Catrien Ross

Artist & Mystic in Japan



Reclaiming Indo Family Memories As A New Awareness of Who and Why We Are in Still I Dream of Java

Written by: on June 7th, 20182 COMMENTS

There had been hints, of course.

A detail let slip here and there along the way as my parents talked.

But never enough to piece together the entire story.

Never enough to understand.

Besides, there was the everyday reality of a new life in Scotland – hard enough for my very young mother at the time.

How could she be expected to spend even a moment in her past in Java when the present in Glasgow required every ounce of strength she had just to live?

Then there was Dad, clever, sensitive and melancholy, longing ever for a Java to which he could never return: Who needed so much taking care of he was often unable to take care of his own wife and and five children.

No wonder Mum was impatient of the nostalgia for a lost Indonesia.

Who has time for such remembering when survival in the now demands you must muster the last stirrings of courage you have left in you?

Not until many years later, when Tante (Auntie) Oty began talking to me about her childhood in Java, did the unspoken family memories at last begin to emerge.

By then I was an adult woman, and listening to her stories, I realized I had spent my entire life building my family history on what I now found was only a tiny part of the whole explanation.

For example, all my life I had described myself as Scottish-Indonesian, the eldest daughter of a Scots father and Indonesian mother.

Now I learned this was not the case at all.

Rather, I and my four younger sisters and brothers are the children of a Scots father and a mother who is a Dutch-Indo – a mixed-race Dutch national of the Dutch East Indies.

There, in that girdle of emerald islands strung out along the equator, more than three hundred years of intimate relations between European traders and native women had produced successive generations of Eurasian offspring known as the Indisch, the Mixed-Bloods, the Indo-Europeans, the Indo.

I discovered that the story of the Indos, which means the story of my mother and Tante Oty, begins with Portuguese traders arriving at the fabled Spice Islands, the Moluccas, in 1512.

Could it be that a Lisbon merchant, bedazzled by the beauty of an Ambonese princess, jumped ship to embrace her, and so the first Indo child was born?

However it started, over the next two centuries their mixed ancestry and bilingual capabilities gave Indos an important role as local intermediaries and translators in the flourishing ocean spice trade.

Indos often acted as the buffer between European traders and the native spice growers and as such they could function as the regional glue, as it were, that smoothed connections and held disparate elements together.

My mother’s background is rich, complex, fascinating, and thanks to Tante Oty’s talks, an unfolding treasure.

Yet growing up in Scotland, I had never once heard the term Indo.

“Yes, we are Indos,” Tante Oty tells me. “In Java we called ourselves Dutch.”

How could I have spent so many years without knowing anything about any of this?

And what stories Tante Oty shares now. Of unbreakable family bonds. Of defiant survival. Of an Indo mother’s resilience. Of endings and goodbyes.

I gather reams of background data about the European spice trade. About Dutch colonial arrogance. About the dynamic and multilayered Indo society of the Dutch East Indies. About the brutal Japanese occupation of Java. About the violent struggle for Indonesian independence. About the mass exodus of Indos and the end of a way of life.

Inspired by Tante Oty’s memories I embark on a personal journey that becomes my book, Still I Dream of Java.

Because the stories are so astonishing, I decide to write my book as a work of literary non-fiction.

I feel it is the least I can do to celebrate Tante Oty’s intrepid girlhood and to honor the creative fortitude of my grandmother and great-grandmother.

It is what I can do to understand a little more about the archipelago that was my birthplace and the events that shaped my mother’s worldview.

To bring my Indo and Scots heritage into an integrated perspective.

Through Still I Dream of Java these reclaimed family memories are become a new awareness of how to move forward into a future that can, with courage and compassion, draw strength from its past.


2 Responses to “Reclaiming Indo Family Memories As A New Awareness of Who and Why We Are in Still I Dream of Java”

  1. Scott Bills says:

    A very interesting time and place. I remember the film Max Havelaar. Really looking forward to your book. It sounds both a wonderful book and a great adventure.

  2. Catrien Ross says:

    Thanks you again for commenting, Scott. Yes, my book covers a very interesting time and place in the Dutch East Indies – what happened in Java, and how my mother’s family responded to events shaping their lives. It was the end of an entire way of life for the Indos. Catrien Ross

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