Saturday, September 12, 2020


In the eastern end of the Indian Ocean, the hardening of racial boundaries from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards occurred under the aegis of a globalized imperial system. According to Dutch classification, every non-white person in the Netherlands Indies was part of a European empire. The vast majority of Indies population were of course Dutch subjects, but there were people relegated to the category of ‘Foreign Orientals.’ For example, Malays were often labeled ‘Britisch-Maleiers,’ even if in Dutch territory simply because the Malay peninsula, identified as place of origin for all Malays, had fallen under British influence in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, Chinese subjects who originated from Taiwan were recognized as Japanese because the territory was colonised by Japan in 1895. South Asian populations in the Dutch colony on the other hand were alternatingly labelled ‘Britisch-Indiers,’ ‘Klingaleezen’ and ‘Bengaleezen.’ Because Dutch colonial censuses were not diligently undertaken, we do not know the proportion of the South Asian population throughout the colonial period; the only systematic colonial census published in 1930 put the population at 1-3% depending on their location in the vast archipelago. Evidently, urban areas in Padang, Medan and Surabaya had enough South Asians for them to have their own quarters with their own community heads.
    Yet the much older category of ‘mooren’ predated these categories, appearing in both VOC (Dutch East India Company) records and Dutch colonial government records before 1850 especially. Who were these ‘mooren’ exactly? A clue is provided by the fact that the term ‘klingaleezen’ was sometimes substituted for ‘mooren.’ By using the term ‘mooren,’ Dutch authorities linked South Indian Muslims with other Muslims much further away in Spain (who once ruled them) a few centuries before. But this link excluded non-Muslims from Malabar and parts of southern India. The ‘Hindoe-Klingaleezen’ were a “neglected” people the Dutch should pay more attention to, a Dutch newspaper lamented in 1918, which suggest that on its own, the term only referred to Muslims. Also, why did “Bengaleezen,” a label that applied to all Indians from northern India regardless of origin, remain a distinct but undifferentiated category too? Although nearly all references to ‘mooren’ after 1800 refer only to the Indian subcontinent, the term emerged out of Dutch experience in Sri Lanka from 1640 to 1796 referring to Muslims of Tamil descent who were living in Dutch Ceylon who were of mixed ethnicity. “But more likely, if not certain, is that they are descended from the 'Mooren,' or so-called Klingaleezen of the Malabar coast,” the reporter of Sumatra Courant noted in September 1871. They came mainly for trade, another reporter wrote in De Locomotief in 1873. The term, in other words had many layers some of which were shed by the Dutch colonial government who took over from the defunct VOC in 1800. By subsequently connecting the ‘mooren’ classification with the subcontinent only, the Dutch government got round the awkwardness of taking over corporate VOC rule by dint of forgetting their association with Dutch Ceylon by implying that those earlier ‘mooren’ are an artefact of an era that had recently ended. 'Mooren' in Netherlands Indies on the other hand were supposedly from the subcontinent instead. The question remains as to how the klingaleezen identified themselves since their voices are rarely found in the archives but in September 1927, a group classified as klingaleezen wrote to the colonial government requested that they not be referred as such anymore since the term is humiliating. The term “kling” had evolved into a racial slur by then in parts of Southeast Asia.
    The category of ‘Britisch-Indiers’ was taken literally. In 1886, the British government in India requested that the Dutch government accept the appointment of a ‘British-Indian Protector’ from the Straits Settlement of Penang to oversee south Indian immigrants (referred to as klingaleezen) in Deli in northeast Sumatra, the site of many tobacco plantations. The south Indian coolies who traveled to work in these plantations were not only claimed by British as subjects but made to sail from southern India to British Penang first before looping back to Deli across the Straits of Malacca although their passage was paid by plantation owners in Sumatra. Dutch authorities were aghast that their authority did not suffice, but British capital buoyed the Dutch tobacco industry and the advantage of having an interpreter in the form of the Protector enticed them to accept the appointment. This arrangement aligned with their imperialistic view of governance.
    Slightly up north, Siam challenged this conception of a world organized according to empires in the late nineteenth century as an independent nation not colonized by Europeans who nonetheless increasingly determined its borders. Through copious inter-imperial correspondence between Bangkok, Singapore and Batavia, the Dutch took it upon themselves to police the presence of Chinese, Malays and South Asians in Siam. The obsession led to the proliferation of “reispas” (travel pass) and travel certificates issued by Dutch consulates, both of which functioned as some kind of proto passport and visa, instruments that first emerged in the colonial world as the late Adam McKeown pointed out in his vast oeuvre. 
    Generally, it was impossible for most people to move freely in the Asia-Pacific region. Ultimately, colonial classification was an inscription practice obsessed with legibility and smoothness although normative confusion between categories persisted by design. Everything was coded and was capable of being endlessly recoded. While much of mobility research is preoccupied with the association between origins and destinations, we know we can move while staying still because one mechanism for mobility is paradoxically dispossession.
--Nurfadzilah Yahaya