For references see: H.A.O. de Tollenaere, The Politics of Divine Wisdom.
Theosophy and labour, national, and women's movements in Indonesia and South Asia,
Nijmegen, Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, 1996.
ISBN 90 373 0330 7. © 1996 H.A.O. de Tollenaere, Leiden
Published by Uitgeverij Katholieke Universiteit Nijmegen, Nijmegen, 1996
Address: Postbus 9102, 6500 HC Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Phone +243612073 or +243611794; Central European Time: Mrs. M. Hautvast or Mr. J. Van Loon
Eric Hobsbawm, writing on the 'age of empire', mentions Annie Besant and the 'apparently non-political ideology of theosophy'. What, then, was appearance, what reality?
The Theosophical Society (TS) was founded in 1875, with occult religious aims. It had members from scores of countries. Much literature sees it as either politically irrelevant or politically Leftist. As I found out working at my Ph. D, often neither was true. Hierarchy was an important element in its philosophy; most of its members were privileged in some way. One can test this in relationships to labour and national movements in Indonesia in 1913-1918.
Among Dutch in the East Indies colony, the TS had the highest proportion of members anywhere in the world. It also had quite some support among the Javanese nobility (priyayi). Theosophical supporters put the names of their leaders literally on the map of cities in Java: in Batavia (Jakarta), there was Blavatsky Park; in Bandung, Olcott Park; in Semarang, Annie Besant Square.
Dirk van Hinloopen Labberton, the leader of the TS in Indonesia in the period with which we are concerned, joined in 1899. At first, he was a manager of a sugar factory. Later, he became an official. From 1918-1921, he sat in the first Volksraad, the mock parliament of the Dutch East Indies. Five of its 39 members were Theosophists.
Another Volksraad member was Theo Vreede. He sat on Boards of Directors of various transport businesses. Like his brother Adriaan, he was also a prominent Theosophist. In 1922, Theo Vreede held a speech at Leiden university: 'The lecturer [Vreede] feels sympathy for the trade unions; they should be led towards the right track by the government.' The manager of the East Java Steam-Tram Company may have been thinking here of his brother Adriaan. A. Vreede had been Secretary of the Indies government in the 1910's; by then, he was director of the newly founded government labour office.
In 1914, the first socialist political organization active in public, the Indische Sociaal Democratische Vereeniging, started. As with the VSTP, at the time it was founded, most members were Dutch; but at least in the Leftist majority tendency, Indonesians eventually predominated.
Many socialists and trade unionists were also active in Sarekat Islam, the biggest organization then. Its members came from diverse groups, like traders, low and middle level civil servants, peasants, and workers. It was a multi-issue movement, concerned not only with Islamic religion, but also with protests against social hierarchy and colonial authority.
With the Indische Partij, Theosophists' relationships were not as good as some literature says. This showed when the government banned from Indonesia its three leaders Tjipto Mangoenkoesoemo, E.F.E. Douwes Dekker, and Soewardi Soerianingrat.
Van Hinloopen Labberton, optimistic about winning people to his views, on 6 September 1913 wrote an open letter in the Theosofisch Maandblad voor Nederlandsch-IndiŽ; to Tjipto and Soewardi. He admitted they were courageous as persons; but still, you erred. He urged them:
You love freedom: but did you really think of what true freedom is? ... You really should know that True Freedom may only manifest itself as the tie of law exists and people act according to its limits. ... If you take away from a child that learns how to stand up and to walk, the tie by which the Father kept it up: surely it will stumble and not be free. ... Would you take away a young bird, still unable to fly, from its nest, which, yes, keeps it imprisoned high up in the branches, but which also by its limits saves and frees that youngster from an ignominious fall? Desist from actions like that. ... All that commits violence, all that murders, that soils itself with blood, in that red colour wears the mark of the Antichrist. For the country, only Government authority has the right to wield the club of punishment. It should do this with a merciful heart, though. ... JAVA AND THE NETHERLANDS SHOULD BE ONE. ... not in brute force, but only in Wisdom and Love one may find true progress. May such a force of wisdom and love be granted to you, so that you too may be an instrument to make Java great, jointly with The Netherlands. ... Your Friend and Brother, D. VAN HINLOOPEN LABBERTON.
