Author Archives: Arie Brand

Among the Balinese

The Balinese in the late 19th century, their gentle priests; the fear they inspired; their bewildering language; eccentric foreigners among them.

“One of the rajas of Badung who once discussed Van der Tuuk with me said very peculiarly of him; “There is in the whole of Bali only one man who knows and understands Balinese and that man is Gusti Dertik”

from Dr. Julius Jacobs , “Eenigen tijd onder de Baliers”, 1883

So Van der Tuuk had to make preparations to go to Bali. These did not always go smoothly. He wrote on the 3rd of January 1870:

“I have great difficulties with the servants here because the Javanese and Malays of Batavia fear Bali. I have now a servant, a boy of 13 years old, who is honest but rather clumsy. I fear that he will desert me when I depart for Bali. There is a general fear of Bali here.”

But amidst these preparations he did not neglect the study of Balinese in which his knowledge of other Indonesian languages came him in good stead. On 5th May 1870 he wrote:

“I am very busy with Balinese and believe that I will soon master it since Javanese has had a great influence on it.


The Malay of Batavia facilitates for me the study of Balinese. It is remarkable how many Balinese words have remained in that particular dialect of Malay. The original population of Batavia, you know, consisted for the larger part of Balinese who served the VOC as slaves or soldiers. Even the housekeepers of the gentlemen of that pious company were female Balinese slaves. That is why even now the housekeeper of a European is called “njai”. In Bali this “njai” is the usual term with which one addresses, in a friendly way, a young woman of the lowest class; it means “younger sister”.”

Once again he was determined to put his house in an isolated spot where other Europeans would not bother him too much. This spot turned out to be the kampong Baratan, about 3 kms from Boeleleng, where he got himself a bamboo house.

The Balinese made a very favourable impression on him – even more so than the Bataks who had also generally received positive comments from him. He wrote on the 23rd of September 1870:

“Thus far the Balinese please me better than the Bataks. The Brahmins here are very civilized and very gentle. It is a pity that the government does not make more use of them and is here represented by an official who allows the Prince to get away with the most outrageous cruelties.”

On a later occasion he wrote:

“The caste of priests receives great honour here and that is nothing to be amazed about because those priests I know deserve great esteem. They do not know the intrigues of Malay spiritual leaders. I ascribe this phenomenon to their aversion from attempts to convert others to their religion.”

He soon noticed that the study of Balinese required some preliminary study. He wrote on 19th dec. 1870:

“The language here is so mixed with Old Javanese (the so-called Kawi) that one is necessitated to study Kawi literature and clear that up, all the more so because the Balinese does, when he speaks in a refined fashion, not hesitate to use words he only knows from manuscripts. This now requires serious study because we don’t have a Kawi dictionary yet.”

But that the Balinese used Old Javanese when they wanted to cut a fine figure did not mean that they had a real command of the language. Van der Tuuk soon found out that there was a considerable element of humbug here. He wrote:

“Though the Balinese understand more of Kawi than the Javanese do, reading it is with them a matter of faith. They imagine understanding a Kawi text but when you put a difficult bit in front of them they are as cheeky with it as a Jew with some Hebrew text. Their explanations are sometimes preposterous. One can get to know more of it than the most learned Brahmin by reading many manuscripts and reflecting repeatedly on a text and comparing words.”

Though the life there was very monotonous for him he found consolation in his studies and in his dogs, monkeys, chickens, ducks, and other “trifles which turn out to be the core of life”. “The conversation here” he wrote “is not very stimulating. I am generally waffling with the Balinese.”

Among the things that tied him to Bali and that would, as he said, cause him to leave the place with sadness he failed to mention his Balinese housekeeper.

In 1873 there was a big change in his life. The government had proposed that he would enter into its service and thus leave that of the Bible society. Van der Tuuk’s main reason for accepting this proposal seems to have been the requirement of that society that he would, here too, work on a translation of the bible. The linguist felt that with the then state of knowledge about Kawi and Balinese that would be entirely premature – and that from that point of view the Society was wasting its money on him. His reluctance to start on a translation of the Bible in Balinese was not entirely of a linguistic nature. Over time he had become more and more anti-Christian. So he left the Bible Society, acknowledging that, though he was not exactly known for his orthodoxy in religious matters, it had always treated him decently.

His workload did however not become any lighter.

At a late stage, in 1884, he wrote to his linguistic colleague, Brandes:

“It is true, I have gathered a lot here, but had to leave even more unexplained in my dictionary since the Balinese translations contradict each other, when difficult bits of text are involved, in a horrendous fashion. If I had known what a muddle we have here I would have preferred to stay in the Lampongs.”

About ten years earlier, in 1873, he had written:

“One has of the study of these languages the wrong idea in Europe … Not only that these languages are very rich they also have peculiarities that a European never gets to know. I merely draw your attention here to Malay in which no European can decently express himself, and yet we have practiced this language for centuries… the ignorant fiction that it can be easily learned still holds sway until today …”

I would like to comment here as an aside that, though Van der Tuuk is mainly known for his study of Batak, Kawi and Balinese, he has also contributed to the study of the Lampong language, Sundanese and Malay. About this latter contribution a fellow scholar of Malay (C. Grijns) wrote in 1996:

“I can only express my admiration for his remarkable contribution to the development of the study of Malay, besides his major work on Batak and Balinese, and much else besides. In particular the way he dealt with manuscript materials, his lexicographic acuteness, and his unrelenting struggle to come to terms with all varieties of written Malay that did not meet the standard he had set for the purity of Malay are worthy of our praise.”

What was his domestic life like amidst all this scholarly endeavour? Dr. Jacobs, a medical officer in the Dutch navy, who has been quoted above, visited him in 1881. He wrote:

“His furniture consists only of the strictly necessary. One looks in vain there for an easy chair, an impressive desk or couches. On the contrary, his whole house is, from the front to the back, occupied by his extensive library. On the floor, on chairs, tables, boxes and shelves are lying voluminous folios, old manuscripts and lontar leaves with script, in an ungainly chaos through each other and it is amazing that from this chaotic collection he can retrieve so quickly the desired item. …

You would believe that one is dealing here with a disagreeable person, not fitting in society, a real bookworm, but you would be wrong dear reader. He is busy from early morning until sometimes to the depth of night with his studies, only interrupted for a moment by people from all layers of Balinese society who want to consult him on a juridical matter or a sickness, and all of whom he helps very willingly. But when you visit him the scholar disappears as if by magic and he changes into a jolly student, whose acquaintance nobody who had the advantage of meeting him will regret.”

Europeans in Bali saw a visit to the ‘eccentric” Van der Tuuk as a bit of a lark, good to relieve the boredom of colonial society. They had to put up with chairs with layers of dust and glasses for drinks that they wiped surreptitiously but Van der Tuuk was a generous and entertaining host. Privately he had a dim view of these occasions but apparently he was good at hiding this.

Occasionally he got guests who stayed for longer periods. The linguist Brandes, who after his death would prepare his Kawi-Balinese-Dutch dictionary for publication was one of them.

Rouffaer wrote many years later, in 1909:

“Brandes stayed with Van der Tuuk for four weeks. He came back as only half a person … he needed a full three years … to bring Van der Tuuk’s dietary laws into harmony with both his phonetic laws.”

The master himself did not escape the consequences of his lack of hygiene and his peculiar diet. Throughout his stay in the Indies he suffered, off and on, of dysentery to which he finally succumbed in the military hospital in Surabaya in 1894.

After his death the government requested Brandes to prepare his dictionary for publication. The first volume appeared in 1897, the second in 1899, and the third in 1900, the fourth and last part was published, after Brandes death in 1905, by Dr.Rinkes in 1912.

The whole seems to be a source book rather than a regular dictionary and now has also literary-historical value because many bits of quoted text originate either in manuscripts that have disappeared or that have remained unpublished.

