The mutiny in Kedong Kebo was the final straw for the commander-in-chief of the East Indies Army, General Cochius. He concluded that the experiment had failed. Experience had shown that the ‘Negro race’ was not as suitable for the army as had initially been thought. Moreover, he believed that the promise of equal treatment had been a serious psychological error and that the immediate and total emancipation of former slaves inevitably caused problems, even with those who had previously been exposed to the civilizing influences of European masters. Even more so would this apply to slaves who had recently been liberated from the most abject state of slavery where they had been treated as cattle waiting to be slaughtered at the whims of their Ashanti masters. This psychological misjudgement, he believed, was the cause of all the uprisings and mutinies. In any case, Cochius deemed equal treatment nearly impossible because of the ‘uncleanliness and the peculiar stinking exhalations’ of the Negro race, which made them most unfit to use the European type of bedding. In his opinion, the Africans had no need of mattresses in view of their previous life style. The army had not dared to take their shoes from them even though their performance as soldiers was hampered by this novelty to which they were not accustomed. The commander stated that their ‘childish conceit’ and ‘stupid pride’ should not be encouraged but suppressed.
Cochius concluded that experience had shown that the Negro soldiers would never be a substitute for Europeans in the army: ‘Wherever the Negro soldiers served together in a company, they have banded together in mutiny, under the pretext that infringements had been made on the promise of equal treatment with the European soldier.’ In support of this conclusion, he cited Colonel Michiels, who had commanded the expeditionary force on Sumatra: ‘They should not send us any more Negroes, as they are only fit to be used as beasts of burden, ruled by the whip. Even in combat they are not useful: they shout more than they have courage, are dirty and will never act in a disciplined manner.’ Cochius proposed halting the recruitment of Africans, or at the very least reducing their numbers and sending out more Europeans. For army officers in the East Indies, it was difficult to understand why the Africans ought to be treated better than the tried and tested Amboinese soldiers. The privileged position of the Africans must have been puzzling to many Dutch, Amboinese and native soldiers alike. From the point of view of the Africans, the distinction between Amboinese and natives most likely made no sense. They had been promised equal treatment with the Europeans and vociferously objected to being treated as 'natives'. They were probably unimpressed when their commanders retorted that they were not being treated like natives at all but as Amboinese, and therefore as Christians.
From the memoirs and sketches by W.A. van Rees, a retired army captain who later became a prolific writer, it is obvious that even contemporaries did not universally endorse the racial hierarchy of the army as the natural order of things. In one of his volumes, he presented a sketch of the tragic dilemma of native Lieutenant Saridin, a fictitious character who figures in the non-fictitious story of the African mutiny in Kedong Kebo. As a reward for his bravery and model behaviour, Saridin had made it to the rank of sergeant. Yet, as he now had ‘set foot on the road of civilization’, he became disgruntled with the discriminatory treatment of the Javanese in the army. ‘Javanese were undeniably stupid people, compared to Europeans, but they did not remain stupid. Old soldiers often performed better than quite a few Europeans.’ Yet they received lower pay and lesser quality food. They could not even hope to reach the status of the Amboinese. Enter the African soldiers, whose company was lodged next to Saridin's Javanese company.
What had caused these ‘loud and throaty speaking people’ to be categorized above the Javanese? They were after all at least ten times, even twenty times, darker in complexion than the Javanese! As a native sergeant, Saridin, who was always impeccably dressed, was ordered to take off his shoes. Standing on guard duty with the African Corporal Kidjekroe, Saridin noticed that he himself was standing barefoot while the African was wearing shoes on his big ungainly feet. Kidjekroe told his Javanese companion how, in Africa, he had been captured and carried off as a slave to be sold to the Dutch. Kidjekroe is pictured as the apex of barbarity. ‘With eyes flashing with lust’, he related to Saridin, how in his native land, they used to slaughter their enemies and drink their blood. Now why did this African rank higher in status than the Javanese? Only because the Africans were not born on Java? Unlike the Amboinese, the Africans were not even Christians at the time of their recruitment. The African had been a slave in his native land, used to walk about naked, had no notion of morality and was much darker than the Javanese. Yet the Dutch had placed him above the Javanese! Incomprehensible! The brave and loyal Sergeant Saridin then is instrumental in quelling the African mutiny in Kedong Kebo, for which feat he is rewarded with promotion to the rank of second lieutenant – with the right to wear shoes. However, as an officer he is even more acutely aware of his inferior status, which means that he receives only half the pay of a European lieutenant while he has similar expenses. Saridin's musings reflect, of course, Van Rees's own doubts about the fairness and logic of this racial and ethnic hierarchy. Many contemporary European officers probably shared these sentiments. Moreover, it is quite conceivable that similar grumblings were to be heard in the Javanese and Amboinese barracks too.CAUSES OF MUTINIES –(TWO VIEWS):
The causes of the African mutinies are discussed at some length in a later memorandum and counter-memorandum, written respectively by J. de Bruijn who had accompanied Verveer on his mission to Kumasi, and by an anonymous author on behalf of the East Indies army, probably Cochius. De Bruijn was subsequently put in charge of matters relating to the African recruitment operation at the Department of Colonies in The Hague.
