(Christina T. Suprihatin (Faculty of Humanities, University of Indonesia). In: Wacana, vol. 13, no. 1, April 2011)


In 2008, Reggie Baay published his book De njai; Het concubinaat in Nederlands-Indië (The nyai and concubinage in the Dutch East Indies). The book was a huge success and was highly appreciated especially in the Dutch Indies community in the Netherlands. It was a revelation for them to learn about the history of the nyai, their problems, and misfortunes, from a different Point of view.

            Because Baay discovered that he himself descended from a nyai, he adopts a personal approach to the issue. He juxtaposes his personal experience with an historical approach. He discribes the history of the nyai since the time of the VOC. Baay, who also wrote the novel De ogen van Solo (The eyes of Solo, 2006), completed his book with citations of the Dutch East Indies fictional literature. Pamela Pattynama (2011) shows that in an effort to explore the colonial past, fiction may offer an important contribution because it can reveal, silence or hide things, that were deemed irrelevant and are thus not to be found in official papers.

            The book talks about the development of the nyai in the Dutch East Indies in a chronological way. Baay dedicated his book to Moeinah, a nyai, who never had the chance to tell him her life story. Baay tells us about her in the Introduction. In Chapter One, he starts with a description of the living circumstances in VOC bussiness establishments where the First contact with local women occured. Concubinage was negatively viewed from the beginning. In Chapter Two, he discusses the growth in numbers of the concubinage. Among the indigenous people, poverty was one of the probable reasonsfor the increase in the number of voluntary nyai: many parents gave their daughters away as voluntary nyai. In Chapter Three, Baay explains how the public accepted the concubinage. As long as a European did not have a “European” wife, he took a nyai as a “replacement” wife. As a replacement wife, a nyai did not have any right on her own life or on that of her children. The relationship between a European man and his children from his concubine usually ended when the man returned to Europe or when he married a “real” wife. Chapter Four shows us how the colonial army depended on the nyai in the barracks. Life in the barracks with the nyai was considered pernicious and venereal diseases were a hot issue at that time. In Chapter Five, Baay portrays the concubinage in the plantation and he limits himself exclusively to the Deli plantation in Sumatra. He chose Deli because it was here that the concubinages were the most cruel and poor. Focusing on the Deli concubinage, Baay reveals the relation between European men and local women, which were coolies (contract labour). In Chapter Six, he pays much attention to the children which sprang from these relationships. Most children of mixed blood lived in poverty; there was no law that protected them. In Chapter Seven, Baay paints a different portrait of the nyai by showing her from another perspective, that from the Eastern Point of view. He mentions some examples from Malay literature that describe the positive existence of the nyai. In the last Chapter, Baay explains the final phase of the concubinage in the Dutch East Indies. He mentions that Princess Laurentien, Queen Beatrix’s daughter-in-law, also has “a nyai ancestor”. Once again, Moeinah comes in picture, as a kind of conclusion. She opens and ends the book. Baay illustrates and enriches his portrait of the nyai with photographs and life stories of various nyai. The picture on the cover depicts a portrait of Djoemiha with her husband and children. Djoemiha had two children and stayed with her man Alfred untill the end.

            The stories of the people retold in this book are important aspects in colonial history. Baay succeeded in describing the unequal nature of the relationship between a nyai and her master. Nyai were viewed in two different ways; negatively (they were lazy, lustfull and stupid) but at the same time, they had positive characters (loyal, hardworking).

            Baay spared himself no effort and he used documents, life stories, letters, and literary citations. The book is a revelation for everybody, also for Indonesians. Fortunately, Komunitas Bambu has published an Indonesian translation of this book in June 2010, entitled Nyai dan pergundikan di Hindia Belanda. Everybody may be descended from a nyai, because a nyai is not only the ancestor of the Indies people in the Netherlands. Maya Sutedja Liem mentioned that the nyai is the mother of all peoples. I agree with her: maybe we all have nephews or cousins in the Netherlands or in other countries (Australia, Canada, America or New Zealand) where Indies peoples have emigrated after they left Indonesia.

            This book is highly recommended: it is worth reading.