Paradijs of Wingewest?: Dialectics of Sympathy and Subjugation in the Dutch East Indies Novel

Unravelling the imperial subconscious.

De onderwerping van Diepo Negoro, a Dutch painting detailing the subjugation and betrayal of an Indonesian leader by General De Kock, now hanging in the Rijskmuseum. Image can be found here.


‘The sun of science will attempt to illuminate her depths, but she will never be fathomed.’ -Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn

Rob Nieuwenhuys, in his seminal work on East Indies literature: Oost-Indische Spiegel, makes the multifaceted claim that ‘anyone setting out to explore the literature of the Dutch Indies enters into an entirely different world.’ His statement here stems from two things, firstly, that the form of Indies literature has evolved from ‘literary genres such as the story, the novella, or the novel’ (p.xxix) to take on another character separate from the Netherlands, but more importantly, that the world it encompasses is so utterly foreign that those who enter upon it remove their ‘old self, as it were, in order to assume a new self’ (p.xxvi). In this sense are the writings and the islands themselves intertwined. Which is why, in the words of the critic Petra Boudewijn, the literature has become ‘a source of “knowledge” about colonial life’, and ‘an unvarnished picture of the [Indies] reality’.

This research will examine some of that reality which ‘became an integral part of Dutch literary life’ (Boudewijn, p.240), using case-studies, or snapshots, of the Indies through three widely popular East Indies novels. The texts in question are Max Havelaar by Multatuli, The Hidden Force (De Stille Kracht) by Louis Couperus, and The Ten Thousand Things (De Tienduizend Dingen) by Maria Dermoût, which will all present different visions not only of this ‘mysterious’ world, but also of a European perspective obsessed with controlling it. These themes will be presented through a somewhat Hegelian dialectic, and seek to show that the literature of the Dutch East Indies is both bound up in a vision of the East as something magical and desirable, but also inferior and available for exploitation. These novels, and also the authors who write them, will be considered for the ways in which they simultaneously present ideas of sympathy and subjugation, and how these disparate terms merge to form the reality of the European consciousness and its relationship with a colonial other. In its conclusion, this research will then consider how a Hegelian dialectic may be presented to understand these coinciding positions.

Multatuli’s Max Havelaar: An Introduction to a Conflicted Empire

Multatuli’s Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, published in 1860, is primarily a protest against the mismanagement and oppression of the East Indies. The text’s protagonist, the revolutionary Indies administrator Max Havelaar, writes a series of letters delivered to the conservative Mister Droogstoppel (Menner Droogstoppel) which unravel the colony’s corruption and obsession with profit. The pairing of Havelaar’s liberal attitudes with the imperialist rantings of Droogstoppel result in a complex double-narrative of cultural and political subjugation in the Indies, and this essay will seek to reveal those complexities in what the novel and the author tell us about the Indies and its suffering.

As this novel serves as an introduction to our topic, it would be pertinent to explain what it is that Multatuli is protesting against. The Dutch East Indies, which was centred around the island of Java (now in modern day Indonesia), can be best described in the words of King William I as ‘a wingewest’, a place to be exploited and controlled to the benefit of the state’s revenues. And exploit it they did, for with the foundation of the Dutch East India Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie), there came what the historian Roland Mortier calls ‘the first example of a State-planned and State-controlled economy’, which is further said to have ‘left a deep impression on the European public opinion’ as a masterpiece of efficiency and control, with a low demand for investment or involvement. The expanded possession, which Multatuli writes about in the second half of the nineteenth century, was considered ‘a brilliant achievement of the white man’s mind’. Cash-crops and eastern trade were making the homeland rich, and in the eyes of the imperial-minded European this was the perfect colonial system.

As has been established, the most significant element of the East Indies’ efficiency was its ability to function without immense military suppression. This is mostly due to the implementation of a bureaucracy that gave the psychological belief of self-rule, whilst still maintaining the political control that made the colony successful. Nieuwenhuys highlights that ‘there were distinct administrative bodies governing side by side, one Indonesian, the other European’. ‘In principle’, he continues, ‘the Indonesians were self-governing, but under a European supervisor, who had more or less general control’ (Spiegel, p.84). The traditional rulers remained, and became Regents, who sat alongside, but undeniably under, the Dutch residents (residenten) and assistant-residents (assistant-residenten). Havelaar characterises this as the ‘strange situation whereby the inferior really commands the superior’, a relationship where the ‘displeasure’ of a Regent may cause rebellion, but where the European ‘is to treat the native officer who assists him as his younger brother’. This system gave the Regents an artificial belief in their own power. They had wealth and status at the cost of their obedience, which also allowed, as also told by Havelaar, for the ‘poor Javanese’ to be ‘lashed onward by the whip of dual authority’ (p.73). The novel focuses intently upon this relationship, and it is for this reason that the Dutch literary critic Beekman names it ‘the first great colonial text with the bureaucracy of empire (rijksbureaucratie) as the acknowledged or implicit background’.

Through this policy the Dutch Indies developed a polity where the boundaries between the European and the Indonesian remained at a respectable distance. For Multatuli, this meant that the average Dutchman in the Council of the Indies (Raad van Indië) was ‘unable to see where injustice was done’ on the part of the Residents and the Regents, ‘for it remains far from him’ (p.211). The novel expands on this in the following statement:

There are persons who have spent over thirty years in the Dutch East Indies without ever coming into contact either with the common or with the native Chiefs, and it is pitiful to reflect that the Council of the Indies is often entirely or largely composed of such persons (p.244).