Finally a peculiar detail about his estate. Van der Tuuk had never made much money. When he worked with the Bible Society his salary was very modest. The government paid him more generously but gave him, after all, only a civil service salary. Yet such was his frugal lifestyle that his estate amounted to about 135.000 guilders which I guess to be the equivalent of three quarters of a million Euros today. The value of his bamboo house was estimated to be … ten guilders.

And signs of Van der Tuuk the eccentric could also be found in his estate. It counted two donkeys, the beginning of a planned large herd of these beasts that he deemed far more suitable to Balinese circumstances than horses. He desired to receive a subsidy for creating such a herd and annoyed the Director of the Department of Education and Religious Affairs no end by inserting his requests for this in his quarterly and annual reports. When it was pointed out to him that these donkey matters did not belong in a linguistic report he annoyed that Director some more by addressing him in writing as the Director of Popular Deception and Affairs of the Hereafter.


I drew for this series on:

  • C.Grijns (1996), “Van der Tuuk and the study of Malay” in Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde. Vol. 152 Iss.3;
  • R. Nieuwenhuys (1959), “ Van der Tuuk, taalgeleerde en zonderling” in Tussen Twee Vaderlanden, Amsterdam;
  • R.Nieuwenhuys (1962), De pen in gal gedoopt: een keuze uit brieven en documenten van Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk, Amsterdam.

The translation of the letter fragments is mine.

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Gusti Dertik in Lampung

Van der Tuuk used the time in Holland (1857-1868) to work on the rich material he had brought from the Batak lands. But he had a combatative disposition and got involved in a lot of polemics. His main target was the orientalist Taco Roorda who enjoyed great, and according to Van der Tuuk undeserved, authority in Holland. The linguist thought, among other things, that Roorda’s idea of Javanese as a foundational language from which all other Indonesian languages were derived was nonsense, a judgment with which modern authorities agree.

Van der Tuuk’s own activities received growing appreciation and when a proposed doctorate ‘honoris causa’ in Leiden was prevented by professor Roorda (who must have acutely suffered under his attacks) he got it at the University of Utrecht. His Toba Batak grammar and dictionary were then his main claim to fame and were still spoken of with respect almost a century later.

The linguist Uhlenbeck said in 1956:

“At the end of the 19th century there were an impressive number of dictionaries, grammars and linguistic treatises available … of which a few have not been surpassed until today. I will give here as examples Kleinschmid’s admirable 1851 description of the Eskimo language spoken in Greenland and Van der Tuuk’s equally great achievement: his description of Toba-Batak (1864-1867)”

In 1868 Van der Tuuk returned to the Indies with the idea of going as soon as possible to Bali but an internal war there between two Balinese princes forced him to postpone the journey. The Dutch government asked him to go for the time being to the Lampongs to gather materials about the local language there and he consented, getting, post facto, permission from the Bible society.

In the Lampongs he lived for almost one and a half year far from other Europeans, wandering, mainly on foot, from place to place or living in primitive dwellings. He had long been convinced that there is no other way to learn a language well than being on the most intimate terms with its native speakers. He wrote about this to an old study friend when he was still in Holland (1866):

“To learn a language well one has to be on familiar terms with the people, and this is with some nations only possible by adopting their religion. And exactly this would, by a Society that is based on bigotry, be charged to someone as a mortal sin. I do not believe that a European is able to produce a good translation in one of the indigenous languages. Those who have published their translations without being required to do so, like me, were all incompetent. Take the test with someone or other who prides himself on his knowledge of a language. Ask him whether in the language he has studied differences can be expressed as, for example, between “is he ill?” and “would he be ill?” He will, if he belongs to the species that happily translates, cheekily reply that one doesn’t have to be so very particular. And yet all those fine distinctions are made as well in those languages as in ours. In my studies of Batak I have never done anything else than precisely trace those shades of meaning and yet I have to confess that much has remained dark to me. I understood that there was nothing for it then but to denationalize myself and when I dared to propose that to Professor Millies, then an oracle with the Bible Society, and started by saying that I wanted to enter into a Batak marriage, I drew a storm on my head and the answer “that that girl would then have to be baptized first”. This convinced me that with the best will in the world I couldn’t achieve anything. I was after all in the service of a bunch of saints who didn’t care a hoot about studies and speculated on the pockets of pious cheese buyers.”

Well, in the event he achieved quite a lot.

Though he didn’t marry a girl from the Lampongs he was apparently on intimate terms with its people. They were in fact the only people surrounding him.

He wrote in 1868 to the Bible Society:

“ I am very busy with the Lampong language and have gathered a great store of words but still must report about the various pronunciations. There is much to be learned here and any knowledge (?) for me a gold mine. So I am rather happy …

There is not much news from here, unless it is that I find the Lampongs a good people … they remind me of the Bataks, whom I would like to visit again. I don’t lose sight of Bali because I hope to learn there even more than here.”

And in the same year:

“I am sitting here in an open building, right opposite the river Seputik, and surrounded by forest. My dwelling is a house without front – or backdoor, and in the middle part that separates the two miserable dens occupied by myself and my two servants, there is a pipe of burning banana leaves mixed with melted resin, the lamp that has to keep the Sumatran tiger, that lets you hear his hiccupping sound here, away from us.

I am writing this by the light of a small kerosene lamp and am smoking like a steam vessel to keep the insects that, in the rainy season, keep floating on to one, away from me. …

My stay here is of great interest to the Bible society because I have learned here to be alone. I am planning to exile myself from that card playing Indo European community in Bali as well because it takes so much of your time and doesn’t provide any real pleasure. My time here will probably be extended a bit and if not I will be pleased to leave this land of forests, crocodiles, swamps and royal tigers. I don’t want to stay here, because there is almost no literature here, so that I have to get everything orally from natives.”

However, when later he was in Bali flooded with local literature, and the number of variant readings drove him to distraction (particularly when he couldn’t quite make out whether he was dealing with a variant or a writing error), he sometimes wished he had stayed in the Lampongs where the work was so much simpler.

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Gusti Dertik in Batakland

Dutch linguist Gusti Dertik, founder of the comparative study of Indonesian languages; his romancing, or lack of it; and the Christianising (and Islamising) of the Bataks.

Gusti Dertik (Dr.Herman Neubronner van der Tuuk) was, so we are told, the greatest nineteenth century Western student of Indonesian languages, possibly rivaled only by Brandes, a quite different type of scholar (and different type of human being). He laid the foundation for the comparative study of Indonesian languages by the formulation of two phonetic laws “without which”, according to the later testimony of the scholar of Malay Van Ronkel , “no scientific treatment of an Indonesian language is possible.”

He was born in 1824 in Malacca just before this place, through the London Treaty of 1824, exchanged its Dutch administration for a British one. His father was a totok Dutchman who had married the daughter of a totok German and a Eurasian. This latter fact explains Van der Tuuk’s rather ‘exotic’ appearance. On one of the few photographs available of him he looks, as Rob Nieuwenhuys rightly said, like nothing so much as an old fashioned elderly Chinese toko owner.

Van der Tuuk

The change over in Malacca to a British administration necessitated Van der Tuuk Sr., who occupied a position in the judiciary there, to move, in 1825, to Surabaya where he became president of the district court (‘landraad’). Thus his son spent the first twelve years of his life in an environment where he, through his playmates (and the servants), made his first acquaintance with Malay and Javanese. At the end of this period he was sent, for further education, to Holland where he was admitted, at the age of 15, to the University of Groningen to study law. But he only did a first year exam in that subject and then shifted to his lifelong interest: languages, among others Arabic, Javanese and Malay. Ultimately he moved to Leiden University where there were greater opportunities for such studies and where he added Sanskrit and Persian to his repertoire. I have not been able to get much information about his personal life in this period except for a fragment of a letter to a friend he wrote soon after his arrival in this old university town. The servant girls here, he wrote, get themselves screwed ‘pro deo’ adding ‘I have screwed only once’. Perhaps his studies kept him too fully occupied. There was then in Leiden no degree study in oriental languages (that only came about in 1877) and so Van der Tuuk left this university without any degree (his later doctorate was ‘honoris causa’) but with a phenomenal reputation for his aptitude for languages. The Arabist Professor Juynboll Sr. persuaded him to take up a job with the Dutch Bible Society that was then looking for a person to translate the bible into a Batak language and to compile a Batak grammar and a Batak-Dutch dictionary. Van der Tuuk was far from religious, a thing that was rather clear to that Society from the start, but both parties needed each other here. So, end 1847, he received his official appointment and one of his first moves was to go to London where he hoped to find some Batak manuscripts. In the libraries of East India House and the Royal Asiatic Society he did find some, half a dozen in fact, that he had to copy by hand. He also used the opportunity to draw up two catalogs of the Malay manuscripts to be found there.

