The case of 2nd Lieutenant Pieter Hermans
2nd Lieutenant Pieter Hermans was one of the first 44 volunteers for service in the East Indies. He was born in 1812 in Axim, Ghana. He was the only African to make it to the officer ranks. His insistence on being treated as his contract indicated led to a frustrating career.
Ghana's Buffalo Soldiers
The 19th Century Colonial Paradox of African Soldiers in an Imperial Army had its unique issues.
Revolts and resistance by Africans occurred not only on the African continent but also among Africans in the diaspora. The best-known examples are the slave rebellions in the western hemisphere, where historians have also explored and described patterns of accommodation and acquiescence among slave populations. However, very little is known about instances of resistance and patterns of accommodation among other groups of Africans in the diaspora. This chapter deals with a series of mutinies by West Africans recruited in the 19th century as soldiers in the Dutch colonial army in the Netherlands East Indies, present-day Indonesia.
The vast majority of the 3,000 Africans who were shipped to Java between 1831 and 1872 had previously been of slave status. Their freedom had been purchased with an advance on their army pay. Although they entered army service as free men, there is reason to doubt the voluntary nature of their enlistment. But the Africans in the East Indies did not rise in protest against their conscription into the Dutch army. On the contrary, they fully identified with their prescribed role. They had been recruited with the promise of equal treatment with the European soldiers, and they insisted that the promise be kept in every detail. The series of mutinies erupted in protest against repeated infringements on their status as European soldiers. With their newly acquired corporate identity as 'African soldiers' or 'Negro soldiers', these men of disparate ethnic origins and largely of slave descent banded together in solidarity to demand that their European status be respected to the letter.
Enlisting Africans in colonial armies was of course common practice during the 19th and 20th centuries. Like the Africans in the Dutch East Indies army, the famous Tirailleurs Sénégalais, established in 1857, were also largely of servile descent. As Myron Echenberg pointed out, the roots of the African Tirailleurs are much older and can be traced back to the era of company rule in Senegambia in the 17th century. African soldiers were not only instrumental in wars of conquest and in the consolidation of empire in Africa but were also used for military expeditions overseas. In 1827, the French sent 200 Wolof soldiers to Madagascar, followed in 1831 by the despatching of 220 troops to Guyana. In Sierra Leone, the British recruited among freed slaves to swell the ranks of the British West Indies regiments. In the 20th century, the King's African Rifles played a vital role in the consolidation of British rule in East Africa. The rationale for African recruitment was remarkably similar in all cases: a shortage of European recruits and high mortality rates among European soldiers who, voluntarily or involuntarily, were despatched to the tropics. The lower cost of local personnel could also have been a compelling argument, although there were obvious limitations to cost cutting. The loyalty of African troops was generally ensured by granting them special benefits and privileges. Thus, even when they were of servile origins, African soldiers used their newly acquired corporate identity as military men to enhance their status vis-à-vis civilian society. It fitted the purposes of colonial rulers to instil their African soldiers with a sense of superiority over their civilian colonial subjects. In his history of the King's African Rifles, Timothy Parsons pointed out that African servicemen both consciously and unconsciously exploited the contradictions of the colonial state to seek greater rights and status. He aptly quotes Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper who remind us that: ‘One of the most basic forms of colonial control (...) depended on soldiers who were simultaneously coerced and coercing, who enforced the will of the elite yet made demands themselves’.
Certainly in the phase of conquest and early consolidation, imperial rulers generally deemed it advisable to use foreign-born Africans rather than locals. But even foreign-born African soldiers were not always reliable tools of imperial expansion. It is noteworthy that, in the phase of conquest, the British preferred to strengthen their colonial forces in East Africa with Indian troops. As the Inspector-General of the King's African Rifles put it bluntly in 1912: ‘The Indian contingents were introduced in order than we might have a body of troops with no religious or local sympathies, and therefore no incentive for throwing in their lot with the native inhabitants’. The same rationale underpinned the Dutch decision to recruit African soldiers for the East Indies rather than expand local recruitment in the Indies.
