Category Archives: Indonesia

Dutch Mennonite Industrial Pioneers in Java

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. 125-126, 134:

The story of the [Karel] Holles and the [Eduard and Rudolf] Kerkhovens in Priangan would appear to bear little resemblance to that of the aristocratic lifestyle of the landed gentry of West Java or the leaseholders in the Principalities. In Dutch historiography they are described as hard-working Dutch Mennonites who started growing tea in primitive circumstances and were proud of their social involvement. Their style of entrepreneurship however, was not essentially different from that of the paternalistic rule of the powerful landowners of West Java or the leaseholders of the Principalities. The Holles and the Kerkhovens were, like the first generation of planters in the Principalities, forced to move between various cultures and lifestyles in order to acquire the necessary knowledge capital and labour force. Just as in the Principalities, contacts with a British trading house were crucial; in this case it was the firm of John Peer & Co. in Batavia. This firm introduced the Holles and their Kerkhoven nephews to tea cultivation in British India, which was at that time far more highly developed than in the Dutch East Indies.

Holle earned fame as an expert in the Sundanese language and as a promoter of local agriculture. He published many articles on both these subjects, and his brochures were translated into Javanese by the Wilkens and Winter families. In acknowledgment for his groundbreaking recommendations about rice cultivation and his contributions to the reform of government-directed coffee production in Priangan, in 1871 Holle was decorated with the title of Honorary Adviser for Native Affairs. An intriguing aspect of the Holle story is his well-known friendship with Muhammad Musa, chief penghulu (Islamic religious leader) of Garut, whose sister he was to marry. More mundane, but equally important, was the fact that without his knowledge of Sundanese, Holle would never have been able to grow a single row of tea bushes. Whereas in the Principalities (unpaid) labour of the Javanese peasantry was generally included, as it were, with the lease of land, in Priangan Holle had to recruit his workers himself. Hence he set up small shops and provided housing for his loyal employees — which included the women tea pickers. Incidentally, other landholders in West Java had already done the same thing. Like the legendary Major Jantji, Holle too created his own image; he was wont to wear a turban and flaunt precious rings on his fingers. In this way he demonstrated that — notwithstanding his simple lifestyle and approachability — he was also the tuan besar, the great lord. Although his business collapsed in the great crisis of 1884, the image of him as a benevolent landlord survived after his death, and a monument was unveiled in his memory This too, fitted into the tradition of the Indies, where similar monuments had been put up for other memorable landlords.

Such monuments suggest the specific manner in which certain landlords wished to be remembered in Sundanese history — that is, as development workers avant la lettre [i.e., before the term existed]….

The sugar barons of the 19th century have received scant applause from historians. They gained their wealth from exploiting slave labour (as in the Caribbean) or corvée labour (as in the Principalities). Easily won wealth turned them into bloated and reactionary bosses, a picture that continues to persist. Leaseholders are still seen as a curb on the development of modern production methods. But in fact, the Creole sugar planters in both the New World and the Old were usually forward looking and up-to-date with the latest technology of steam and steel. The planters and commercial entrepreneurs in Central Java who built a railroad track to transport goods to the coast had been preceded by the Cuban sugar producers. Both groups understood the political and technological signs of the times. In 1870 the leaseholders of the Principalities went ahead and founded the Indisch Landbouwgenootschap (Agricultural Society of the Indies), which had its headquarters in Surakarta and by 1874 already numbered 669 members throughout Java. It published its own newsletter run by Frederik Adriaan Enklaar van Lericke, an indigo planter in Surakarta. We shall meet him later in the role of a propagandist for agricultural colonies for the benefit of impoverished (Indo-)Europeans. The newspaper DeVorstenlanden started in 1870 in Surakarta, advocated the interests of the planters. It was no coincidence that these initiatives appeared at roughly the same time: they evidenced a growing self-awareness and the increasing role of science in agricultural industry.

I suppose one could make a similar case for the sugar barons of Hawai‘i—if they hadn’t taken over the government as well.

