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.


Sources:

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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