Depok’s past and the influence of one good man

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The office of the Cornelis Chastelein Institute Foundation was formerly the Pastori or priest’s house. (phoyo: IO/Alfino Suhanta)

IO – There are in fact more good people in the world then one actually thinks. Even back in the 17th century among the VOC there were people trying to transform society to create a better and more humane community life. One who stands out and who played an important role in the history of Depok which for a long time was considered a suburb of Jakarta or Batavia as it was known then, was a man named Cornelis Chastelein.

Chastelein was born in 1657 and came from a prominent Huguenot family. His father Anthonie Chastelein was a wealthy Dutch merchant with a very lucrative business in the town of Nantes in France where since 1461 Dutch merchants had the right to trade freely. The Dutch came to dominate the trade in Nantes which caused jealousy among the town’s inhabitants and accusations of enriching themselves dishonestly. The situation became difficult for non-Catholics and final Anthoinie Chastelein returned to Holland where he became the VOC administrator for the Amsterdam Chamber of Commerce. With such a position he was able to help his children obtain good positions in the services of the VOC. He had 13 children, one of whom was Cornelis Chastelein whose name was for a long time to become synonymous with that of Depok.

In 1670, Cornelis left for the Indies. With help from his various relatives living there Chastelein rose in his career. Perhaps it was his background as a Huguenot whose family had traded in France and later in the Indies that caused him to be comfortable living in foreign lands and to become a devout Christian. The history of the treatment of the Huguenots in France may also have inclined him towards a religious tolerance reflected in his treatment of his Indonesian slaves.

Jan-Karel Kwisthout, a Dutch jurist who wrote “Spoeren uit het verledan van Depok” or “Footprints from Depok’s past” describes Chastlein as, “a merchant with deviating views from the VOC and most of its officials at the time as to how the Dutch Indies were to be developed.”

During the reign of Governor General Camphuijs, Chastelein had a fellow sympathizer. Together with the Governor General and several other friends such as Van Hoorn, Majoor de St Martin and several others he formed a circle known as the “Batavia Circle”. It was an ethical circle which tried to bring about changes in the policies of the VOC. Firstly, the Circle wished to change the VOC monopolistic trade policy to a more liberal one, secondly, they felt that the VOC policy of solely focusing on trade was a mistake and that to properly develop a strong colony the VOC also needed to build up agriculture in the surrounding lands and finally, as devout Christians they also felt that simply enslaving the native population was unethical and that the local inhabitants should be allowed freedom in governing themselves.

Kwisthout describes Chastelein, “Foremost as a man who although he was a merchant had deviating views. He was a man who was interested in people, culture, nature, agriculture and at a certain time this placed him in opposition to the policymakers.”

In agriculture Chastelein was interested in new crops he could grow on his lands and he was the first to start growing coffee. His love of science and botany led him to support Georg Eberhard Rumphius the blind botanist in Ambon, in creating the “Het Amboinsche Kruidboek” or “Herbarium Amboinense”, a catalogue of 1200 species of plants of the island of Ambon published in 1741. It was to be the first of its kind from that part of the world and provided the basis for all future study of the flora of the Moluccas. In the will that he later made Chastelein provided for 60 hectares of forest to be left untouched and protected. In the 19th century this forest was to become the first nature reserve in Indonesia.

In 1705 Chastelein published his views on developing the colony and on the treatment of the indigenous peoples in a treatises entitled “Invallende Gedagten Ende Aanmerkingen over Colonien” or “Incidental thoughts and comments over the Colonies”. However, after Governor General Camphuijs retired  conservative officials dominated the government which disagreed with Chastelein’s views. Chastelein then also retired from his official positions and focused on his plantations and the people working on them.

