‘The African soldier is very proud to wear a European name and many a Dutchman can find his name amongst them’.
(quote from Life scenes. Character sketches and traditional attire of Java’s inhabitants. E. Hardouin, The Hague 1855)
BLACK SKIN, ORANGE HEART
African KNIL descendants in the diaspora
Between 1831 and 1872, the Dutch government utilized her old trading post Elmina on the West African ‘Gold Coast’ to recruit and train African soldiers for the army in the Dutch East Indies.These belanda hitam (‘black Dutchmen’) formed a welcome addition in the ranks of the KNIL, the ‘Koninklijk Nederlands-Indisch Leger’ (Royal Dutch Indies Army). Some recruits enlisted voluntarily, others were bought as prisoners of war or slaves at the Kumasi slave
market. From Kumasi, the capital city of the Ashanti kingdom, a military escort accompanied the freed slaves to St. George’s Castle in Elmina where they were examined and enlisted for a tour of duty in the Dutch East Indies. Many recruits received a new, ‘Dutchified’ name as a replacement for their original names which were hard to pronounce, varying from simple names (‘Hek’, ‘Boom’ ,‘Pet’, without a first name) to more creative names such as ‘Leonardus Mozart’ and ‘Artaxerxes’. Few recruits, such as Najoersie, Tangandé and Abotjie Kakarba, kept their original African names. While waiting for their shipment to the island of Java, the new recruits were trained in the fortification Koenraadsburg, close to St. George’s Castle.
The estimated number of enlisted African soldiers is 3,068. The military conscription documents of 2,336 of them are on file with 732 conscription documents missing from the archives. An estimated 459 soldiers chose to stay in Java after their tour of duty in the following garrison towns: Semarang (161), Batavia (91), Poerworedjo (65), Salatiga (62), Solo (29), Ambarawa (14), Magelang (9), Soerabaja (7), Buitenzorg (4), Djokja (4), Gombong (3) and Madioen (2). In the garrison town of Padang in the island of Sumatra, two African soldiers were demobilized; the
remaining six soldiers probably chose to reside in Medan in Sumatra and Ambon-City in the Moluccan island of Ambon. Of these 459 African residents in the Dutch East Indies, a large number has become the founding father of a so called Indo-African family.
“Being black in Semarang wasn’t a big thing”
The largest Indo-African community in Java was established in the lower city of Semarang; many families lived in the streets Jalan Melati Hardjo (the Rossknecht, Bibar, Van Bosstraeten and Wit families) and Nieuw-Holland (the Pen and Comijs families). The Jalan Melaten Trenggulun is best known as the ‘African Street’, due to the prominent presence of the Mos,
Klink, Uithoven, Ebienpesa, Herbig, Nicasie, Corstjens and Land families. In 1908, Georgine Gort is born in Semarang; she is the daughter of the Indo-African KNIL soldier Blanus Gort (whose African birth name is ‘Koedjo’, meaning ‘born on Monday’) and an unknown biological mother. Georgine, nicknamed ‘Sien’ against her will, is a misfit. When her father marries a Dutch-Indonesian woman and starts profiling himself
as Dutch instead of Indo-African, he forebids his daughter to live with his new family. Instead, she is raised by her indigenous grandmother, the Javanese Yem. Georgine speaks Malay with her neneh who is the widow of African soldier Jan Gort, born in 1835 in ‘Ejebe’ and recruited by the KNIL in 1860. After a tour of duty of twelve years, he is demobilized in Semarang. “My neneh never spoke about my grandfather Jan. That was how
the understanding between elder people and children was. ‘It’s none of your business’, I was told”.