De Bruijn identified one serious error as the cause of African discontent: the Africans had been treated as natives or Amboinese, not as Europeans. De Bruijn argued that in African religion (which he labels ‘fetish superstition’), God created only two kinds of men: whites and blacks. God gave brains to the white man and gold to the black man, thus creating a balance between them. All people who are of mixed race thus deserved to be held in deep contempt by both whites and blacks. Naturally therefore, the Africans looked down on the Asians, who were neither white nor black. Africans had no reason to differentiate between Amboinese and other natives. According to De Bruijn, they looked down in contempt on all the peoples in the Indies and therefore found it unbearable to be treated like natives.
Sleeping mats might have been suitable for the natives but the very fact that the Europeans had a different kind of bedding was sufficient reason for the Africans to reject the mats with indignation.
Verveer equally believed that Africans detested anybody who is not Negro-black or European-white. De Bruijn recalled that the issue of equal treatment was central to the African recruitment exercise. He had repeatedly witnessed how Verveer had assured hesitant recruits that they would be treated as ‘white soldiers’, acting in strict compliance with his instructions. Verveer also dwelled on the significance of religion. Africans from the Ashanti region presumably held a 'fetish' religion, which Verveer considered a point in their favour. If the African soldiers had been Moslems, they would possibly have been tempted to fraternize with the Javanese and Sumatran Moslems. But if their religion was 'fetish', they could easily be persuaded to adopt ‘the external appearances’ of the Christian religion that would ensure they kept their distance from the Javanese and 'other Eastern tribes'. The Roman Catholic faith was deemed the most appropriate for this purpose.
De Bruijn believed that Africans had a natural sense of justice. The African was inclined to respects whites as long as they did not offend his sense of justice. The issue was not, according to De Bruijn, whether native sleeping mats were adequate for the Africans. The issue was that infringements on the promise of equal treatment were felt as deeply humiliating. ‘Men who have so many talents to be proud, mighty and courageous soldiers risk becoming troublesome mutineers, not to be reined in by even the most severe application of military law, if the initial promises are not loyally implemented.’ Employment of African troops would only be profitable, stated De Bruijn, when they were treated as Europeans in every respect. Would it not be a wise policy to organize the Africans in a separate African corps, to protect them from the harmful influences of European soldiers, many of whom had been assigned to the East Indies by way of punishment for their misconduct in the Dutch army in the Netherlands?
According to the anonymous author (maybe Cochius) of the counter-memorandum, the mutinous behaviour of the African company had nothing to do with the Africans’ sense of justice but with their presumptuous conduct now that they found themselves liberated from slavery and arbitrary masters. Coming from a position of extreme hardship where slaves were living in constant fear of becoming victims of a gruesome sacrificial death, the Africans in the Indies now found themselves in positions of relative wealth, thus becoming ‘intoxicated and presumptuous’. The anonymous author believed that De Bruijn’s explanation of the causes of the rebellions was mistaken: the Africans were not being treated as natives but as Amboinese. And the Africans had no reason at all to look down with contempt on the Amboinese, who had so often demonstrated that they made good and loyal soldiers. On the contrary, it would be most unfair to allow better treatment for Africans than for the Amboinese.
The author of this counter-memorandum conceded that benign treatment of the Africans in the army was necessary, but with sufficient firmness. Immediate punishment had to be applied after misdemeanours until their rough characters became more civilized. He concluded that Africans could only be submitted to the European procedures of the army's disciplinary code once it has become possible to appeal to reason. With the massive influx of African recruits from 1837 onwards, the government decided to suspend the application of military law for Africans in the army. Offenders were to be punished by disciplinary methods (usually by the withholding of pay or by caning) and the corps commanders were expected to send a detailed report of any incident to army headquarters in Batavia.
Only very serious cases, involving murder or injuries, would be referred to the military court and then only after authorization by the military prosecutor.
