The mail boat as a microcosm of colonial life

Case

The mail boat as a microcosm of colonial life

The ships that travelled between the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies between 1850 and 1940 formed a microcolony. The relationships between white newcomers, experienced travellers and indigenous (ship) personnel were often strained in the cruising nutshell. Using fiction written about the sea voyage, Coen van ’t Veer provides a lively image of the colonial identity that bobbed up and down on the waves of the political tide.

Coen van 't VeerCoen van 't Veer

Newcomers often had scarcely any idea about what they could expect, but for “regulars” the trip was routine. As soon as the ship had passed through the Suez Canal, the bright white tropical clothing was pulled out of the suitcase, and the first Indonesian rice tables were served. ‘The Suez Canal functioned like a birth canal’, says Van ’t Veer (51) at the school in Schiedam where he teaches Dutch. ‘Above the Suez Canal, European relations prevailed and under the canal, colonial. A white newcomer came out on the other side as a prospective colonial.’

Emotional scenes

In his PhD thesis entitled “De kolonie op drift. De representatie en constructie van koloniale identiteit in fictie over de zeereis (1850-1940)”[The colony afloat. The representation and construction of colonial identity in fiction about the sea voyage (1850-1940)] Van ’t Veer demonstrates that life on board was a “microcolony”. It was, of course, an unusual situation: a few hundred people who for a period of weeks to months were stuck together in a confined space. What did they do onboard? Not a lot. After the initial excitement of the departure, passengers usually got bored out of their minds. And then their attention quickly fell on their fellow passengers. ‘Arguments and complots arose but also irrational crushes. Women who “were married with the glove” – a proxy marriage where the glove represented the marriage partner in the faraway Dutch East Indies – sometimes fell hopelessly in love with a plantation worker.’ District officials, soldiers, governesses, almost everybody took part in the often emotional scenes on board. Many writers must have thought that would make a superb story.

Ship seen from above

Unwritten rules

Did that yield fine literature? That was not always the case. However, the texts do provide fascinating insights into colonial life. In books and stories, Van ’t Veer also discovered the unwritten rules of colonial life. Whoever failed to fit in the microcosmos of life on board had little chance of success in the real life of the colony. Stronger still, some did not even make it to the Dutch East Indies. Van ’t Veer dishes up the example of the Swedish baron who incurred gambling debts onboard and entered into liaisons with unsuitable women. ‘Ultimately, in desperation, he jumped overboard. Whoever failed to respect the codes was ostracised from the community.’

Niche

Van ’t Veer has been studying the niche of colonial literature for a quarter of a century– even his graduation thesis was about the passage to the Dutch East Indies. The NWO Doctoral Grant for Teachers enabled him to further explore this old passion and even to travel. His interest started many years ago when he read the works of authors like F. Springer, Hella Haasse and Eduard du Perron, but it rapidly expanded to more obscure writings from unknown compatriots. For example, who has ever heard of “Zoutwaterliefde” [Saltwater love] (1929) by Melis Stoke? Van ’t Veer published a new impression of this jewel about a sea voyage to the Dutch East Indies.

The superiority mentality from that period can still be seen in our society.
- Coen van 't Veer

What connects all of the 43 selected books that he obtained from archives, bookshops and second-hand shops is that the author had made a journey on a mail ship and wrote about that. The ships transported post and passengers between the Netherlands and its colonies. In the first period (1850-1895) that mainly concerned sailing ships that travelled to the Dutch Indies via Cape of Good Hope. Even after the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, “conservative Europeans” continued to make use of this route, notes Van ’t Veer. “Modern colonials” preferred a fast steamship via Egypt. The emergence of this new group was partly related to the abolition of the cultivation system (1870) and the implementation of the Dutch Sugar Act. From that moment onwards, it was easier for private individuals to establish a company in the Dutch Indies.

Did you know? Gradually the mail ship increasingly became more like the “Love Boat”. With luxury, drink, gambling and erotica on board.

People walking down the gangplank off the ship

Love Boat

This is the prelude to a turning point. Gradually the mail ship increasingly became more like the “Love Boat”. With luxury, drink, gambling and erotica on board. That might be connected to the change that Van ’t Veer observes in the colonial mentality from 1895 onwards. The mix of colours before that time – white Westerners, Indo-Europeans and indigenous personnel who were aware that they all shared the same fate – disappeared. Distinct boundaries arose between the different ethnic groups. ‘At that time, the idea emerged that white people had a civilising mission in the colonies’, states Van ’t Veer. ‘Merely seeing the country as a profitable colony, as was previously the case, was no longer possible, partly through books such as Max Havelaar. The existence as a colonial and the urge to rule over the indigenous people was justified at the turn of the century under the flag of “elevating” the indigenous population to a “higher” level. Equality simply did not fit in that line of thought.’

In his research, he observed that this colonial ideology was actively expressed in fiction written on board. Van ’t Veer: ‘The superiority mentality from that period can still be seen in our society.’

Position and status

By subjecting each text to the same questions, Van ’t Veer exposes the mechanisms underlying colonialism. For example, a clear picture arises about position and status in the colonial community. The stories are nearly always written from the perspective of the white, Christian heterosexual man. Indigenous people were inferior and one was required to keep a distance from them. Woe to the white man or woman who failed to understand that. A person who broke the unwritten rules quickly became an outcast.

A poignant example of that is the story “Man en Aap” [Man and ape]. In that story, there is a Dutchman of French descent who has become entirely “Indonesian” in a remote outpost. Delabar speaks Alfur (an Indonesian language), walks around barefoot and no longer understands European customs. On a ship to the Netherlands, he experiences the consequences of this. ‘The white passengers poke fun at him, and the only friend he makes is an Alfurs ape, destined for Artis Zoo in Amsterdam. That ape is an unruly animal, an absolute devil, but Delabar manages to calm him and after a heavy storm even risks his own life to save the ape from the mast after it had escaped. Eventually, he realises that he has nothing left in common with his fellow Europeans. When they reach the Azores, he jumps overboard with the ape in his arms. A spine-chilling story!’

More information

Coen van ’t Veer, Leiden University, Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS)
Laureate Doctoral Grant for Teachers
PhD defence: 18 February

De kolonie op drift. De representatie en constructie van koloniale identiteit in fictie over de zeereis (1850-1940)[The colony afloat. The representation and construction of colonial identity in fiction about the sea voyage (1850-1940)] available from bookshops.

Together with Gerard Termorshuizen, Van ’t Veer also published a biography about Dominique Berretty, who was once the richest man in the Dutch East Indies

More about the Dutch Culture System.

Coen van ’t Veer can be reached via c.b.van.t.veer@hum.leidenuniv.nl.

Text: Edo Beerda