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Maria Hertogh riots

The Maria Hertogh riots or Natrah riots, which started on 11 December, 1950 in Singapore, consisted of outraged Muslims who resented the court decision to give the custody of Maria Hertogh (or Bertha Hertogh), then 13, to her biological Dutch Catholic parents after she had been raised as a Muslim under the care of Aminah binte Mohamed, whom she regarded as her mother. The riots lasted till noon on 13 December, with 18 killed, 173 injured and many properties damaged – the worst incident of its kind ever witnessed in Singapore.

Prior to the riots, the disputed custody of Maria had received widespread press coverage. Many Muslims living in Malaya and Indonesia believed in the legitimacy of the adoption of Maria and a later short-lived marriage to Mansoor Adabi, two major points of contest in the court proceeding to determine the custody of Maria. They thus lent their support, financial and moral, to organizations that fought to keep Maria in Malaya. But some, such as the Malayan nationalists, seized the incident as an opportunity to further weaken the colonial government's position in the region. The insensitivity of the colonial government towards Muslim sentiments and the involvement of radical elements eventually culminated in the tragedy.

Maria Hertogh

Beginning

Maria Hertogh was born on March 24, 1937 to a Dutch Catholic family living in Tjimahi, near Bandung, Java, then a part of the Dutch East Indies. Her father, Adrianus Petrus Hertogh, came to Java in the 1920s as a sergeant in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. He married Adeline Hunter, a Eurasian of Scottish-Malay descent brought up in Java, in the early 1930s. Little Maria was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Ignatius at Tjimahi on April 10 by a Catholic priest.

When World War II broke out, Sergeant Hertogh was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army and sent to a POW holding facility in Japan, where he was kept till 1945. Meanwhile, Adeline Hertogh stayed with her mother, Nor Louise, and her five children, among whom Maria was the third and youngest daughter. On December 29, 1942, Mrs. Hertogh gave birth to her sixth child, a boy. Three days later, Maria went to stay with Aminah binte Mohammad, a 42-year-old Javanese woman and a close friend of Nor Louise. This controversial transfer of custody, reversed in a Singaporean court eight years later, was the centre and opening episode of the tragic riots that were to come.

Adoption or a short stay?

Adeline Hertogh's version

According to Adeline Hertogh, in the version given in evidence before the court at the hearing in November 1950, she was persuaded by her mother after the birth of her sixth child to allow Maria to go and stay with Aminah in Bandung for three or four days. Consequently, Aminah arrived on 1 January, 1943 to fetch Maria. When the child was not returned, Mrs. Hertogh borrowed a bicycle on 6 January and set out to retrieve her daughter. She claimed that she was arrested by a Japanese sentry on the outskirts of Bandung as she did not possess a pass and was thereupon interned.

From her internment camp, she smuggled a letter to her mother, requesting for her children to be sent to her. This Nor Louise did, but Maria was not among them. So Mrs. Hertogh asked her mother to fetch Maria from Aminah. Her mother later wrote and told her that Aminah wanted to keep Maria for two more days, after which she herself would bring the child to the camp. This did not materialize and Mrs. Hertogh did not see Maria throughout her internment. After her release, she could find neither Maria nor Aminah.

Aminah binte Mohamed's version

The above version was rejected by Aminah binte Mohamed in her affidavits and sworn testimony to the High Court on several occasions. She claimed that Adeline Hertogh had given Maria to her for adoption in late 1942. She asserted that she, without offspring of her own, told Mrs. Hertogh then that she would regard Maria absolutely as her child, whom she would bring up in the Muslim faith. To this, according to Aminah, Mrs. Hertogh replied that she would be glad as she herself had been brought up as a Muslim.

Aminah also contested the truth of Adeline Hertogh's internment by the Japanese. She testified that she and Mrs. Hertogh continued to visit each other frequently after the adoption until the latter left for Surabaya to look for a job "about the end of 1943 or the beginning of 1944." Thereafter the two never saw each other again till 1950.

A new home and a new religion

Anyhow, Maria Hertogh received her circumcision in late 1943, whereupon she was given the name Nadra binte Ma'arof. For unknown reasons her new family moved to Jakarta for a period before moving back to Bandung again, where Aminah worked for the Japanese military police as an interpreter until the end of the war.

