The hidden history
of a family in the Dutch East Indies
The hidden history
of a family in the Dutch East Indies
Emile Leonardus van Rouveroy van Nieuwaal is our grandfather. He was born and raised in the Dutch-Indies and lived there all his life. His father served as the Assistant-Resident governing in Manado. As was common with young people in those days, Emile went to the Netherlands to pursue a higher education. He studied theology to become a clergyman, but went back to the Dutch-Indies looking for adventure. He was then 26 years old. On a tea plantation called Lodaja he met Enok, a native girl of fifteen. She became his “Njai”, his mistress. They fathered a child, Nelly, who was born in 1911. Emile acknowledged her 4 years later. He married Elly Bogaardt and raised Nelly with her. Enok vanished from the family along with her story.
Our family lived and worked in the Dutch East Indies for over a century and more than once children were born out of wedlock, and were of mixed skin color. This is us: filmmaker Dorna van Rouveroy and photographer Maurice Boyer. We first met in our early twenties and discovered many similarities in our backgrounds. We were both born in Indonesia and went to the Netherlands shortly afterwards. Many family members' names were even the same. We were cousins but as children had never met. After the war and being interned in the Japanese civilian camps, our family spread out across the world. Maurice’s mom and Dorna's dad were half-brother and -sister. We share the same white grandfather. Dorna's grandmother was white, but Maurice’s grandmother Enok was a native woman. That makes Maurice an Indo: of mixed blood.
Bob Rouveroy was my father, the half-brother of Nelly who was Maurice’s mother. Bob emigrated to Canada, became a renowned documentary cameraman and transmitted his love of filmmaking to me.
This interest in my heritage and family history was kindled in 2000 when I shot a documentary about my father, Rain in Nagasaki, in which he confronts the former commandant of the Japanese camp where he was interned as a youngster. Inspired by this experience I went on to make many documentaries about that era of history in the Dutch-Indies, the influence it had on individuals, families, and society in general. One of these was a short film entitled Letter to My Grandfather, which I made with Maurice’s brother Luc Boyer. The story of Finding Enok, Emile’s Njai, the mother of Nelly, begins with our grandfather.
We talked and speculated for years about what might have become of Enok? We decided to travel to Indonesia to see if we could find any traces of who she was. And what influence she might have had on her grandson Maurice’s life?
We asked our aunt Meetje, the last of her generation, about Enok and her father Emile
The Dutch East India Company (VOC), founded in the Netherlands in 1602, was the largest trading company in the world at the time. The VOC set up a network between different trading posts in Southeast Asia. They sailed the seas with ships full of goods. Jan Pieterszoon Coen (January 8, 1587) was the fourth and best-known Governor-General of the Dutch East India Company’s settlements. His colonization methods were controversial, particularly because of the genocidal actions in the Banda Islands aimed at securing a trade monopoly for nutmeg, mace and cloves.
Mainly European men settled in Asia, because life there was considered too hard for white women. This resulted in relationships with native women, who were often quite young. The system of concubines had existed in Indonesia for centuries, at least since the time of the Sultanate, so this tradition was an accepted part of Indonesian culture.
When a union produced a child who was not protected under Dutch law, a concubine could be dismissed and forced to leave her child behind. Often these children were not recognized by either Indonesian or Dutch society. Being of mixed-blooded had a status of its own. Although Nelly was officially acknowledged by our grandfather Emile, nobody in the family seems to know what happened to her mother Enok. Didn’t they wonder where she was, whether she longed to see her child again? This was apparently normal in those days.
Reggie Baay’s beautiful book De njai served as an immense source of inspiration for us. The emotional stories it tells sheds new light on the female ancestry of many Indos in the Netherlands. In the spring of 2020 we travelled to Indonesia in search of Enok.
Enok was 14 or 15 years old when she came to work for our grandfather as a housekeeper. And she became his concubine, his Njai. Even though she was very young, this was not uncommon. Our grandfather arrived on the N.V. Kina plantation Lodaja to work as an administrator on September 5, 1910. Enok was working as a tea picker. She quickly got pregnant and Nelly was born on June 17, 1911. In our search, we came across a 100-year-old resident of Lodaja who claimed to have known Enok.
