Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Mestizos of Kisar: An Insular Racial Laboratory in the Malay Archipelago

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Mestizos of Kisar: An Insular Racial Laboratory in the Malay Archipelago

Article excerpt

'For the last four or five months,' wrote J. Macmillan Brown, the eccentric Scottish-born literary scholar, based in New Zealand, 'I have been tracking the Caucasian in the hair, features, and physique of the peoples of the Dutch East.' (1) In 1912, Brown sailed to 'Kissa', a droughty and bare island off the coast of East Timor, where he found 'Europeanism that has not yet melted into the dark ocean'. The dry, unattractive atoll 'swarmed' with 'little blue-eyed girls with golden curls' and 'tawny haired white men [who] speak and act like natives'. It was a weird and anomalous racial enclave. 'Here is a laboratory experiment right at the door of tropical Australia,' declared Brown. (2) Some ten years later, John S.C. Elkington, a champion of white settlement in tropical Australia, also visited Kisar, entranced by the 'romantic tale' that Brown had woven around it. 'It was a curious experience,' Elkington wrote, 'to see at the landing place these flaxen-haired, fair-skinned, blue-eyed folk, speaking only Malay.' The Australian director of tropical hygiene agreed that Kisar represented 'an actual, if unpremeditated, experiment on a fairly extensive scale in white settlement in the tropics'. (3) When Ernst Rodenwaldt, a German physical anthropologist and specialist in tropical medicine, visited the Kisarese community in Koepang (Kupang), West Timor, a few months later, he was struck by the uncanny whiteness of many of them. 'A strange sensation, this encounter,' he recalled. 'On the street I met a tall, slim old man [Cornells Caffin] with white hair, a white beard, a white moustache, and an aquiline nose. There was no trait in his facial appearance that reminded me of a native. But when I addressed this European, he did not understand me. He could not speak Dutch or any other European language.' (4) For Rodenwaldt, too, Kisar came to resemble a racial laboratory, though one more pertinent to the study of the status and stability of mixed-race groups than the eulogising of white racial persistence in the tropics. For him, Kisar became an island of genealogical clarity, 'far removed from the racial chaos [dem Rassenchaos fern]' that he thought prevailed elsewhere in the Dutch East Indies. (5)

While Brown and Elkington had read the experiment on Kisar as commentary on the White Australia policy, in terms of white settler nationalism, Rodenwaldt was sensitive to rising Dutch colonial concerns about race mixing in the archipelago. In the 1920s, the descendants of European and Indonesian unions, known as Indo-Europeans or Indos, probably numbered in the hundreds of thousands. Perhaps as many as one-third of the Europeans who married in the Dutch East Indies were choosing local spouses, especially in the eastern part of the archipelago. (6) The children of these mixed marriages inherited the legal status of the father--even if there had been no formal marriage, the father might adopt his offspring and render them European. (7) (Indeed, people classed as 'foreign Oriental' and 'Native' could apply to be accepted as 'equivalent to European' in legal status if they spoke Dutch and lived according to European standards and expectations.) Eurasians with light complexion, an advanced education, and a decent job usually passed as European; whereas those who were darker and poorer might be relegated to the category of Native. Most professed Christian faith, though Indonesian mothers frequently transmitted local customs to their offspring. In urban centres, some spoke an Indisch dialect of Dutch, ardently played krontjong songs, and laughed with the Stamboel comic theatre. (8) The social position of these Indo-Europeans was precarious, teetering, so it seemed, on the edge of the native abyss. Many recently arrived Dutch treated them with contempt, showing little respect for their accomplishments and ridiculing their accents. Colonial authorities repeatedly inquired into the social marginalisation and poverty of Indo-European communities. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.