This condemnation of the colony’s governance coincides with the general impression that the Governor-General, and the other members of the board (bestuur), were more in touch with the Netherlands than they were with their principle territory, so much so that most of them desired to travel back home as soon as possible. ‘Rest in the Netherlands was at hand!’ (p.244), as the novel puts it. This attachment to Holland inevitably lead to the covering up of injustice so as to please the motherland, with Max Havelaar indeed noting that the council ‘likes to write and tell its master in the Motherland that everything is going well’ (p.211). These gripes, which occupy much of the novel, can also be found in the secondary literature. Nieuwenhuys notes that the ‘European community centered around the governor’ (p.78) and therefore contributed to a ‘political system existing exclusively to the benefit of the Netherlands’ (p.88), whilst Katie Featherston relates that ‘the excluding nature of the Dutch Empire’ gave ‘a sense of separation, isolation from the indigenous people’. These effects culminated in the existence of a ‘paper colony’, an illusory system that separates fiction from reality, and the ruling elite from the people. The system of the Indies, in this way, had created divisions between cultural sources of power.

This cultural division then fuelled a negative western attitude on behalf of their eastern subjects. Edward Said’s position on this dichotomy is well known, and has been picked up by the critic Roland Mortier in his own comments on Havelaar and the colonial novel. He describes what he sees as ‘the Orient’ being considered ‘a Scheherazade paradise’, full of ‘wealth and beauty’ that ‘will survive in the romantic imagination’ (Exotic Curiosities, p.151). This belief in the East’s fundamental difference can include both the positive and negative, and are found within the novel and from a multitude of voices. Mirror of the Indies describes its attention to ‘the poetry breathing atmosphere of the East’ (p.119), and claims that the writer ‘who chooses the Indies as the setting for his drama’ has to ask whether the non-Indies persons will ‘really understand this or that’ (p.185). The conservative Hollander Droogstoppel is the embodiment of this sentiment. He is described as a man of trade and a self-described ‘stickler for religion and morality’ (p.43). He sees the novel’s protagonist, who later becomes the downtrodden Sjaalman, as the embodiment of all ‘poor people’, whose poverty is always at ‘some fault of their own’ (p.28). The box of letters delivered to him, which provide the story of the novel, serve to reveal the strength of his imperialist mindset in the face of such controversial material. The construction of this meneer as the stereotype of ultra-conservative Hollander is clear to see, for in one line he goes so far as to say that ‘the ships of Holland sail the great waters, to bring civilisation, religion, Christianity, to the misguided Javanese’ (p.141). As explained by E.M Beekman, Multatuli has given the ‘trade monopoly a personality’, Drystubble, who ‘lives according to the idea of imperialist exploitation’ (Beekman, p.250). Max Havelaar, in deploying this frame-narrative voice, seeks to show how the ideological separation between the East and West plays out in both the Netherlands and its colony, and how an orientalist discourse contributes to subjugation.

What we might analyse, as opposed to just Drystubble’s prejudices, are the parallels that might exist between the beliefs of Multatuli’s characters, the man himself, and Dutch culture holistically. The aforementioned statement that the Empire brought civilisation to the Indies is pervasive on all levels of colonial discourse. We can reference the well-known ethnologist S. R. Steinmetz, who claimed that the Dutch ‘have a colossal task’ to bring ‘education’ to the subject masses, (Boudewijn, p.245), whose words are representative of normative ideas of imperialism. Darren C. Zook, in his article, ‘Searching for Max Havelaar’, says the following about Multatuli:

The ethics were certainly there, Multatuli believed, embedded as they were in the goodness of Dutch values such as justice and humanitarian compassion. But the trouble was that they were not being applied by the colonial administration, which was, much to Multatuli’s horror, showing signs of “going native”

Darren C. Zook

The significance of this passage is its contribution to our discussion of dialectics in the ideology surrounding the East Indies. Max Havelaar is a protest novel, and its characters, such as Droogstoppel, are embedded cultural critiques. However, we cannot ignore the embedded prejudice of European culture being posited as superior to others. The protagonist, after all, is the typical “white saviour”, who is described as being ‘full of love for truth and justice’ (p.89); an ‘uncommon man’ (p.91), who has ‘mixed with people of all races and conditions’ (p.93). In one speech to various embattled Indonesians, Havelaar invokes Islam to heighten his own position, proclaiming: ‘Rejoice, for I see that Allah heaps blessing on the head of our child!’ (p.116), and ‘Where Allah sends floods to wash away the fields’ (p.117).

The protagonist, narrator, and author are keen to raise a European above an Indonesian as the solution to corruption and oppression. The arrogance involved on Havelaar’s behalf can also extent to that of the author, with Nieuwenhuys indeed highlighting that ‘Dekker [Multatuli’s real name] chose to act according to Western ideas of “justice and humanity”’ in a manner that ‘willfully ignored … the indigenous social and cultural Javanese traditions.’ The Indonesia historian Sartono Kartodirdjo does also criticise him, noting his ‘lack of understanding of the background of Javanese patrimonial-bureaucratic structure’ (p.84). Perhaps this all boils down to his previous position as a colonial administrator and assistant resident, before the Council of the Indies stripped him of his post after allegations of misconduct, leading Dekker, in Zook’s eyes especially, to take up writing in protest of alleged corruption. Significant, also, is Multatuli’s demand for reinstatement and promotion after the novel’s publication, with Zook relating that ‘his requests were scoffed at and recognised for the self-serving and pompous demands that they were’, believing that he wrote more ‘to protest the injustice he felt had been done to himself’ as opposed to ‘the inhabitants of the Indies’ (p.1171). It is difficult to find sympathy is such blatant careerism, and equally so to ignore the image of Havelaar, proclaiming his truth above a crowd of Indonesians generally believed to be incapable of ruling their own land.

Further blurring the lines of this text’s sympathy with the Indies is the deep sense that the narrator, and perhaps then also the novelist, believe themselves that there are distinct differences between the races in terms of behaviour, temperament and general living. We already know that the Dutch who read of Indies matters are expected not to understand ‘this or that’ on account of its differences, but we are also told that the Dutch born in the Indies, on account of that difference again, are a person ‘very different from the Dutch in Holland.’ (p.78). The narrator relates that these individuals are ‘not regarded as “one hundred percent”’, and sympathises with those who prefer to ‘mix with his own kind’ due to the natives not sharing ‘his impressions or ideas’ (p.100). The ‘real Europeans’ (p.100), as they are so named, have divided Dutch society into two distinct parts on account of social difference, and the narrative voice does not do much to contradict that. It appears to this voice that ‘orientals of breeding’ have particular characteristics, characteristics such as the ‘Eastern ideas of good form’ (p.79), or, in the eyes of a conservative, their endless ‘slavish submission’ (p.232). Max Havelaar, as a novel, unites its multitude of voices through their stereotypical views of the East, so much so that even those that profess sympathy believe in things that beget subjugation. As will be shown later in the chapter on Couperus, orientalist thinking divides culture in the Indies based on its closeness to the European way of life.