The reason for the mutinies seems clear: the Africans protested against infringements on the promise of equal treatment with Europeans. The Africans said as much and the European officers apparently understood these grievances perfectly. Time and again, this explanation was given in the army records dealing with this and other African mutinies. Nevertheless, a dense fog of mystification developed with regard to their motives. Why was the issue of equal treatment of such paramount importance to the Africans? And why was this so difficult to understand for the Europeans?
In the reasoning of Dutch army officers, most recruits were of Donko origin and therefore used to a life of hard labour and arbitrary masters. They were men who, according to Verveer’s reports, walked for a whole day with a heavy load and, sustained only by a few bananas and a handful of maize, slept nearly naked on the soil before continuing on their way at sunrise the next morning with their head-loads. They were not used to eating meat and had never tasted a drop of alcohol. Moreover, at any time they could be selected as sacrifices to accompany their deceased masters to the other world. Living in these conditions, entering Dutch military service must have been seen as the greatest luck that could befall them. Why would they now make such a fuss about the issue of equal treatment?
The key to unravelling the psychological mindset of Africans and Europeans might be found in the privileged position of the Amboinese soldiers. To a European officer in the East Indies army, ‘being treated as Amboinese’ indicated a privileged status, usually enjoyed by Christians only. The Africans should have been grateful that they enjoyed equal status with the Amboinese. To the African soldiers, the Amboinese most likely were just another kind of native. And they were most determined not to be treated as natives. Had the Europeans slept on sleeping mats, they would undoubtedly not have objected to this bedding arrangement. But with their newly acquired corporate identity as ‘African soldiers with European status’, they resented being put on the same footing as ‘natives’.
GRADUAL EROSION OF STATUS:
The Africans had good reason to jealously watch their status. While the promise of equal treatment was observed with the first detachment of 44 soldiers, later, when the operation assumed a larger scale, numerous infringements occurred. This began on board the troop ships. Unlike Europeans, African recruits were not paid for the duration of the voyage with the rationale being that this was in their best interests. Otherwise they would squander their three months’ salary accumulated during the trip soon after arrival, in the gambling houses of unscrupulous Chinese, and on drink and women. In other words, they would behave exactly like European soldiers disembarking in Batavia. On the ships they might not have noticed being disadvantaged but when their European comrades went off partying after disembarking, they surely must have sensed that something was not in order.
During the voyage they were issued with their military outfits, minus a few items that were part of the standard European outfit such as sewing equipment, brushes, a knapsack and water bottles. On board, their daily ration of jenever (Dutch gin) was half that received by the Europeans but this measure might indeed have been inspired by health concerns as some of the Africans, notably those from the interior who had never tasted alcohol before, reacted badly to this regular Dutch army ‘medicine’. In July 1838, the military department ordered that socks and underpants no longer be issued to African soldiers because, after all, Amboinese were not entitled to these articles either.
Much thought and paper was devoted to the issue of delegatiën (delegated payments). At the time of recruitment, most, but not all, Africans had made arrangements that a part of their army pay would be transferred to relatives or in most cases to creditors. In the early stage of recruitment, most recruits were debtors or pawns. Army service was a way to pay off these debts. In view of the slow communication lines between the Indies, the Netherlands and the Guinea Coast, this was an administrative nightmare. Payments on the Gold Coast could continue for a year after the death of a soldier because it could easily take a year before the death notice reached Elmina. Soldiers in hospital did not receive any pay but nevertheless payments to relatives or creditors in Africa continued, usually at a rate of Dfl 2.50 a month. State treasury loss was the subject of much correspondence. In 1837, it was decided that 8.5 cents per day would be subtracted from the pay of every African in the army: they would thus earn Dfl 2.55 a month less than Europeans. This way the government tried to limit the damage it sustained through the system of delegations although an exception was made for those 10 Africans already in the Indies and who had not delegated any money to family or creditors in Africa.
This meant that henceforth Africans were paid less than Europeans, not just on the basis of delegated payments to relatives or debtors, but by virtue of being African. This discriminatory measure was introduced to ease the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with individual arrangements. It also meant that the 8.5 cents were subtracted every day throughout the soldiers’ army careers, even when their debts in Africa had long been paid off. With the mission of Major-General Verveer to Kumasi, the system of delegated payments was abandoned as it was too open to abuse. Governor Lans had himself pocketed the delegatiën from the slaves whom he had sent out as army volunteers. However, a new system was introduced whereby the recruit had to repay the money paid for his manumission. It became a bureaucratic headache for the East Indies army and a new cause of dissatisfaction on the part of the Africans. The chief of staff in the East Indies suggested simply continuing to deduct 8.5 cents a day but now for the purpose of repaying the money paid for manumission. But he realized that this system was unfair to those Africans who had enlisted as free men and who were therefore entitled to a full European salary. The chief of staff suggested that the most honourable solution would be if the Dutch state paid for manumission, leaving the Africans fully entitled to their European salaries.
