Overview of Child of All Nations

In his novel Child of All Nations, the Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer offers insights into the world of European imperialism in Asia during its height at the beginning of the twentieth century.  Examining in depth the Dutch chokehold on the politics, economics, social infrastructure, and culture of the island of Java, Pramoedya’s book paints Dutch colonial policies of domination and superiorism in a manner that mirrors the attitudes and practices of the British and other European colonialists of the time, as well as of the Americans.

In Child of All Nations, Dutch oppression is underlined by a look at the exploitation of East Java’s peasants by sugar plantation owners and native and Dutch officials.  The book also highlights the racial caste system imposed by the Dutch through their laws and government and the power Dutch overseers can exert on Javanese peasants. 

On the other hand, even though at the time, the Dutch were expanding their control over the archipelago, Pramoedya stresses as a main theme the beginning of an awakening of a national conscience within the Indonesian people, represented in the observations of the main antagonist in the book, the Javanese youth Minke.  While Minke, like most Javanese of that time, had only the barest sense of a national unity that went beyond the Javanese people to include the other islands, he slowly became aware of it at first within the idea of the Malay language becoming a national Indonesian language.  Again this kind of issue, forging a national identity that goes beyond the local and regional, was one common to almost all colonized peoples of the time.  Throughout the book, Pramoedya has his characters keeping up with events elsewhere in Asia that herald the arising of modern national identities.  The beginning popular revolts against the Qing dynasty in China, Japan’s rise as a modern military power, and the Philippine revolt against Americans occupation, all of these forms of resistance against the west or, in the case of China outsider occupation, are mentioned as winds of change blowing across Asia.  Indeed the Dutch were mindful of these changes, particularly in Japan, which was viewed increasingly as a naval threat to the colony.  

These are the themes that you will need to look at as you read Child.  Moreover, as you will find, the action can often be nicely paced and gripping, and Pramoedya develops his characters well.  But, first you need some background.  First of all, Child is the second book in a quartet of books, and while it can be read independently, it is very helpful to have an idea about the main characters and action in the first book, This Earth of Mankind.  Secondly, some background knowledge about Java of the time might be useful. 

Overview of the Buru Quartet and a summary of book 1 (This Earth of Mankind)

Pramoedya’s Quartet comprises four novels charting the rise of Indonesian nationalism in the face of entrenched, oppressive Dutch colonialism over two decades, from 1899 until just after World War I.  The first three books, This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, and Footsteps, are told in the voice of Raden Mas Minke, a Javanese youth of aristocratic background who over the course of the first three books becomes a nationalist. (Minke, as many Javanese, had only one name.  Raden Mas were titles given to Javanese aristocrats of a certain level in the very stratified Javanese society.)  The last book, House of Glass, is written as a manuscript of the notes and observations of one Pangemanann, a native Indonesian high up in the colony’s internal security office, who monitored and countered the activities of Minke and others whom the Dutch considered threats to their interests in the Indies.  The books are works of fiction but they track closely with the development of nationalism in the Dutch East Indies.  While the main characters are not historical, actual early nationalists play largely off-stage roles and nationalistic organizations that they founded and promoted figure significantly in the books.

The first book, This Earth of Mankind, sets the themes that develop throughout the Quartet and introduces the main characters.  This Earth and the second book, Child of All Nations, are set in Surabaya in East Java and its environs.  The village of Wonokromo, a short train ride to the east, plays a significant role in the book, as does the area of Pasuruan, a large agricultural area some seventy miles south.  In 1900, Surabaya was Java’s main port and commercial hub for the archipelago.  East Java, especially the area between Surabaya and Pasuruan, was at the center of Java’s sugar plantation activity, the main source of revenues for the Netherlands for much of the 19th century and well into the 20th.  

This Earth opens by introducing Minke, one of a very few Javanese youths who attended the Dutch High School (HBS) in Surabaya.  He had become a student in this advanced school, which was normally open to pure Europeans and Mixed Bloods (called Indos, of Native and European descent), due to the prestige of his family.  As a sideline, Minke wrote short stories for a Dutch newspaper. (Minke wrote and spoke Dutch, his native tongue was Javanese.  He also knew Malay but had disdain for it.  See the section on language in Java and Indonesia.)  The year was 1898.  His parents lived in Bojonegoro, fifty miles to the west of Surabaya, where his father was bupati.  (See the section on officials, Dutch and Javanese, in colonial Java.)  He lived close to school and near a good friend, a Frenchman Jean Marais, a former soldier in the Dutch war against the Acehnese.  Robert Suurhof, an Indo classmate, introduced Minke to a wealthy Indo family, headed by Sanikem, a Javanese woman whose father was a clerk at a sugar factory in Sidoarjo, just outside Surabaya.  When she was 14, her father sold her to the Dutch overseer, Herman Mellema.  She became a concubine, a nyai, Nyai Ontorsoroh.  Mellema taught her European refinement and encouraged her to become educated.  She learned Dutch, although speaking it was forbidden to natives.  When Mellema set up his own cattle ranch business at Wonokromo, he had her run it.  Gradually, she accumulated her own money and became wealthy.  Pramoedya develops her character as one of wisdom, emotional sensitivity, and dignity.  Nyai had two children by Herman, Robert and Annelies.  Pramoedya bestows Annelies with the prototypical beauty that even Indonesians today consider Indo women have.  She comes across as pure of thought, with heightened emotions and poor health.  Her brother Robert was of mean disposition and resented Minke.  The father Herman, now an alcoholic, spent his time in a stupor in a nearby Chinese whorehouse.  Herman had a Dutch wife, who returned to the Netherlands, and a son, Maurits, by her.

Minke and Annelies fell in love and got married in accord with local custom and Islamic practice.   In the meantime, Herman apparently died of an overdose of drugs he used in the whorehouse.  With his death, his estate passed to his three children.  But, since Annelies was not yet considered an adult, Maurits became her guardian.  Nyai and Minke challenged this in court, but lost since the state under law would not recognize Nyai’s standing as parent or Minke’s as husband.  Maurits ordered Annelies to be brought to the Netherlands and a police contingent forcible removed her from the house in Wonokromo and put her aboard a ship for Europe. As the ship left, Nyai’s health began to fail.  On board was Panji Darman, Minke’s friend, who would be reporting back to Nyai and Minke on Annelies’ condition.  (His reports are in the opening part of Child.)