Books / Dutch East Indies / Thoughts / Women

The concubine

De Njai (the concubine) is a book written by Reggie Baay. It is his quest to the grandmother he never knew. Curious about his grandmother from his father’s side whom he knew about her existence shortly before his father died, the author started a research. The research became extensive and resulted in a book. I bought and read this book in May 2008.

Why this late review? Because I am married to a descent of a Njai. My husband’s great-grandfather from his father side came from a Swiss/Italian town to Dutch East Indies. He married a woman from Cirebon situated in the north coast of West Java. And like Baay, my in-laws hardly know her.

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Multiple roles of the Njai
After the discovery of Indonesia (former Dutch East Indies) Dutches started to do business in spices. Many men were interested to settle there. 40% of the settlers at that time was not of Dutch origin. They came from other European countries. The contract was standard for everyone, 6 years. At that time sailing to Dutch East Indies took 9 months to 1 year. The ships sailed from The Netherlands to Cape of Good Hope, South Africa from where they pursued the journey through Indian ocean to South East Asia. Travelling in these harsh conditions was not safe. It was very discouraging for the girlfriends, fiancées and wives to sail along.

Upon arrival it was normal for those men to buy a female slave. She was called the Njai. Njai means woman in Balinese. The freshly arrived European young men would often ask his kebon (gardener) or his djongos (roomboy) to look for a woman to take care of him. She (the Njai) was expected to keep the house clean and warm up the bed of her master. The relation was purely sexual from the master’s side. For the Njai it meant a better economy situation for her and her family. In this period of time, living with a Njai was generally accepted, men knew but they didn’t judge it. This was because there were not many Dutch girls/women living there.

The Governor General of VOC (Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie or Dutch East India Chamber), Jan Pieterszoon Coen was against this form of slavery. Despite Pieterszoon Coen’s objection European men kept taking women to their house for sexual purposes as well as for running the household. In 1700es a change occurred. The men asked the women to be their concubine. The women were not a slave anymore. With their consent they were kept as concubine and acted as the ladies of the house.

Many Njais landed in prostitution because their master replaced them with someone younger, the master died or had to return to Europe. Their family didn’t accept them back as they had lived together without being married to the master. They were outcasted. In order to survive they became a prostitute.

Some lucky ones fell in love with the master and the feeling was mutual. They got married. Several of them moved to The Netherlands and stayed there till their death.

Children of the Njai
In the early years children born from a relationship between European men and Njais were indirectly acknowledged by the father. However to avoid the taboo because there was a lot at stake (the job, social status etc) the father’s surname was spelled backward in the register, for example: a man called Vermehr registered his children from his Njai as Rhemrev.

It was normal that the children were sent to The Netherlands for better education and etiquette while the Njai was left alone in Dutch East Indies. The educated children would return and got a good job. Their mother, the Njai, was probably replaced by their father with a young girl. Njais were considered old when they reached 35.

My thoughts
This is an extensive study of The Njai’s existence. Baay switches easily between real life short stories and facts. He compared historical notes and took literatures at that time to support the story. I learned a lot from this book.

After reading this book I enthusiastically tipped my in-laws about this. This book is a must read for the Indo’s so they know where they come from. For Indonesian readers: please read Indo here as Indische Nederlander, the descents of the Njai, eurasian Dutch. Indo here is not a shortened form for Indonesian.

Reception in The Netherlands
This book was launched in May 2008. It received a lot of publications here. Dutch press was enthusiast about it. However the Indo community, especially the elderly were reserved. Some were hurted by this. They would rather not talking about the Njai, their root mother. It was a taboo.

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A photo exhibition about The Njai shortly after the book’s launching in May 2008 at Tong Tong Fair in The Hague.

Being married to an Indo myself I can completely relate to the objection. It was indeed shameful, hurtful and very very sad but that was how it went. I think Baay did a very good job by writing about this so people know about the Njai. Hence this very late review from me. As I believe history must be told, no matter how dark it is.

This book has been translated in Bahasa Indonesia, published by Komunitas Bambu.

Interested in women’s story in Dutch East Indie? Read my other book review I wished I was ugly.

27 thoughts on “The concubine

  1. Mbak, aku langsung inget sama sinetron nyai Dasima…🙂
    Bener banget ya, sekelam apapun warnanya, yg namanya sejarah itu wajib diungkap. Untuk pembelajaran generasi berikutnya. Btw, grand-grandfather itu maksudnya bapaknya kakek suaminya mbak Yo, yg dulu nikah sm orang cirebon?

  2. A good, relevant book indeed. Back then ( Sept. 2008) I wrote an enthusiastic review on ‘Pelopor’: “Their existence was denied. They were socially undesirable. So it’s a sad story about sexual slavery, social hypocrisy and economical dependence”..