In the Netherlands, Maurice and his brother Marcel discovered an important document verifying that our grandfather had lived in Lodaja where he met Enok. Searching further in archives, they came across other documentation revealing Emile’s hunt for, and hiring, for a job on the tea plantation. Once Stichting Filmproject was granted funding in 2018, the next step in Finding Enok was set in motion. Maurice and Iswanto went to Lodaja. The 100-year-old man, Aki Endon, who said he remembered Enok, told them she was most likely buried in the plantation cemetery. They hoped to find her grave, but sadly didn’t find anything.
Aki Endon worked as a supervisor at Lodaja. Iswanto interviews him, while Maurice films the scene
In the Netherlands, Maurice is considered to be an Indo, which is a person of mixed-blood, a man of color. But what is he in Indonesia? Maurice, photographer, and Dorna filmmaker, (it must be in our genes!) went to Indonesia to search for traces of Enok’s life. Curious about how Maurice is perceived, we spoke to casting-director Widhi Utama, who has worked on many movies set in Colonial times. When casting, he has to take color into account: who is considered black, brown, yellow, white, or mixed in Indonesia cinema and how do audiences perceive them?
Casting Director Widhi Utama with Maurice Boyer
Maurice worked for many years as a press photographer for the newspaper NRC Handelsblad in the Netherlands. His photographs have been exhibited on numerous occasions and he is known amongst others for the photo of Mandela visiting Amsterdam that adorned the façade of the Rijksmuseum for months. Here Maurice attends an exhibition of Indonesian Press Photographers in the Erasmus Huis in Jakarta. He and Iswanto talk to the contest’s 2019 award-winning photographer Riska Munawarah.
Maurice and Iswanto discuss a visual artist’s approach to the subject of Enok. Iswanto, who is from Chinese and Japanese/Indonesian descent, wants to paint a picture portraying Enok as she might have looked. Iswanto is one of Indonesia’s most prolific architects and artists. At present he is part of the collective “ruangrupa”, which will serve as the artistic director of Documenta 2024 in Kassel, Germany.
He approaches Colonial times from an Indonesian perspective, and is known for the artwork The Burning Memory of Colonialism, a wax-candle bust of Jan Pieterszoon Coen set alight as part of an exhibition in the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam. Iswanto helps us in our journey to find Enok. In a spiritual sense, he too is searching for Enok.
Driving from Jakarta to Lodaja
We are headed to the tea plantation Lodaja, where Maurice’s mother was conceived. He is curious if he still has family in Indonesia. Enok came from Lodaja, where she was a tea picker. Our grandfather Emile worked on the plantation as an administrator.
The mayor of Lodaja selected some people who might be related to Enok, and therefore to Maurice. The people aren’t related to each other, in order to have as many options as possible. Their DNA is taken to be analyzed, but it will be months before we get the laboratory results. We can’t help but notice that one man has the same color eyes as Maurice.
After returning to the Netherlands, Maurice and his sister Hélène, also had their DNA tested to find out if they are related to anyone we met in Lodaja.
Our grandfather Emile’s wife, Elly, was a very kind and caring woman. You don’t often hear this, but Nelly and Elly were very fond of each other. She raised Nelly as her own daughter. Nelly always remembered her as a wonderful stepmother. We visit the grave of my grandmother Elly to pay our respects. She died in a Japanese camp during WW2 of malnutrition and dysentery. We want to honor her memory.
We visited several people who stayed with their families after the Dutch transfer of sovereignty to the New Republic of Indonesia in 1949. Many chose for the Indonesian nationality. But for others who didn't, their motherland, the Netherlands, wouldn't take them in as citizens. Does their white ancestry still play a role in how they perceive their identity? Or perhaps they had an ancestor who was a Njai? Like Enok in our family.
Some of them have always questioned their identity. They speak Dutch, and feel Dutch but were excluded from remigration to the Netherlands. Often they still have family there.
