Living in the Indies

A historical perspective on life in colonial Indonesia based on family accounts.

1931 School PlayAs the Dutch and European populations in Java grew it became clear that certain fundamental aspects needed for a good quality life were absent. Boredom, especially for women, contributed to many ultimatums and early return voyages to the Netherlands.

It was simply not enough to live in paradise, as the shipping and immigration posters had advertised it, but rather a sense of purpose, culture, and sophistication also had to be developed in order to maintain this population that had traveled half way around the world in search of a better life.

Batavia (modern day Jakarta) and Bandung especially, began a campaign to deliver European culture to the Indies. Society clubs, concert halls and theaters were built in haste. Performers and entertainers in music, dance, stage, and opera, were brought to the Indies to provide an opportunity for certain residents to elevate their social standing; for most though it was a way to enrich the  lives of those who now made the Indies their home…a morale boost for its citizenry. 

Housing for the constant influx of new arrivals needed to be built and neighborhoods needed planning. Wide tree lined avenues, parks, and architecturally stunning rows of houses were erected to cater to the avalanche of people that began arriving in 1915 and continued through the 1930’s.

On arrival at Tanjung Priuk harbor, families dispersed all over West Java with the two main destinations being Batavia and Bandung.

My family settled in the “Paris of the East”, Bandung.  

Opa had been a policeman in Holland with few prospects for advancement due to an injury.  Like many others he saw Indonesia as an opportunity to serve his country, to provide a better life for his family, and to rekindle the flame of his career.

Within a few short years he had achieved the rank of Inspector First Class, his children were fully assimilated into Indies life, and he was observing his patriotic duty.

Life was good.

Living in the Indies, at least for my family, revolved around routine and a strict religious conviction. In the early years, while living in Bandung, the photos show an integrated and happy community.  School was a mixture of learning, playing, birthday parties, and those attending consisted equally of Dutch, Indo, and Indonesia children.

The perspective I have of this time is through the eyes of my mother and therefore through the eyes of a child.

Many of her friends were Indonesian and so to her this meant that life for Indonesians was the same as life for her. She had no reason to believe anything else; for her and every other child of the same age, with whom I have spoken, who you played with or learned from were not topics for consideration.

Mum had lived in Indonesia since before her first birthday and therefore this country was her home also.

The era known as Tempo Doeloe (meaning the Good Old Days) was already in the rear-vision mirror as another decade turned over and the thirties fell upon the Indies. Life was changing and unseen forces were taking hold both nationally and internationally. 

The 30’s would prove to be the decade in which the colonial swan song would begin to sing its last verse.

For a child developing into a teenager and now living in the city of Batavia, life continued to feel the same as always. Sheltered from the world by protective parents my mother and aunts knew of nothing that should be a concern.

They attended St Ursula and St Theresa schools, attended St Maria cathedral every Sunday where, with the fear of God in them, they would create fictional confessions…”surely we must have done something wrong” Mum told me once as she recalled her early life.

Mass was always followed by an hour long walk around Koningsplein (Merdeka Square).

Holidays were spent in the hills around Soekaboemi, visiting family friends, and enjoying the rural beauty of Java as well as the urban excitement of Batavia.

Living as a child in the pre-war era of the Indies was undoubtedly a special and important historical time. It left a deep and lasting impression on those who lived through it and tweaked an insatiable interest in the rest of us who are in some way linked to it; trying our best to gather insight and understanding and glimpse, if only for a second, into life in the Indies.

For more on this four part series see;
Arriving in the Indies , Surviving in the Indies , Departing the Indies

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32 thoughts on “Living in the Indies

  1. What I admire most is that your grandfather stepped out with hope in his eyes to a place he and his family would start over. Look what happened he and the family not just survived but thrived. Once again the pictures are wonderful. I feel as if I’m an onlooker in the story.

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  2. Until reading your series, I’d never heard of Indonesia referred to as “the Indies.” Another bit of learning!

    It was simply not enough to live in paradise, as the shipping and immigration posters had advertised it, but rather a sense of purpose, culture, and sophistication also had to be developed in order to maintain this population that had traveled half way around the world in search of a better life.

