“Indische” Indos and Theosophists in the Dutch East Indies

From: Being “Dutch” in the Indies: A History of Creolisation and Empire, 1500–1920, by Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben, tr. by Wendie Shaffer (National U. Singapore Press, 2008), pp. 293-297:

The 20th century arrived in the Dutch East Indies accompanied by a chorus bewailing the growing number of children who had concubines as mothers. The prevailing tone was that many of these children did not merit the status of European. A commonly heard anecdote was that of the down-and-out soldier who, in exchange for a bottle of Dutch gin, acknowledged that he was the legitimate father of a child who had not a drop of Dutch blood. The newspaper Java-Bode reported the growing number of “degenerate Indos and complete hybrids” who were in fact natives but were entitled to call themselves European: “Without a doubt, such people must feel deeply dissatisfied with their lot.” These gloomy musings were, however, seldom based on more than anecdotal accounts and were certainly not founded upon systematic research. It was nothing new to hear of “immoral” goings-on in the army barracks, while concubinage and large families of pauperised (Indo-)Europeans were a familiar phenomenon. What was new were the growing complaints about the situation and the sombreness of their tone. Such attitudes became widespread at the end of the 19th century, when interest grew in matters such as genetic inheritance, Malthusian ideas about population control and the theme of ennobling the lower classes.

The fin de siècle Zeitgeist encouraged the notion of a moral decline of European society in the Indies. Colonial policy in the Indies had always tried to draw a clear distinction between European society and the natives. Until the close of the 19th century the emphasis had continually lain on reclaiming the stray sheep of the European flock and returning them to the fold of European culture and values. Bur now the idea arose that it might be better for them to remain in their native environment. This notion, born largely out of discussions on inheritance, race and degeneration, now buzzed on every side. The Java-Bode, which represented the conservative opinions of the more wealthy Batavian civil servants, used the word “hybrid” to highlight the problematic aspects of racial mixing. Understandably, this newspaper did not dispute the fact that there were large numbers of decent Indo-European families bringing up their children in a correct and seemly manner. But once the journalists got the bit between their teeth, they became carried away by polemics regarding degeneracy and childhood neglect. It only needed a tiny slip of the pen before they were fulminating about the stereotypical Indische family where the eternal ne’er-do-wells lazed around and never lifted a finger, convinced as they were from birth that to do manual work would debase them forever.

This caricature was not something new. A hundred years earlier, at the beginning of the 19th century, newcomers to the East Indies had written with shocked amazement about the lack of parental care, about the frequent beatings that children received, and about how their mothers carried on their peddling trades and spent their time playing cards instead of looking after their children. Around 1900 such commentaries became imbued with pseudo-scientific arguments on the topic of racial inferiority. Articles and reviews with scientific pretensions were published claiming to substantiate the stereotypical pictures of Indo-Europeans as people who were underhand, easily suspicious and quickly roused to anger. The widely held opinion in British colonies that when European populations became mixed with a native race they dissolved into native society also crept insidiously into Dutch (Indies) publications. Some suggested that several generations of mixed marriage resulted in infertility — although such an opinion would appear to be firmly disproved by the many large and flourishing Indo-European families. However, a conservative newspaper like Java-Bode could not be shaken from its conviction that social improvement — with all its biological connotations of crop or cattle improvement — was the same thing as opposing mixed marriages. In the Netherlands, newspapers were quite unabashed in stating that pauperism was the result of racial mixing. The word volbloed (pure-blood) began to appear in advertisements for domestic staff and personnel. Cynical remarks were heard to the effect that the elite corps of the Binnenlands Bestuur [Dept. of the Interior], in Dutch keurkorps, was turning into a coloured corps, Dutch kleurkorps. In short, with the arrival of the 20th century, the colonial discourse became strongly racialised.

It is tempting to think — although inaccurately — that Darwinism, then a fashionable ideology, was responsible for this racist thinking. Social Darwinism was widely accepted in Europe, but in the Indies it was the Spencerian theory of evolution that predominated. Herbert Spencer saw human ability as the product of social evolution, and not of biological selection. It proved a difficult task, however, to distinguish between inherited propensities and the effects of upbringing. The journalist Paul Daum, for instance, was a fervent Spencerian, yet in his novel published in 1890, titled “Ups” en “downs” in het Indische leven (“Ups” and “Downs” of Indische Life) — which recounts the downfall of the aristocratic planters’ family the Hoflands — he invokes heredity as a major element in the family’s decline. In his journalistic writing, however, he pleaded the cause of education as the driving force behind social advancement and the best possible cure for the ills assailing the European community in the Indies. City gardens, public parks, theatrical performances and concerts were surely more attractive ways of passing the time than cockfighting, tandakken (Javanese dancing) or Javanese wayang puppet theatres. Cultural paternalism of this nature encountered little opposition; indeed, it was applauded by the newspaper De Telefoon, which wrote in this context of “the improvement of destitute Europeans”.