Yet, the story of African recruitment for the Dutch East Indies is somewhat different from the British and the French experiences. Unlike the British and the French, the Dutch exercised no territorial control on the Gold Coast and fostered no colonial ambitions in West Africa. The African soldiers for the East Indies army were not despatched as an expeditionary force to be repatriated after the campaign was over. If the experience with African recruits proved satisfactory, the African presence was envisaged as a permanent feature of the East Indies army. After the expiry of their long-term contracts (on average 12 to 15 years), they could opt for re-enlistment, repatriation to the Gold Coast, or permanent residence on Java.
While the Netherlands had no colonial ambitions in West Africa, the East Indies was the mainstay of its overseas empire. By 1830, the Dutch had re-established colonial control over Java. During the Napoleonic wars the island had been under British rule. Subsequently Dutch rule was undermined by a major uprising, known as the Java War or the Diponegoro War, after its princely instigator. As many rebels found a refuge on the southern and western parts of Sumatra, this became the scene of future military campaigns. In the 1820s, three Islamic leaders from these parts of Sumatra went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, from where they returned full of zeal to launch an orthodox reform movement in their home areas. The hadjis engaged the infidel Dutch intruders in a series of armed conflicts, known as the Padri Wars, which, with some interruptions, would last for about 20 years. The mutinies to be explored in this chapter took place both on Sumatra and on Java.
But before turning to the 1840-1841 mutinies, I will first make some remarks on the information sources and the historical context. Since the African recruitment was launched as an experiment, the colonial army documented in considerable detail both the positive and the negative experiences they encountered with the Africans as soldiers. The abundance of army records allows us today to describe the rebellions in some detail. What were the grievances of the Africans? How did the Africans view their predicament? What was the response of their commanding officers? Apart from its inherent interest, the story of the mutinies provides an intriguing insight into colonial ambiguities with regard to race and social status. The military archives offer a mine of information on the army careers of the African soldiers: it is unusual to have such a wealth of information on individuals of low social status in a 19th century colonial setting. By their very nature, army sources have their obvious limitations since the army was interested in the Africans as soldiers and paid little attention to other dimensions of their experience. As for the Africans' own interpretations of their predicament, we have unfortunately no direct sources. The vast majority were illiterate.
. A handful of soldiers of mixed Dutch-African parentage, recruited in the experimental phase in the early 1830s, were literate in Dutch but unfortunately their writings have not survived, to my knowledge. An additional source of information is to be found in the memoirs published by Dutch army officers who served in the East Indies. Some were prolific writers who recorded military campaigns and daily life in great detail. African soldiers indeed figure in some of these accounts but usually only on the margins: officers tend to elaborate on their own feats and those of fellow officers, not on the exploits of soldiers and NCOs. In these memoirs, we again see the Africans through the eyes of Dutch officers. From some of these accounts, it clearly transpires that at least some of the Dutch officers did not accept the rigid racial stratification of the colonial army as a natural order with a self-evident logic. The professional publications by and for the military are a third important source of information but they only came into existence in the last quarter of the 19th century. A final word of caution: the present chapter very much represents ‘work in progress’ as I am still delving my way through vast amounts of archival records. In order to capture the atmosphere of the time and the place, I have used extensive quotations from these 19th century sources, although some of the racial qualifications are out of tune with present codes of correctness.
The military records allow a fairly detailed reconstruction of the story of the 1840-1841 mutinies on Java and Sumatra within the colonial setting of the mid 19th century, a period of rapid Dutch expansion in the vast Indonesian archipelago. The consolidation of Dutch rule also meant that the Dutch East Indies were shaped as a colonial society with a rigid social and racial stratification, with the inherent racial stereotypes underpinning white domination. By contrast, the Gold Coast presented a radically different picture in the mid-19th century. In the pre-colonial balance of power, the Europeans on the Gold Coast were heavily dependent on the cooperation of local rulers and middlemen. In spite of the grand name of the ‘Dutch possessions on the Guinea Coast’, the Dutch ‘possessed’ only a tenuous foothold in a few coastal settlements, symbolized by a string of derelict and partly deserted forts, remnants of the days of the now-defunct Dutch West India Company. Trade had almost come to a standstill and attempts to revitalize these ‘possessions’ by the introduction of plantations and the exploitation of goldmines – mining had always been fully controlled by local rulers – failed miserably. For any endeavour, including the recruitment of soldiers, the Dutch were heavily dependent on the cooperation of local rulers. Under these conditions, it makes sense that race relations on the Gold Coast were still far more fluid than in the East Indies. In Dutch-African relations, social status was a more important category than pigmentation. In the Netherlands itself, soldiers were a social category held in very low esteem, and this was even more true for the soldiers who entered colonial service. The colonial recruiting depot in Harderwijk, the assembly point for ‘volunteers’ from many European nations, was known as ‘the sinkhole of Europe’.