Part of the cost could then be reclaimed by not paying salaries for the duration of the three-month sea voyage. In this way, the confusion surrounding money transfers would be avoided. The Governor-General decided that indeed no pay would be given for the duration of the voyage, while the issue of full pay or reduced pay was left to the government in the Netherlands. The final outcome of this drawn-out procedure was that 8.5 cents per day would be deducted throughout an African’s military career, even though the amount due to cover the costs of manumission (about Dfl 100) would have been paid off in about three years. The new rationale for the deductions was simply that the army’s budget could not sustain equal pay for Africans, and that recruitment in Africa had caused much unexpected expense anyway. Equal pay would have meant extra costs of about Dfl 41,685 annually, based on the 1,500 Africans still in active service in 1842.
As a consequence of the deduction of 8.5 cents per day, a new ruling had to be issued with regard to the premium to be paid for every deserter brought back to the army. The captors of a European deserter would receive an amount of Dfl 12, while the bounty for an Amboinese amounted to only Dfl 6.
The rule was that this bounty money would be withheld from the deserter's salary over the following three months. It was therefore decided to put the African deserter on an equal footing with the Amboinese, as his pay would not sustain a restitution of Dfl 12.
An important difference between Africans and Europeans in the army was the duration of their term of service. The first batch of Africans signed contracts for six years, just like the Europeans. But the Africans recruited under the terms of Verveer's treaty were enlisted for an unspecified period of time. In 1844, after the mutinies, their terms of service were reduced to 15 years. When Africans signed up for another term of service after the expiry of their initial contract, their re-enlistment premium was lower than that of Europeans. And then, while grievances were already accumulating, the Africans were told that they were no longer entitled to their 'European' straw mattresses. This was obviously interpreted as another step in the gradual erosion of their status as European soldiers.
ACCOMMODATION AND IDENTIFICATION:
After the Sumatra mutiny, the situation calmed down. Throughout the 1840s, a few reports trickled in about new disturbances and fighting but army correspondence no longer reflected a sense of urgency. Obviously the army and the Africans had settled into a routine that both sides could live with. The disturbances apparently did not exceed normal patterns, and once or twice the commander-in-chief even concluded that the Africans had understandable grievances that needed redress. Some were indeed duly addressed but the position of the African soldiers remained ambiguous. They counted as part of the European formations and were treated as Europeans in many, but not all, respects. Sometimes they equalled Europeans, sometimes they were treated like the Amboinese, and in some respects – re-enlistment premiums and pensions in particular – specific regulations were introduced for Africans as a separate category. The deduction of 8.5 cents for the ‘restitution of the advance payment for manumission’ continued and was initially even extended to the second generation of Indo-African soldiers, men who were born free in the East Indies! In 1891(!), the Indisch Militair Tijdschrift carried an anonymous plea for the abolition of this unfair deduction.
The story of the Africans in the East Indies received a new and unexpected turn with the Third Expedition to Bali in 1849, a successful expedition following two previous failures, which was celebrated with much pomp and circumstance in the main square in Batavia. The untiring efforts of the Africans, their courage, loyalty, state of health, strength and endurance had greatly impressed the newly arrived commander-in-chief, Duke Bernhard van Saxen-Weimar Eisenach. In his view, this experience proved that Africans were very suitable as troops. The Africans compared favourably with the European part of the army below the rank of officer, which mostly consisted of ‘soldiers with a criminal record, deserters from the Dutch national army, drunkards, deserters from the Belgian and French armies and Germans, most of whom are rascals and tramps, and for whom the service in this colony is a last refuge’. According to the new commander, the Africans could hardly be blamed for all the problems that had been detailed in earlier military correspondence. They simply had been unable to understand that promises of equal treatment, which had been made in the name of the King, were not kept. And since they had been unable to express their grievances in Dutch or Malay, discontent had escalated to violent protest. For their part, the African soldiers readily conformed to their role as loyal European troops. At the parade in Batavia after the 1849 victorious campaign on Bali, one of the African sergeants proposed a toast:
"Gezigt Zwart , Hart Wit, Leve de Koning." ("Face Black, Heart White,Long Live the King").
This anecdotal evidence is cited in several publications as proof that the Africans identified with their prescribed role. More convincingly perhaps, the local population did indeed perceive the African soldiers as Europeans: in Malay they were known as Belanda Hitam (Black Dutchmen) and in Javanese as Londo Ireng (Black White Men).