All the complaints about the effects of mixing and the negative influences of an Indische lifestyle might almost make one forget that ever-growing numbers of Europeans in the Indies were now speaking Dutch, reading the paper, and writing letters to the editor on touchy topics. It was a recent development, for until well into the 19th century — even in wealthy families in the Indies — the lingua franca was not necessarily Dutch, but Malay. This appears, for instance, from a complaint made in 1887 by the education inspector about the poor level of Dutch among students at the HBS School, which was intended for children from the better circles. It was only in the closing years of the 19th century that Dutch began to be more widely used among Europeans. It first became the standard language at work and then moved into informal areas. In contrast to the much-quoted opinion of the education inspectors that in 1900 the majority of Indies-born European children at elementary school had a very poor command of Dutch, we find that at that time already 40 per cent of Europeans used Dutch in their everyday affairs.

The early 20th century also witnessed an alternative wave against the assumption that “Indische” meant “inferior”. While the terms “hybridity” and “Indische” when used in the colonial context both had negative overtones, the cultural avant-garde in the Netherlands and elsewhere in the Western world embraced the exotic. The artistic style of Jugendstil (art nouveau) made use of exotic shapes and designs. The artist Jan Toorop, born in Java in 1858, who was greatly celebrated in the Netherlands, exploited heavy symbolism borrowed from Javanese art and even transported this into his painted posters advertising salad dressing. For the colonial newcomers, belief in animism was superstitious, possibly even dangerous, nonsense, but in the Netherlands it was all the fashion to hold séances and make contact with the spirits of the dead. What might be described as an organic way of thinking, most powerfully expressed through the eclectic and unrestrained images of Jugendstil, flourished among the elite of the Netherlands. The urge to reconcile opposites also reached the colonies and was to have an influential role in the rejection of conventional European tastes and values One manifestation was the growth of the Theosophical Society (founded in 1875) which acquired a considerable following in the first decades ot the 20th century. Before this, the Freemasons had been the chief instigators of dialogue between the various cultures and faiths in the colony. In about 1908 the Theosophists took over. In the Indies their champion was Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton, who taught Javanese at the training institute for the Binnenlands Bestuur in Batavia, the Willem III School. This eloquent, indeed loquacious, man was inspired by the great British Theosophist Annie Besant (1847–1938), who had left England for British India in 1893, declared the Indians to be her brothers and sisters, and become a tireless advocate of home rule for India. Theosophy also appealed to nationalist intellectuals in the East Indies, who applauded its approach of an Eastern counter-current against the materialism of the West.

Thus the world of the East Indies became aware of two contrasting, indeed opposing, voices. Since the rise of the Soeria Soemirat movement, the Indo-Europeans had spoken out as a separate group, although their plea was to be accepted as Europeans. In contrast, the notion ot an Indische domain as a space where European and Asian cultural influences were equally valid steadily gained ground. The politically tense period linked with the growth of nationalism served to reveal the tensions between the concept of “Indo-Europeans” — people who constituted a category of class and race within the wider group of “Europeans — and “Indische”, a term that could be applied to everything connected with the Dutch East Indies. On the one hand, the expression “Indo-European (or Indo) was used to apply to Europeans who had a part-Asian ancestry as opposed to pure-blood white. At the same time, the word Indische was used in contrast to Hollands (Netherlandish) but never to demarcate Europeans from Indonesian, Chinese or other population groups living in the East Indies. The “closed” character of the term “Indo-European” and its opposite, the boundless connotations of the word “Indische”, have dominated the political evolution of the Indies. During those years of budding nationalism the political pendulum swung continually between the struggle to establish a movement representing the more general Indische interests, and a Union of Indo-Europeans. Two Dutch words crystallised the differences: beweging (movement) stood for new and open, while bond (union) implied the formation of a group to defend one’s own interests. Everything born out of the Indische movement was to be absorbed almost unnoticed into Indonesian nationalism, while the notion of a union or brotherhood gained definitive form in 1919 in the Indo-Europeesch Verbond (IEV) — the Indo-European Union.

This final excerpt from this book touches on most of the major themes raised in this fascinating look at the history of the Dutch and their local allies in their East Indian colonies.

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Filed under democracy, economics, education, Indonesia, language, nationalism, Netherlands

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