These contradictions on behalf of Multatuli helps us to understand something crucial about the East Indies novel’s image of the Indies, that being, the conflicting liberalism and conservatism which are in turn both bound up in colonial prejudice. It would not, however, suit this research to condemn Max Havelaar with a pro-imperialist label, for that would ignore the reality of its ambiguous status. It is easy to see the great social effect that the work had on the Netherlands, with even Zook admitting that future Indonesians would act ‘as if Multatuli were in fact an Indonesian writer’ (p.1182), and Nieuwenhuys highlighting both the ‘humanistic, social and cultural significance’ of the novel as well as the ‘immense’ influence he had ‘on the administrative officials’ in the Indies, who would later refer to themselves as ‘Multatulians’ (p.92). We also cannot ignore the revolutionary side of the protagonist. In his collection of essays on the Dutch Indies, which is later discovered by Drystubble, we hear of titles such as ‘On the Crimes of Europeans outside Europe’ (p.50), ‘On the persistence of Asiatic customs.’ in which he asserts that ‘Jesus wore a turban’ (p.49), and, more interestingly, ‘On the right of rebellion against oppression’, which we find to be ‘in the Javanese language’ (p.48). These collections of contradicting voices might also be viewed, as they were by E.M Beekman, as constituting what was the ‘first modern novel in Dutch literature’ and an example of Bakhtin’s concept of the ‘dialogic or polyphonic prose discourse’ (p.242). The fact that we cannot label it in any such way is a testament to its complexity, but also to the nature of colonial discourse in general.

What we may say with confidence, however, is that these contradictions are guided by one particular force. This force is the European imperial consciousness as it stood in Multatuli’s time. The novel, Max Havelaar, contains within itself a dialectic of sympathy and subjugation, a dialectic which results in a combined prejudice of the East through the perspective of Western colonialism. Whilst Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The White Man’s Burden’ saw it as the duty of Europe to save and civilise the the ‘new-caught sullen peoples’, despite having an author who often wrote from the perspective of native people, and whilst Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness deplored Belgium for creating a nation ‘without regard for the welfare and wellbeing of the native population’, despite that author having believed that the British knew ‘how colonialism should work’ (Featherstone, p.89), so does Multatuli’s Max Havelaar criticise subjugation whilst tainting its sympathies with a belief that colonies may work if practised morally. The complex and polyphonic structure of the novel, whilst playing many varying voices against one another, can be viewed as representative of the corpus of both the East Indies novel, and of the European consciousness as a whole. The proceeding author will present, just as Multatuli has done, a dialectic between images of the East as a place deserving of proper treatment and European rule.

Louis Couperus’ De Stille Kracht: The Parallels of Orientalism

Unlike his more rebellious contemporary, Couperus’ De Stille Kracht (The Hidden Force) is much more concerned with prosaic description than factual criticisms. This novel, published in 1900, substitutes the more direct, discerning nature of Max Havelaar for a tale that is both large in scale and vivid in detail. It is a tale of mysticism and decline, one where the European mind struggles in the face of a land it cannot comprehend. In this essay, we shall get a taste for this novel’s strict orientalism, and will be introduced to the psychology of Europeans and Indo-Europeans whose sense of self comes into deep conflict.

The sense of place is established by Couperus at the very beginning of the novel in the form of Labuwangi, an administrative district in Java and the seat of Van Oudijck, the area’s resident and the novel’s protagonist. The town of Labuwangi, which is the principle centre of this district, is not, however, what the name would suggest. The Hidden Force is quick to depict this town as something European; ‘at the end of Long avenue’, we hear, is the ‘district commissioner’s mansion’, a place with the ‘expansiveness of an imposing palace gate’ and flanked by ‘roses and chrysanthemums … palms and caladiums’. This image of a very European fixture of power, propped up by Greek ‘rose and white columns’ (p.14), demonstrates the power of western culture in the face of its eastern location. Outside of Van Oudijck’s mansion we are made accustomed to the ‘white bridge, the white shop’ and ‘the white church’, decorating a town with its own ‘notary’s office’, ‘hotel’, ‘post office’, ‘criminal court’ and ‘municipal clock’ (p.16). The attempt by the Dutch settlers to authenticate their presence through physical monuments to their culture is clear, and can indeed be found in other Dutch attempts to separate themselves from the area they inhabit. In Jos Gommans’ piece on the once Dutch colony of Cochin (Kerala), he presents an image of what he names ‘little Holland’, a ‘brave new little Dutch world with a Dutch street pattern with Dutch street names’. This European town, ruled by ‘church and town hall’, was considered separate from what Kipling calls the ‘happy Asiatic disorder’ of the ‘court and market’ beyond its walls. This small microcosm of dutchness is undeniably similar to that of Labuwangi, where both towns use their physical connection to the Netherlands as a way of creating, in the words of historian Jos Gommans, their ‘own little order in a big, but alien, world’. When one considers that, in De Stille Kracht, the Arab quarter on the outskirts of the town was considered ‘gloomy’ and ‘more tragically mysterious’ than the ‘distinguished’ (p.59) Dutch centre, it isn’t difficult to see the intended split between the centre and periphery of this location.