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Filed under economics, Indonesia, industry, labor, language, migration

Anti-Chinese Laws in Indonesia, 1950s

From: Bittersweet: The Memoir of a Chinese Indonesian Family in the Twentieth Century, by Stuart Pearson (National U. Singapore Press & Ohio U. Press, 2008), pp. 125-127:

Under the provisions of the Round Table Conference which decided the terms of Indonesia’s Independence, the sensitive matter of citizenship for its 70 million inhabitants was also resolved. Native Indonesians automatically became Indonesian citizens while Eurasians could accept Indonesian nationality or the nationality of their European forebears. Likewise, peranakan Chinese, that is Chinese born in Indonesia, had a choice between Indonesia or China, but totok Chinese, that is Chinese born outside Indonesia, were ineligible for Indonesian citizenship.

In reality it was not that simple. I believe the Indonesian Government wanted to rid itself completely of Chinese, so they structured the arrangement in such a way that everyone who had not accepted Indonesian citizenship by December 1951 was automatically regarded as an “alien” and therefore liable for expulsion. In practice, however, most Chinese in Indonesia (peranakan and totok alike) ignored this government direction and continued living in the country with their nationality unresolved.

Throughout the 1950s the Government imposed progressively harsher legislation to force the issue of nationality and Indonesia became increasingly more difficult to live in if you were ethnically Chinese. After 1954, a succession of discriminatory government decrees officially sanctioned anti-Chinese prejudices which had never been far below the surface. Priority was given to financial and other government support for pribumi (native) enterprises at the expense of Chinese businesses. New laws prevented Chinese from purchasing rural property (1954), owning rice mills (1954), or studying at University (1955) and in 1957 Chinese-operated schools were forced to close. In 1958 newspapers and magazines printed in the Chinese language were banned.

Then there was a Presidential Order (Peraturan Presiden No. 10 of 1959), instigated at the insistence of some Muslim politicians, which banned Chinese from participating in any form of retail trade in rural areas. This latest edict was catastrophic! Chinese in their hundreds of thousands earned their livelihoods from trading, just as many Chinese before them had done so for centuries, but this decree suddenly denied many Chinese in Indonesia a right to earn a living. The only way out was for Chinese traders to bring indigenous Indonesians into the business at senior levels or else the Government would shut them down. For many Chinese firms, having Indonesians “freeload” as board members or senior management was a very unpalatable demand. A large number of firms decided to cease trading and leave Indonesia. These included one of the wealthiest trading houses in Indonesia at the time, Kian Gwan, which anticipated nationalization by sending my older brother to organize the transfer of some of its assets to Holland.

In 1960 Indonesian and Chinese governments belatedly ratified their Dual Nationality Treaty of 1955, giving the estimated 2.5 million Chinese Indonesians two years to decide their nationality. The Indonesian Government accompanied the directive with enforced name changes and other anti-Chinese measures. If the Chinese did not take up Indonesian citizenship and change their names, essential services and government pensions would be denied them and life would become even more difficult. Through these measures an estimated 1.25 million Chinese living in Indonesia were classified as Chinese citizens in the early 1960s and approximately a tenth of that number actually departed.

For Indonesians however, this plan was less than a complete solution. Over a million people of Chinese ancestry living in Indonesia thereby became Indonesian citizens and with their new nationality became safe from expulsion, though certainly not safe from further discrimination. Chinese Indonesians were issued with new identity cards that included their racial origins. People frequently used these new identity cards to discriminate against the Chinese, such as placing restrictions on travel inside and outside Indonesia and having to notify authorities when guests stayed in your house. Chinese Indonesians, like us, were becoming prisoners in our own country.

People who held on to their Chinese names found their utilities, such as electricity, phone, gas, water and garbage collection, suddenly cut off. The emergency services of fire, ambulance and police would not respond to calls of assistance. Then they found that they could not get a job or, in a growing number of cases, could not keep their jobs if they persisted with their Chinese names. All in all it was becoming burdensome to sustain a Chinese name, which of course was exactly what the Government wanted.

