Kartini and Dutch colonial literature

Kartini, picture from Tropenmuseum via Wikimedia Commons

April 21 in Indonesia is Kartini Day, marking the anniversary of the birth of Kartini (1879-1904) who is regarded there as a national heroine for her feminism and for her promotion of the education and emancipation of Indonesian women during the Dutch colonial era. This occasion gives us the opportunity to look more closely at her short life but also to consider the wider topic of Dutch colonial literature, a growing area of interest in recent years. Most of the resources I reference here are available online. 

Kartini was born in Jepara, northern Java to an aristocratic family but attended a Dutch primary school where she learnt to read and write Dutch, which later gave her the chance to absorb Western ideas. From the age of twelve she experienced the tradition of pingitan, when a teenage girl was kept at home after their first menstrual period until they were married, often denied further education. She was more fortunate than most, however, as her father did permit her to read books and to send letters to Dutch friends. From the age of 16 (the age at which most young women were expected to marry) she was also occasionally allowed to leave her seclusion for the wider world. She strongly resisted the pressure to marry for some time but eventually in 1903 she did agree to marry a man from another aristocratic family. The following year she gave birth to a boy but sadly died a few days later. 

She left behind a significant body of correspondence, written in the last five years of her life to a number of Dutch socialists, feminists and educationalists, most of whom she had met in Jepara. Common themes throughout were the importance of education for women, a desire for the practices of polygamy and forced marriage to be ended and criticism of the colonial system. Two of the people she wrote to were J. H. Abendanon, then director of the Department of Education, and his wife. It was he who secured Kartini’s place in the national memory when he published her letters in 1911 under the title Door duisternis tot licht, subsequently translated into several languages including in 1920 into English under the title Letters of a Javanese princess

Kartini remains relevant today, and interest in her, both academically and in popular culture, is high. A well-regarded biopic was released in 2017 and only last year a collection of essays was published in which her life and legacy are reassessed: Appropriating Kartini: colonial, national and transnational memories of an Indonesian icon. Joost Coté, an Australian academic, has been instrumental in translating and analysing her work – in 2014 his edition of her writings was published which includes articles and short stories as well as her letters: Kartini: the complete writings 1898-1904. A few years earlier his Realizing the Dream of R. A. Kartini: Her Sister’s Letters from Colonial Java was issued, allowing the voices of her four younger sisters to be heard. Coté has also produced an edition of the letters sent to Kartini’s penfriend in the Netherlands: On feminism and nationalism: Kartini’s letters to Stella Zeehandelaar, 1899-1903 (245:1.c.95.68).

The standard work on Dutch colonial literature, Oost-Indische spiegel (751:06.c.95.14), was written in the early 1970s by Rob Nieuwenhuys, who had himself spent much of his early life in the Dutch East Indies. This comprehensive literary history (including a small section on Kartini) was then translated into English as Mirror of the Indies: a history of Dutch colonial literature edited by E. M. Beekman. In his own works, Fugitive dreams: an anthology of Dutch Colonial literature and Troubled pleasures: Dutch Colonial literature from the East Indies 1600-1950 (751:06.c.95.65) Beekman devotes chapters to Kartini. He asserts that:

four colonial novels are also classic masterpieces of modern Dutch fiction: Multatuli’s Max Havelaar (1860); Louis Couperus’s De stille kracht (The Hidden force; 1900); E. Du Perron’s Het land van herkomst (Country of Origin; 1935); and Maria Dermoût’s De tienduizend dingen (The Ten Thousand Things; 1955).

Douwes Dekker (Multatuli) by Anefo via Wikimedia Commons

Kartini read widely and we know from her letters that she read the first two of these four, then available to her. Indeed, she declared that she was very fond of Multatuli and described him as “brilliant” and a “genius” and wrote of Couperus’s language being “enchanting”. 

Multatuli was the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker (1820-1887) who spent much of his career working in the Dutch East Indies. Over time he became increasingly disillusioned with the colonial system and this fed into his novel Max Havelaar which was a searing criticism of colonialism and served to advance the reform of Dutch colonial policy. 


Couperus by Cwoyte via Wikimedia Commons

De stille kracht is perhaps the best known work of Louis Couperus (1863-1923) whose formative years were spent in the Dutch East Indies and who wrote much of it during a visit to Java. Featuring supernatural elements it evoked the mystery of the East and brought into question the future of Dutch colonialism. 

The University Library has copies of the four classic novels identified by Beekman (alongside many other works of Dutch literature) as follows: 

Katharine Dicks 

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