Almost two years later, in Sept. 1849, he arrived in Batavia where he promptly fell sick and ended up in the Military Hospital there. He was, and remained, a fanatical worker though, and in this hospital he conceived a study of what he called ‘Centralisatie Maleis’ (standard educated autochthonous Malay).

He finally departed for the Batak lands in 1851.

He travelled to Padang in a salt vessel owned by Arabs. From there he had to go on to Siboga overland. Since he was not a civil servant he was not entitled to their perks re transport and he had trouble to get his things moved there. Years later he reported that he had been asked to pay 4,000 guilders for this. It is unlikely that he actually paid this sum, which I estimate to be at least the equivalent of 20,000 Euro today.

Siboga was not exactly the ideal place for his study of Batak since Malay merchants were the main inhabitants there. The Bataks who used to live there had withdrawn to the interior. Van der Tuuk managed however to find a native speaker willing to live with him and gradually his house also came to be used by Bataks coming for trade from the interior. A military officer who used to know him at that time wrote later that he often found up to half a dozen Bataks sleeping on the floor in his house. Van der Tuuk used the opportunity to babble with them.

But as said Siboga was not the ideal place for his studies and ultimately he moved to Baros, where the VOC had once a trading post. The place was reoccupied by the Dutch in 1839. The Batak population there was relatively affluent because of its long established trading activities, with camphor (‘Kapur Baros’) as its main trading item.

From Baros, a coastal place, Van der Tuuk made various trips into the interior attempting at one stage to reach Lake Toba. Earlier attempts by British and Dutch travelers had floundered on Batak resistance against foreign intrusion into this area. Even the famous Junghuhn had not managed to get there in a trip he undertook in 1840. He in fact denied the existence of the lake altogether. Van der Tuuk at first planned to travel together with the then well-known Austrian female explorer Ida Pfeiffer but she finally preferred to travel alone, perhaps having been put off by the linguist’s strange manners. However, she didn’t reach the lake (she was regarded as a witch and forced to return) but Van der Tuuk did, becoming the first Westerner to do so. He had set out with twelve travelling companions among whom a Malayan horse dealer whose advice would later save his life. In Bakkara, the Toba seat of the Batak ‘priest king’, the Sisinga Mangaradja, the travelers did not exactly get a friendly reception. His companions had thought to facilitate their passage through the Batak lands by spreading the rumour that Van der Tuuk was the returning older brother of the Sisinga Mangaradja who had been kidnapped in a Padri raid some thirty years earlier. The established Prince, fearing competition, didn’t take kindly to that and at one stage the linguist and his companions were in a precarious situation. They were surrounded by thousands of people, armed with lances, who according to Van der T., were arguing whether or not to let these intruders end up in their pots. The travelers had only two pistols and a hunting rifle between them but Van der T. put these pistols, on the advice of the Malay horse dealer, to strategic use. He wrote

“at the moment that some gentlemen were talking and licking their lips about the most tasty of us I got from the Malay horse dealer the wholesome advice to move with my pistols as close as possible to His Holiness and to put these at the least movement in front of his holy mouth, I saw at this my gesture that he considerably changed his tone …Our withdrawal from Bakkara was more a flight than a departure”.

Elsewhere however he received a far more friendly reception and he encouraged people who had some literacy to write things in their language, all kinds of things, songs, stories, riddles, proverbs etc. In this fashion he gathered twenty folio volumes, each of about three hundred pages, which are now in the university library at Leiden.

Van der Tuuk did not only gather oral information but set great store by the study of texts and copied manuscripts wherever he could. This was not always easy. He wrote at one stage:

“In the region Aek na oeli I got to read, at an important Batak chieftain, a pustaka in which there was also a story about the creation of the world. One can safely deduce from this that there are in the Batak lands still stories and chronicles. One of these days I hope to get hold of a pustaka that describes the foundation of the state Nai Pospos. It is a pity that the Bataks have become horribly wise in these things and ask you with incredible impudence a present for borrowing a book. Thus the chieftain mentioned above asked me as a price for borrowing this pustaka a European dog of the size of a calve, twelve large bottles of jenever (Dutch gin AB), ten Spanish ‘matten’ (old Spanish silver coins worth about two and a half guilders AB) and three padang rusaks (a sort of shawl of Acinese make). So I had to forget about making a copy.”

Meanwhile he had to get on with his translation of the bible which bothered him a lot because he thought it an absolutely useless task that took him away from his real linguistic studies. He wrote in 1854 to the Bible Society:

“I know that my letter would be more agreeable to you, if I came up with the frequent lie that “the Bataks feel the need of a Saviour, they thirst for the Holy Word” etc. I know that such fine words would be more agreeable to you and give you more courage for our cause, but it has been until now impossible for me to write such a thing, and I even take the liberty to doubt such niceties when applied to the Dayaks, the Javanese and other peoples, and to ascribe these things for the larger part to a lack of intimate social intercourse with the native in general”.

And on another occasion he wrote:

“I have often asked myself the question whether this zeal among Protestants in spreading Christianity is not a form of comedy, to throw dust in the eyes of the dumb herd, since the way in which this task is approached, must look ridiculous to the native.”

Though Van der Tuuk had obviously very little enthusiasm for the attempt to christianise the Bataks yet he was also irritated by what he saw as the tacit pro-Islam attitude of the Dutch administration. He had a lot of critique on this administration in general blaming its ignorance of the local language for the dependency on local clerks who could be easily manipulated and bribed by the local chieftains. Thus the complaints of the common man hardly ever reached the ears of those in authority and the chieftains used the liberty this gave them among other things to distribute corvee services (‘Herendiensten’) arbitrarily, according to the bribes they were paid for absolving some from these duties. On the other hand one gets the impression that the civil administration resented what it saw as the unwarranted interference of missionaries in general. There was also a wider political aim for this tacit pro-Islam attitude having to do with the fear that a diversity of religion would lead to unrest and strife – a vision that, ironically, has come to be substantiated after independence. Van der Tuuk’s skepticism about the whole matter was also fed by his clear awareness that the christian missionary was in an impossible position anyway because he belonged to a social category that was not recognisable to the Batak. Thus he could not compete with the proselytizing efforts by moslem Malays who were traders and recognised as such. And then there was, of course, in addition the ‘obstruction’ by the Dutch government.

In 1857 Van deer Turk wrote to the Bible Society:

I cannot forego either to warn you against the direction of the Van Brugghen-Simons government because this cannot be favorable to you. Mr. Simons might be orthodox protestant for Holland, here in the Indies he is a moslem and equally so Mr. Mijer, who has suddenly turned his coat. If the Bible Society is too credulous about the intentions of these gentlemen it will achieve nothing to speak of. Mr Simons is totally Delft, that is against christianity.

(the city of Delft was then the seat of the training college for future civil servants for the Indies, a task that later was allocated to the faculties of “Indology” at the universities of Leiden and Utrecht).