We felt that we had no choice. If we were to exist in Indonesia, we had to accept Indonesian citizenship, which also meant renaming ourselves. For many others this was the last straw and they chose to leave instead. During the early 1960s over 100,000 Chinese departed overseas, with the People’s Republic of China being the main destination. The resultant loss of commercial expertise sent the economy into a dramatic downturn. My husband and I discussed these developments quietly amongst ourselves as public comments often resulted in the loss of one’s job or even arrest. We had a real sense of sadness and concern. First the Dutch had been forced out of Indonesia causing instability and now the Chinese were being forced out, which was causing more instability. For us and many others who thought likewise, Indonesia appeared to be on a downwards spiral towards political and economic ruin.


Filed under China, Indonesia, language, migration, nationalism, Netherlands

One Chinese Family under Japanese Occupation in Indonesia

From: Bittersweet: The Memoir of a Chinese Indonesian Family in the Twentieth Century, by Stuart Pearson (National U. Singapore Press & Ohio U. Press, 2008), pp. 79-81:

One member of the Kempeitai who had the rank of Captain visited us regularly from the district headquarters nearby at Jember, where the main bulk of hundreds of soldiers were in barracks.

While the infantry soldiers busied themselves protecting assets of value to the Japanese war effort, including our rice mills, he took charge of the civilian administration in our district. He assumed control of the existing system of colonial administration and the Wedana (District Head) reported directly to him. He also quickly established a network of paid informers to report to him on any anti-Japanese activities. Being both investigator and adjudicator in one, he had unlimited power to punish individuals, families or entire communities. Punishment ranged from fines, withdrawal of privileges such as food rations and imprisonment to, in extreme cases amputation or execution.

Our Kempeitai officer favoured occasional public displays of violence to maintain order. He was not interested in minor forms of punishment. Being the only man responsible for civilian order in a population of hundreds of thousands, his preferred method of operation was the occasional amputation, strangulation, or decapitation. Yet he was kind to us. We looked after him every time he visited and he could see we were treating the billeted soldiers very well, never provoked them, and always ensured that an agreed amount of rice was delivered to the Army.

The regular presence of the Kempeitai officer did produce one unexpected benefit. Previously, our rice mills had experienced losses due to grain theft. In fact, most mills across Indonesia suffered similarly. However, with the arrival of the Japanese, the overall crime rate dropped dramatically, including theft of grain from rice mills. For this action alone, most people including my family were grateful.

Because there were more Chinese in Indonesia than Dutch — two million compared with about a quarter of a million — the Japanese could not arrest and intern all Chinese. Moreover, they needed our expertise to run things just as the Dutch had done before them. The majority were allowed to continue working as they had before, but were now answerable to new masters. The unstated rules in our household were simple and rigidly adhered to: respect the Japanese, treat them well, and do as they say without question. Then, hopefully, they would not harm you.

Nevertheless, the treatment of the Chinese was purely arbitrary and was entirely dependent on the local Japanese commander. In some regions of Indonesia I heard that the Chinese were brutalized, tortured, and even killed, but around Tanggul we made sure that the Japanese were treated well and we never had any problems. The family heard that my brother Tan Swan Bing, who before the war had been promoted to a senior position with Kian Gwan Trading Company in Semarang, had been interned and his house ransacked. We were all worried about his safety and that of his wife Huguette, who had just given birth to their third child.

We were told later that, by a strange twist of fate, a senior officer of the Kempeitai came across my brother when Tan Swan Bing had been imprisoned for about six months and learned that my brother spoke fluent Dutch, German and English. The Kempeitai officer was busy pursuing a PhD, which required the translation of German documents. He released my brother on the condition that Tan Swan Bing would help him complete his thesis. From that point on, my brother and his family received preferential treatment and they lived out the duration of the war without coming to any further harm.

Like me, my younger brother, Siauw Djie, returned to Tanggul from Semarang when all the Dutch schools were closed by the Japanese. He married his long-term girl friend, Khouw Mi Lien, in 1942 and turned to my parents for financial support. He said he could not find any paid work, did not know what to do and expected our father to help him. This dependent attitude was so unlike that of my sister and older brother, who never asked for parental assistance, even though they suffered much hardship on their own, including internment. I found this particularly weak of Siauw Djie but my father, who had always spoilt him, gave Siauw Djie a paid position in the rice mill to help him.

