Published Article: When Indonesia Became Independent

Tuesday, December 07, 2021

 Moesson Magazine | October 2021

Overshadowed by past Dutch colonialism, the Indos in Indonesia, over the years, have tried their best to assimilate and become good Indonesians. Question remains over do they find what they are looking for in Indonesia.

“If you have to define yourself, what is it going to be, an Indonesian, an Indo, or a Dutch?” I raised this question to Iece Mariati, 85, at the porch of her lovely house in Sukabumi, West Java Province. Without any doubt, she declared proudly: “I am an Indonesian.”

Born as Helma Victoar Bartels on November 16th, 1936 to a mixed German Dutch father, Max Bartels Jr, and a Sundanese mother, Ipit Sariah, Iece was brought up almost without a presence of her Dutch father who had to leave when she was only six.

“I lost my pappie in the war,” said Iece, bringing me back far to the year of 1942.

When a Japanese soldier came to the porch of her father’s house in Cisereuh, Sukabumi one afternoon, Iece, then six, knew that something unpleasant would happen. Feared with the presence of the Japs, Iece anxiously watched her father talk with the soldier from inside the house. The next thing she remembered, the father left the house in the following morning. He got on a horse cart, and slowly disappeared from her sight.

“It was the moment I saw pappie for the last time. I will never forget that for the rest of my life.”

Her father was held by the Japanese in an internment camp in Sukabumi before they sent him to a larger camp for men in Cimahi, near Bandung. In 1943, together with other prisoners, he was transported to Burma to work on the infamous railways that claimed thousands of life, including his.

Before the war, Iece’s family was regarded as European, living with privileges that only certain groups in the colony had. “My pappie was a zoologist spending most of his time in our house in Pasir Datar, up in the slope of Mount Gede, collecting samples, and doing researches,” said Iece, trying to recall her past.

“He sent me to a frobelschool in the downtown of Sukabumi, 35 kilometer away from where he lived, so I had to stay with other Dutch family in town.”

In the weekend, her parents would go down to their house in Cisereuh, which was located in the suburb of Sukabumi, and that was the only moment Iece met them every week.

When she told me about her childhood story, I got a clear picture what it was like to be on the top of the social pyramid in the colonial society.

“Every morning, I would go to school by sitting on a horse, wearing a fur coat, and a hat, with bread and a bottle of milk in my bag.”

“Did you ride the horse?” I asked.

“Of course not, a djongos would walk next to the horse, carrying me to school, back and forth” she replied. “My parents employed dozens of helpers. We had baboes, djongos, gardeners, and baby sitters.”

Their major source of income come from the shares they had in the private railway company that generated thousands of guilders of profit every month which was invested in properties like houses, farm lands, and also paddy fields. To my surprise, all the properties were bought in Iece’s indigenous mother’s name.

“Under the Agrarian Laws of 1870, ownership of rural land was restricted to native Indonesians,” wrote Frances M. Earle in her research article: Eurasians – Dutch or Indonesian? published in Far Eastern Survey by University of California Press in 1948. Thanks to this law, none of their land properties was regarded as Dutch possession during the war, so as not to be seized by the Japanese.

Unlike what happened to many Indos where they had to endure the hardship of war and the following Indonesia’s struggle for independence, Iece and her mother survived the social upheavals at those difficult periods.

However, there was one frantic moment after the war that Iece still remembered. When the Dutch attempted to restore their power over Indonesia, they sent their troops to all over the archipelago. In Sukabumi, the troops occupied an office as their base, not far from where Iece and her mother lived.

“One morning, when several Dutch soldiers were on patrol, passing by our house, our parrot was shouting: merdeka! merdeka!” said Iece.

It provoked the soldiers to break into the house, but instead of finding a freedom fighter, they found a Eurasian girl with a native woman standing next to her.

“They thought I was kidnapped by my mammie. They didn’t believe I was her child. There was no proof like papers or birth certificate to convince them. I was going to be evacuated and perhaps at the end, brought to the Netherlands.”

“And do you know what had finally saved me from being taken away? It’s a box of eggs, bird eggs.”

The eggs she mentioned were samples her father had collected before the war. Together with his zoologist partner, Jan Hendrik Becking, he conducted research on those eggs. After the war, Becking was stationed at the zoological museum in Bogor, about sixty kilometer north of Sukabumi.

“An idea crossed my mother’s mine. She was thinking that Doctor Becking could help convince the Dutch military that I was her biological daughter because he knew our family, and there’s a thought that the soldiers would trust a Dutch man more than a native woman.”