The stay in Baros became finally too much for Van der Tuuk. He complained that it was a ‘miserable hole’ where he couldn’t find a bookbinder and where the climate was so humid that he often had to copy his documents three or four times to prevent them from becoming illegible. What particularly irked him was that he couldn’t live with a woman there because of his connection with the Bible Society. This also enhanced the dubiousness of his social position with the Bataks who had contempt for an unmarried man. Moreover he had to forego another excellent avenue for getting more intimately acquainted with the language

He wrote:

“How did Winter get his great knowledge of Javanese? Not because he was born in Java but because he could start living like a Javanese. If I, who is regarded as a missionary, would get married to a native girl, the whole world of the Indies would claim that I was keeping a harem … The Bataks find it very strange that I am not keeping a girl like the others, and they still present me daily with an opportunity to get related to them. They just cannot understand why I am not willing to enter into that …”

and on another occasion:

“There is only one means to stick it out here without becoming prey to a melancholy that drags body and soul to the grave, and that means is inducing a stupor either through opium or through drinking, or by being continuously on the move … I could attempt to live as a Batak but it may be doubted whether I would be allowed to live in a kampong here because the Batak always thinks that there is something political behind it.”

So in 1857 he departed for Holland, a country he had never found congenial and soon we find him complaining that when he was out and about in that rainy climate and needed a piss he found it almost impossible “to simultaneously hold on to his pecker, his cigar and his umbrella”.

Nevertheless the decade he spent after this in Holland allowed him to order and publish the host of materials he had gathered in the Batak lands and to continue his linguistic studies. In 1868 he departed again for the Indies, this time for Bali where he would lay the foundations for the massive Kawi-Balinese-Dutch dictionary, a work that after his death was completed by Brandes. I would later like to say something about this period as well.

There is in Wikipedia an extensive entry on Van der Tuuk that also provides a concise bibliography of his writings.

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‘The Clan’, by Willem Walraven

A portrait of a Sundanese wife and her family of the late colonial era.

The second part of a translation of a story entitled “The Clan” in which pre-war Dutch journalist Willem Walraven tells about his Sundanese wife Itih, and her family. Read the first part – A Pre-War “Mixed” Marriage.

She the ever loyal, who will never waver, was it only because of her pride and deeply rooted chastity, was not able to gain the benefit of these beautiful characteristics that are such a credit to her and make her superior to so many others. I have to take issue with Du Perron’s characterisation, in ‘The Land of Origin’, of the Sundanese woman as a cool type. Her coolness is only appearance; she forces herself to this because of her inborn distrust, going back many generations, of the man, whom she always deems to be unreliable as a lover unless she, in special cases and after years, comes to a complete understanding of the character of the innocent partner, which in actual practice probably rarely happens.

In Banyuwangi we often walked at night, especially when there was moonlight. One could see in those days in the middle of Strait Bali an impounded German freighter that, when the moon broke through the clouds, seemed to be an enchanted ship with only a single guard on board. Itih had never seen the sea before but her father descends from Bugis, a seafaring people, and Itih is delighted with the sea and with ships. The sea is always the goal of all her excursions. We saw the life of the fishermen with their small sailing prows, who late in the afternoon were fleeing for the coming storm, while their wives were anxiously watching on shore. We often walked through the quiet quarters of town. She was shaking from fear near a cemetery, but it gave me great joy when I could finally convince her of the fact that dead people are far less dangerous than the living. I will never forget certain amusing misunderstandings and how these were straightened out. An ‘orang bagus’ appeared to be a beautifully dressed person to her, but my idea that it referred to a good person made her happy as soon as she understood me.

She always forbade me to write to her relatives. She seemed to be afraid of ‘reprisals’. But when in Banyuwangi two years had passed by I got, on the occasion of me being placed in Middle Java, fourteen days leave and we spent those with our baby in Priangan. Then the ice was broken and the old woman, her mother, who was really not all that old but only worn-out before her time, often came to stay with us for long periods. I wanted her to stay with us permanently because I wished to prolong her life as long as I could. But her longing for home, for the children there, for the land and the language always became too powerful and made her suddenly depart and once she went away and returned no longer.

When the telegram came with the news of her death Itih was standing beside me in the bedroom. I read the few words with the hard meaning. Itih gave one scream, sank down on her knees before the bed and wept passionately for some minutes. Then she got up, said no more about it and went about her work. But I, a Westerner, can still cry after months, sometimes years, for my dead.

A few years after the death of the old woman Itih and I were in Priangan. I had arrived a few days before and one evening Itih arrived with the express train in Bandung. We had our evening meal at a hotel and then walked along Braga road to the Great Postal Road. We then went to a dancing and enjoyed ourselves until late. But the morning after we got up early and I took her first to Dago, to the small tableland there with the high spars, from where one has such a beautiful view over the plain of Bandung. And while I was already stirring my coffee Itih was still standing at the edge of the tableland and suddenly I heard her sobbing.

“Why are you crying” I asked hard and matter-of-fact like a man.

“I am so glad to be here” Itih snivelled.

I put my arm around her shoulder and took her to our table, praising my luck to have a wife who had an eye for scenic beauty, and who loved the place of her birth. I talked about the plans for the day and we decided to go to her real birthplace, the desa Cigugur. This desa is just outside the border of kota Cimahi. The family on her mother’s side has shared in the possession of the land there for at least four generations, possibly much longer. One has to go on foot for the final stretch there because no vehicle can reach these small tracks in the mountains. The path is bad and uneven, and it is as if it has been kept this way to ward off intruders. This makes one feel very safe and restful. When one is sitting in the house of Atim, who is my oldest and most solid brother in law, one doesn’t hear a sound. Atim has traded in building materials and what is more, he has lost a thousand guilders in this. He who can lose a thousand guilders on lime, sand, stone and cement is a great businessman. Atim, whom I have known as a little boy with a wise little face, has not changed much at all. His voice is calm and he speaks in a low key, as did his late mother. The whole family recognizes him as the indisputable head of the clan, also Uncle Hassan and Aunty Eneh, whose house of bamboo, resting on piers in the old style, is also placed on the family’s land. But Atim’s house has a cement floor and he has got good beds and furniture, and even a mirror-fronted wardrobe in the modern fashion. He has no children, but he has an ‘anak mas’, a foster-daughter, because one needs something to care for.

Atim’s wife is from Cirebon and she speaks Sundanese with an accent different from that of the people around Bandung – more rapid, sharper, less slow and melodious. In the low-lying plain life is quicker and more vehement, and the language shows traces of that. She from Cirebon, childless, and therefore perhaps somewhat pessimistic, is visibly no member of the clan. My wife’s father too whose grandfather was a Buginese has never been able to become one. The land, possession of the family, comes from mother’s side, and now father is a widower he stays with each of the children in turn, but he is and remains an outsider. Mother too did not recognize him as a member of the clan; he was and remained somebody of a lower order, an ‘orang menumpang’. But in his old age he is neat and clean, almost venerable. He doesn’t lack anything, but he is never present during family consultations, because these are postponed until he is gone. He could perhaps have come to stay in the clan, if he had always made the interest of the clan his own, but he hasn’t done so. He has shown a Buginese roving spirit and a lust for adventure that is a horror in the eyes of a genuine occupant of the desa. Yes, I believe I can say that I, a complete stranger, who can hardly speak a few words of the language, is regarded as more of a member of the clan than this old man, because I have from time to time sacrificed my money in the interest of the community and have even defended that interest in a court of law.

To what extent this rather large compound, with attached sawah, is regarded as inalienable domain, is apparent from the grave. The grave is right in the middle of it and overshadowed by a clump of bamboo trees. These bamboos do not grow straight but are slanting when they come out of the ground, and the wind plays softly through the small leaves and makes the stalks sway creakingly. At the side of the middle path is the grave placed in an oblique direction to the path, seemingly without any sense for symmetry. But the top end of it points very precisely in the direction of the Holy City of Islam.