Apart from all-Indies nationalism, as people then still said, there were regional nationalisms, based on aristocrats. One of the tendencies within the Javanese League Budi Utomo was the Committee for Javanese Nationalism, led by Soetatmo Soeriokoesoemo, from a princely family. There was a similar tendency, led by Datoek [Sumatran title of nobility] Soetan Maharadja in West Sumatra. Both Soeriokoesoemo and Maharadja were Theosophists. This differed from India. There, the international president of the Theosophical Society, Annie Besant, emphasized supra-regional unity. The regionalism of Tamil Nadu, where she lived, had links to her non-Brahman opponents.
Whether or not the colonial government would introduce conscription for Indonesians became a big issue since 1916. Then, senior civil servants, officers, and businessmen founded a committee, called Indië Weerbaar (Arm the Indies). Many of them were TS members. Without the contacts of the TS among the Javanese élite, the pro-conscription campaign would probably have remained largely an all-European affair. The Theosophical Society supported introducing conscription, arguing from its occult theories. The editor of their monthly, Van Leeuwen, wrote on the social function of conscription:
How difficult it still is for many people to understand that a nation cannot grow, cannot become an economic state, without the painful coercion of duty and necessity. Fighting and militarism are still nearly always seen as the devils in our lives, which we should shirk away from and avoid as much as possible, as it is overlooked how inside every 'devil' a 'deva' [god or angel in Theosophy] hides, who is able to bring us up towards the Light. Pain is the great Initiator. Coercion and fate are the educators of a still infant race [Indonesians] towards a conscious idea of nationality and a high feeling of duty.
However, the trade union of Indonesian government pawnshop employees, the Perserikatan Pegawai Pegadaian Boemipoetera, rejected Indië Weerbaar:
as it thinks this is militarist propaganda. Besides, this union thinks that militarism strengthens capitalism. Against that, the indigenous people, many of whom are proletarians, should fight.
The biggest union, the VSTP, held the same views. Its chairman, H. Dekker, and his wife, were members of both the TS and the Indische Sociaal Democratische Vereeniging; until Indië Weerbaar started. That double membership was unusual, and did not survive Indië Weerbaar (I do not know whether, and how, the marriage did). H. Dekker resigned from the TS, and attacked Theosophy sharply in the socialist paper Het Vrije Woord. Mrs A.P. Dekker-Groot resigned as Het Vrije Woord's administrator, and from the ISDV.
There was a potential for conflicts between the TS and the ISDV, the Marxists in Indonesia. That potential included: Theosophists were often managers, socialists union activists in the same businesses; they had different philosophies on hierarchy and harmony, showing for instance in issues like housing and voting rights. Still, at first, there had been no big conflicts. However, in ISDV magazines since 1916, Van Hinloopen Labberton, 'the high priest of Theosophy' and of conscription, became the most criticized individual. Semaoen and Darsono, later leaders of the communist party PKI, wrote their first-ever articles against the Theosophists Labberton, and Soetatmo Soeriokoesoemo, respectively.
The ISDV often organized its anti-conscription activities jointly with Sarekat Islam local branches and with Insulinde, the successor organization to the Indische Partij. Warna-Warta, an Insulinde-minded daily, attacked the Theosophical Society. It called Labberton 'Beton' [Malay: concrete], a 'poison to society', and 'the false prophet of theosophy-tai sapi'. Tai sapi is Malay for ox dung.
The journalist Marco went to jail for articles and cartoons against IW. He was a member of the left wing of Sarekat Islam. The right wing of Sarekat Islam's national executive was heavily Theosophically-influenced and pro-conscription in 1916-1918.
The conflict led to deep polarization in SI, in Indonesian society, and against colonial authority. By the end of the first world war, many thousands everywhere in the archipelago demonstrated against conscription. In Ujung Pandang on Sulawesi, three thousand people met against Indië Weerbaar on 25 August 1918. The sailor Arga from West Java told them that the militia plans 'should be kicked to the edge of the universe, as soon as possible.' Nine thousand turned up at a meeting in Kudus, then a small Java town, of the local branch of the PKBT, the Workers and Peasants' League organized by ISDV militants, on 13 October 1918. Darsono and Marco spoke against IW; a motion against it was voted for. ISDV leader Sneevliet was unable to speak, as a car taking him there broke down. Weeks later, the government banned him from the Indies, with the approval of the editorial of the Theosofisch Maandblad voor Nederlandsch Indië.
The government, and Theosophical papers, feared revolution. Conscription was not introduced; it ceased to be a hot issue. But the divisions which had arisen when it was, remained.
We may conclude that the effect of the founding of Indië Weerbaar was contrary to its governmental and Theosophical sponsors' view of harmony along hierarchical lines of social and imperial pyramids.
Dr. H.A.O. de Tollenaere
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