Then, in 1947, fearing harm upon the family during the Indonesian National Revolution as Maria was a "Putih", or a "White Child", Aminah moved via Singapore to her hometown in Kemaman, in the state of Terengganu, then Malaya. By then Maria was completely the same as any other Malay Muslim girl of her age: she spoke only Malay, wore Malay clothes and practised her religion devoutly.

To court

In 1945, with the end of World War II, Sergeant Hertogh was released and returned to Java, where he reunited with his wife. The couple said that they enquired about Maria but could find neither their daughter nor Aminah. They then returned to the Netherlands after requesting the Dutch authorities in Java and Singapore to try to trace the child. Investigations were then made by the Red Cross Society, the Indonesian Repatriation Service, the Royal Netherlands Army and local police. Finally, in September 1949, Aminah and Maria were traced to the kampong they were living in.

Negotiations were opened to retrieve Maria in early 1950. The Dutch Consulate offered S$500 to make up for Aminah's expenses in bringing up the girl for eight years. Aminah rejected the offer and refused to give up her foster-daughter. Nonetheless, she was persuaded to travel with Maria to Singapore in April to discuss the issue with the Dutch Consul-General. However, Aminah's firm position could not be wavered and the Consulate eventually applied to the High Court on 22 April for Maria to be delivered into the custody of the Social Welfare Department pending further order. The Chief Justice heard it on the same day and approved the application ex parte.

The next day, an officer from the department served the order on Aminah and brought Maria away. After a routine medical examination at the Middle Road Hospital, she was admitted to the Girls Homecraft Centre at York Hill. From this point onwards, Maria had made it clear that she wanted to stay with Aminah and did not wish to be returned to her natural parents. However, the High Court ruled on 17 May after a short hearing of about 15 minutes that the custody of Maria be entitled to the Hertoghs.

As Aminah and Maria exited the court via the backdoor, a car from the Consulate was waiting to take Maria away. Maria refused to enter the car and clung on to Aminah, both shouting in Malay that they would kill themselves rather than be separated. A large crowd quickly formed around the commotion. It was only after much persuasion that Aminah agreed to enter the car together with Maria and pay a visit to her lawyer, who explained that Maria had to be given up until an appeal was made. The duo then parted in tears, with Maria returned to York Hill for temporary safekeeping.

At York Hill Maria stayed for two more months, under a further order from the Chief Justice pending appeal, which was filed on 28 July. The verdict was an overruling of the earlier decision. Aside from the ex parte order to hand Maria to the Social Welfare Department, the Appellate Court found ambiguity in the Dutch Consul-General's representation of Maria's natural father, a rather minor and technical detail but apparently significant enough under the circumstance. Both Aminah and Maria were overjoyed.

Controversial marriage

On 1 August, 1950, merely four days after winning the appeal, the events took a dramatic and unexpected turn. Maria was married to 22-year-old Mansoor Adabi, a Malayan-born who was then a teacher-in-training at the Bukit Panjang Government School, in a Muslim ritual. The marriage could have been a manoeuvre by Aminah to prevent further attempts by the Hertoghs to get back their daughter, as Maria returned to live with Aminah after the wedding night and the new couple never consummated their marriage. Whether such speculation was true was unimportant in the subsequent development of events, in which Maria, a willing bride nonetheless, became the central figure.

The first challenges on the appropriateness of the marriage actually came from the Muslim community. On 10 August, a Muslim leader wrote to The Straits Times pointing out that although the Islamic law permits the marriage of girls after puberty (which Maria had reached a year earlier), there were Muslim countries such as Egypt that legislated for a minimum marriage age of 16. He added, however, that it would not be in the interest of "the friendly understanding... between Christians and Muslims" to object to the marriage since it had already taken place. The latter view was held by the Muslim population at large, albeit in a more antagonistic mood against the Dutch and Europeans at large.

To court, again

Meanwhile, the Hertoghs had not given up legal pursuit to retrieve their daughter. Only a day after the marriage, Aminah received the Hertoghs' representative lawyers from Kuala Lumpur. The lawyers delivered a letter demanding the return of Maria by 10 August, failing which legal action would be taken. Believing that the marriage settled the matter, Aminah and Mansoor both ignored the deadline. The Hertoghs did not. On 26 August, an originating summons was taken out, under the Guardianship of Infants Ordinance, by the Hertoghs as plaintiffs against Aminah, Maria and Mansoor, who were all made defendants.

