He was German, early 30s, and came from a forest ranger’s family in Hannover. If not poverty, then extreme thrift had probably stood at the cradle of him and his numerous siblings. He didn’t do well at school, served three years in the infantry, and then a distant relative who managed a tobacco plantation in North Sumatra took him on as plantation assistant. He had the misfortune right at the beginning of his time on the plantation to hit a “girlie man” [weibchen]. Girlie man is the name given to Chinese coolies who, in those female-deprived climes substitute as women for their comrades. After work they dress and adorn themselves as women, and they are loved and protected. Woe betide he who lays hands on a girlie man! He, the newcomer, did so in ignorance of the convention, and that evening as, suspecting no evil, he descended the steep steps of his primitive assistant’s house to ask a coolie who was squatting below what he wanted, he collapsed under the blows of seven powerful men, who hewed at him with patjols (hoes) [check the rest of the site] and parangs (short hacking knives) — tjintjaken, that’s called in Malay. He was still very feverish when he was brought on board. In Colombo [Ceylon/Sri Lanka] and thereafter at home he recovered from his wounds, but today his skull still has a deep furrow, in which one can easily put one’s little finger, and his brow is crooked, like with certain [American] Indian women.
Then unfolds a tragedy, in which the German returns to South Sumatra, begins a coffee plantation, makes the acquaintance of an older Sundanese woman, Minah Mengala, who runs the plantation and cares for and sleeps with him. He humiliates her in front of other planters and finally kicks her out with nothing when he has enough money to return to Germany and live as a lord. The hyperinflation of the 1920s destroys him, and he asks Helfferich for an assistant’s job on a plantation. No, you’re too old, writes Helfferich, his pen driven on by Minah Mengala, another revengeful girlie.
Helfferich lived in Southeast Asia from 1899 to 1928 and his writing displays a formidable knowledge of, and feeling for, the region, its economy and its peoples. The best writer of prose on 20s and 30s Sumatra was, however, Madelon Székely-Lulofs (also), who was born in Surabaya in 1899 and created a scandal in the 20s by leaving her boring Dutch husband for an exciting and artistic Hungarian … planter. Her great achievement was the novel Rubber (1931), which describes the trials and temptations of colonial life. Here, however, is an excerpt from Onze bedienden in Indië (Our Servants in the Indies; Deventer, 1946) in which Sitih explains life to her mistress, just off the boat from Holland, and sees her begin to acclimatise:
One evening, when njonja is alone again, Sitih’s brown bird-eyes observe her more closely.
“Is njonja feeling perfectly well?”
“I think so, Sitih. I’m rather hot. And I’ve got a bit of a headache…… Why do you ask?”
“Isn’t njonja dizzy?”
“I haven’t noticed, Sitih. I get dizzy more often when it’s so close and it doesn’t even cool down in the evening, like now. When it doesn’t cool down in the evening then I can’t bear the heat. We Whites aren’t used to such temperatures. Maybe you’re right……. I was a bit dizzy this afternoon.”
Sitih is silent and looks down. Her brown hands rub easily along the leg of the young woman. Suddenly she takes her feet, feels them, inspects the soles. Then she nods and says: “Njonja is pregnant.”
The most unhappy expat writer of the period on–or, often, off–Sumatra was without doubt Max Dauthendey, a German on a round-the-world trip who was trapped in Ambon at the start of the Great War. He managed to get a few islands further, writing dreadfully homesick poetry as he went. The following appeared in a collection of his poetry from the outbreak of war to the eve of 1915 (and including verses not published elsewhere), that was bound in what appears to be Boelen’s python skin and published by the German Association in Medan-Deli on Sumatra’s east coast under the title Des grossen Krieges Not · Lieder:
At home now ice lies on the road,
The warriors huddle in the snow.
Here the rose stands in the grass,
How its beauty hurts.
Roses here I cannot behold,
At home lurk winter and need.
How can I pause by roses,
At home death flowers to brothers.
At home, where the snowflakes fly,
There I want to watch and wait.
When my brothers are victorious,
Then my soul will be a garden.
(Tandjong Morawa, Sumatra, December 23rd, 1914)
Dauthendey never made it back to Germany, dying of an unspecified tropical sickness on Java in August 1918, aged 51.
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