The old woman died, ill and worn-out, in the house of Atim, on this family land. Only the two brothers and she from Cheribon were at her deathbed. She remained conscious and said farewell to everybody, also to those who were absent, but for me and Itih and our children she has prayed with texts from the Koran, over and over, always with appeals to the Supreme Being, because we are missing the light of the true faith and therefore we have much to be forgiven for. Now she is lying there in that oblique grave on this compound, her own land. Nobody can walk here or he has to pass by this grave. There are stones there and stones from the kali, cement and other materials. Because this grave will be at the centre of a great mausoleum in which there will be place for all members of the family, also me as I was assured in full earnestness. I have been for more than twenty years faithful to this clan from a distance and in their eyes I completely belong.

I was very amazed about this grave. I knew that I had to go there to honour it and I had imagined an excursion to an indigenous cemetery, on a little hill, demarcated by two wooden or stone poles, without any further marks. I had thought to go there with some flowers, roses, cempaka and melati, as is the custom. But this grave was something quite different! It spoke of a sense of family and family pride, which I knew, to be sure, but that I saw here tangibly demonstrated for the first time since years. At this worship of the dead, that had something grand and aristocratic to it, I had to speedily suppress my own sober views that come from Calvinism, in which little value is given to the earthly dust. The grave bound us all even more together and made the compound to a sacred place, to a thing of ‘pusaka’ of which I sensed that it could not be touched by profane hands for evermore. And I understood that Itih has only one ideal, after almost a quarter century in the diaspora, after having been Europeanized in language, dress, habits, marriage, offspring and mental development, namely to once return to this ancestral place amidst her own people.

She from Cirebon had invited us for a meal. She wore a sky-blue kabaya with yellow and red flowers. Her bosom was adorned with pins of yellow gold and she had bracelets around her wrists. She and her whole house were neat and almost anxiously orderly, and she had completely the manners of a hostess, of an oriental hostess who does not impose herself. But when we four were seated around the table and every one had been served, she from Cirebon started to talk of the death of Mama and everything around it, and all she had performed. Of the wakes, the cares, the fears, the costs even. Of the treatment that she (as a stranger) had had to undergo from the close relatives. Of the coolness (oh she didn’t say it literally but she suggested it all the same) from the side of the dead one herself. It visibly did her well to talk out her thoughts to us, especially also me, who knew everything and who knew the family much longer didn’t I and who was also a stranger after all. She was speaking with animation and vigour, with wide gestures of her arms, and with lowering and rising inflections of her voice. She poured out her heart in even the smallest details. Her husband, Atim, sat there silently and spoke from time to time a few words to further clarify things or exchanged a look of mutual understanding. I had also known the dead woman after all and this seeming ‘ingratitude’ I could bear with relative ease, because it could be completely understood from her character and the laceration of her inner feelings over the last few years, now all the children were dispersed and she wasn’t able to oversee everything and all. And with this the daughter in law had hardly been considered, but she had felt excluded, outside the clan, and she appeared to be chock-full of grievances.

In the middle of her story the door was opened and Uncle Hassan, the oldest brother of Mama, came in. Perhaps he had guessed something from his own house, about a hundred meters distance. He sat down silently and my sister in law got up immediately, took a plate, filled it and offered it to the old man. Her story had suddenly ended. Also Auntie, Uncle Hassan’s sister, came shortly after and the conversation took a general turn. The usual inquiries started and became almost an interrogation. Aunt was darkly dressed and lightly coloured. In her refined old lady’s face her eyes were clear and searching. Time and again she came up with a question, that had mainly to do with material things, but Amin dampened her curiosity with a lot of tact.

There was much talk after this, also about the other members of the family and about those who were related by marriage, among whom there are many who would like a separation of property. But in the future the dead will protect this compound and not one little bit, not one inch will be given up as long as a direct descendant of the dead woman is living there and guards the grave. Care will be taken as much as possible of those who are needy. Children of needy brothers and sisters will be fed there, if need be. But as soon as it comes to the land there is nothing to talk about. The authority and the supreme power of Atim, the future patriarch is tacitly recognised by all. Just before we departed I stood at the grave and knew with certainty that this ‘pusaka’ would not be touched. I could go with peace of mind as far as that was concerned. Any splitting up of the land, any desecration will be resisted by the pride and perhaps even a little by the loving heart. The heart of the clan.

‘The Clan’, by Willem Walraven is brought to you by Indonesia Matters, where you can book flights in Indonesia, and features listings of Indonesian hotels, like Kuta hotels, Sanur hotels, hotels in Jakarta, and more.

A Pre-War “Mixed” Marriage

I have translated part of a story entitled “The Clan” in which Willem Walraven tells us about his Indonesian in-laws. In the part I have translated we are told how he met his Sundanese wife Itih.

Willem Walraven came to the Indies around the time of the First World War. He had signed up for the colonial army and spent his first few years in Cimahi, which had a garrison at that time. His work there, some low level clerical job, was not demanding and he had plenty of time for reading and dreaming. Though he didn’t stay long in the army he later came to realise that the years spent there were among the happiest of his time in the Indies. This is rather amazing for such a rebellious character who called himself a Marxist.

It was, in fact, partly this claim that had driven him from home. He came from a strictly Calvinistic village environment where his father was a fairly prosperous grocer who believed in hard work and not upsetting the apple cart. Walraven, who regarded the socialist foremen in Holland, such as Troelstra and Domela Nieuwenhuis, as his prophets, did not fit in. At first he tried his luck in Canada where he had all kinds of jobs but also experienced semi-starvation. He returned to Holland but was soon at odds with his family again and found his way out by joining the colonial army.

In Cimahi he was called a ‘santri’ because he wasn’t a whoremonger and often visited the Christian Military Home, mainly to make use of the library there. But, as his wife Itih later said, he might have been a santri but when he visited the warong I worked in he tried to sometimes grab my arm all the same. In fact it was a bit more than her arm.

We know about Walraven because he had a talent for writing. After a few years in the army he had various administrative jobs but also wrote bits and pieces for newspapers. When the depression started he lost his job and tried various other things. But, alas, he was not a practical man with an eye for the main chance. He bought, happily in hire-purchase, a hotel in Pasuruan. But nobody was particularly interested in staying in Pasuruan. Then he tried cultivating orchids. But those flowers that looked so nice in Dinoyo which was high up wilted in the heat of Surabaya where they had to be sold. The last ten years of his life he worked full time and exclusively, but still as a “free lance” (as he proudly said), for ‘De Indische Courant’ in Surabaya. His copy had to be fetched from Blimbing because he didn’t want to live in Surabaya and even in Blimbing he sorely suffered from the heat. In a way he never got acclimatised, neither physically nor culturally. He liked to quote Goethe’s saying that he who walks beneath palms has to incur penalties. In 1942 he was, together with other Europeans, interned in a Japanese camp and died there of malaria and dysentery. He was then in his fifties.

Willem Walraven & Family in Indonesia

His nephew, to whom some of his more interesting letters were addressed, published his correspondence. I find it endlessly fascinating because together with a life size person it evokes an era that, in actual fact, has irrevocably gone. Unfortunately his letters to Du Perron are lost because DP burned his correspondence at the German invasion of Holland just before his death.

One of his more formal literary products is a story he wrote about his Indonesian family called ‘The Clan’. It is in this story that he talks about his wife, Itih, and how he met her. I have here translated fragments of this:

Itih, the girl with the little name and the big heart, was born in the desa Cigugur, near Cimahi in Priangan. Though the exact time of her birth cannot be established it must have been before the turn of the century, because Itih can remember the feasts in the Indies at the occasion of the marriage of Queen Wilhelmina. She was then a little girl of perhaps four or five years old. Itih remembers from her infancy especially feasts and catastrophes, violent emotions. She can remember the trains that came hurtling along the edge of the desa and today still likes looking at a passing train. The many removals that she apparently went through and which were caused by the trade of her father who was a carpenter and who didn’t belong to the desa dynasty on her mother’s side are engraved in her memory.