I never thought for one minute that the Japanese actually liked the Chinese. There had simply been too much bloodshed in the decade-long war in mainland China for that to happen. In Indonesia, I guess they tolerated the Chinese out of necessity. However, in our specific circumstances in Tanggul we managed to cultivate a friendly relationship with the Japanese that was like being a good and faithful servant. We were never equals, but at least the Japanese were kind and pleasant towards us, as long as we never did anything wrong.

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Filed under China, Indonesia, Japan, war

Trade Between Makassar and Arnhem Land

Last month, while watching Ten Canoes (via Netflix), a docudrama tale of traditional life among the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north (charmingly narrated by the familiar voice of David Gulpilil), I recognized two Malay loanwords in the dialog: balanda ‘white people’ and rupiah ‘money’. The former comes from the Malay word for the Dutch and other Europeans, Belanda < Hollanders. (A common Malay-language name for the long-nosed Proboscis monkey is monyet Belanda ‘Dutch monkey’.)

After hearing these loanwords, I thought, “Aha! Evidence of Malay contact with Australia during the Dutch colonial period.” But now I see that this contact has already been well documented.

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Slavery in the Dutch East Indies, 1600-1800

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. 46-47:

While Mestizo communities were growing rapidly in the colonies in South Asia, Java and the Moluccas, things were looking very different in Batavia. Here the social spectrum was, in a manner of speaking, weighed down under the burden of two opposing immigrant streams. On the one hand were the large numbers of newcomers from Europe. They continued to occupy the upper ranks in the Dutch East India Company, fashioning their world with their conventions and status norms. Among the newcomers were thousands of soldiers living in the garrisons who were not permitted to marry. On the other hand, the city swarmed with slaves who had been brought there from neighbouring regions and who, after manumission, filled the ranks of the urban proletariat. During the 17th and 18th centuries between 200,000 and 300,000 slaves were transported to Batavia. Indeed, the majority of those living in Batavia had a background of slavery. Inside the city walls, where about 20,000 people lived, at least half the population were slaves and 10 per cent were Mardijkers [interesting etymology!—J.]. Most of the extramural communities also consisted of former slaves and their children. The demographic effects of the slave trade were enormous: when slavery was abolished in 1813, population growth ceased for a long time.

The Europeans were the largest group of slave owners. There are no statistics recording how many slaves there were per household in Batavia, but figures from other comparable cities can offer some idea. In Colombo in 1694, 70 per cent of the slaves were owned by Europeans, with an average of almost 11 slaves per household; on Ambon these figures were respectively 59 per cent and almost five. In Batavia the Mardijker community fluctuated with the number of Europeans in the city, which suggests a close correlation between the number of Europeans and the emancipation of Christian slaves. There appears to have been an almost insatiable demand for slaves. The whole of Batavia — from the company’s dockyards to household personnel, from orchestras to agriculture — depended on slave labour. The ubiquitous slaves also provided easy sexual contacts for their owner. Presumably, sexual relations between masters and their slaves were so common, and so much a matter of course, that they were seldom given special mention.

Slavery left other traces on the pattern of urban life. It was customary for Europeans to baptise their slaves. This practice took off after 1648, when baptised slaves were admitted to the religious celebration of the Lord’s Supper in the Dutch Reformed Church. In Protestant churches it was not the sacrament of baptism but that of the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist or Holy Communion) that admitted a person into the community of Christian believers. Furthermore, many Batavian Europeans took pride in emancipating their baptised slaves. They would usually do this in their wills. Some of the emancipated slaves would, not surprisingly, be the natural children of slave women and European fathers. Once they had been baptised and emancipated, these former slaves merged into the Mardijker community. The Mardijkers were a flock of varied plumage. Initially, most of the slaves in Batavia came from India and Bali. This changed between 1660 and 1670, when the VOC halted its slave trade from India and Pegu (southern Burma) and, after the capture of the southern Sulawesi kingdom of Goa, channelled the extensive slave-trade network from Makassar to Batavia. The slaves of Indian origin living in Batavia quickly became a minority group. After some decades, this shift in slave supply areas resulted in the establishment of a Malay-speaking church in Batavia. The slaves from India tended to speak Portuguese, and the lingua franca in most households with slaves would probably also have been Portuguese. Thus, after their emancipation, slaves from India as well as the East Indies joined the Portuguese-speaking community. Between October 1688 and February 1708 there were 4,426 people accepted into the Portuguese-speaking church, while in the Malay-speaking church the number is no more than 306. With time, the Portuguese language began to fade out of use, and so during the 18th century the balance shifted. In the 1780s each year saw about 30 people joining the Portuguese congregation, while 31 were accepted into the Malay church.