    • It is sad indeed while the Njai is the über mother of all Indo’s and yet her story is hidden. You know what, after reading this book whenever I meet someone with the name Rhemrev or other names from which I got an idea this waa spelled backward from a common Dutch name, I wonder if that person is aware of his/her family history? I will ask my daughter to read this Colson, definitely. Actually she has started asking question of being Indisch. I’ll wait for a good moment.

  3. Mbaaaak aku langsung inget sama buku Bumi Manusia dan Nyai Ontosoroh nya mertuanya si Minke. Dari tetralogi bukunya Pram, cuma buku 1 dan 2 yang kubaca karena masih banyak roman romannya sih ihihi. DI situ malahan Nyai Ontosoroh itu kan terpelajar (atau mau belajar ya, lupa). Sedih ya mbak kepikiran cerita tentangnya ‘sengaja’ dihapus dan sebenernya kalau soal malu kan itu sejarah dan kalau tanpa mereka kan ya nggak ada keturunannya ya, kan bisa diambil baik-buruknya. Aku jadi inget lagi ngikutin baca soal PKI juga di blognya Jihan, dan sejarah itu kalau dihapus atau diputar balikkan bener-bener bisa bikin kita kehilangan banyak benang merah.

    • Iya. Nyai Dasima juga gitu. Buku De Nyai ini terbit dalam bahasa Indonesia loh. Kalo minat bisa dibaca. Aku miris bener baca nasibnya para Nyai yang jadi pembantu rumah tangga, penghangat tempat tidur dan ibu anak-anaknya para pria Eropa di Hindia-Belanda waktu itu. Kalo si pria balik ke Eropa, anakanya dibawa sama dia. Si Nyai ya ditinggal sendiri dan ngga bisa balik ke keluarganya karena aib, kan tinggal bareng tanpa menikah. Makanya banyak ex Njai waktu itu jadi pelacur. Aku bersyukur mengenai sejarah PKI rakyat Indonesia sudah mulai sadar bahwa sejarah bisa direkayasa. Ini salah satu sebab aku suka banget sejarah Ndang. Sejarah itu selalu ada dua versi, bahkan kadang tiga versi tergantung dilihat dari sudut pandang mana; kedua pelaku atau pengamat.

  4. Mba Yo, aku jadi inget bukunya Pram yang Gadis Pantai, bahkan yang memperistri dia orang Indonesia yg kerja sama Belanda. Tapi ya begitu wanita ini udah ga menarik lagi, tuannya akan cari gadis muda yang lebih cantik. Anaknya ya diambil. Ujung2nya gadis desa ini pulang ke kampung tapi tanpa harga diri, karna waktu dia nikah dengan konglomerat itu kan dielu-elukan banget di kampung. Ah miris ya memang kl baca sejarah ttg bagaimana dulu wanita diperlakukan

    • Sekarang juga masih ada sih Mar wanita yang diperlakukan seperti diatas. Ada yang keberatan dan ada yang ngga. Ada yang kelihatan ada yang ngga. Kasihannya para Njai ini haknya minim dan dipisah sama anak-anaknya kalo si pria meninggal atau balik ke Eropa.

      • bukunya Pramoedya Ananta Toer memang banyak menceritakan kisah tentang kehidupan zaman belanda, baca buku Bumi Manusia saja sudah ada cerita tentang Nyai Ontosoroh. Betapa terkadang sengsaranya menjadi Nyai karena ga punya hak atas anak, tanah, dan kuasa

        • Betul. Saya banyak baca bukunya Pram tentang kehidupan di Hindia Belanda. Beberapa komentar diatas juga menulis tentang Bumi Manusia, masterpiecenya Pak Pram.

          Buku de Njai ini bukan buku fiksi. Buku ini rangkaian cerita Njai ditutur kembali oleh para keturunannya, ditunjang catatan kaki dari dokumen sejarah. Penulisnya keturunan Njai dari Solo.

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  7. Baru baca yang ini… Sangat menarik.. Mau cari ah bukunya..
    Dan tanpa bermaksud buruk apapun.., sejarah ini (orang lokal menikah dengan orang asing) terus berulang sampai sekarang (sambil tunjuk diri sendiri..hehehe..) dengan situasi, kondisi, dan versi yang berbeda.. Buatku intinya adalah di mana ada pergerakan/interaksi antar manusia maka pencampuran itu tak akan terhindarkan..

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  10. Saya baca catatan kecilnya Reggie Baay tentang neneknya sendiri yang seorang Nyai itu. Nggak terbayang perih dan sedihnya, diusir begitu saja tak boleh bertemu anak sendiri (ayah Reggie Baay) dan lalu namanya lenyap dari catatan sejarah manapun.😥

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