Colonial domination could only be maintained with the cooperation and collaboration of the subject population. Throughout most of the 19th century, half of the Dutch colonial army in the East Indies consisted of native soldiers. It was considered too risky to increase the native component beyond this 50% mark because the native soldiers might be tempted to use their weapons and their training against their colonial masters, as some of them did in the Java War (1825-1830). Therefore, the other half needed to be European soldiers, who were unlikely to make common cause with the natives.
As an instrument of colonial domination, the army itself was organized on racial and ethnic principles: Europeans were at the top of this racial hierarchy and the natives at the bottom, with an intermediate category of Amboinese, soldiers of privileged status from the Moluccan islands. As Christians, the Amboinese were unlikely to fraternize with the largely Moslem Javanese and Sumatrans. By allocating European status to the Africans, the colonial power minimized any danger of the Africans being tempted to fraternize with the native population. But when the Africans took their European status seriously, they undermined the colonial logic, which held that people of colour ought to fear and respect the superiority of the white man.
In this respect, there are certain parallels between the African mutinies in the East Indies and African protest movements in colonial Africa. In many instances of so-called anti-colonial protest, Africans did not challenge colonial rule as such but demanded their rightful place in the colonial order. The demand for equality, for equal rights and privileges as enjoyed by the Europeans, was often a more pervasive theme than the desire to undo the process of colonization. Nevertheless, acceding to these demands undermined the logic of the colonial state and inevitably led to the demise of the colonial order. The African soldiers in the East Indies did not challenge colonial rule or the racial hierarchy of a colonial state. They insisted on their rightful place in this racial hierarchy: as African soldiers they were entitled to 'European status'. Before turning to the mutinies, we need to explore the preceding decade, which marked the beginning of the experiment with African recruitment.
African Recruitment: An Experiment
The idea of recruiting Africans to compensate for the lack of European army volunteers came from Dutch army officers who had served in Surinam and the Dutch West Indies. They had been impressed with the performance of the blacks in the British West Indies regiments and suggested to the government in The Hague that the Dutch footholds on the Guinea coast be used to recruit blacks for the East Indies army. After several years of discussion about the manpower problem in the East Indies army, the Department of Colonies decided to experiment with a detachment of 150 volunteers from the Guinea Coast. If all went well, recruitment would be stepped up to achieve a target number of 1,800 Africans. In 1831 and 1832, three ships were contracted to collect the volunteers in Elmina, the headquarters of the Dutch on the Guinea Coast, and take them to Java. However, as Governor Last in Elmina had already warned, young African men were less than enthusiastic about a military career in a foreign army in unknown lands. His instructions specified that recruitment be limited to free men, without the use of force or coercion. The three ships collected no more than 44 volunteers. The low numbers resulted in astronomical costs. Governor-General Van den Bosch in the East Indies calculated that the 44 African volunteers had cost the enormous amount of Dfl 1,232 per head, while European soldiers were shipped to Batavia for Dfl 120 per head. Initial reports on the military qualities of the recruits were highly favourable but the governor suggested stopping the experiment because of the excessive costs.
Recruitment at the Guinea Coast proceeded nevertheless but with meagre results. At the request of the Dutch governor in Elmina, the king of Ashanti promised to send some slaves as ‘army volunteers’ but these recruits never materialized. To comply with his instructions from The Hague, the new governor, Lans, therefore decided to purchase some slaves himself, who were then shipped off to Batavia as ‘army volunteers’.