    Isn’t it amazing how compelling marketing was, even in those early days? 🙂

    Even more amazing is the fortitude and determination of people transplanted to a new world. Wonderful that your family not only was a part of it all but also preserved enough of the history that we can see through their eyes.
    — Vernessa Taylor

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  3. Still enjoying the series. I wish I knew more about my family history. Unfortunately my grandmother took some of that to the grave with her last year.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Tim! You passion for history, culture, and geography are evident through your writing. I am so inspired by the way you are living out your dream and doing what you love.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The pictures are a nice touch that brings your story together. Your writing improves every week! Batavia is the name of a street in a nearby county out here, and now I know the origin of it. I appreciate how you give the meanings of place names and titles in your posts.

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  6. It is amazing that you have found old photos of your mom’s growing up years in Indonesia. Thank you for sharing your story. It is always heartwarming to learn about your roots. My parents and grandparents had lots of stories about WWII, but they were not able to save any pictures because they had to be constantly moving to ensure the family’s safety.

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    1. That’s a good question Eileen. I don’t know how they managed to save the old pre-war photos as everything else owned by the family was lost during the war years. Now that I think about it, it is quite amazing.

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  7. Thanks so much for sharing your family history with us, Tim.

    You have painted very detailed depiction which is associated with characters.
    The pictures enhance the story. Didn’t know Jakarta’s name has changed in such recent past.

    Very well written.

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  8. Hi Tim. Thanks so much for sharing your family history with us. I can’t imagine growing up in the pre-war era, but you paint such a raw depiction that I can see how it shapes one’s character later in life. The pictures are stunning and serve as valuable keepsakes.

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  9. I enjoyed reading about your family story living in the Indies. The words you chose to convey your experience were very descriptive and well written. I’m interested to know what your family thinks about this historical account?

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    1. My family were very proud that I had taken such an interest and it from them, and other sources, that I was able to put much of this together. Many others who lived through this era have read it and enjoyed a flood of memories.

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  10. Look at those amazing photos! Such a rich family history, thank you for sharing. Our parents grew up in a completely different world, and your mother’s was even more exotic than most. Creating fictional confessions! Really a long-gone, innocent time …

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  11. I’m enjoying this series of posts Tim. As I read about life in the Indies in what I assume are the 20’s and 30’s, I’m thinking that the war is going to bring about some changes. Will move on to that part of the story.

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  12. As a stay-at-home mom, I can really relate to the women’s need for social interaction! Our society(in my home) tends to break down too, whenever I don’t get out enough. Also, I had a good chuckle at the made up confessions. I don’t think I’d have made a very good catholic! 🙂

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  13. A child’s situation is his or her normal. Your mother had lived there since before she was even a year old and so of course her life didn’t seem unusual to her nor would she and her friends talk about it as if it were. Great pictures and interesting information.

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  14. I believe that pictures are like a treasure and the way you are valuing them tells that my assumption about pics is correct. I was wondering if you still have these pictures with you.
    A am also mad for collecting and saving pictures but this time when I went on holidays, my mother in law burnt all pictures from her young age…. When I saw them burning I was shocked tried a lot to save few…. after wards I was very sad and asked my mother in law and I was upset with her too.
    I loved the picture of Batavia housing state and it was nice to read that all the children were happy and set in indies life. It was really a special for all people living indies before war. It is nice that with each passing moment you are learning a lot about you family life in Indies. It surely brings feeling of contentment with accomplishment.

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  15. Tim, you must absolutely treasure those pictures – how wonderful that you still have them after all this time. I love reading about the Dutch East Indies, that was such a carefree way of life. Thanks for sharing.
    Lenie

    Liked by 1 person

    1. These pictures and many others are most certainly treasured. You are right Lenie, it was somewhat of a carefree way of life for the Dutch and for a while; not so much for the Indonesians however. The Dutch did attempt to make changes in the 20th century to make life more fair for everyone however colonialism is always a difficult pill to swallow for the colonized.

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