In Batavia Chastelein had a mansion in Gang Kenanga in the Senen area. The site of the RSPAD hospital was once his coffee garden and there he also opened the first zoo in Indonesia. The area was so beautiful and peaceful that it was known as “Weltevreden” or “Well Pleased”. In the area of Depok Chastelein owned the sort of large landed estate known in those days as “particulere landen”. Such estates were almost the size of small counties and frequently even had their own militias and currency. Chastelein owned 1244 hectares of land there and more than 150 slaves who were mainly Balinese and Buginese, but also from eastern Indonesia. Dr Lillie Suratminto from the Humanities Faculty of the University of Indonesia has explained that Chastelein did not have any Javanese slaves because the VOC agreed not to have any Javanese slaves in their agreement with the kingdom of Mataram.

A grave in the Kamboja Cemetery. The cemetery
is only for the descendants of Chastelein’s
emancipated slaves. (photo: IO/Alfino Suhanta)

“Cornelis Chastelein died in 1714 and was buried at Fort Noordwijk. There is nothing left of his grave. He was a modest man and wanted no monument for he did not care to have pilgrimages to his grave. He also never had a painting of  himself made,” explained Kwisthout. Nevertheless, Chastelein did leave one unforgettable monument to himself namely, his last will and testament whose contents shocked VOC officials at the time.

“In fact his will was an act of rebellion against the VOC officials and their  policies. In it he showed them a better way of doing things. A way that was also more just and ethical towards the local people,” declared Kwisthout, for in Chastelein’s will he manumitted all his Depok slaves and then left them his vast Depok lands to be owned communally by them. It was a sharp criticism of the VOC’s policies.

“Chastelein was aware that his slaves came from different regions and he allowed them to continue to observe their respective traditions and religions. From the way he organized the social structure of the slaves who inherited Depok it is clear that he wanted Indonesians to have their own government rather than be under the Europeans. It was in fact the first step towards democracy,” explained Kwisthout.

Later after Chastelein’s death his slaves were divided into twelve clans by Pastor Baprima Lucas. Until today eleven of those clans still remain in Depok. Chastelein created a council to rule Depok and later under the Statute of 1890 each member of the Depok community descended from the original slaves in his will, had the right to vote – including women. The head of the council was later referred to as the President. It was probably the first place governed democratically in Indonesia.

Chastelein also provided guidelines in agriculture, tolerance, cooperation and community relations. He taught his former slaves to work together with the Ora Depok who were Muslims and lived in villages outside the land left by Chastelein. They worked together with Chastelein’s Depok community in planting and harvesting the fields and later shared the harvest. They also visited each other during their religious celebrations such as Christmas and Idul Fitri.

After the Second World War the “Perisitiwa Gedoran Depok”. Although they were not Dutch or even Eurasians really the people of Depok were considered to be pro-Dutch by some of the nationalists.  On the 11th of October 1945 all the men and young boys over the age of 13 were imprisoned whereas the women and children were held at the “Gemeentebestuur” or Municipal Government building. They were rescued by Allied forces as were later also the men. They then remained for four years in Allied camps in Bogor. It was only in 1949 that they were permitted to go home. Some of the men were executed by beheading and for many of the members of the twelve clans it was a very traumatic experience. Tri Wahyuning M. Irsyam who wrote “Sejarah Depok, 1950-1990” or “A history of Depok, 1950-1990” and who is researching Depok during the period between 1945 and 1949 which includes the attack says that it has never really been ascertained who actually led the attack. Whether it was the people known as the Ora Depok, or whether it was the Laskar Rakyat or Peoples’ Soldiers, an armed unit outside of the government, the Badan Keamanan Rakyat or Peoples’ Security Agency (an Indonesian government security agency) or the Tentara Keamanan Rakyat or Peoples’ Security Force, the name for the army then. This is still being researched.”

In 1952 the twelve clans were forced to surrender to the Indonesian government the land that Chastelein had bequeathed to them. “Even though we were not Dutch, despite having chosen Indonesian citizenship it was still taken from us,” commented Jonathans sadly. Then he continued slowly, “They let everyone keep the houses they lived in and nine community properties to be held by the community of the descendants of the 12 original clans and may not be sold. In order to keep the properties as communal properties we had to turn the Cornelis Chastelien Institute into a foundation so now it’s called the Yayasan Lembaga Cornelis Chastelein or YLCC for short. The agricultural lands we had to surrender to the government of Indonesia.”