Shared history, shared DNA. In Indonesia, many persons such as Jane, Koos, Meiske, Teo and Theresia carry the shared 350 year history in their DNA. With a DNA test, this can be visualized. Each frame is one person. Our DNA is a long code of millions of letters, subdivided in chromosomes of different lengths. In the frames, vertical columns represent the chromosomes, chromosome 1 on the left to chromosome 22 on the right, and they are colored according to origin. Major Asian origins are South-East Asian (SE-Asian, army green), North-East Asian (NE-Asian, green) and South Indian (S-Indian, red). Major European origins are North-East European (NE-Euro, yellow), Caucasian (brown) and Mediterranean (purple).
It is frustrating to search for something and not be able to find it. Now that we are so close, Maurice longs to know more about his grandmother, the kind of work she did, what she looked like . . . anything. Nowadays, almost everyone has their picture taken a multitude of times before they reach adulthood. We leave a lifetime of images behind, yet there isn’t a single trace of Enok. She remains faceless, as if she never existed, as if she disappeared in an infinite vanishing point.
Maurice visits a tea plantation in Lodaja
In 2020, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands and Queen Maxima visited Indonesia. The Dutch King apologized for the violence perpetrated in Indonesia during the military interventions (police actions) from 1945-1949. He said to Indonesian President Widodo:
For the violent disruptions on the Dutch side in those years, I would now like to express my regret and apologize here, following earlier statements by my government. We asked Bonnie Tryana, Indonesian historian, here with a painting of Soekarno, or “Bung Karno”, about this historically significant gesture.
Even decades after the war emotions often run high
Indonesia ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990, which sets the minimum age for marriage at 18, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1984, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage. However, about half of all Indonesian girls aged 11 and younger have undergone a form of circumcision which is used to control female sexuality and is regarded as a sign of readiness for marriage. In 2013 Indonesia has committed to the ASEAN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and Violence against Children, which acknowledges the importance of strengthening ASEAN efforts to protect children from all forms of violence, including early marriage.
Girls performing traditional Sundanese dances
And here are two celebrated women of Indonesia of mixed descent. On the left, Rosa (Rosalina Poppeck better known as Rose Pandanwangi) and on the right, Rima Melati (born as Marjolien Tambayong). Rose, a famous singer, a soprano who studied classical music in the Netherlands, of German and Indonesian descent, still performs. She was married to the legendary Indonesian painter, Sudjojono. She was the first Indonesian seriosa singer to appear on the international scene. Rima was a singer and actress and performed in almost a hundred films. She has received numerous international awards. Her father was Dutch and she kept some ties with the Netherlands. She acted in several TV series and played Mrs. Slotering in the 1976 film Max Havelaar. Both of these women are loved and cherished by the Indonesian people.
Maude and brother Robbie Görlitz stayed in Indonesia. They are still in touch with their family who returned to the Netherlands. Cousin Maarten Fornerod is a cell biologist and associate professor at Erasmus MC. He lives in Haarlem with wife Judith and their children. He worked with us on our DNA investigation. What happens with “color” when it is mixed? Maarten’s sons have red hair; the sons of Robbie look like Indonesians.
Maarten and Maude, who are cousins, share a family history and their DNA. Maarten is also an Indo. These colored charts reflect shared history, because different ethnic groups have different DNA variations. However, they do not show ethnic identity, which is based in culture and not in DNA. Maurice photographed members of families who were separated after the war and who stayed in Indonesia, as well as those who left for the Netherlands, because he is interested in exploring the significance of skin color related to the cultures in which people live.
Nelly had no memories of her mother. Or she didn’t want to remember. She was 4 when she was acknowledged and adopted. She was lovingly raised in Western culture and traditions by her father Emile and stepmother Elly. After a stay in a Japanese camp during the war, and her departure to the Netherlands, Nelly worked hard to carve out a future for herself and her family. Her children began to wonder about their origins but Nelly couldn't tell them anything about her birth mother. Even though there are no tangible traces of their grandmother Enok in the family’s history, her legacy is clearly visible . . . in her daughter Nelly and her grandchildren.
Iswanto used the technique of monotype printing to produce his artistic creation Finding Enok. Iswanto remarks about this:
"The concept of this medium is parallel to the memory of Enok, which we will see through Nelly as we never knew her face.
Since we are working with the idea of memory of someone [personal] and history of the life of Enok, I think I wanted to reduce my personal interpretation and involvement during the making process. I just want to point out what appears on the original photos.