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Filed under India, Indonesia, language, Malaysia, migration, Netherlands, Portugal, religion, slavery, Sri Lanka

Extraterritoriality for Everyone

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. 4-5:

Segregation and extra-territoriality — the principle that foreign merchants were subject to their own laws — had many advantages. The local ruler had to negotiate with only a few representatives rather than each individual trader. Maintaining law and order — especially when it had to do with family and inheritance law — could be left to the internal authority of the immigrant community. And the advantages were all too clear for the foreign merchants: they were able to continue living under their own laws. “Legal pluralism” — that is, different groups falling under different legal systems and authorities — was characteristic of the fragmented power relations in the cities and states of South and Southeast Asia. The highest authority was the king, but he was not all-powerful. He had to deal with courtiers, regional governors, religious leaders and the representatives of foreign merchants. Each one of these had their own followers, their own servants and their own slaves who remained outsidethe reach of the central ruler.

The distribution of political power was reflected in urban space. In Ayutthaya large communities of foreign merchants lived in ban (villages or districts) situated just outside the city walls. At the close of the 17th century we find mention of communities from Gujarat (Hindustanis), Coromandel (Moors), Pegu, Malacca (Malays), Makassar, Cochin-China (Vietnamese), China, Japan, Portugal, France and the Netherlands. Each of these communities had its own headman; the large Chinese community even had two. However, although in theory the ethnic groups seemed juridically and spatially segregated, daily reality was somewhat more complicated than the above might suggest. Foreigners and their descendants were not prevented from gaining access to the Siamese community. The extensive “Portuguese” settlement — outside the city walls and facing the Dutch trading post — was peopled by “a Portuguese race descended from black women”; in other words, Mestizos, children with a Portuguese father and a Siamese mother. In other communities, too, there was considerable mixing between travellers from abroad and local women, again resulting in children of mixed parentage.

The mixing went beyond family relations; some foreigners even attained high-ranking posts at court. At the end of the 17th century, for instance, the royal guard of Ayutthaya was composed of a couple of hundred Persians, while for three successive generations the chief minister (chaopraya) came from a Persian family, only to be followed by a Greek. Other first ministers were of Indian, Chinese and Mon descent. The king of Siam also employed Englishmen — for instance, as harbour master. Evidently, the king preferred to employ foreigners in key positions, since they did not command a large band of followers who might pose a threat to the throne. But their difference stopped there. Nowhere do we find the suggestion that these families behaved as foreigners. On the contrary, it seems that they adapted themselves to the culture and customs of the Ayutthaya court. They married into Siamese families and ultimately became totally assimilated.

Along the coast of the Malay peninsula and in the Indonesian archipelago, the pattern of segregation and mediation was essentially no different from that in Siam. The city of Malacca, which during the 15th century thrived on the expanding international trade and attracted many foreigners, appointed four syahbandar (harbour masters) to maintain contacts between the local government and various trading communities, and also to administer justice and act as military commanders in times of war. The syahbandar appointed from the Gujaratis of northwest India was described by the Portuguese traveller Tome Pires as “the most important of them all”. Then there was a syahbandar for the merchants from Coromandel, Bengal, Pegu and Pasai (in north Sumatra); one for the foreigners from Java, the Moluccas, Banda, Palembang, Borneo and Luzon; and, finally, one for the Chinese and other traders from the East.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Ayutthaya and Malacca were among the largest cities in Southeast Asia. Travellers from Europe estimated the population of these places to be as large as 200,000 — although in reality the number would have been closer to 10,000. But whatever the actual figure, there is no doubt that these were bustling emporiums, where a foreigner was not an uncommon sight. There was a prevailing pattern of segregation, but we cannot say with any accuracy how strictly this was applied.

