”
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