“So she gave the eggs to them and asked them to check with Doctor Becking in Bogor. The doctor recognized the eggs and testified that my mammie was my biological mother. So here I am. Still here in Indonesia.”

“Have you ever had any desire to move to the Netherlands?” I asked.

“No. I don’t really feel connected with Holland. The only relative that I knew there was my late uncle Hans. Anyway, I have everything here in Sukabumi,” she replied.

Today, together with four daughters she got from her marriage with a well established Indonesian man, Iece runs a hotel and restaurant in Cicantayan, Sukabumi.

However, not all Indos have the same fortune and thoughts like hers.

“If I had to choose between being an Indonesian, an Indo, or a Dutch, I would definitely choose a Dutch,” said Antoni Holle, 45, firmly.

“By blood, I am an Indo, but in certain situations, I come out as a native Indonesian just to be safe. Sometimes, subconsciously, people here still have negative sentiments towards anything related with past colonialism.”

Recently, Antoni has been struggling to reclaim a piece of land in Nyalindung, Sukabumi, bought in the name of his native, Sundanese great grandmother before the war, but now is possessed by the local government.

“My great grandmother, Nyi Ajoe binti Imbas, was married to a Dutch man. When I deal with the local government to negotiate for the land, they see me more as a Dutch descendant, a former colonizer, rather than a Sundanese. It makes the negotiation tough.”

Since he has been through several ups and downs in running businesses, and almost falls to poverty, Antoni sees this land as a valuable asset that can save the future of his three children. “I will do anything for my family. I have even tried to find a way to migrate to Holland, but it’s not as easy as it was in the 50s and 60s. They no longer see Indos as objects to repatriate.”

To this day, Antoni still keeps good relations with his distant relatives in Holland. They are willing to help him find a job there, but always fail in obtaining the work permit.

“If only I could turn back the time, I would persuade or even insist my Opa, Ferdinandus Holle, to migrate to Holland,” said Antoni oposing his late grandfather’s decision to stay in Indonesia.

Driven by his resentment toward his Dutch father, Ferdinandus refused to be repatriated to Holland. “He was deeply dissapointed with my great grandfather, Gerrit Willem Casimir Holle.”

Before the war, Gerrit was a rich planter in Sukabumi, inheriting the wealth of his father, Karel Frederik Holle. Of all three sons he had from his marriage with Nji Ajoe, it was only Ferdinandus who was not sent to study abroad.

“Hendri, the eldest, was sent to United States, and Herman, the second son, to the Netherlands.”

“When Opa Ferdi was still a kid, Gerrit left him with my great grandmother alone in Sukabumi for Holland, and when he returned to Java after so many years, my great grandmother had passed away.”

“So there was a huge sense of abandonment that was not easy for Opa to cope with, and he carried that feeling everywhere. He never even wanted to see his father’s grave in Sukabumi for his whole life.”

In 1950s, while thousands of Indos opted for Dutch citizenship, fearing they wouldn’t be able to fit in with the new born Indonesia, Ferdinandus decided to completely become an Indonesian. He even changed his name into Raden Enoh Suriaatmadja and was legally registered as a step son of Raden Rangga Barnakusumah, a high rank officer in Sukabumi. It seemed to me that he completely denied the fact that he was actually an Indo, although the woman he married was a Dutch.

After becoming an Indonesian, his life was not running very well. His wife, Avie Sterona Rijnders, who actually wished to live in Holland, had to bear the hardship of life in Indonesia. She was depressed, and passed away in 1962.

“No one could persuade Opa to migrate to Holland. Not even a high rank Dutch officer, Ruud Plaggert, coming all the way from Holland in 1958, and his brother, Opa Hendri in 1988.”

During my interview with Antoni, I couldn’t help noticing his disappointment toward Indonesian bureaucrats, his late grandfather and the Dutch government who, in his perspective, neglected the Dutch descendants like him and his family.

“In the past, the Holle family generated millions of guilders for Netherland from the profit they made from tea plantations, but look at me now, we got nothing in return,” said Antoni bitterly at the end of our conversation.

Having met Iece and Antoni, I get much better perspective toward Indo people. Even though their existence in Indonesia is slowly forgotten, and their unique cultures, ways of life, are almost vanished, they are undeniably part of our shared history.

They are more than just some mixed blood, Eurasian people. They are destined to be born between two different worlds, and when they have to choose one out of those two, I’m pretty sure they have to choose carefully.

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