In 1836, the Dutch government decided to send a high-level mission, headed by Major-General Jan Verveer, to the Ashanti king in Kumasi to obtain 2,000 recruits in exchange for 6,000 to 8,000 guns and 2,000 tons of gunpowder.
As a first step, Verveer opened a recruiting station in Elmina but subsequently had to report that coastal Negroes would not volunteer for army service and that therefore the only option was the recruitment of slaves. His mission to Kumasi seemed successful: the Asantehene Kwaku Dua did indeed sign a treaty promising to deliver 1,000 recruits within a year and permitting the Dutch to open a recruitment station in the Ashanti capital. As proof of good faith between the contracting partners, the Asantehene trusted his son and nephew into the care of Verveer, with the request that they be given a European education. The story of Kwame Poku and Kwasi Boakye has acquired deserved fame with the publication of Arthur Japin's historical novel on the life of these two Ashanti princes.
Verveer's initial hope of recruiting Ashanti men, reputed for their warrior qualities, proved unrealistic. Ashanti warriors were not available as mercenary forces for foreign armies. The recruiting process was, therefore, limited to slaves, known as Donkos. The king delivered a number of Donkos, while individual Ashanti could also bring their slaves to the Dutch recruiting station. Their freedom was purchased with an advance on their army pay. With a document of manumission, they went to the Indies as free men, although it is not clear to what extent their army career was a voluntary choice. The promised large numbers of slaves did not materialize, possibly because the amount of money offered by the Dutch – about 100 Dutch Guilders (Dfl) a head – was less than could be obtained for healthy young males in the illegal slave trade. Another possibility is that the supply of marketable slaves in Kumasi was less bountiful than the Dutch had imagined, or that the Northern trade had overtaken the coastal trade in importance.
Nevertheless, between 1837 and 1841, over 2,000 African recruits were shipped from Elmina to Batavia. This was not only a quantitative but also a qualitative shift in the African recruitment operation. Initially, the army in the Indies absorbed dozens of African recruits without many problems. As these men were recruited on the coast, they were familiar with Europeans. Some spoke Dutch – more or less fluently – and could be used as interpreters and mediators in cases of misunderstanding. A few had had previous military experience serving in the Elmina garrison. All of them probably understood Fante and/or Twi and a few of the coastal mulattos were even literate in Dutch.
The massive numbers enlisted from the interior were not familiar with ships, the world of Europeans or European concepts of armies and soldiers. Many of them, originating from north of the Akan-speaking region, probably did not understand Fante or Twi. None could serve as interpreter or mediator and communication problems caused numerous misunderstandings as the lingua franca in the East Indies army was Dutch or Malay. The annual troop supplements shipped from the Netherlands were now to a large extent replaced by Africans. Training the African troops took up more time and involved more communication problems than with European or native troops. The massive replacement of the regular troop supplements from Europe by Africans must have overwhelmed the European officers in the Indies, who were totally unprepared for this new development. From the perspective of Dutch army officers, it made little sense that these untested newcomers were entitled to better pay and better treatment than the loyal Amboinese who were reputed to make good soldiers and NCOs.
The instructions flowing from Verveer's treaty with the Ashanti king were quite clear: the African soldiers were to be treated as Europeans with regard to pay, promotion, clothing, food and in all other respects. This policy made sense in the conditions of the Gold Coast and Europe, where the Dutch were very concerned to counter British allegations that the recruitment operation amounted to a covert form of slave trading. The situation in the East Indies was more ambivalent. On the one hand, it made sense to treat the Africans as Europeans because as Europeans they were unlikely to fraternize with the natives. On the other hand, treating people of colour as equals undermined the logic of the colonial state.
In later years, the Ashanti prince Kwasi Boakye fell victim to the same colonial contradiction. While pursuing a classical education in the Netherlands, Boakye and his cousin may have aroused curiosity because of their unusual appearance but their status was first and foremost determined by their royal lineage. They were welcome visitors at the Dutch royal court. After graduating in Delft as a mining engineer, Boakye opted for a career in the Netherlands East Indies. The Governor-General in Batavia objected. In a letter to the Minister of Colonies, he argued that: ‘The principle of la noblesse de peau and of the moral and intellectual superiority of the white race above the brown, upon which our domination in the Indies rests, would receive a severe blow by this [appointment]’. His objections were overruled and Boakye was given his appointment but with the title of ‘extraordinary engineer'. Secret instructions from the Minister of Colonies ensured that Boakye was never promoted to a position in which he would exercise authority over Dutch officials.