Despite all of this western influence in the form of physical boundaries, there is indeed a place that has all the more allure to a Dutchman stuck in the east: the Netherlands. As we found in the laments of Max Havelaar, many of those unsatisfied with eastern ways longed for the homeland, but, as we see in De Stille Kracht, the Indies’ capital Batavia and its counterpart Buitenzorg serve a similar function. We hear from Van Oudijck’s wife that ‘she found Labuwangi desperately dull after Batavia’ (p.35), and tells of the her ‘acquaintances in Batavia, the race at Buitenzorg’, the ‘ball at the Governor General’s palace’ and the ‘Italian Opera’ (p.49). Even her husband desires the colonial capital and a position as a ‘member of the Council of the Indies’ and even perhaps ‘the position of governor general’ (p.54). It would appear that Batavia and Buitenzorg have developed as their own epochs, as centres worthy of the title of European and a decent enough substitute for the Netherlands in the eyes of some of these district administrators. This is backed up also by the secondary literature on the topic. Anita van Dissel, for example, tells us that ‘Batavia evolved into the capital and cultural centre of the colony’, where ‘men’s clubs, scientific societies and the dramatic arts flourished’ (Dissel, p.47), whilst Charles Jeurgens emphasises that the connection between ‘the minister of the colonies in The Hague’ and the ‘governor-general in Batavia and Buitenzorg’ (Jeurgens, p.100) as the central connection between the homeland and its south-east Asian colony. The connection between Batavia and the Hague goes so far that, often enough, administrators in the Indies would have been born and educated entirely outside of the Netherlands. The controller of Labuwangi, Van Helderen, was educated ‘entirely in Batavia’, ‘in the Colonial Department of King William III College’, whose ‘great dream was to go to Europe one day on leave’ (p.83). What we see here, as presented in the secondary literature alongside De Stille Kracht, is the European desire to subjugate its territory with a western presence.

Though Batavia and Buitenzorg were enough to appeal to the needs of some Europeans in the Indies, there is of course an overall desire, as we also saw in Max Havelaar, to return to the purity of the Hague. Eva, the wife of Van Oudijck’s assistant, explains that most follow the pattern of ‘position, money, retirement, pension and back, back to Europe’, and that ‘everyone saw the distant vision of European calm’ (p.283). The suggestion displayed here, that the closer you get to a good ‘position’ and place within the government, the more you desire home, corroborates with Max Havelaar’s claim that the purposeful separation between the Dutch and the Javanese leads to the subjugation of the former over the latter. In The Hidden Force, we see this effect better realised through the physical presence of Labuwangi, which represents a need for the Dutch way of life, and the backdrop of Batavia, whose influence weighs of the psyche of the district’s Dutch residents.

In a previous section on Max Havelaar, this dissertation made the claim that what was Dutch, and what was Indonesian, was kept seperate. One might question, with this in mind, the status of the Indo-European people of the Dutch East Indies, whose upbringing was not necessarily Dutch or Asian. To comment upon this, I will refer again to Boudewijn’s work on mixed-race people in the colony for Dutch Crossing. The critic, looking to question the lack of ‘binary oppositions’ (p.246) in literary representations of Eurasian people, finds that traditional postcolonial perspectives of ‘hybridity and transculturation’ leading to a ‘subversion and rejection’ of the colonial racial order are not entirely present. Instead, the East Indies novels shows Eurasian characters that ‘do not problematize the colonial system or the metropolitan standard of civilization at all’, and are usually ‘taken for granted’. To help us understand this, Boudewijn makes use of the theories of Homi K. Bhaba.

In Bhabha’s terms, mimicry describes the ambivalent relationship between white Europeans and Eurasians. Eurasians belonged to a European community; yet, they were not perceived as equal to white Europeans (p.247).

These Eurasians, or Indo-Europeans in our specific case, are not necessarily European but are also not Javanese, or Indonesian. This would suggest that there is something of an ambiguity between identities; however, I would argue that the presence of the Indo-Dutch individual in the colonial space can often make the distinction between what is West and East even clearer. This is quite easy to observe in De Stille Kracht, whose mixed-race characters are indeed ‘mimicries’, but ones where their characteristics are easily identified by Couperus as belonging to either one ethnic heritage or the other. When describing Ida van Helderen, the controller’s wife, or ‘the typical white Eurasian’, the text mocks how she ‘always tried to behave in a very European way, and speak correct Dutch’, and labels her with eastern stereotypes of being ‘totally unpredictable’ in ‘every action, every movement’ and ‘every word’ (p.82). In another case, where we hear of Addy de Luce, the mixed-race boy who would eventually have an affair with Van Oudijck’s wife, Couperus is clear with what parts of him are European and which are Asian. The Hidden Force tells us that in him ‘the blood of the Solo princess and the French adventurer [his parents] had mingled’, which has not ‘made him brainy’ but ‘had given him the good looks of a young Eurasian, with a Moorish touch’. The boy, who is ‘something southern something Spanish’ (p.114–5), is spoken about as we might a combination of dog-breeds today, and his identity seen as a specific type. Ida and Addy are part of a ‘social category’ in the Indies, a ‘safeguard for the alleged superiority of the white race’ (Boudewijn, p.240). Despite their existence undermining a complete sense of racial purity, they are still the subjects of an imperial vision that upholds the scientific racism of the day.