Georgine grows up in the household of the Comijs family who earlier on has taken in her widowed grandmother. While all other Indo-African children visit the ‘Europese Lagere School’ (European Elementary School), Georgine attends the co-ed Public Elementary School. It sets her apart from her peer group as all other Indo-African girls attend classes with the Franciscan Sisters and the boys with the Franciscan Fathers. Georgine, who loves to play outside, draws her own plan: after graduating from the MULO secondary school, she finds a job at the office of a German car import business, handling the correspondence and administration. “I’ve always done well for myself, but I do know that girls were disadvantaged in those days”, she remembers. “I did what I wanted and often went dancing in the city garden.
Whenever you heard music, you could find me there. I had several nice dancing friends, mostly Dutch and Dutch-Indonesian. I didn’t know many Indo-African boys. Because I went out with Dutch boys, I was called totok kesasar, but I’m not familiar with the proverbial Dutch stinginess. My father Blanus was a stingy man, he lived a simple life. I didn’t inherit that trait. Spending money is fun, right?”
Rudolfina (Dolly) Uithoven
Rudolfina Uithoven, nicknamed ‘Dolly’, is also raised by an elder family member. She is born in 1916 in the Jalan Melaten Trenggulun number 130. Because her biological father, Rudolf Klink, never married her mother Leonie Uithoven, Dolly wears her mother’s maiden name. Through both parents, she’s inherited a large portion of African DNA: she is a granddaughter of African soldier Piet Klink and a great-granddaughter of KNIL soldier Uithoven. Dolly is raised by her Indo-African great-grandmother Masah with whom she speaks Malay. She attends the ‘Tweede School’ (Second School) for underprivileged children, subsidized by the government. From theage of thirteen, she lives in the orphanage amongst two hundred Dutch-Indonesian children. “I wanted to go there myself, because a friend of mine lived there and I always found it very cozy. The Franciscan Sisters taught me how to sew, cook and be polite. I was taught how to sit up straight, with my knees closed. We only wore shoes on Sunday when we went to church where I sang in the choir. The rest of the week we went barefoot. Our underwear was regularly repaired; I wore my undershirt for so long that nothing was left of the original garment. But I never regretted living in the orphanage; I’ve had a wonderful time with the sisters. Once every year we had to sing for our benefactors, the sponsors of the orphanage. While they sat upfront,we sang on stage: “Thank you ever so much. Our benefactors, thank you”. Every Sunday after church, we were served lemper as special treat; I’ve eaten enough lemper for the rest of my life”.
As a young girl, Dolly is in regular contact with other African families. Among them is the rich Pen family, an Indonesian mother and her four Indo-African daughters who live in a villa in the Candi district in the upper part of the city. The widow Pen is also known as ‘the queen of the Africans’. When she’s unable to attend a funeral, she delegates someone else to represent her. She lives together with her unmarried daughters, tax controller Adèle, secretary of the Orphanage Sophie (who earns more than her average male colleagues), seamstress Emilia and Julia who is in charge of the household. Mother and daughters live frugally. Frequently, Julia visits auctions where she buys beautiful items for little. When one day she pays a higher price than usual for silverware, her sister Sophie explodes over such extravagance. The late ‘grandpa Pen’, the father of the four sisters, is remembered as a ‘small, very dark man’. He spoke Malay, his own African language and learned Dutch bit by bit from his daughters. He had a villa with five bed- and bathrooms, a large kitchen and annexes for his personnel built in the Candi district where the Pen’s are the only Indo-African family amongst affluent Chinese neigbours.
‘Auntie Pen’ and her daughters care about the upbringing of the African children in Semarang by teaching them etiquette. Their strict regime frightens many Indo-African children. “If you don’t obey, you’ll be sent to auntie Pen”, is a much used phrase in the African neighbourhood. The Pen ladies are altruistic at the same time, sometimes lending financial support. It’s a mystery to the other African families how they have gathered together their riches. “Rumour had it that the retired African soldiers in Semarang had received a small building plot from King Willem III where they could build a house without having to pay rent, just as in the garrison town of Poerworedjo’, Dolly Uithoven remarks. “It was said that the Pen family had sold their plot to the Board of the Railway and that the Semarang station was built on it”. Apart from friendly gossip, the African families share a love for parties. “On New Year’s Eve we went door tot door in a dokar. The young people danced in the street, singing the African song Ani Kokomoro. As always, we would end at the big house of the Pen family who had ample room to receive many guests. It was a very close company altogether. Each African I met, I called ‘uncle’ or ‘aunt’, ‘sister’ or brother’.