I saw Itih for the first time around 1916, in the soldiers’ warong of her uncle in Cimahi. This bamboo hut stood on the unpaved, narrow yard of a decrepit toko in which an African was living with many children. In this toko there were cupboards with empty shelves and behind the windows one saw military hats from the time of Van Heutsz, the model that was in use in the French colonial army. Old lamps and all kinds of other rubbish, to which nobody attached value any longer filled this shabby place. The occupants seemed to have other sources of income.
Itih sold coffee made of extract and tinned milk at a low price. It was good coffee such as a soldier could get nowhere else. There was also a small stand with glass jars filled with cookies and even cigars. When it was raining, and that happened often, the water leaked through the roof of this hut on these glass jars, also on those with the cigars, which made me feel sore at heart, but gave Itih no reason to do something about it. This amazed me. I would in later years be often amazed about this trait in her character.
Perhaps we came a bit nearer to each other because I moved the cigars. Perhaps it was something else. I came there almost every day and Itih was nearly always there. I couldn’t talk with her because I knew little Malay and even less Sundanese. But I had no need for conversation. I was sitting there and thought about things. I was waiting for a specific date, because on that date I would depart from Cimahi, where I had to stay for altogether two and a half years. My life was, especially in the second half of this period, quite tolerable. I spent my days in a military office, outside the usual military routine. I had a lot of work and worked at all times of the day. When work was finished I went to the street called Passer Antri and ate something in a warong of a Chinese or a native, after which I drank coffee at Itih’s. It was actually a good life because during the whole of this period I didn’t get angry once. There was nothing that could make me angry because I wasn’t living. I was waiting for the time that I could resume my life. I was not in love, so everything was passing me by, in a tranquil and monotonous fashion. Only later, much later, I understood the happiness of those days, which I had let pass by to do what I thought I should do: finding a fitting job in civil society.

All that I have thus far told about Itih I only heard much later. At that time I didn’t even know her name. She was there small, frail, thin. Her head seemed to be too big for her thin neck, when she was standing straight behind the row of glass jars on the small stand. She liked to hide behind this and could smile about things happening on the street, with downwards curving corners of the mouth, as in mockery. On the side was a small fireplace on which she sometimes baked ‘peujem’, a Sundanese cake of damp grated cassava, which is lightly fermented and has therefore an alcohol aroma. Sometimes she toasted, unasked, some bread for me on the lightly glowing charcoal and smeared that with butter from a small tin originating from Australia. I noticed then that she knew the English word ‘toast’ and heard later that, as a small girl in Padalarang, she had assisted with the children of an officer who had to buy horses for the army in Australia and had also brought a wife from there. With her quick understanding she remembered some English words of this lady.

At other times she would offer me quietly a candy with my coffee and when I touched the part of her breast that was left uncovered by her kabaya of white cotton she said “Tidak boleh”. This was the miracle in her that in this fairly depraved world of a Priangan garrison town, she had remained totally inviolate. Sometimes the roughest customers were coming there sitting there until late. They took women with them, and were blathering there and using the filthy language of the barracks and the kampong. It didn’t seem to touch Itih. Early in the morning she went to the pasar and bought the things needed for that day. The baker came to resupply the cookies. The selling started and the money went to her uncle and aunt, but mostly to the uncle. She had no wages, only a little present from time to time or a treat in the cinema, or at one of the many feasts with tandak and wayang, in the kampong. On the other side of the street there was a gigantic cinema of bamboo. It was in the earliest days of the movies. When new posters were put up I saw Itih shuffling there on her small, weakly developed feet that suggested that she had suffered from rachitis in her youth. She admired ‘Zigomar’, ’Eddy Polo’ and ‘Maciste’, the predecessor of the ‘strong man’ of Italy. She left the coffee tent to its fate. I see her clambering with her poor feet up the hill of fat Priangan clay on which the cinema was placed, engrossed in the starkly colored prints which always showed scenes of violent fighting. This was the literature of Itih, who would, much later, read Kartini and Szekely Lulofs and Pearl Buck after she had started with Ot and Sien (a classic Dutch children’s tale and language primer A.B.). Itih who would enjoy Daum and who would personally know Du Perron to babble endlessly with him in the Sundanese language they both loved …

My military service was over in June 1918 and I could find work everywhere. I left for Banyuwangi where I became bookkeeper for a factory producing spice oil. I got a house there and I bought the few really necessary bits of furniture at an auctioneer. I had enough money to live on and had Javanese servants, but I worked the whole day, Sundays included, and it was strange living there in that new, almost empty house. Even the servants felt the strangeness of it. I could not get myself to join other European citizens, because I had already been too long in the Indies without them and outside their company. I distrusted them and wanted to be alone and totally free. I was planning to work and to read in the evenings. But I also wanted to go back to Europe when the war was over and nothing has ever come of that.
I wrote an acquaintance in Cimahi about my circumstances, and I asked of course also about Itih. Apparently Itih had also asked about me and people had given her information. A vague kind of correspondence about Itih came about, until I got one day a letter with the words ‘Barkis is willin’!’. The famous phrase from David Copperfield. With a shrug of the shoulders and the smile of a gambler who puts a certain sum of money on a card and counts on losing it, I took twenty-five guilders from my rich supply and sent this to my correspondent in Cimahi. A telegram arrived: ‘Departed today’. They had literally abducted Itih from the house of her uncle and aunt in the darkness of the early morning and put her on a train that had a connection with the express to Surabaya. Itih, who had never been outside the region where she was born, stayed in a Chinese hotel where the driver of a dogcart had taken her. Somebody threw a blanket over the wall of her bedroom that didn’t reach the ceiling. She departed next day from Surabaya-kota to Banyuwangi. I heard later that she had sobbed a bit in the train off Kalibaru. But that day, it was a Sunday, I was waiting at half past three at the station. I saw her walking among the many travellers, small and inconspicuous, but yet different, Sundanese. She seemed happy to see me after all these adventures and that long, long trip.
She has never been able to tell me what went on in her heart then. Neither have I ever heard from her how she, the incorruptible, wont to protest violently against any wrong, managed to decide to make this long journey into the unknown. The miracle she had been waiting for had come. But how this wonder came about she didn’t reveal to any one, including me. And, indeed, at that time she could only answer the question ‘how?’. Never the question ‘why?’. In her world people didn’t ask about the ‘why’ of things.
She probably felt somewhat guilty towards her family, but at the same time she was convinced that she could not have acted otherwise. She had lived there in a form of servitude, of semi-slavery which oppressed her and seemed to her without dignity, and to which she wanted to make an end. She did this with the gesture of despair with which the aggravated amuck-runner grabs a knife. She destroyed her life as it was without knowing what a following life would bring. She knew only me, but knew nothing beside.
They had given her money that I had sent, and a large part of this remained. She handed this back to me immediately after her arrival, but I let her keep it. She told me something about the regent and the wedana in the way desa people do when they are visiting a different place. Then she went to have a bath and borrowed a toothbrush. After she had bathed she told me that she would return next day. I gave her some more money and said that I would have to go to the factory next day so that I might not see her again. In the morning, before my departure, I shook her hand, kissed her and told her at what time the train would depart for Surabaya. I was entirely calm in leaving her. But when I returned that evening she was still there. She had bought pots and pans and a kabaya. She had also cooked rice together with the things going with it. At the pasar she had met a man who had seen her sobbing in the train and who had cheered her up. He was a dealer in kains and cloth. For important decisions she still today prefers the advice of strangers above that of mine.
So she stayed with me and so it has remained until today. But the Itih of yore has disappeared and it is as if I am talking about a different person.