The theoretical perspective behind this scientific racism is popular both within and outside post-colonial and colonial studies, as was most famously encapsulated in Edward Said’s Orientalism, which traced this west vs. east attitude back to words of even the ancient Greeks. However, there are plenty of other historians and critics who discuss similar subjects. We have the ‘Scheherazade paradise’ described by Mortier in the preceding chapter, but we also have Jurgen Osterhammel, quoted by Jos Gommans, who makes a specific connection between seeing ‘Asia as the essential other’ and the onset of ‘real colonial domination in the nineteenth century’. Unlike earlier periods, such as antiquity or the renaissance, Osterhammel identifies that there has been a ‘Toulminian shift’ from one more ‘open-minded’ belief to something more systematic (Gommans, p.6). In the chapter on Max Havelaar, we saw how political systems could extrapolate feelings of difference between the Dutch and their Asian subjects, and in De Stille Kracht we may observe the effects of such policy on popular, or folk-like perceptions of the east and its “mystical” power. The attempt at distancing we have seen so far appears to juxtapose the East against the rationalism and normality of the West, and in Couperus’ writing we are shown various attempts to pose Java as a place of magic. In the opening scenes, Van Oudijck is confronted with ‘the mysterious poignancy of the seas of the Indies, the haunting sadness of the seas of Java’, its ‘ruefulness’ and ‘melancholy’ that is brought towards it on ‘mysterious wings’ (p.20); and later, when travelling to the outskirts of Labuwangi, he is taken aback by ‘the ineffable mystery’ that ‘seemed to billow out like an aspect of Islam across the whole town’ (p.59). Finally, when meeting the district’s soon to be Regent, Sunario, the Resident is appalled by how he ‘shrouded himself in so-called mystery’, and that he was ‘a wayang shadow puppet’, a ‘fanatic’ and a ‘demented Javanese dandy’ (p.53). The Hidden Force, in this manner, is concerned with representing Java, and Asia more generally, as a place that cannot be explained by the rationale of the west.

Much of this antagonism between east and west is focused, as shown in the previous paragraph, on the character of Van Oudick. As explained by Nieuwenhuys, ‘the tension between this ever present hidden force and the resident’s total unreceptiveness to it is what controls the novel’. This ‘tragedy of the European in a colonial world’ (p.130), which has been studied often in the works of Joseph Conrad, form the basis of De Stille Kracht’s plot, and can be found to affect both the Resident and his associates. As we begin to see, those things he attempts to conquer with his ‘very practical mind’ (p.19) begin to corrupt him. The new Regent, Sunario, denounces him as a ‘base Dutchman’ and an ‘infidel Christian’ whose ‘polluted soul’ (p.81) should not be concerned with his ‘sacrosanct’ noble title. This conflict begins to unleash upon him ‘a hidden force, a hidden power’, something ‘hostile to our Western temperament’, or ‘everything we see fit to be and think’ (p.279). The melodrama in this battle is emphasised over and over again, with the power of the east existing solidly in nature, ‘hidden in the ground’, ‘beneath the volcanoes’, on the distant winds’ and ‘with the rain’ (p.328). As Van Oudijck’s belief in his western ways is buffeted constantly by the ‘hidden force’, he begins to admit that ‘the country has taken hold of me’ (p.319), with the narrator noting the inevitability of it.

‘What he was not trying to achieve was an ideal, an ideal of a Westerner in the East, and of a Westerner who saw the East in the only way he knew how, the only way he could see it’ (p.170).

In the perspective of the novel, there was nothing about Van Oudijck’s belief in the West’s rationality, or in the affability of his ‘solid masculinity’ (p.50), that could allow him to escape the mysticism of the eastern world. When his colonial mansion has rocks rained down on it from unknown sources, and beetle juice spat at its occupants with no explanation, the Resident begins to submit fully to the power of Java. By The Hidden Force’s end, both he and the assistant’s wife Eva, who wished more than anything for European ways, abandon the comforts of their European centre, deciding to live amongst the people they feared in an unnamed Javanese village. To Beekman, this central element to the plot ‘can be extended towards the enmity between East and West’, at a time when ‘artists like Couperus’ would pose ‘exotic misdemeanours’ as solidly Eastern and the ‘oppressive power of paternalism as solidly Western’ (p.268). In this sense, the East’s magic would create a ‘mysterious atmosphere’ that was ‘bigger than a human’, bigger than the paternalistic government, and therefore creating this ‘lurking… suggestion of danger’ (p.278).

As Beekman suggests in saying that ‘artists like Couperus’ tended to pose this juxtaposition between East and West, we can begin to take some note of how the author’s predisposition to the Indies and Java played into the writing of De Stille Kracht. As we can find in the man’s own words, Couperus tends to embody some of this conflict within himself, and was very much enamoured by his own orientalist vision of the Indies. At one time he notes that he considers himself to be ‘warmer, sunnier, and more Eastern’ than his ‘compatriots in Holland’, which tends to be a surprise to the ‘the real Dutch part of me’ (Nieuwenhuys, p.124), and that his blood, though not Indies itself, has ‘the Indies tradition in mind and spirit’, which Nieuwenhuys is quick to identify not as the tradition of the Indonesian people themselves, but of the ‘class of higher official in the Indies’ (p.123). Although he is definitely enamoured entirely by the east, believing in its ‘benevolent and hostile powers’ and the existence of ‘elmoes’, there is a recognition that the ‘Oriental’ is able to ‘exercise more power over these forces’ (Beekman, p.283) than he possibly can. The sun that he ‘worshipped’, which ‘struck’ him ‘as God himself’ (Nieuwenhuys, p.125), is arguably distanced from him by his position as a part of the island’s European elite. As we saw with Multatuli, there are limits to the sympathy extended to the east, for opinions or obsessions over it can influence the colonial consciousness they struggle to shake off.

In conclusion, we can see that The Hidden Force is indeed a deeper representation of those political decisions highlighted, and criticised, by the work of Multatuli. The creation of cultural epochs, as seen in Labuwangi, and the need for European culture, as shown by the desire for Batavia and Buitenzorg, are the result of thinking that pits Dutch culture against that of the Javanese people. Through the colonial figure of Van Oudijck, who is something of a mixture between Multatuli’s Max Havelaar and Meneer Droogstoppel, we see the dividing belief that the European mind will struggle in the mysterious and unexplainable east. As noted in Paradijzen van Weleer, we can compare the fear of corruption by the Indies to literature of the Fin de Siècle, where the decadence of the western world will eventually fall in the face of rising eastern power (p.265). The decline of the Dutch’s ‘mental and moral faculties’, as spoken by the Dutch ethnologist W.H Cox (Boudewijn, p.245), present a fear of decline encapsulated in this novel. Most importantly, as we have seen in the previous and will see in the chapter, there is a deep conflict not only between East and West, but between the author’s sympathy of the Indies and the pervasiveness of the colonial mindset.