The hearing did not begin till 20 November. For four months the matter hung in suspense. During this time, Maria rarely left her residence in the house of M.A. Majid, then president of the Muslim Welfare Association, because in her own words, she attracted "too much attention". Nevertheless, media coverage on the incident had grown to a global scale. Letters from Muslim organizations in Pakistan promising financial and other help arrived, some going so far as to declare any further move by the Dutch Government to separate the couple as "an open challenge to the Muslim world". Pledges of aid also came from Indonesia and as far as Saudi Arabia.

The hearing finally opened, and Maria's natural mother, Adeline Hertogh travelled down to Singapore to attend. The judge, Justice Brown, delivered the verdict two weeks later. The marriage, instead of resolving the dispute, had instead complicated it. Justice Brown had two issues on his hand, namely the legality of the marriage and the custody of Maria. He held that the marriage was invalid because:

  1. Maria's country of domicile was, by law that of her natural father, i.e. the Netherlands. Under the Dutch laws, the minimum age of marriage for girls was 16. The English law applicable in Singapore recognized the marriage laws of the subject's country of domicile.
  2. An exception to the above point could not be established because neither Mansoor, born in Kelantan, could be proved to be domiciled in Singapore nor Maria be considered a Muslim by law. During her minority, Maria's natural father, who was a Christian, had the legal right to control her religion. He had testified that he would never consent to her conversion to Islam.

Having overruled the purported marriage, Justice Brown went on to deal with what he described as the "most difficult" question of custody. He noted that his duty to the law required him "to have regard primarily to the welfare of the infant". He believed this meant that he not only had to consider the current wishes of Maria, but also her future well-being. He stated:

''It is natural that she should now wish to remain in Malaya among people whom she knows. But who can say that she will have the same views some years hence after her outlooks has been enlarged, and her contacts extended, in the life of the family to which she belongs?"

He also noted that whatever the details of the contested initiation of the custody at the end of 1942 might be, Adrianus Hertogh had not been part of it and had not abrogated his parental rights. He therefore awarded the custody of Maria to the Hertoghs and ordered that she should be handed over to her mother with immediate effect.

Stay at the convent

When policewomen came to take Maria away, she wept and clung to Aminah and Mansoor. Aminah fainted on the spot and a doctor standing by had to attend to her. Mansoor advised Maria to concede for the time being and promised that he and others would carry on the legal fight. Thus Maria allowed herself to be brought away into a car. Outside, the police, including a Gurkha contingent, held back a crowd of several hundred.

The car delivered Maria to the Roman Catholic Convent of the Good Shepherd in Thomson Road. Mrs. Hertogh stayed at another address for a few days, from where she visited Maria daily, before moving in to the convent herself. According to an official of the Netherlands Consulate-General, such arrange was because of "greater convenience" while the stay of execution pending appeal was in effect. But it proved to be the falsest step, the spark that lit the fuse of the subsequent riots.

First and foremost, the press was not barred from entering the convent grounds. Nor were they restricted in any way in their approach to the incident, which had been nothing shy of sensational. On 5 December, the Singapore Standard published on its front page a photograph of Maria standing holding hands with the Reverend Mother. There were several more pictures on page 2, under the headline: Bertha knelt before Virgin Mary Statue. The Malay press retorted. The Utusan Melayu published on 7 December three photographs of Maria weeping and being comforted by a nun, as well as articles about Maria's "lonely and miserable" life in the convent.

These pictures, whether presenting Maria as happy or sad, mostly showed Maria surrounded by symbols of Christian faith. The Muslims, who looked upon Maria as one of their own, were deeply offended by such pictures, not to mention the sensational reports, some of which explicitly labelled the case as a religious issue between Islam and Christianity.

On 9 December, an organization calling itself the Nadra Action Committee was formally constituted under the leadership of Karim Ghani, a Muslim political activist from Rangoon. This extreme organization solicited support among local Muslims by distributing free copies of its newspaper, the Dawn (not the Dawn, an English paper published in Pakistan). Karim Ghani had also made an open speech at the Sultan Mosque on 8 December in which he mentioned jihad as a final resort.