We lived for two years in Banyuwangi and our first child, a girl, was born there. There were many happy moments, but also deeply unhappy ones. I was already beyond thirty and I preferred a lifelong comrade who would not hinder me in my personal life above a wife who wanted to control it. Itih was twenty at most and of a love life, as Westerners know it she had, as Kartini also writes of herself and those who shared her fate, little notion. She only knew love as it is in a Priangan desa, love with a sting in it that is never sure of itself or of the other party. She only seemed to expect that men would be unfaithful to their wives at every opportunity, and whatever I did to convince her of my affection, and above all of my esteem for her, however often I pointed out to her, that I would spoil my quiet existence by infidelity, so that it would not be ‘in my interest’ to be heading for other coasts, she didn’t seem able to believe me. For a long time I did not understand whence came her brooding and gloomy days until finally, during an insane outburst of jealousy, I discovered the unsuspected cause. This misery has lasted for years and embittered our life. Later when she started, at the same time as the children, to read novels and other books, and when I was amazed about her intelligence and will to understand, and especially after she had met some Dutch friends in whom she had great confidence this has disappeared. But the tragedy of the first few years has never gone away.

Continued in Part II.

A Pre-War “Mixed” Marriage is brought to you by Indonesia Matters, where you can book flights in Indonesia, and features listings of Indonesian hotels, like Kuta hotels, Sanur hotels, hotels in Jakarta, and more.

Surabaya Johnny

Is there any non-Indonesian song that has the name of an Indonesian city in its very title? The only one I can think of (and if it is not the only one it is certainly the most famous one) is Brecht and Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny”.

Here is a mixed English-German performance by a well-known interpreter of Kurt Weill’s songs: Ute Lemper (even in the English bit she betrays her ethnic origin by referring to this Javanese port as Zurabaya):

And here is a fully English performance by an anonymous singer. If her portrayal of Johnny’s teenage love has any realism about it one rather understands why he made himself scarce:

What is the origin of the song? I have always assumed that it was part of Brecht’s and Weill’s Dreigroschenoper, the most successful theater performance of the Weimar Republic, and that it was right up there with the song of Mackie Messer (Mack the Knife) and that of Pirate Jenny. But no – the Brecht canon usually places the song in the other Brecht-Weill co-production “Happy End”. It can indeed be found there but this is somewhat strange because that story is set in Chicago and deals with a tug of war between the Salvation Army and a bunch of gangsters. What is a song with such “exotic” place names as Burma, the Punjab and Surabaya doing there?

If one digs a bit deeper one comes to a more likely setting and one that usually is not ascribed to Brecht: Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1925 play “Kalkutta 4 Mai” which was a rewrite of his “Warren Hastings, Gouverneur von Indien” that dated from 1914. It seems certain that Brecht cooperated in this rewrite and though opinions differ about his share in it the cognoscenti agree that he at any case contributed “Surabaya Johnny” (the full text of which can apparently only be found in the first edition of the play). Feuchtwanger-Brecht made a certain Marjorie Hilke, in the play Hasting’s mistress, sing the song to divert her troubled lover.

I have never seen a copy of this play but I can’t imagine that the text of “Surabaya Johnny” there is similar to the one we know. For one thing Johnny had lied about working for the railways – a rather futuristic occupation in the eighteenth century.

The “Asian” roots of the song go however more deeply than its chance placement in a play about a British-Indian governor. It is supposed to be an adaptation of one of Kipling’s “Barrack-Room Ballads” viz. “Mary, Pity Women!”. It turns out that the Marxist Brecht was an avid reader of that glorifier of British imperialism: Kipling. His use of the British writer was not limited to “Surabaya Johnny”. We are told that in the very first performance of the Dreigroschenoper the spoiled Berlin public was initially rather distrustful and distant until the performance of the “Kanonen Song” turned the tide. This was greeted by wild applause and after that it was uphill all the way. Now this “Kanonen Song” is also an adaptation of one of the Barrack-Room Ballads namely “Screw-Guns”. It didn’t take long for the critics to find out because this literary theft, if it was one, was not the only one. There were other adaptations of Kipling (and Villon for that matter) and one critic even took to talking about Rudyard Brecht.

How did Brecht get to this for him unlikely author? According to one close friend his knowledge of English amounted to next to nothing. This seems to me a bit exaggerated. He was at one stage enrolled at a University, thus must have finished high school and it is unlikely that he would not have been taught some English there. But probably it was some limited school English. However, early in the twenties, Brecht had met a gifted female translator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, whose futile love for him (he married other women) rivaled that of Surabaya Johnny’s would be lover. It was, in fact, her translation of John Gay’s “Beggar’s Opera” (then exactly two hundred years old) that he used for his Dreigroschenoper text (this was originally fully acknowledged). And equally so he used her Kipling translation for some of his songs.

There is a literary dispute about this. It is now the fashion with some to blow up Hauptmann’s share in his productions as if she were an unacknowledged ghostwriter of Brecht’s stuff. I have no desire to further research this but to judge from what is supposed to be the Kipling “original” of “Surabaya Johnny” I think there is some exaggeration here. If Hauptmann was a faithful translator, which by all accounts she was, Brecht used her text in his own creative fashion. You can judge this for yourself by comparing the text of “Mary, Pity Women!” with the English translation of “Surabaya Johnny” of which that exuberant lass from Sacramento in the video above gave a clear rendering, that is fairly close to the German original:

Mary, Pity Women!

You call yourself a man,
For all you used to swear,
An' leave me, as you can,
My certain shame to bear?
I 'ear! You do not care --
You done the worst you know.
I 'ate you, grinnin' there. . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

Nice while it lasted, an'
now it is over --
Tear out your 'eart
an' good-bye to your lover!
What's the use o' grievin',
when the mother that bore you
(Mary, pity women!) knew it
all before you?

It aren't no false alarm,
The finish to your fun;
You -- you 'ave brung the 'arm,
An' I'm the ruined one;
An' now you'll off an' run
With some new fool in tow.
Your 'eart? You 'aven't none. .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

When a man is tired there is
naught will bind 'im;
All 'e solemn promised 'e will
shove be'ind 'im.
What's the good o' prayin' for
 The Wrath to strike 'im
(Mary, pity women!), when
the rest are like 'im?

What 'ope for me or -- it?
What's left for us to do?
I've walked with men a bit,
But this -- but this is you.
So 'elp me Christ, it's true!
Where can I 'ide or go?
You coward through and through! . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

All the more you give 'em the
less are they for givin' --
Love lies dead, an' you
cannot kiss 'im livin'.
Down the road 'e led you
there is no returnin'
(Mary, pity women!), but
you're late in learnin'!

You'd like to treat me fair?
You can't, because we're pore?
We'd starve? What do I care!
We might, but ~this~ is shore!
I want the name -- no more --
The name, an' lines to show,
An' not to be an 'ore. . . .
Ah, Gawd, I love you so!

What's the good o' pleadin',
when the mother that bore you
(Mary, pity women!) knew it
all before you?
Sleep on 'is promises an' wake
to your sorrow
(Mary, pity women!), for we sail

Surabaya Johnny

I had just turned sixteen that season
When you came up from Burma to stay.
And you told me I ought to travel with you,
You were sure it would be OK.
When I asked how you earned your living,
I can still hear what you said to me:
You had some kind of job on the railway
And had nothing to do with the sea.

You said a lot, Johnny,
All one big lie, Johnny.
You cheated me blind, Johnny,
From the minute we met.
I hate you so, Johnny,
When you stand there grinning, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth,
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny,
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny,
My God - and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny,
And I still love you so.

At the start, every day was Sunday,
Till we went on our way one fine night.
And before two more weeks were over,
You thought nothing I did was right.
So we trekked up and down through the
From the source of the river to the sea.
When I look at my face in the mirror,
There's an old woman staring back at me.

You didn't want love, Johnny,
You wanted cash, Johnny.
But I sewed your lips, Johnny,
And that was that.
You wanted it all, Johnny,
I gave you more, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth,
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny.
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny.
My God — and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny.
And I still love you so.