Maria Dermoût’s De Tienduizend Dingen: Capturing a Far Away Land

In our analysis of both Max Havelaar and De Stille Kracht, we were confronted — though in very different manners — with similar themes of political control, division, and cultural stereotyping. Both of these texts also interacted with and utilised their relative position to the centre to facilitate this desire for the separation and control of the foreign environment. In Multatuli’s novel the presentation of Java by Havelaar, and that of The Hague by Droogstoppel, cemented the influence of these capitals on the formation of colonial centres of power. In Couperus’ novel, we saw how the creation of a Dutch-focused environment, in the form of Labuwangi, allowed for a greater connection with the capital of Batavia, and therefore for the separation of Dutch and Indonesian identity. However, as we shall find in Dermoût’s De Tienduizend Dingen (The Ten Thousand Things), published in 1955 but set within the Dutch controlled East Indies, it is possible for this same need for control to be acted upon, and realised, in a greatly different place. Dermoût’s novel reveals the violent relations between conflicting groups much further out into the periphery. It is a collection of short tales, framed by the protagonist Felicia, which present both the Indonesian peripheries beauty as well as its, as seen by the Europeans, mysteries. On top of this, and as this essay will mostly discuss, the text is one in which the colonial mind attempts to collect, categorise and own all manner of things around it. What shall be shown is a distinct dialectic between subjugation through collection and ownership, and the appreciation of beauty found in that process.

To talk about the importance of this novel’s physical space, it would be pertinent to introduce where most of the action is set. In The Ten Thousand Things we are transported ‘1440 miles east’ of Batavia (Beekman), to the small island of Ambon and the seat of the Dutch resident in the Moluccas, now Maluka, originally renowned for its place in the spice trade, and often the site of European conflict between the Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch. In the novel, this island centre, that is, the centre of Java and Batavia’s periphery, is characterised by Dermoût as a ‘town of possibilities’, somewhere where ‘ships … came and went’, where ‘mail’ was ‘coming in and going out’ and also, culturally, the place of Dutch ‘evening parties’. The attraction to this place, known in the text as the Outer Bay, is down to the ‘sugary money’ (p.43) and the ‘great days of spice growing’ (p.5) that once funded it, for indeed Felicia, the novel’s protagonist who is revisiting the island after being raised in Europe, is described as one in ‘the last of an old Dutch line of spice-growers’ (p.6). There is a sense in this town, where ‘the Dutch’ were ‘bustling around’ (p.11), of the ‘little Holland’ described by Jos Gommans and previous essay on Couperus. In line with that text, also, is that the fact that the town is indeed also connected to Batavia and the Netherlands just as Labuwangi was. Felicia, before visiting her grandmother in the Moluccas, is raised and giving birth to a child in Europe, and through we hear of her desire to have her son, Himpies, gain ‘a decent education’ (p.78), which she believes ‘would be much better if he went straight to Holland for the last two years.’ (p.85). The Outer Bay, it seems, follows this same chain of centres, moving from the Netherlands, then going through Batavia and the Moluccan town in the same manner as Labuwangi. What is it then, as I have argued in the introduction, makes this place so different?

Dermoût’s own composition of the story is the answer to this question, and her description of her own hometown even more so. Felicia, as she comes home from Europe to visit her grandmother, does not stay in the town of the Outer Bay, described by its ‘wide, tree-lined streets; stone houses; and imposing public buildings’, but instead to the site of her family’s old plantation, named The Small Garden, known by the narrator to be ‘so far away, so far from God and all men’. This place, which surrounds the territory of their old home, is surrounded wholeheartedly by nature: ‘a lovely wood with many paths and clearings’ (p.7). Instead of a description of grand, imperial houses, which ‘had collapsed with an earthquake and been cleared’ (p.5), the description is replaced with that of trees, rivers, the ‘haunted’ forests (p.6) and the delicacy of the ‘cassowaries’ and ‘long firs’ that cover the sun with their ‘long drooping needles’ (p.8). There is a clear sense that the Small Garden is a place where nature rules over colonial spaces, but also a general sense that eastern life is surrounding, and sometimes in conflict with, the Dutch centres of Ambon. The narrator describes villages of both ‘Christians’ and ‘Mohammedans’, which are both equally ‘old communities’ who, unfortunately, ‘do not tolerate each other at all’. Their combination, which is prevalent all over the island, combines both the ‘little fort’ and the ‘small old church’ of the Dutch world, with the ‘mosque beside its tall minaret’ (p.10) of the Islamic world. Throughout the novel, we shall find that the overwhelming influence of nature, combined with the greater presence of eastern people in Ambon, create for Felicia and others a place to discover, and in turn, a place that needs to be controlled. In the Small Garden, and in the places around the Outer Bay, we will get the sense of a kind of ‘contact zone’, as described by Mary Louise Pratt, ‘social spaces where disparate cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other’, which are full of ‘improvisational dimensions of colonial encounters’ (p.7).

When Felicia comes to to know The Small Garden, The Outer Bay, and the rest of Ambon, she is confronted with a natural world must different than what she used to know. This sparks a desire to understand the island on her own terms, to understand the ‘hundred individual things’, ‘the coral, the shells and the stones’ which are enveloped by the contrasting ‘beauty of an Indies tropical night’ (Beekman, p.485)- the nature which overtakes her on the garden. The desire is helped primarily by commodification of this nature, and aided by her grandmother’s ‘antique cabinet full of cracks and crevices’ (p.30), the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ (p.47), full of such items as ‘medicinal herbs, dried scents, mixed incense’, ‘black coral bracelets’ (p.58) and even a ‘golden snake full of rubies’ (p.37). These objects become a significant part of her identity, with her want to keep and categorise them expressed through her love of Rumphius, the Dutch-German botanist and author of the ‘Book of Herbs’ and the ‘Book Of Curiosities’ (p.17). We find that ‘every new shell’ that she collected was ‘immediately looked up in Rumphius’ (p.80), with which she desired to make the ‘most beautiful, the largest collections’ (p.79) for her son Himpies. This behaviour of Felicia is well explained by Laurie J. Sears in her work, Situated Testimonies, where she highlights the importance of ‘fetish and commodity’ in the experiences of those who are thrust into ‘colonial modernity’, therefore having to replace a sense of lost youth with ‘a desire for commodities that will never satisfy their feelings of lack’ (Sears). For the protagonist, who takes on the ‘insatiable desire of the collector’ (p.26), these oriental knick knacks are her way of filling the loss of identity and family (her son is killed in the latter half of the novel), with a fetish for commodification of the East.