MUD AND MATTRESSES:
A series of incidents that culminated in the armed mutinies had in fact begun with some economizing measures that initially affected the Amboinese but were later extended to the Africans. From 1835, the Amboinese were no longer issued with straw mattresses (bultzakken) as the Europeans were, but with native sleeping mats and leather pillows. The measure was of course advertised as being in the best interests of the health of the Amboinese. The argument was that the Amboinese, not being used to straw mattresses anyway, did not know how to keep their sleeping quarters clean. Unlike the native soldiers, the Amboinese were entitled to wear shoes. As this privilege was equated with European status, the Amboinese would never leave their barracks without this important attribute. While shoes were an important status attribute, they were not necessarily comfortable. Inside military quarters, the Amboinese thus often walked barefoot, muddying their mattresses. When the army decided that they had to change their mattresses for sleeping mats, the Amboinese accepted this ruling without protest.
In 1838 this measure was extended to the African soldiers. Like the Amboinese, the Africans took off their shoes inside their army quarters and, according to documents from army headquarters in Batavia, ‘were known to be of an uncleanly nature, to have a greasy skin, greasy hair and a peculiarly strong and unpleasant smell’. Thus, the army reasoned that native sleeping mats would make more suitable bedding for the Africans too.The Sumatra revolt was sparked off by the replacement of mattresses with native mats, while the issue of bedding is also mentioned among the grievances of the mutineers in Kedong Kebo, in central Java. Discontent had, however, apparently been brewing for some years. On 16 March 1838, the commander of the 1st battalion had already reported a ‘spirit of discontent’. He advised against having more than one company of Africans per battalion, as the Africans were ‘choleric, quick-tempered and extremely insolent’ and could easily band together to cause mischief.
Army organization prescribed that ten battalions would each have one African company, with the other companies consisting of natives, Europeans and perhaps Amboinese. Two battalions would each have three African companies, while the other half of these battalions would then consist of three companies with only Europeans.
Courageous but Ill-Disciplined
In 1838, seven years after the start of African recruitment, the commander of the colonial army started to receive regular reports of disturbances in the African companies and several cases of desertion and protest. Army headquarters reported to the colonial government the difficulties they had when dealing with the Africans and warned that it would require much patience and caution to obtain the desired results. But in spite of the manifold difficulties, the overall opinion of the Africans as soldiers was still largely positive, as is evident from reports sent in 1838 by battalion commanders with Africans under their command. As this is a combined report covering various regions and battalions, it is worth summarizing extensively. According to their commanders:
The Africans had adjusted well to the military way of life, but they had little notion of subordination and showed little respect for non-commissioned officers and corporals. Yet they were rarely punished, as the army command had given instructions for lenient treatment. Much patience was required to make capable and orderly soldiers out of the African recruits, with communication problems being the main obstacle. The Africans spoke and understood neither Dutch nor Malay, the languages of instruction in the army. They spoke a variety of African languages, so that even among themselves communication problems persisted. As a consequence of the communication problem, it was not yet possible to submit the Africans fully to the rules of army discipline.
Their cleanliness left much to be desired, they did not know very well how to handle their clothes, but demonstrated more interest in cleaning and maintaining their weapons. Initially diseases were widespread, notably stomach problems, skin infections (due to laziness resulting in uncleanliness), syphilis, and worms in their legs. But most of these problems had been overcome.
The Africans kept their distance from both Europeans and natives. They were very distrustful and always worried that they were being cheated (with good reason, as will be shown later). Some spoke a bit of broken Dutch and a little Malay, just enough for shopping in the bazaar. The Donkos from the interior were less intelligent than coastal Negroes. In the third battalion, Lieutenant De Villepois had organized a daily language class with the Eurafrican Corporal Ruhle, while the 4th battalion had admitted eight of the most ambitious Africans to the garrison school. Arms instruction took a lot of time, due to language problems.