Dolly Uithoven has personally known several soldiers who were born in Africa. In the Old Men’s Home she has met the African soldiers Voorbrood, Klots, Klaasse and Van Delft. Back in the 19th century, the Old Men’s Home served as intake for men who were fired from the army because of physical or mental shortcomings. “Sometimes I went to visit with my great-grandmother Masah. Her younger brother Voorbrood lived there. I addressed all the elder men with tjang. I spoke Malay with soldier Klots, who had completely shrunk and often sung songs in Malay. He was pitch black with a white beard and lived together with a Javanese woman. Soldier Klots was demented; every evening he went to the building of the BPM (Dutch Oil Company ) to install himself as a night guard, but he didn’t work there at all. All the old Africans lived at the home with their indigenous wives and run their own household. They received bread for breakfast, but did all the cooking themselves”. Dolly frequents the Old Men’s Home, just like Georgine Gort. “I could tell they were negroes”, remarks Georgine. “Everyone who was black, was called ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’, but I didn’t know always exactly who they were. If you didn’t greet them, then your mother or grandmother would receive a complaint”. Dolly Uithoven adds: “We Africans always went to see each other, even if we were not directly related. We were all black and always asked “Whose child are you?”. Often we turned out to be distant relatives. Being black in Semarang wasn’t a big thing, but if you saw a black person, you immediately would say ‘Hello aunt’ or ‘Hello uncle’. Such was the situation in Semarang, but not in Soerabaja because there were hardly any black people living there”.
Dolly’s grandfather, retired KNIL sergeant Piet Klink, lives nearby in the Jalan Pringgading(´white bamboo´) in a big house with mango trees. Hij was born in 1842 in Soko, near Kumasi in Ghana, and recruited by the KNIL in 1860. The 5 feet 3 tall moslim with ‘scarifications in the face’ (as stated in his conscription document) is demobilized in Semarang in 1881 with a yearly pension of three hundred guilders. He has given his seven children islamic names at birth, but has them baptized Roman Catholic at a later age. Dolly’s father’s moslim name is Salihoe, but his baptized name is ‘Rudolf’. Son Moham-med is baptized ‘Hendrik’ while Dolly’s aunts are initially named Walatoe, Dieje, Sabiah, Ramatoe and Alimah. Despite his African heritage, Piet Klink demands that his descendants are raised as Catholics and speak Dutch fluently. “One time, grandpa was asked if he could teach his children an African language”, Dolly says. “He left the room and returned with a dictionary Dutch. “This is the language you have to learn here”, he said in Malay. The only African words I can remember are tjitjibie, which means ‘girl’ and tjang, the term to address a grandfather or grandmother”.
Piet Klink is much beloved for his generosity. When his grandchildren come to visit him, he summons Javanese street musicians to play for the children. Afterwards he orders his wife Nakiem to pay the musicians and to give all children a ‘kwartje’ (25 cents) which is a small fortune in those days. Only at New Year’s Eve, the memory of his native country overwhelms Piet Klink. Completely clad in white, he sits on a chair on the porch, bursting into tears at the stroke of midnight, saying “The Dutch have banned me from Africa”. He never told his children and grandchildren about his youth in Africa. Despite the emotional impact of New Year’s Eve, the turn of the year is celebrated thee times at the Klink residence: Dutch, Islamic and Chinese. (The Chinese New Year is celebrated because veteran Piet Klink used to work as a night guard for a Chinese entrepreneur).
GLOSSARY MALAY - ENGLISH
neneh - grandmother
lemper - sticky rice filled with meat
dokar - two-wheeled carriage
kakek - grandfather