So I try to recapture the memory of Enok through Nelly based on her life happening already captured by photography.”
Iswanto working on his portrait of Enok/Nelly
The Boyer family: Mother Nelly van Rouveroy van Nieuwaal and Father Jean Charles Boyer raised their eight children in the Netherlands Indies, Indonesia and the Netherlands. They are named: Renée, Hélène, Luc, Charles, Gonny, Marcel, Maurice and Marianne.
Maurice and his siblings and their offspring are connected to Enok through Nelly. In actuality, Enok hasn’t vanished without a trace. She is present in her daughter’s image, in the faces of her children and their children. We honor the remembrance of Enok, the mother of Nelly, the woman who connects the East to the West.
A match! We found a DNA match between Hélène, Maurice's sister, and one of the villagers. Sections of DNA on three chromosomes matched. The amount of shared DNA indicates that we have located a distant cousin in Enok's village. With this, we have the feeling that we have uncovered a tiny trace of Enok in Lodaja. The female lineage can be traced through a tiny DNA circle which is only passed from mother to child; not from father to child. This circle is called mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), and can be used to trace someone's female lineage for hundreds and even thousands of years. We had Maurice’s sister Hélène’s mtDNA (F1a1a1) tested, and this consequently infers that of her mother Nelly and her grandmother Enok, as well as the many unnamed ancestors in their female lineage.
Maurice talks with his daughters about the journey
I was an orphan. My father was a sailor on a ship torpedoed during the Battle of the Java Sea. By the Japanese. Father is in a military cemetery, which King Willem-Alexander is going to visit on his trip. Afterwards things were very difficult for my Javanese mother, who wasn’t officially married to my father. They also thought she couldn’t take care of us, so all my brothers and sisters ended up in an orphanage. We weren't allowed to go home until the war ended. My mother was very poor. We couldn’t go to the Netherlands. We aren’t really Indonesians, but not Dutch either. What are we then? What is our true identity? I still don’t know. Life has been very difficult for us in Indonesia.
I don't have an ID card or passport. In the Japanese era, my parents, brothers and sisters, and I lived scattered in different cities. When Indonesians saw a white person, they didn't want anything to do with them. It’s actually still the case. Because I have Dutch blood, the Indonesians have never acknowledged me. I'm not afraid of them; I've been a soldier. In the Indonesian army. I can still shoot well! I have nothing here. I long for the Netherlands, I want to go so badly. But who will help me? No passport, nothing. I can’t leave this country. I’m a soldier; I still shoot very well, and I’m very disciplined. I’d like to go and rejoin the army over there.
When you‘re too late, you’re too late. That's why I'm still here. I would’ve liked to go to Holland, but my husband was a Javanese. We met at the office where we worked, then got married, and that’s why we didn’t go. I have a sister there, Ineke. You hear I still speak very good Dutch. People often think I’m Dutch. I attended the best schools. Still, life has been very difficult here. I didn’t know any njais who had children with whites, but I heard the stories. Giving up a child wasn’t seen as difficult, It was often about finances. A mother couldn’t take good care of her child, and the father could, so it was better for that child to be raised by its father.
Wallenburg is a Swedish name, not a Dutch one. I never learned Dutch very well, because I spent 13 years in an orphanage. My parents stuck me there when I was very young. I was born in Semarang. In 1950, when remigration got underway, I was 10 and still in the orphanage. So I couldn't go back to the Netherlands. My sister's husband was in the KNIL, and they returned. She didn't ask me to go with her. We’re still in contact with her children. I was the youngest in our family. I'm 80 now and the only one still alive. It didn't bother me that I was whiter than Indonesians, and I wouldn't want to go to the Netherlands; I like it here!
I was born in Solo, my father worked at the railways. I was born in 1945, in August, in prison. The Japanese removed us from our home and put us there. What my mother went through was terrible, with all those children. I have been trying to get benefits from the Wuv since 1999, I am entitled to it. We were in a Japanese civilian camp. We did not go to Holland, because my father had a contract with the railways and he couldn’t just get out of it. And in 1971 my parents' situation worsened; then they emigrated to Australia, where they passed away a few years later.
I've lived here for 41 years, in my beautiful house, together with my husband.