In De Tienduizend Dingen, it becomes clear that these colonial collectors dominate the narrative; however, what must be highlighted is the incredibly ambitious flavor that Dermoût gives to these individuals, and yet again, the murkiness of that dialectic between sympathy and subjugation. Unlike Couperus, for example, whose characters are often much more solidly portrayed, The Ten Thousand Things wants us to question the intentions of its actors, and whether or not their fetish for the east is oppressive or not.

Never is this lack of distinction clearer than in the figure of the professor, who appears in one of the novel’s three smaller stories. The chapter, entitled ‘The Professor’, is written from the perspective of a young Javanese nobleman named Suprapto, a clerk in the Dutch administration who has been tasked with being an incoming botanist’s assistant on his travels. As we get to know the two characters, Dermoût heavily suggests that ‘the famous professor from Scotland’ is a bumbling, culturally insensitive colonial stereotype. Suprapto pays particular attention to his inability to pronounce his own assistant’s name, mumbling ‘Wait, wait a minute, I’ll never be able to remember that! Uh … uh … Radèn … uh … Mas’ (p.156), but also of his lack of knowledge about Javanese social tradition, taking particular offence when he, though in good nature, calls them both dogs (which was a much greater insult in his culture). We can also see a clear message that the professor is somewhat unable to cope in the this eastern environment, which, though unsurprising for a Scottish man unaccustomed to the heat, is always highlighted. In one moment we hear that ‘in spite of hat and parasol the professor was suffering from the heat’ (p.172), and in another, that he lectured his young assistant on the importance of such items, telling him that ‘sunstroke is no joke, young friend. I know from experience’ (p.160). The culminations of these factors, and others, leads Suprapto to see the professor as ignorant and undeserving of his time, leading him to feign illness and not accompany the Scotsman on one of his travels. Unfortunately for both of them, it is on this trip that the professor is killed by local tribesmen, and Suprato, as the Javanese who abandoned him, is held in utmost suspicion. After the murder, Surprato is referred to as ‘the stranger’, the ‘Javanese’; ‘curious’, the narrator tells us, ‘that he had to be ill just that day’ (p.190). It is in these moments that the nobleman is presented with the ‘Rumphius’ obsessed professor in wider society, who wish to fetishise and separate him from their daily lives. As the story closes, Suprapto is witness to a discussion about the Mizzen, a Jellyfish said to live in these waters. When one of the Dutchmen wonders about the size of the creature, which is said to be ‘like a jewel’, as ‘Rumphius said’ (p.192), another points to the Suprapto’s hands. Dermoût tells us that as he ‘looked to where the other had pointed’, that being, ‘to his own thin hand’, that he felt ‘for a short moment … an almost inhuman pain’ (p.192). From the beginning of Suprapto’s encounter and travels with the professor, and also perhaps before, the assistant has become the subject of the collector, of a fetish over his people and country. In Situated Testimonies, Sears describes the professor’s combination of ‘begeerte (lust for wealth or sex) and verlangen (melancholic desire)’ which have merged in the Scotsman’s desire to ‘hold, or possess his Javanese assistant’ (p.26); a source of indignant rage in the eyes of Suprapto, whose vision of the professor is similar to that stereotype of the Dutchman, as a ‘caricature’ or ‘buffoon’. The critic Frans van Rosevelt, especially, reminds us that ‘the Chinese called the first Dutchmen they saw “Red-haired Barbarians”’. Dermoût, it appears, is appealing to already existing pictures of colonial travellers, botanists, and their desire to control and commodify the eastern world.

Another story of the murdered in Dermoût’s text, that being ‘The Commissioner’, is also the key to understanding the presentation of desire and collection in De Tienduizend Dingen. This tale focuses upon a mysterious house belonging to the Resident of Ambon, which sits near the harbour of the already mentioned Outer Bay. The property, which ‘stood empty and locked’, with gates whose bars ‘hung a chain with a padlock’ (p.116), is discovered to be a place of colonial collections after the Resident is found murdered at the beach. Inside there is not only the ‘black furniture dating from the rule of the Portuguese’, or the ‘earthenware jugs’ and ‘green’ pots with ‘lion heads’ (p.117), but also living women, regarded as ‘the witches’, who looked after the mistress of the Resident, seen in the desire of the surrounding town as a ‘Arabic’ woman of ‘beauty’ (p.117), revered by the narrator, who speaks through the images of the colonial subconscious, as a work of art worth harbouring. What tells us more about this extract than anything, however, is the realisation that ‘the young woman was no Araba’ and that she was ‘half-caste Chinese’ (p.119), a less exoticised group with a long-standing position in Dutch colonies. The fetishised desire of the commissioner to keep her under ‘lock and key’ (p.120), and the Outer Bay’s orientalist vision of eastern people such as Arabic women, has contributed to a misleading understanding that the Resident had formulated a colonial collection similar to the ‘curiosity cabinet’ of Felicia. The Resident then, for whom the Outer Bay ‘is not his home’ (p.127), is just one of multiple examples in De Tienduizend Dingen of characters collecting and commodifying an environment not in tune with their past and somewhat removed from their understanding.

