Dutch colonial rulers imitating Javanese princes

The princes of Java had traditionally been entitled to hormat: respectful, literally creeping behaviour of their subjects. A gilded parasol (payong) was held up above them, they were being addressed in a language especially meant for communication from low to high, and the subjects did not stand or sit in the presence of their ruler, but squatted or knelt down and moved low over the ground. Anyone who has ever practiced an Asian martial art knows that walking on one’s knees is not easy. It must be learned, at best at a young age. One also has to be able to crawl backwards; after all, it would be improper to turn around and show the Highly-placed Person one’s back. The house staff also crawled when serving food and drinks.

In the Dutch colonial novel The hidden force (De stille kracht), written by Louis Couperus in 1901,1 this hormat is described. In the house of a Javanese prince many servants are needed to serve a drink:

  • The Princess […] said nothing but beckoned a servant. And again the four servants appeared half squatting, half creeping, and prepared another whisky and soda.

The owner of the rich plantation Pacaram had married a princess from the prestigious principality of Solo, i.e. Surakarta. Consequently, ‘Solonese manners’ had crept in and court-like traditions prevail:

  • […] and she felt an affinity with all those minor traditions: the sambal pounded and ground by a crouching maid behind her chair at lunch was the acme of gastronomic pleasure; the races at Ngajiwa, attended by the languid procession of all those women flapping their arms by their sides, followed by maids, carrying their handkerchief, perfume bottle, binoculars, was for her the height of elegance.

Personally, I would enjoy my food less if staff were squatting on the ground behind my chair.
In The Hidden Force it becomes clear that the Javanese princes and regents had taken over certain manners and outward appearances from the Dutch. The reverse, however, was also true. District commissioner Van Oudijck had his garden done by twelve convicts—which perhaps not coincidentally reminds us of another, even more famous Dutch colonial novel, Multatuli’s Max Havelaar,2 in which the regent had his lawn trimmed by a host of unpaid subjects.

The gilded parasol was also one of the hallmarks of a district commissioner’s dignity:


  • The head attendant sat on the box next to the coachman and held against his hip the large gold parasol, a symbol of authority.

And crawling for the white man was mandatory as well:

  • The head attendant, his knees still bent in dutiful respect, scuttled across the room and in a crouching position offered the semi-formal uniform cap and a walking stick.

You may try that yourself!

  • The Commissioner met no one; the occasional Javanese, moving through the darkness, appeared momentarily from the shadows, causing the attendant to swing the glowing tip of his wick ostentatiously behind his master. Usually the Javanese understood and cowered to one side of the road. Sometimes, out of ignorance, fresh from his village, he failed to understand and walked anxiously by, looking apprehensively at the attendant, who kept on swinging and as he passed snapped a curse at him, because he — yokel as he was — had no manners. If a carriage or a trap approached, he again swung his shooting star through the evening, signalling to the coachman, who either stopped and alighted, or crouched in his vehicle, and while crouching steered towards the very edge of the road.

It must have been a comical sight: a plump man, sweaty in a heavy uniform among unworthy earthworms. R. A. Kartini, herself daughter of a regent, wrote about this:

  • Oh deity, would you only know how the crowd, who is now reverently staying aside from the brilliant sunshade, will soon laugh at you behind your back.3

The hormat-circular of April 16th, 1904 put an end to it. To the hormat-fuss towards Dutch government officials that is; not to the laughter, of course.

1. Louis Couperus, The hidden force, transl. Paul Vincent, New York 2012. Dutch original: De stille kracht (Volledige Werken Louis Couperus 17), Utrecht/Antwerpen 1989.
2. Multatuli (the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker), Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, transl. Roy Edwards, Amherst 1982. Dutch original: Max Havelaar of de koffiveilingen der Nederlandsche Handelmaatschappy, Historisch-kritische uitgave, verzorgd door A. Kets-Vree, 2 vols., Assen/Maastricht 1992 (First edition Amsterdam 1860).
3. “O, godheid, wist gij maar, hoe de menigte, die nu eerbiedig voor de schitterende zonnescherm terzijde blijft, u straks achter uw rug uitlacht.” Quoted in Insulinde. Schetsen van Land en volk van Nederlandsch O.-Indië etc., Groningen 1924, p. 21.

Further reading:
The OrientOrientalism and Oriental Studies: the concepts.
The sword of Islam.
Orientalising the Dutch East Indies, or: Pimp your princes.
Dreaming of the OrientOrientalist painting.