Jan-Karel Kwisthout first heard of Chastelein from his grandmother in Holland. She was originally from Depok and frequently spoke of it. He heard about making “dodol” a glutinous cake made from rice flour coconut milk and palm sugar, how the rice was harvested and the many festivals they held. Including the 28th of June when they commemorated the day Chastelein died. She also described how Muslims and Christians always helped celebrate eachothers festivals. Later as a student he accidentally discovered information regarding Chastelein while studying in the library which wetted his interest. He discovered more and slowly began to gather the information and write a book about Chastelein and Depok. The history of Depok at the time was mostly oral and his book was the first time such an integral history of Depok was written with reference to sources.

He did not visit Indonesia or Depok until two years after the book was written as he no longer had connections there but people kept contacting him and asking him who he was and why he had written the book and once he visited Depok he received a warm welcome and not only made new friends but also reestablished family ties and was made an honorary citizen of Depok .

Ferdy Jonathans from the Cornelis Chastelein Institute Foundation and
Ratu Farah Diba who heads the Depok Heritage Community sharing a
quiet laugh at the Immanuel Church in Depok. (photo: IO/Alfino Suhanta)

Ferdy Jonathans mused, “I would like Cornelis Chastelein to be remembered for his kindness in freeing my ancestors who were his slaves and giving them his land; as well as his thoughtfulness in providing a structure and guidance for them so that they could form a prosperous and democratic community which provided its people with a decent means to live.”

In Depok Cornelis Chastelein’s decency and good sense were always celebrated in the past with a special commemoration on the 28th of June which was the day Cornelis Chastelein died. Jan-Karel Kwisthout describes it as in the past being, “a church service, dinner, games for children, festivities and dancing for the adults and music from the Keroncong Depok and the special gamelan that was given by Cornelis son who got it from Balinese slaves. It was always kept in the building of the Gemeentbestuur which is now the Harapan Depok Hospital. Unfortunately, during the “Bersiap Tijd” (literally translates as the “Time to Ready Oneself” – for independence – and is how some of the Dutch referred to the struggle for independence) after the Second World War when Indonesians were fighting for their independence it was lost.”

Jonathans later added to what Kwisthout had said, “Now we still commemorate the 28th of June which we refer to as “Peringatan Depok Sedah”. It is also known as  “Hari Pembebasan Pembudakaan” or Slave Emancipation Day and we still begin with a church services to thank God for Cornelis Chastelein’s kindness in setting the slaves free and giving them his land. Then there is a bazar and lots of good Depok food like bruine bonen (red bean) soup, prikadel bakar (roasted minced meat balls), ikan acar gurami (a fresh water fish cooked with turmeric and tropical almonds) and dodol Depok and the Depok Keroncong orchestra plays favorite melodies. There used to be a gamelan in the 17th and 18th centuries but that was taken during the “Peristiwa Gedoran Depok”. Such a shame. But whereas in the past it was just a festival for the original Depok community now anyone can come.”

Kwisthout remarked, “I like that Chastelein connected ideas and brought them into practice. You know in a sense he planted a seed that could be passed on from generation to generation. He embodied the message of tolerance and building a strong and sustainable community where the poor are taken care of; where people take care of each other and these are things that are valuable to all communities everywhere.”

Somehow, through the centuries the community created through one of the rare acts of pure goodness during the long history of the Dutch East India Company has managed to survive. Perhaps the renown Eurasian writer, Tjalie Robinson put it best when he says, “..a green pasture which 250 years ago was created out of a jungle by a man named Cornelis Chastelein, still exists; it is a little known monument which has nevertheless proven indestructible, a monument to a people who are neither Dutch nor merchants but simply human..” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)