If you want to read prose by Kartini in English, I am afraid you have to look for Letters of a Javanese Princess. More or less at the beginning of the series of letters that amounts to her literary work she laughs off being called “princess”. She is of rather high nobility of Java, but she does not like to be referred to that unearned status, and anyway, she is not a princess. Her grandfather was pangeran of Demak, a title that can be equated to duke, and he was the first Javanese who gave his children a European education. Kartini's father was regent of Japara, all in central Java, which entitled her to be called Raden Adjeng – which she dismissed, “I am just Kartini”. The last prince in her family dates back about 25 generations, she tells.
How those who have translated her work into English have got around this passage I even do not want to know. Especially women from the colonized part of the world are often called princesses, since they do not comply with the role the colonized human has to resign to. Think for example of the disneyfied Pocahontas. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie writes in The thing around your neck, the story Jumping Monkey Hill “(Ujunwa) said - because she could not resist - that she was indeed a princess and came from an ancient lineage and that one of her forebears had captured a Portuguese trader in the 17th century and kept him, pampered and oiled, in a royal cage.”
I am glad to have read it in paper form, but if you can read Dutch, the collection of letters Door duisternis tot licht can be found on the internet. Kartini was only allowed primary education, so her command of Dutch must have amazed those she was corresponding with: it is elegant, a bit perfumed in fin-de-siècle style. It has not been allowed into the Dutch literary canon, which I call nothing less than scandalous, but that's the way it goes with colonized people.
She was born in 1879, started her correspondence in 1899, it ended ten days before her death in 1904. Poignantly the last letter is about the child she will be giving birth to in a few days, she hopes it will be a daughter. But it was a son, and four days after his birth she died – a death which can bitterly be compared to that of Mary Wollstonecraft or Dutch religious anarchist Clara Meijer-Wichmann. Women-liberationists dying due to biological fate. Kartini was only 25.
In 1964 the first president of Indonesia, Soekarno, had Kartini sanctified as national hero, and she kept this status through the successive regimes after the coup d'état of 1965. This is a remarkable status: she never uses the word “Indonesia”, which was really first used in politics in 1920. To her, “Indië” was more or less equal to Java. She never tells of knowledge of Malay, the lingua franca used in the archipelago, her first language being Javanese. People of the island of Celebes she describes as savages and headhunters, which shows an evolutionist look at the development of the peoples in the Dutch East Indies. Compared to Europeans the Javanese are still in an infantile stage of development and they should be taught in Dutch to get in touch with civilization. This sounds harsher than she actually means: she is aware of the high level of civilization of her own country, probably she is referring to the technical aspects of development. She never once uses the words capitalism. Her stand against it can be derived from the high flying vocabulary, typical for christian anarchism.
In the five years which comprise her correspondence she speaks of her will to especially develop the indigenous women, introduce them to some practical science, teach the Dutch language and more. Working independently is made difficult due to adat, the rules of tradition which dictate how to behave. Having finished primary education she is confined to a part of the house for the unmarried women, with her sisters. The sisters, Kartinah and Roekmini, share her ambition, but they have not left any documents witnessing to that.
The first and really heartbreaking and so intensely shameful for me as a Dutchman, even though I cannot even bear the responsibility of being contemporeanous to it: the Dutch colonial government does not allow education in Dutch or teaching Dutch at all to the Inlanders, a rule passed in the first months of her correspondence. When this is changed, halfheartedly and much later, it is in fact too late. Imagine this enormous country with only one university and hardly any secondary education in Dutch, the situation when the bell rang for Dutch colonialism.
So Indonesia is one of the few colonial areas, and a huge one at that, where the colonial language has not left an impact of any importance. Portuguese as a former colonial lingua franca was more important than Dutch, Malay which later on was transformed into Bahasa Indonesia was considered enough for the natives.
Sometime during the correspondence, in October 1900, Nelly van Kol-Porreij, shortly known as Nellie, touches her with her Christian anarchist outlook on faith and the divine. From then on she refers to God or Allah, as the Completely Other is called in her original Muhamedanic faith (she consistently calls it by that name) as Father, the principle of Love that guides us all. It also seems to be derived from the book Naar het groote licht by Felix Ortt, which she says she appreciates very much. The title of her book refers to the journey to Light. Throughout the correspondence it can be seen that she derives a lot of strength of this vision of God in her strivings. Calling God the heavenly Father sounds more Christian than islamic, but she insists it is part of her faith. Christians do not have a monopoly on Love. Sometimes she refers to herself als “little Buddhist”.
Kartini speaks with much respect too about Nellie's husband, Henri van Kol, social democrat MP in the Netherlands, plantation owner on Java, who as MP supports the bloody colonial subjection of Atjeh by the Dutch army under general Van Heutsz. The couple will divorce later on but not in Kartini's time.
Kartini is able to sweep aside the objections of her parents against following further education, perhaps in the Netherlands but at least in Batavia (Jakarta). Apparently she is living between hope and fear about her calling, and at a certain moment she starts her own school for high class indigenous girls. Then again things take a new turn, she marries Raden Adipati Ario Djojo Adi Ningrat, regent of Rembang. She will not be part of a harem, an aspect of adat she hated very much. This aspect of islam she rejects fully, and she stresses that women have resisted it since the days of the Prophet. Centuries of suffering, she calls this polygamy.