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Filed under economics, Indonesia, Malaysia, Netherlands, Portugal, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Thailand

Borrowed Gender Distinctions in Malay

There was an interesting discussion a couple of weeks ago on the An-lang (Austronesian languages) listserv about how those languages distinguish gender. Here’s my heavily copyedited rendition of the posting by Waruno Mahdi, whose breadth and depth of knowledge about Malay is hard to match.

The situation in Malay is similar to that described by Paz Naylor for Tagalog/Cebuano/Hiligaynon in the Philippines. The language did not originally have gender-specific terms, other than for ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘mother’, ‘father’, ‘aunt’, ‘uncle’, ‘elder brother’, perhaps also ‘elder sister’. There are also gender-specific honorific titles in Malay folklore, where hang appears before a man’s name and dang before a woman’s name.

Terms for animals can be made gender-specific by adding the attribute jantan ‘male’ or betina ‘female’ behind the gender-neutral noun. That usage is already widespread in the earliest (16th-century) manuscripts, and does not appear to reflect late external influence.

The corresponding pattern for distinguishing male and female human terms is to add lelaki ‘man’ or perempuan ‘woman’ after the head noun. This usage is likewise attested in early manuscripts, but not as frequently as the usage for animals. The most frequent headword with those attributes was anak ‘child’, and the resulting construction distinguished ‘boy/son’ and ‘girl/daughter’.

Another such headword in earliest sources was raja ‘king’, a loanword from Sanskrit. In the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals) one can find raja perempuan used to mean ‘female king, reigning queen’ (not simply ‘king’s wife’).

Malay borrowings from Sanskrit go back to the first millennium A.D., but the rise of word pairs marked specifically for gender in Malay did not occur until fairly recently. The term for ‘madam, milady’ in the earliest Malay manuscripts was tuan putri (‘master, sir, milord’ + Sanskrit loanword for ‘daughter’). The male equivalent of putri in Sanskrit is putra ‘son’, but the two words were used differently in Malay. Putra ‘son’ was fully incorporated into the language, giving rise to derived forms such as berputrakan ‘to have as son’, whereas the usage of putri was restricted almost exclusively to the expression tuan putri attached to the proper names of noble women. In a quick search of Ian Proudfoot’s MCP, I only came across a single deviant example in Hikayat Bayan Budiman, in which putri is used in both singular and plural to mean ‘princess’.

The rise of morphologically distinguished gender pairs dates to the 1930s in Indonesian Malay, where saudara ‘sibling’ had come to be used as term of address between indigenous Indonesians (somewhat like the word citoyen during the French Revolution). Political gender-correctness then demanded a term for female compatriots (equivalent to citoyenne), so the Sanskrit pattern of putra ‘son, prince’ vs. putri ‘daughter, princess’ (in their modern meanings) was extended to create saudari as the female counterpart to saudara. This pattern was later extended to create many more gender pairs, such as mahasiswa vs. mahasiswi for male vs. female students.

In response, David Gil notes Malay usage of mister (< English) to mean ‘white person’, whether male, female, singular, or plural. Whereupon Mahdi observes that similar antecedents, sinyor (< Portuguese senhor) and menir (from Dutch mijnheer), applied only to white males. A funny example he cites is a brand of Javanese herbal medicine (jamu) from the early 20th century known as jamu cap Nyonya-Meneer (lit. ‘missus-&-mister brand herbal-medicine’), with a picture of a Dutch couple on the package.

