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.
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.
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.
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.