I would never have thought of asking
How you'd got that peculiar name,
But from one end of the coast to the other
You were known everywhere we came.
And one day in a two-bit flophouse
I'll wake up to the roar of the sea,
And you'll leave without one word of warning
On a ship waiting down at the quay.

You have no heart, Johnny!
You're just a louse, Johnny!
How could you go, Johnny,
And leave me flat ?
You're still my love, Johnny,
Like the day we met, Johnny.
Take that damn pipe out of your mouth,
you rat.

Surabaya Johnny.
No one's meaner than you.
Surabaya Johnny,
My God - and I still love you so.
Surabaya Johnny,
Why am I feeling so blue ?
You have no heart, Johnny.
And I still love you so.

Thank you! Thank you very much.

Surabaya Johnny is brought to you by Indonesia Matters, where you can book flights in Indonesia, and features listings of Indonesian hotels, like Kuta hotels, Sanur hotels, hotels in Jakarta, and more.

Indonesia’s Claim to Papua

Indonesia’s claim to Papua is self-contradictory. One cannot claim (as Indonesians often claim) that the Dutch presence in Indonesia was illegitimate and that the borders of the Netherlands Indies were mainly fixed by violence (as they were) and appeal to this same presence and these same borders as a basis for a legitimate Indonesian claim. The only open avowal of this inconsistency from an Indonesian that I have come across is the lecture that Dr. George Aditjondro gave some fifteen years ago for the Monash Asia Institute in Melbourne (see

Of course very much the same situation holds for other parts of Indonesia but for many of those one can, more or less convincingly, claim that they were somehow, though often only marginally, involved in the struggle for independence and that the Sukarno-Hatta declaration of the 17th of August 1945 was therefore at least implicitly accepted as being valid in and for these regions as well.

No such claim can be made for Papua. Papuans only knew Indonesians then as the Ambonnese and Keiese who served as teachers or in the lower ranks of the administration. They were by and large not popular. There was already then a definite “anti-Amberi” sentiment. Also, Papua was only partly occupied by the Japanese and these could not promote in the occupied part a nascent nationalist anti-western movement because that simply did not exist (the Koreri movement in the Biak-Numfor area was quite a different kettle of fish). Furthermore, the Americans, with some Dutch involvement, liberated Papua about one year before the Japanese surrendered in Java. Thus the Dutch administration had either been continued throughout the war or been properly restored in other parts well before the Sukarno-Hatta declaration was made.

I quote from the English language summary of the thus far most thorough study of the preliminaries of the so-called “Act of Free Choice”, that which Professor Pieter Drooglever was commissioned to write by the then Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Aartsen (“Een Daad van Vrije Keuze” 2005):

“The development of Indonesian nationalism entirely passed the Papuans by … (also) New Guinea had, in most respects, a different occupation history than the rest of Indonesia. It was only partially occupied. The Dutch influence continued to prevail in the south and in the interior. The occupation was also shorter and the island was liberated by the American army in the middle of 1944 already. The Dutch were also involved in this, and quickly took the administration back into their own hands. As a result, the restoration of power took place well before the independent Indonesian Republic was proclaimed on Java on 17 August 1945.”

I wish to say more about this.


Indonesia’s Claim to Papua is brought to you by Indonesia Matters, where you can book flights in Indonesia, and features listings of Indonesian hotels, like Kuta hotels, Sanur hotels, hotels in Jakarta, and more.

Free Speech & Begging

BeggarJakarta’s anti begging law in the light of constitutional freedom of speech.

Free Speech for Jakarta’s Beggars

The Jakarta Post invites its readers to comment on an action of the Jakarta city government. It has to do with the enforcement of the City bylaw on begging. Both the beggars and their benefactors are penalized when caught in the act of charity.

All in the name of

public order

What is behind this? The first reason is, so it seems to me, keeping up face towards the outside world in the form of foreign tourists (who themselves are likely to fall foul of this bylaw). Outsiders to the Jakarta scene should not be able to see the widespread poverty, as if they needed beggars to remind them of that.

But the measure has also some domestic use. I fancy that it is, in a city with such flagrant differences in the possession of worldly goods, uncomfortable for the well heeled to be continuously reminded of this. There are of course people that find the spectacle of poverty a welcome additional spice in the enjoyment of prosperity. Less tough characters however probably prefer the ignorance that Marie Antoinette once famously demonstrated by asking why those who had no bread could not eat cake.

But when I was on the verge of writing that this was all ‘typically Indonesian’ window dressing, a bit of sniffing around on the Internet informed me otherwise. To my astonishment I learned that begging is also prohibited here in Australia, a prohibition that goes back to British vagrancy laws. I have never seen that law applied. On the other hand there are not many beggars here.

And, as I could have guessed, among Indonesia’s nearest neighbours, it is also not looked favorably upon in Singapore. In that city of the ubiquitous spying video eyes and piss detectors in elevators you can cop a fine of three thousand Singapore dollars or two years in jail if you are caught begging twice. Since to most beggars it will be a bit inconvenient to shell out three thousand bucks, even if only of the Singapore variety, it will be jail.

And what about the home of the free and the brave? I read that two years ago a beggar there had the misfortune to ask an undercover policeman for a dollar after which he was promptly arrested.  Astonishingly his lawyer came up with a successful defense based on the First Amendment. Asking for money, said that public defender, is a form of free speech protected by that amendment to the Constitution. The court that could go back to recent jurisprudence agreed.

Earlier prosecution by the New York City Police Department had failed as well.

It could not point to a specific prohibition of begging and had to categorize it as a form of “loitering”. And to provide a rationale for its action it could only come up with its so called “broken windows theory” (its variant on Jakarta’s “public order”). This theory holds that low level signs of disorder, such as broken windows, graffiti and begging, lead to more serious crime. Applying this theory to begging doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. You forbid a person to beg and s/he is likely to look for more illegal means to keep body and soul together such as theft and prostitution.

So the courts didn’t buy this theory and the Supreme Court ultimately rejected it in 1999.

But is there a similar constitutional defense of (begging as a form of) free speech possible in Indonesia?  The original 1945 Constitution was rather wishy washy on free speech. It had an article 28 that stated 

freedom of association and assembly, of expressing thought by speech and writing, and so on, shall be laid down by law.

That law could, of course, either be permissive or restrictive.

The situation improved when, after the fall of Suharto, the Constitution was revised and amended. The Second Amendment, Chapter XA, Art.28E.3 now says:

Every person shall have the right of freedom to organize, to assemble, and to express opinions.

This is in agreement with Art.19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that concerns, among other things, the freedom to

seek, receive and impart information and ideas.

Scoffers have held that beggars do not seek to impart information; they just want to line their threadbare pockets. But people with a wider view of the matter thought that beggars impart information right enough, namely that they are destitute. The highest court of Massachusetts held, in addition, that prohibiting this form of information denied members of the public the chance for “self enlightenment” and the “fulfillment of moral or religious obligations”.

And what about that part of the Jakarta bylaw which also seeks to penalize the alms giver? There is a certain logic to this. If begging is an offence than those who provide the coins are accessories to it. One could go even further. I am thinking here of the 1999 Swedish law on prostitution, which makes the buying of sexual services, or even the attempt to buy it, punishable by up to six months in jail. However, the selling of those goods is not prohibited. The rationale for this is, as the commentary on the law says, that the person who sells sexual services is

in the majority of cases … a weaker partner who is exploited by those who want only to satisfy their sexual drives.

Well, by analogy one could hold that, financially at least, the beggar is in the majority of cases the weaker partner to a transaction in which the alms giver only wants to satisfy his charitable drives. So throw these charitable characters in jail, where they have all the time in the world to seek self enlightenment, and let the beggars continue imparting the information that they are destitute.

Tags: America, Australia, Beggars, Constitution, Jakarta, Jakarta Post, Law, Poverty, Prostitution & Prostitutes, Singapore, Tourism, Tourists