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Rise and Fall of the Nutmeg Monopoly

From The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin’s Discovery of Evolution, by Tim Severin (Carroll & Graf, 1997), pp. 117-119:

The conditions of soil and climate on Banda were so perfect for nutmeg trees that most of the trees were planted naturally by the same species of Tine and very handsome fruit pigeons’ which Wallace observed. These birds had such a wide-opening beak that they could swallow an entire nutmeg fruit and pass the round seed undamaged through the gut, so that it grew where it fell. The labourers had to keep the saplings free of weeds, tend the tall kenari trees which provided essential shade for the nutmeg trees, and pick the fruit. Obligingly, in that warm equatorial climate, the nutmegs gave their crop all year long. It is calculated that, in nearly two centuries of colonial rule, Holland produced a billion guilders’ worth of these spices from their tiny Banda holdings. The income from the Banda spice monopoly so dominated Dutch foreign policy that Holland offered the island of Manhattan to the British if they would drop their claim to the minuscule islet of Run in the Bandas barely three kilometres long and one and a half kilometres wide. Even more remarkably, Run itself grew no nutmeg trees. The Dutch ripped them up in order to concentrate virtually the entire world production of nutmeg and mace on the other Bandas.

Slavery in the Dutch Indies was not abolished until 1862, so there must have been slaves on Banda when Wallace visited there in the late 1800s. Yet he says nothing about them and – astonishingly for an Owenite socialist – he voiced his strong approval of the Dutch system of monopoly plantation though he knew this opinion would raise hackles in Victorian England. State monopolies, he argued, were the only way for a colony to be viable. The mother country had to find some way of paying the huge cost of its colonial efforts, bringing education, peace and a ‘civilising influence’ to unruly native peoples, and if the state controlled a lucrative monopoly, that cost could be met. It was far better, Wallace argued, for the state to reap the profits than to allow the local economy to pass into the hands of private businesses, who would exploit the natives and give nothing in return. The only condition which Wallace put forward was that the monopoly should be of a product not essential to the natives, who must be able to live without it. In this respect, of course, nutmeg was ideal; it was a luxury, not a subsistence food.

In truth, by Wallace’s time the state’s monopoly in nutmeg was in tatters. Nutmegs were being grown illegally elsewhere in the Moluccas, and the French had established nutmeg plantations in Mauritius, using seeds smuggled in from the Spice Islands. Corruption had been so widespread among the superintending officials in Banda and Amsterdam that tight control of the nutmeg trade was a sham. The Dutch authorities abandoned the system within a decade of Wallace’s visit, and handed over ownership of Banda’s nutmeg gardens to the perkiniers, the planters who had previously held them on licence. They in their turn would go under, unable to survive in world competition. The nutmeg plantations fell into neglect and Banda began a long, slow slide into obscurity while, ironically, the impoverished planters came to be replaced by a new generation of Bandanese orang kaya who re-established the age-old trade links. Twenty years after Wallace’s visit, the wealthiest man on the islands was a Javanese Arab trader, Bin Saleh Baadilla, who traded in pearls and bird products. His warehouse contained skins of Birds of Paradise prepared by the natives of Kai, Aru and New Guinea, as well as the feathers of other exotic and coloured species from the rainforest. Where his predecessors had sent the bird-skins to decorate the fans and turbans of a few Indian and Malay potentates, Bin Saleh now had a larger and more voracious market. He shipped his bird-skins to the milliners of Europe, who at the peak of the fashion craze were said to be importing 50,000 bird-skins a year to provide decorations for ladies’ hats.

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Filed under Britain, economics, food, France, Indonesia, Netherlands

At the Fruit Bat Market in Manado

From The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin’s Discovery of Evolution, by Tim Severin (Carroll & Graf, 1997), p. 230:

Wallace had also eaten fricassee of bat in Minahasa. Today bat is still a popular local dish, and the President of Indonesia himself is said to enjoy a meal of bat. At our request Saskar took us to the street market in Manado city where, on most mornings, a bat-seller arrived with his box of bats for sale. He brought them in a closely slatted wooden box, with a little trap-door in the top. Inside the box the bright pinpoints of bat eyes stared out of the gloom, and it was just possible to distinguish the sharp, foxy faces of the creatures themselves. From time to time a black claw worked its way through a gap in the box slats to grasp and scrabble in the daylight. The shoppers strolled up and down checking the street market’s vegetables and other foodstuffs, and a housewife stopped to ask the bat-seller if she could see his wares. He flung open the trap-door on his box, reached inside and pulled out a furiously scrabbling bat. The creature tried to grab the sides of the box with the desperation of kitten being pulled from a bag. The bat-seller then displayed the animal and spread it out, a wing in each hand, to show off the chubby body. The shopper, after poking and prodding the bat, liked the purchase, and the seller swung the bat through the air and brought the animal’s head down on the pavement with a sharp smack. Then he tossed the still fluttering corpse to his assistant for the fur to be frizzled off with a blowtorch.

