“Alfred Raquez” is the pseudonym of Joseph Gervais, a bankrupt French lawyer who fled to the Far East in the late 1890s. He wrote prolifically about China and Indochina, took some of the earliest photographs of Laos and made the earliest field recordings in that land. He died under mysterious circumstances in Marseille in 1907.
Raquez visited Java during his travels and published a brief article about his time there in La Revue Indochinoise (March 31, 1902). An excerpt of that article is presented here.
Sunday May 1, 1898
With us aboard the Chinese mail ship Giang Seng is a young Dutchman, the son of a Java colonist sent to Europe seven years ago to receive an education. He is now 22, speaks French, English, and German but wonders whether he will recognize his father whom he has not seen for such a long time.
We are nearing land. The coastline is low and without interest. No city is visible. Batavia spreads into the interior. We disembark at the Tanjong Priok quay, and a railway takes passengers into the city.
A few warships flying the young queen’s flag are berthed in a fine artificial port. Here are the great docks, the superb quays of Tanjong Priok. Everything is quiet. Today is Sunday in a Protestant country. A crowd of parents in their Sunday’s best await the travelers. Our young comrade’s father, understandably impatient to hug the son from whom he has been separated for so long, jumps into a sampan the sooner to be able to smother the returning lad with great loud kisses.
The Giang Seng is moored. Goodbye, dirty ship, and definitely not au revoir!
Here is the Hôtel des Indes. This is a world of its own! In fact, the hotel occupies five hectares, one of the managers, who speaks our tongue most correctly, informs me.
In the formal courtyard is a veritable park, with a kiosk-cum-bar lit at night by electric lights. An immense prickly pear tree (ficus indica), which the Dutch call waringeu, spreads its branches more than twenty meters in diameter.
Here is an entire series of single-story buildings separated from one another by lawns and gardens.
At the front of the rooms, a wide open veranda protects from the sun’s ardor provides each of us with a table, coffee and tea service, a rocking chair, and an armchair with articulated arms. The rooms are lit with electric light of dazzling white and furnished with a bed that could accommodate an entire family. On the bed is the leather roll filled with horsehair or straw the British call “Dutch wife” and which makes it possible at night to keep one’s legs from making contact with the sheet while allowing what little air that blows through the rooms.
It is terribly hot in Batavia, and draughts are so little feared that the vast dining room I now enter has fifteen or twenty large openings that have never seen a door or a window.
The midday meal or ristaffel (rice table) is not yet over. I walk straight into Dutch colonial life, and find myself, somewhat astonished, face to face with the national dish.
Rice serves as the base, and all around, piled pell-mell by the guests in their plate (or plates), eggs fried or in omelets, fish fried, boiled, or baked, roast chicken, chicken giblets and potatoes swimming in a curry sauce, minced meat with chili kept fresh inside banana leaves, oven-baked golden minced meat cakes au gratin, vegetables of every description cooked in ginger- or chili-based mixed stock, small dried fish, etc.
Not far from me, a fat captain assaults three large, deep plates he filled conscientiously before devouring their content. I admire him, having never suspected such capacity in a human being. O Gargantua! O Pantagruel! What repasts and feasts you might have had here had you allowed your taste buds to go native even a little!
Less excitable and then timid, I hesitate and then proceed cautiously. Opposite me, a few young men observe me from the corner of their eye, and the gentle smile I see on their lips encourages me to address them in French. This makes them very happy, they tell me, as my appearance first suggested an Englishman. They lower their guard. If I am French, Vive la France!
Our lucky star is out in the heavens. Today in Batavia is the occasion of the Flower Festival, with a corso carnevale and veglione, just as on the Riviera.
I conclude my ristaffel with the mandatory second course, an excellent steak and potatoes, and before departing the feeding department, I inquire about hotel life in this country.
Each morning, the boy deposits the traditional café au lait on the table outside the room, or rather the lait au café as only the milk is hot. The exquisite coffee is made by slowly distilling cold water through coffee beans that are crushed but not ground. The result is a kind of deliciously fragrant essence that has nothing in common with our chicory mazagrans.
With their large jars filled with water and their basin, the bathing cubicles do not permit full baths but only ablutions with a great deal of water, repeated morning and evening.
At eight o’clock, a cooked breakfast is served, attended by Dutch women in bloom, their feet bare inside light babouches with often gilded heels, a sarong wrapped around their body, a gray belt in lieu of corset, and the kebaya, a kind of camisole made of thick muslin. All highly intoxicating!
Noon sees the return of the ristaffel and its devotees. At four, tea is served on each room’s veranda. Dinner is at seven. Wines are very good and not expensive.
Accompanied by my friendly dining neighbor and a young Italian, we take a carriage to the Botanic Garden, where the Flower Festival is taking place. But a detour takes us on a visit to the native district, or rather one of the native districts.
The carriage takes us to Waterlooplein, where the deserted palace of the Governor General displays its tall whitewashed columns. This high-ranking civil servant, in practice the Viceroy of the Dutch East Indies, has both terrestrial and seaborne forces at his disposal and can declare war or peace, conclude treaties, legislate, and appoint functionaries under his personal responsibility with only the Queen and Parliament to answer to.
Around the Governor is a Consultative Council consisting of five members, then the directors and commanders of the various services that form the Council of Directors.
But for now, his Batavia palace is deserted. Most of the time, the Governor General resides among the cool, shady foliage of Buitenzorg, two hours from the capital by railway.
Further on is the immense Koningsplein, a veritable esplanade surrounded by Batavia’s wealthy private residences. I believe it is necessary to demonstrate a certain income level before being allowed to reside in this square, around which it is not possible to walk in less than one hour even at a brisk pace.
Finally, we come to the park, where a crowd of curious onlookers and joyful groups in clean, fresh costumes wander about. Flowers, streamers, and confetti fly on every side. Night is falling. Electric globes come on as the procession is being organized. Fantastic floats, elegant carriages decorated with bouquets, bicycles adorned with flowers: this might as well be Lundi Gras on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice. Nothing is missing, and there is no shortage of high spirits.
Women of mixed blood mingle among blonde, corpulent Dutch women, with their olive skin and fiery eyes and all the charm and nonchalant demeanor of creoles.
Our arms are getting tired. Life is not dull in Batavia. But the festivities are not over. Suppers are served at private tables in an immense hall where the orchestra’s oompahs announcing the start of the ball reach our ears.
This meeting hall is perfect, or rather this hangar sixty meters long by twenty wide, its roof supported by elegant slim columns and paved entirely in white marble. All around are wide verandas that allow the public to admire the young people’s exertions while enjoying delicious iced concoctions the master confectioner of the house creates to great levels of artistry.
The dancing is no less energetic than the flower fight, but it cannot be joined lightly in the French manner. Batavia society is very closed, and beneath those cheerful exteriors hides a certain prudery, even certain American calculations, so to speak.
The young men are less numerous than the young women. These flowers of the tropics burn with the desire to enter into rightful matrimony and team up with their mothers in spreading husband-catching nets. Sometimes, a nice young man discovers without seeing it coming in the slightest that he has compromised a blonde child, whom he is now obligated to marry.
Please believe me then I say that I know of what I speak only from hearsay and without direct experience as I had tremendous fun, I am as tired as six, and I am not threatened with having to marry any of these pretty girls.
Alfred Raquez’s travel book, In the Land of Pagodas, about his journey through China in 1898/99 has been published in a scholarly translation by Paul Bruthiaux and William L. Gibson and is available from NIAS Press. See www.williamlgibson.com to learn more.
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