Her husband is widower and his deceased wife even urged him to marry Kartini in her final days because of her rebellious stand. And the couple fitted very well together, her husband fully supports her ideas and she continues with the founding of a school.
And then biological fate strikes. The fight against subjection as a woman and the colonial discrimination in education she may have succeeded in overcoming, but not puerperal fever.
Her book Door duisternis tot licht has three editions in the original Dutch, in 1911 and 1912. The editor, colonial officer J.J. Abendanon, dedicates the profits of the book to investment in the school that bears her name after her death.
Even though you may reject the State, which we as Free Humans do, you cannot escape from being part of it, so part of the responsibility of behaviour and wrongs done by the state still rests upon us. And the same goes for the relation between the Netherlands and Indië and its peoples.
The happiness of the Javanese people will be served best with complete self-government, so there should not be any Dutch officials left and the flag has to be taken down. And then fraternal love will reign between those who are connected now. The time is not there yet, but we who feel that that should be the purpose, should be prepared for this situation.
He quotes Phil.2:12... continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.
Some other important quotes on Kartini's ideas:
Let us try to feel with the life of their souls, to understand their spiritual life. Let us think ourselves in their place, in the situation of the simple native dessa-people, the core of the population, and ask what they would want their leaders to do and what the European Government should do. Let us see which circumstances make them suffer, which hinder their happiness: poverty, disease, drought, floodings, opium, addictment, needless waste and more, which might be completely or partially cured by wise taxation, good governance, good formal education, dedicated, loving treatment.
Zending is beautiful, but only when it is not forced. Zendelingen may go to all places of the earth, let them live loving, agreeable to God lives and let them work so that where there is no inner peace, so that bliss, peace, strength of faith may be part of the lives of those who watch the zendelingen.
For some time, De Vrije Mensch contains quotations by Kartini at spaces that otherwise would have been left empty.
Johannes Henri François, who spent some time on Java, writes for the Christian anarchist journal De Vrije Mensch (The Free Human) about what is going on in Indië, which he can actually reduce to Java. The School tot Opleiding van Inlandsche Artsen (School for the Education of Native Medical Practitioners) is founded in 1899 and may be seen as the birth place of nationalist resistance. The school exists of a course in nursing, one could easily be fooled by the name. Male nurses who passed their exams were called Doctor Djawa, Java doctor. The apparently all white colonial Society of Medical Doctors in the Dutch Indies would not accept that Indo-Europeans, the so-called half breeds, and Chinese, would get a full academic education as medical doctor. The real full blooded natives were excluded anyway. Women were educated to the function of midwives.
At this school the organisation Boedhi Oetomo, Our Aim, is founded in 1908, which in 1912 evolved into the Indische Partij, the first organisation of inlanders aiming at independence in some foreseeable future. The party is meant to call all living in Indië to patriotism and love for the country that feeds them. It more or less has its newspaper in De Expres, founded by Ernst Douwes Dekker, a relative of Eduard Douwes Dekker, Multatuli. This paper regularly notes what would nowadays be called racist remarks in the other newspapers, which were not specifically meant to be read by Inlanders.
The Indische Partij is refused incorporation and colonial circles utter the outcry that Our Nation's Prosperity is in Danger (the Netherlands are meant, to be sure). The party leaders were deported to faraway Banda without any form of due process. Its function is taken over by Sarikat Islam, not originally an islamic organisation but a guild of merchants, which however split into a Chinese and an Inlander, or Islamic, part. Sarikat Islam demands better education for the native population. The first, and in the colonial days only, medical faculty, is founded in 1927.
François states that Free Humans in the west hate armed violence, even for the defense of “the fatherland”. (This is published in January 1914, the Netherlands however managed to stay neutral in the Great War that was to follow that year). But François thinks free westerners should understand that those who are not free in this colony should be fighting for their country, which to them is worth fighting for (he especially refers to the people of Atjeh who were never really completely subdued). Some justification can be taken from the way the Europeans consider the Indo-Europeans as inferior, even though their existence is due to the European presence in Indië. The Indo-Europeans begin to understand that they cannot expect anything from the white colonials. His conclusion: We Europeans should stop thinking that the Inlanders are there for us. The era of taking is over, it is time to give, which actually amounts to nothing more than paying back.
Here unfortunately ends the interest of Dutch christian anarchists for Indië, which, I must say again, never is called Indonesia in those days. François, back in the Netherlands, will write the first instructive book for gay men, under the name of Een Hunner (One of Them), with a preface by Felix Ortt, That is an interesting story but different from the rather small intervention for the colonized people of the archipelago, which would be taken up again by a new generation, twenty years later.
- Maia Ramnath, Decolonizing anarchism
- Benedict Anderson, Under Three Flags: Anarchism and the Anti-Colonial Imagination
- Paper as presented at the Anarchists Studies Network Conference, 14 September 2016, Loughborough University. As ever, notes not included.