The new commander-in-chief, supported by the new governor in Batavia, urged a resumption of African recruitment. The enthusiasm of the Duke is perhaps not so surprising. Twenty years earlier, he had been one of the main advocates of the recruitment of Negroes (either from America or from Africa) to solve the manpower problem of the army in the East Indies. The government in The Hague initially decided against a reopening of African recruitment but a decade later, in 1860, recruitment in Elmina was resumed albeit on a much smaller scale than in the 1830s.
Measures were introduced to ensure that all recruits enlisted voluntarily, even if their pay and enlistment premiums were still used to pay off debts or to buy manumission from slavery. Between 1860 and 1872, some 800 African recruits sailed from Elmina to the East Indies, where most of them served in the Atjeh (Aceh) war. The epic of African recruitment for the Netherlands East Indies army came to an end with the transfer of the Dutch Possessions on the Guinea Coast to Great Britain in 1872.
A COLONIAL PARADOX:
The Dutch position on the issue of equal treatment was ambivalent. On the one hand, emulating European standards was deemed necessary to heighten the sense of self-esteem on the part of the African soldiers. Therefore, the wearing of shoes, for example, was indispensable. Army policy aimed at maintaining a social distance between the Africans and the indigenous population, notably the Javanese.
Thus, Dutch army officers deemed it opportune to inculcate in the Africans a sense of superiority vis-à-vis the indigenous population of the East Indies. It was probably assumed that the Africans would look down on the Asians anyway, and this fitted the purpose of preventing too much fraternizing between the colonial army and the local population. From army records, it would seem that the Africans willingly adopted their prescribed role as ‘European soldiers’. But when they displayed a behaviour befitting this role – looking down on the natives for example – they were at the same time out of tune with prevailing notions about the proper racial hierarchy in the East Indies. In the view of some of their commanding officers, the Africans behaved unbearably arrogantly and were thought conceited and insolent. They expected the Africans to be grateful for their upliftment from an abject state of slavery to an almost-European status as soldier. Looking down on the natives was apparently only acceptable if the Africans would look up to the Europeans. But that did not make sense as the Africans had been told that they were indeed to be regarded as Europeans in the army’s racial hierarchy.
The African soldiers in the East Indies were caught in a colonial paradox. As soldiers in a colonial army, they were encouraged to look down on the natives, to foster a corporate identity as soldiers who were above the colonized civilian population, and to maintain a status of Europeans. From the point of view of the army command, their loyalty would be ensured by their privileged position vis-à-vis the natives. For this purpose, it was acceptable that the Africans be given European status. But the same army command found it difficult to cope with Africans who took their European status at face value and insisted that their treatment be accorded in every detail with that of Europeans. The African soldiers fully identified with their role as European soldiers. Their story is largely one of adaptation, accommodation and even identification with the Dutch colonial administration. The mutinies mentioned in this chapter were caused by encroachments on their status as Europeans. Once they felt that their rightful place in colonial society was being respected, they established a reputation of bravery and loyalty. In the course of the 19th century the African soldiers played their part in the process of Dutch colonial expansion in the Indonesian archipelago, notably in the decades-long Atjeh (Aceh) war.
Their Indo-African grandsons and great-grandsons fought against Japan in the Second World War, suffered in prisoner-of-war camps and ultimately fought the Indonesian nationalists until the final transfer of sovereignty in 1949. For the majority of these Indo-African descendants, Sukarno was not the hero of the liberation struggle but the evil genius who was going to evict them from paradise. After Indonesian independence, most Indo-Africans opted for repatriation to the Netherlands.
Later judgments on the performance of the Africans in the East Indies Army were largely positive. As summed up in the Encyclopaedia of the Netherlands East Indies (1917): ‘These Africans were a highly valued element in the army: although their training was difficult and they were intemperate and ill disciplined in combat, they were also strong and courageous’. The mutinies around 1840 were now explained by ‘injudicious acts’ on the part of the army commanders. Copyright © 2001 Ineke van Kessel.
For more information, contact the Author: Dr. Ineke van Kessel of the African Studies Centre, University of Leiden at email@example.com Reference: Ineke van Kessel, " African mutinies in the Netherlands East Indies: a
nineteenth-century colonial paradox", in: J. Abbink, M. de Bruijn and
Walraven, eds., Rethinking Resistance: Revolt and Violence in African
History, pp. 141-169. African Dynamics, vol. 2, Leiden/Boston: Brill,