This analysis of The Ten Thousand Things, which considers elements of collection and obsession in this more “wild” colonial environment, has so far been considered outside of the boundaries of Dermoût’s own history and sensibilities. The only historical figure presented thus far is indeed Rumphius, and this is due to the botanist’s overwhelming influence on this text. The man, who ‘was stationed on the island of Ambon’ as a military officer, and who, as a naturalist, ‘never left it for the rest of his life’ (What Naturalist Taught a Novelist, p.4), is considered by Beekman to have been a massive influence on the work of Dermoût. The third book of his ‘Ambonese Curiosity Cabinet’, which is referenced in the novel, is described by him as a ‘treasure trove or lore and traditions’ (p.8) which indeed contains many of the stories told by the narrator in the beginning half of the text. On top of this, characters constructed by Dermoût often mirror the values set out in either Rumphius’ works or in his own life. Felicia’s grandmother, who is seen by Beekman to ‘be more Asian than Dutch’ (p.10), is so in part because of her adherence to the Indonesian belief of Pusaka, a sentiment that ‘economic value does not determine what object is raised’ to a high ‘status’ (p.26). The professor, in both Beekman and Van Rosevelt’s eyes, is modelled from the personality of Rumphius himself, so much so that the former recognises the figure of this botanist to be ‘the master’ or ‘guru’ (p.36) throughout. Whether it is the descriptions of wildlife, shells, people or places, there is much in Dermoût to be found in Rumphius, raising the question of her own actual input or sympathy with the Indies. In some sense, we may see De Tienduizend Dingen as a story of collectors (the professor, the commissioner), told by a collector (Felicia), articulated through the perspective of a collector (Rumphius).

With this in mind, we conclude in the same way that we do with both Multatuli, and Couperus, though perhaps, with a greater appreciation for Dermoût’s ability to speak with a largely Indies voice. What must be understood is that this author, in comparison to those more central (as in, belonging to the centre) figures, is seen in some ways as ‘not a real Dutch author’, and as someone who stories ‘lack a Dutch view’ (Nieuwenhuys, p.257). The cycles of tales reflect more the ‘Indonesia way of storytelling’ than they do the Dutch, or European novel’ (p.260), and this is influenced by Dermoût’s own belief that she, as with many of the blijvers (stayers), ‘saw the Indies as her home’ (Sears, p.45). The figure of Suprapto is indeed a testament to her deploying on an Indies voice; however, we cannot ignore the possibility of distance, and sentimentalisation, that comes with the colonial mindset. As explained by Sears, many of Dermoût’s characters are afflicted by a ‘lack of self-understanding’, unaware of their of ‘incoherencies, disruptions, and disturbances’ (p.48) that come with the collection of and obsession over the Indies around them. In the case of Dermoût, whose own novels were written in memory of her early life in the Indies, are written through the eyes of colonial and splashed with a sensual, colonial romanticism of the island. She, just like the professor, the commissioner or Felicia, ‘may have loved the Indies’, but were ‘far from the “Indonesian” Indies’. The Ten Thousand Things should be given credit for its perspective, and voice, which differ widely from the more overtly colonial settings of Max Havelaar and The Hidden Force, but, as we find so often, the dialectic between sympathy and subjugation prevails. Dermoût’s novel is at once a picture of a stunning, collective world, and a reification of the colonial mind’s misunderstanding and categorisation of the colony.


In summary of this research, one can see how the three case-studies shown present examples of both a subjugation of the Indies and a sympathy with its land and people. Multatuli’s Max Havelaar is a revolutionary protest tied up with the prejudices of its time and its author, Couperus’ De Stille Kracht speaks to the beauty and the power of the Indies, but does so in an orientalist, mystified manner, and Dermoût’s De Tienduizend Dingen reveals the West as somewhere that controls and categorises the beauty of the East. This research has intended to present the ambiguity of the relationship between these two terms, for the intentions and practises of these Indies-born Dutch writers is itself complex. What has been argued, so that this relationship may be understood, is that both subjugation and sympathy have solidified a consistent relationship in the Dutch East Indies novel. The subjugation is still supported, or has its support presented by these novels, whilst at the same time using a voice, or voices, which show a sympathy for the land and the people.

I would argue that this process can be understood through Hegelian dialectics, in the sense that the Dutch East Indies Novel follows a process of both cancellation and preservation. I will outline this in three steps.

  1. The political structure of the Indies, as established in the first chapter, leads to a fixed understanding of subjugation. Multatuli, Couperus and Dermoût portrays a society in which the colony is controlled and believed to be needing of control.
  2. The novels, in being embodiments of an ‘entirely different world’, and believing, to an extent, in the unfair treatment of Indies people, provide a ‘moment of instability’ to the fixed understanding of subjugation. Multatuli, Couperus and Dermoût show us the individual and collective beauty of the Indies and its environment, and in many ways disrupt the normative structure of Indies governance.
  3. The genre of East Indies literature does not, however, lead to the complete overthrowing of subjugation. Instead, they go through the process of ‘aufheben’, as coined by Hegel, and ‘self-sublate’. As we have seen, these three writers manage to combine the sympathy of the Indies, and a criticism of oppression, without entirely threatening the established order.

This Hegelian process of understanding, negation and aufheben allow us to see the Dutch East Indies novel as something which uniquely harbours two contradictory perspectives. The genre, as it stands through these case-studies, could not exist without both the sympathy present of Indies life nor the subjugation that it has not entirely overcome. The result is a succinct presentation of the European consciousness, whose prejudices manage to consume both negative and positive thought in relation to the East Indies and Indonesian people. Whether it be Max Havelaar’s patronising view of Indonesian self-rule, De Stille Kracht’s fright of a supernatural East, or De Tienduizend Dingen’s obsessive need to collect and commodify the Moluccas, the East Indies novel reveals its all-encompassing imperial mindset. Future case-studies of East Indies literature, which could also expand towards poetry and short stories, would be useful in expanding and testing this view of the genre. So would it, perhaps, be worthwhile to examine how colonial literature in general shows a dialectic between both positive and negative views of the colonies, and how such dialectics are internalised in its literary presentations.

Student in Social & Political Theory / Administrator / Wannabe Poet / Anarchist

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