A Woman’s Plea For Freedom and the Creole Chinese Public in Pax Neerlandica Java

Nurfadzilah Yahaya's picture

This blog post looks at a nineteenth-century primary source in Chinese from Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in the Netherlands Indies. The legal document which can be seen here recorded the pleas and ruling by the Chinese Council of Batavia in 1874. In the 1870s, the Chinese population in Batavia comprised slightly more than 20% of population of the Dutch colonial capital city. The bulk of the population were of course Javanese. There were also other Indonesians, as well as Arabs, Jews and Europeans. They were all bound by Dutch colonial rule, but possessed different degrees of autonomy with respect to family law. Our blogger is Guo-Quan Seng who recently graduated from the University of Chicago with a PhD in History. He now holds an Overseas Post-doctoral Fellowship from the National University of Singapore (History), which allows him to spend time at the Southeast Asia Program at Cornell University as a Visiting Fellow (Fall 2015 - Spring 2017). He is working on a book manuscript tentatively titled, "Daughters of Our Women's Wombs: A History of Creolizing Chinese Families in Modern Indonesia (1830-2015)." He can be reached at hissgq@nus.edu.sg. As always, for queries and contributions please email me at wlhblawg@gmail.com. Our Twitter account is at https://twitter.com/historyblawg - Fadzilah. 

A Woman’s Plea For Freedom and the Creole Chinese Public in Pax Neerlandica Java

This post focuses on a Chinese woman’s plea for divorce to Chinese Kapitans (leaders) in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) in 1874.

My husband has been away from home for the past six to seven years. He married a secondary wife, ignored me and did not provide half a cent for me. He sometimes comes home for less than a month and then he's out again. I've tolerated all this up to now. I've been dependent on my father. Recently my son fell ill. I asked someone to inform him but he did not care. Conscience has never been more lacking in humanity than this. I plead to be divorced.

Recorded in classical Chinese script, the plea above has survived in the Batavia Chinese Council archive, but it was almost certainly filed originally in Bahasa Betawi – the creole vernacular of the Dutch Indies capital city. The plea and council ruling can be found here. The Chinese population of Batavia was about 20% of the total population. It took this woman at least one more application and almost four more months before her divorce application was finally granted.

Sometime in the first half of 1874, Tjeng Tjoe Nio, 31 years of age, filed for divorce from her husband Lauw Boen Tek, 34, with the above statement at the Batavia Chinese Council). The couple had been married for thirteen years, and had a thirteen year old son. As part of a routine procedure, two Chinese Kapitans presided over a pre-trial in the divorce suit, during which they tried to reconcile the estranged couple. At the pre-trial, Lauw counter-pleaded that his wife was lying and that he has rented a house for them to live in so that they no longer need to live in the house of his mother-in-law who disliked him. He promised to take care of her. The Kapitans counselled Tjoe Nio to return to her husband but she refused since her husband has not provided for her for many years and has no income.

In July 1874, the fully assembled council of seven Chinese officers held the divorce trial and denied Tjoe Nio her plea for divorce. Three months later, Tjoe Nio filed for divorce again. She claimed during trial that she had fallen ill and that her husband’s reluctance to divorce her were part of his willful attempts to make life more difficult for her, and not out of genuine feeling. Lauw defended himself, though the Kapitans were unconvinced especially after they found out that although Lauw claimed to be employed at a Chinese medicine hall with a monthly salary of 25 Dutch Indies gulden, there was no fixed salary. Tjoe Nio made one last impassioned plea with the Chinese officers by referring to her husband’s preference to live with his secondary wife whom he married six to seven years prior to trial, and his falling short of providing for her.

This time round, the Chinese Council sided with Tjoe Nio. However, since Lauw still refused to sign the divorce papers, the Council had to submit the case to the Dutch Assistant Resident of Batavia for resolution. Two weeks later, the Assistant Resident replied that the Chinese Council’s decision was to be followed. Finally, the divorce was granted and deemed official.

The case of Tjoe Nio’s quest for freedom from her failed marriage is one among a few hundred divorce trials that have been preserved in the Archive of the Kong Koan of Batavia. The Dutch-appointed Chinese officers of Batavia had been assembled in the Kong Koan as semi-autonomous self-governing body since the seventeenth century. About six hundred kilograms of archival papers dating from the late eighteenth century have survived the ravages of time, the tropical weather, and anti-Chinese sentiments during the Suharto era and were donated to Leiden University during the 1990s. Historians at Leiden University have done us a great service by preserving, cataloging, annotating and researching these papers over the last twenty years. (Blusse and Chen 2003; Chen 2011; Erkelens 2013) The archive has since been digitized and can now be publicly accessed by searching for “Kong Koan” through Leiden University’s library catalog.