According to their commanding officers, the nature of these Africans was hot-tempered, irascible and often very insolent. Used to having one master only, they could not understand that so many were giving them orders. They were of a rough nature, jealous, distrustful and greedy. On the other hand, they were honest men; no traces of thievery had been reported. They were mostly strong, muscled, indefatigable and very adapted to the tropical climate. During military expeditions they demonstrated bravery and fearlessness, even more so than the Europeans. In combat their ardour needed to be tempered, otherwise they ignored the orders of their officers. Some reports mention a substantial use of alcohol, but less so than with the European soldiers. Much friction was reported between the various tribes, notably between coastal Africans and those recruited from the interior, known as Donkos. It was repeatedly emphasized that the Africans looked down on the native population.Their main vice was laziness. Their greatest pleasure was doing nothing, or lying down to smoke tobacco.
Therefore it required constant attention to make them attend to cleanliness, but otherwise their conduct was deemed satisfactory. The reports advised strongly against plans for the formation of a separate African corps in the East Indies Army. This proposal was put forward by the Department of Colonies in The Hague, but in the Indies it was feared that then the Africans would develop a too dominant esprit de corps, which would go against military subordination. With too many Negroes in one corps, they might become ungovernable and as they were already inclined to mutinies, they would then cause great mischief. Summing up, the conclusion of the battalion commanders was overwhelmingly positive: the Africans were to be preferred even above Europeans, and it was therefore deemed desirable that African recruitment be maintained.
Yet, only three years later, African recruitment was reduced to 200 new recruits annually, and shortly afterwards, in December 1841, recruitment in West Africa was stopped altogether. Then the Minister of Colonies in The Hague even proposed schemes to rid the army of the Africans as far as possible and as soon as possible, by assigning them coolie duties or employing them as rowers and crew on navy or transport ships in the Indies. These proposals were never implemented but are indicative of the drastic change in perception in official Dutch minds. What had happened to cause this startling reversal of judgment?
A SERIES OF MUTINIES 1838-1841:
In June 1841, 37 fully armed African soldiers of the 10th infantry battalion walked out of the Dutch fortress of Van der Capellen on the west coast of Sumatra after repeated refusals to obey orders. A detachment of soldiers was sent in pursuit and met the deserters near Fort Kayoetanam on the way to Padang. Attempts to persuade the Africans to return to their duties were futile. They were obviously prepared to resist attempts to escort them back. When the pursuing party attempted to take them by force, a fight ensued, leaving two Africans dead and four badly wounded. The remainder were taken prisoner.
A year before, in April 1840, African soldiers of the 4th infantry battalion in the garrison town of Kedong Kebo (Purworejo) in central Java had staged an armed revolt after a row regarding their pay. This 4th battalion was unusual in that it had three African companies, numbers 3, 4 and 5. Discontent had been brewing among them because of infringements on promises made to them in Elmina of equal treatment with Europeans. With regard to pay, clothing (underpants) and bedding, these promises had not been kept. With the formation of a third African company, the Africans apparently gained confidence and began to protest openly. It had been reported to the commander of this battalion that the Africans had gathered in the moonlight and had sworn an oath that on 16 April they would insist on receiving equal pay with the Europeans or otherwise would go on strike. On this day, the Africans of the 3rd and 5th companies disobeyed their officers, stormed into the kitchen and returned armed with wooden sticks. Shouting rebellious slogans, they returned to the barracks to get hold of guns. Meanwhile, the 4th company had already armed itself. As the commander had had prior warning, the European troops had already occupied the barracks to prevent the Africans from taking the guns. The mutineers were dispersed and armed patrols were sent out in pursuit. They succeeded in apprehending 85 Africans, while three men managed to escape. The African NCOs and corporals did not take part in the rebellion but it was assumed that they were not totally innocent of this conspiracy.
The commander of the 2nd military department on Java, Colonel Le Bron de Vexala, had now had enough. He sent the battalion commander’s report to army headquarters and recommended imposing an exemplary punishment as the only way to clip the mutinous instincts of the Africans.