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Filed under food, Indonesia, travel

Among the Spice Island Sago-eaters

From The Spice Islands Voyage: The Quest for Alfred Wallace, the Man Who Shared Darwin’s Discovery of Evolution, by Tim Severin (Carroll & Graf, 1997), pp. 142-144:

More than a century before Wallace‘s visit, the people of Gorong were still habitual sago-eaters. Toman upon toman of sago flour was stacked up in the little shops of Kataloko. The tomans were the shape of small solid drums wrapped in green palm leaves, or you could buy the sago flour already baked into biscuits and neatly tied with string into bundles of ten. Then they looked exactly like small, hard, light brown floor-tiles. When we asked where all this sago came from, we were told it came from the island opposite, from Pasang where the sago palms [Metroxlon sagu] still grew.

Pasang had a deceptive approach. From the direction we arrived with [our boat] Alfred Wallace, it looked as if the usual fringing coral reef protected a broad lagoon with deeper water; if we could cross the reef and enter the lagoon we would be safe. At least, that is how it appeared, because the water was much darker on the landward side of the reef. In fact, when we crossed the reef we found that we were wrong. The lagoon was dark not because it was deep, but because it was carpeted with brown sea grass. In fact it was barely 50 centimetres deep and studded with rocks. A normal vessel would have been stuck fast, but again Alfred Wallace needed so little water to float that we could pole our way through the shallows for a kilometre or more until we were able to anchor off the main village of the island. From there a guide took us into the sago swamps.

The sago palms appeared to be wild, but were in fact planted as seedlings in the muck and stagnant pools of the swamp. For 12–15 years the palm tree grew until its trunk was approximately one metre thick. Then, quite suddenly, the tree flowered and was ready to harvest. The owner felled the tree, peeled off the skin and chopped his way into the thick white soft trunk. We found a sago harvester at work, sitting inside the tree-trunk as if in a large dugout canoe. In front of him was the unworked face of white sago pith, and he was steadily hacking at it with a long handle which had a tiny sharp metal blade set at right-angles in the end. As he struck, the blade sliced away a sliver of sago pith which fell inside the hollow trunk and on to his feet. The blade also came alarmingly close to his feet with each blow, and it seemed he risked chopping off his toes. Occasionally he wriggled his feet and toes, pushing the growing pile of the sago shavings back down the hollow tree-trunk. When he was tired of chopping, he climbed out of the tree-trunk, filled a sack with sago shavings and carried them off through the squelching mud to a trough which he had set up beside a pool of stagnant swamp water. He dumped the shavings into the upper end of the trough, poured water over them from a bucket, and squeezed the wet pith against a cloth strainer. The water ran out of the sago pith as white as milk, carrying sago flour with it, and drained away into another trough where it was allowed to settle. Within an hour, a thick deposit of pure white edible sago flour had settled in the trough and could be scooped out with the hands. It was ready to bake and eat.

The sago gatherer claimed that in just two days’ work he could produce enough food to feed his family for a month. As for the sago palm, he said, once you had planted the seedling there was no more work involved. You merely had to let it grow. Apart from Joe, who rather liked the taste of sago biscuit, the rest of us wondered if it was even worth that much effort. We compared eating sago with buying a packet of breakfast cereal, throwing away the contents and eating the cardboard packet.

I got to help process a sago palm into starch during my fieldwork in Papua New Guinea in 1976. As unskilled labor, my job was to pound the pith of the felled sago palm trunk into smithereens, using an adze handle with an artillery shell casing on the end. Others carried the pith to the washing chutes near the river where the starch was strained out of the pulp, then drained and formed into large blocks, which were allotted among the households whose members helped with the work. I had never heard the term toman used to name such blocks until I read this book.

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