I would like to highlight three ways by which a postcolonial reading of Tjoe Nio’s quest for personal freedom can be read as constitutive of a creole Chinese public under the colonial plural legal regime of nineteenth century Pax Neerlandica.

First, Tjoe Nio’s relative economic independence and the uxorilocal pattern of marriage were indicative of the creolization of the classical Chinese patrilineal family structure in an overseas setting. William Skinner has argued that the Chinese assimilation of indigenous practices creolized Chinese kinship, insofar as giving the daughter a share of inheritance, a higher rate of women’s re-marriage, and the marriage of a son-in-law (uxorilocal) into the household became widely accepted among the Chinese of Java. (Skinner 1996) Tjoe Nio’s insistence on obtaining the divorce was probably motivated by her wish to re-marry. The couple’s marital residence followed the uxorilocal pattern, despite apparent friction arising from Boen Tek’s co-residence with his mother-in-law. Although the matrilineal side provided the lion’s share in the matrimonial household property, familial labor was divided in a way that domesticated women and gave men the external economic role. In a society that was polygynous and domesticated women, Tjoe Nio had no other way but to frame her conception of man’s husbandly duty and Boen Tek’s failure as a moral transaction between sexual fidelity and economic potency.

Second, the law in use and the language of the legal proceedings took on creolized forms. Under Dutch indirect rule, “Chinese” law was maintained as the family or private law of none-European subjects. Inheritance disputes were more often heard in European courts by Dutch judges, who often applied “Chinese law” in a selective manner. The Chinese Kapitans of Java continued to register Chinese marriages and hear divorce applications until a Europeanized Chinese private law code was enacted (1917) and put in force in 1919. The Kapitans often served as marriage counsellors by default, failing which they were quite liberal with the dispensation of divorces, the majority of which were filed by women.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the language used among the Peranakan Chinese of Java was a creolized mix of their ancestral tongue (Hokkien), the lingua franca of trade and Dutch Indies bureaucracy (Malay), the local vernaculars (variants of Sundanese or Javanese), interspersed with some splattering of assimilated Dutch terms. (Rafferty 1984) The minutes of the Chinese Council reflected this. Although they were recorded in the Chinese script, the secretary taking note of the proceedings was most likely the most if not the only person literate in the written classical Chinese language within the council. In divorce trials, Hokkien terms such as to rent a house (稅厝) often appeared alongside Sinicized Malay words such as to marry (kahwin) lord/mister (tuan), discourse (bicara) and Sinicized Dutch terms such as delegates (gekommitteerden). Although the Kapitans were bi- if not tri-lingual, they all signed their Chinese character names in their Latinized transliterations throughout the nineteenth century.

Finally, although Pax Neerlandica delegated disputes in the “private” realm to locally constituted “Chinese” authorities, there was nothing particularly private, domestic or even necessarily Chinese in the ways Tjoe Nio experienced her failed marriage and framed her plea for personal freedom. For Tjoe Nio, not only was the disappearance of her husband something all her neighbors knew about, but the “shame” she repeatedly had to endure for her divorce applications was experienced in nothing less than an emphatically “public” manner. To the mother of a child taken ill, rebukes from a wanton paterfamilias in a time of need must reasonably have felt like, “Conscience has never been more lacking in humanity than this.”

The power of nineteenth century European empires was projected overseas in the name of civilized law. Tjoe Nio’s cry for freedom before the semi-legal and colonial-endorsed Chinese Kapitans was neither a Confucianist plea for the inherent good in humanity nor an instantiation of the imperious protection of women’s rights. While the subaltern cannot ultimately speak, perhaps close readings and socio-cultural reconstructions of women’s pleas and petitions may point toward ways of reconnecting their gendered and creolized critiques to the colonial-patriarchal power relations of their life-worlds.

Seng Guo Quan


The Archive of the Kong Koan of Batavia (Leiden University Library)

Blussé, Léonard and Chen, Menghong eds. 2003, The Archives of the Kong Koan of Batavia (Brill)

Chen, Menghong 2011, De Chinese Gemeenschap Van Batavia, 1843-1865: Een Onderzoek Naar Het Kong Koan-Archief (Leiden University Press)

Erkelens, Monique 2013, The decline of the Chinese Council of Batavia: the loss of prestige and authority of the traditional elite amongst the Chinese community from the end of the nineteenth century until 1942 (Doctoral Thesis, Institute for History, Leiden University)

Rafferty, Ellen 1984, “Languages of the Chinese of Java: An Historical Review,” Journal of Asian Studies, 53(2):247-272.

Skinner, William 1996, “Creolized Chinese societies in Southeast Asia” in Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese, edited by Anthony Reid. Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 50–93.