In the light of these potent signs of a great disturbance, the Criminal Investigation Department sent a memo to the Colonial Secretary suggesting moving Maria back to York Hill to avoid further inciting Muslim anger. The Secretary did not agree on grounds that he had received no such representations from Muslim leaders, nor did he have the authority to remove Maria without further court orders - weak excuses since Maria could be relocated with her mother's consent. Nonetheless, it could never be said if moving Maria out of the convent at such a late stage could have averted the riots.

The riots

The appeal hearing opened on 11 December. Maria stayed at the convent and did not attend. Since early morning, crowds carrying banners and flags with star and crescent symbols began to gather around the Supreme Court. By noon, when the hearing eventually began, the restive crowd had grown to 2,000 to 3,000 in number. Unbelievably, the court threw out the appeal within five minutes. The brevity of the hearing convinced the gathering that the colonial legal system was biased against Muslims. The riots erupted.

The mob (largely consisted of Malay or Indonesian Muslims but local Chinese gangs were also reported to have joined in) moved out to attack any Europeans and even Eurasians in sight. They overturned cars and burnt them. The police force, its lower ranks largely consisted of Malays who sympathized with the rioters' cause, were ineffective in quelling the riots. By nightfall the riots had spread to even the more remote parts of the island. Help from the British military was enlisted only at around 6:45 PM. Major-General Dunlop promptly deployed two Internal Security Battalions while calling in further reinforcements from Malaya. Meanwhile, various Muslim leaders appealed over the radio for the riots to cease.

Reinforcements arrived early on 12 December, but riotous incidents continued on that day. The troops and police only managed to regain control of the situation by noon on 13 December. In total, 18 people were killed, among whom were seven Europeans or Eurasians, two police officers, and nine rioters shot by the police or military, 173 were injured, many of them seriously, 119 vehicles were damaged, and at least two buildings were set on fire. Subsequently, two weeks of 24-hour curfew were imposed, and it was a long time before complete law and order was re-established.

The trials

After the riot, the police set up a special investigation unit which detained 778 people, among them Karim Ghani. Out of these, 403 were released unconditionally and 106 were released on various conditions (they generally had to report to the police station monthly and adhere to a curfew after dark). The police eventually brought rioting charges against 200 people, of whom 25 were acquitted, 100 were convicted, 62 were referred to the Enquiry Advisory Committee, and seven were brought to trial at the Assize Court for wanton killing and five of them were subsequently sentenced to death on the gallows.

On 25 August, 1951, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who would later become the first Prime Minister of Malaysia, took over as the president of UMNO, a Malay and therefore Muslim party, that remains the largest and ruling political party in Malaysia today. He immediately set out to save the seven on death row. Having garnered support from the Muslim population, Abdul Rahman placed pressure on the authorities, who finally gave in. The British government was expecting their role as the colonial master to end very soon and did not wish to leave behind grim memories. The death sentences for all five were commuted to life imprisonment.

Reviews

A Commission of Inquiry was appointed by Governor Franklin Gimson. It was headed by Sir Lionel Leach, a member of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The Commission placed large blame on the police command for not having anticipated the violence from many indicators between 2 and 11 December. Furthermore, when the riots first started, the police failed to act promptly to disperse the crowd. The Gurkha contingent standing by was not put into action, while too much dependence was placed on Malay policemen, many of whom defected or at least hesitated to carry out their duties. The British House of Commons criticised the colonial government for its poor handling of the situation.

Present day Government of Singapore also attributed the tragedy to the insensitivity of the colonial government towards the racial and religious feelings of the locals. It cites the incident as a vital lesson learnt in the importance of racial and religious understanding and harmony. It also cites the incident as a case for placing a certain degree of governmental control on the media, especially when racial or religious issues are implicated.

Epilogue

On the night the riots broke out, Maria Hertogh was moved out of the convent, where the rioters tried twice to march on and were only kept back by the police. Plans were made at York Hill to receive her but she was instead sent to Saint John's Island, an offshore island 4 miles south of the main island of Singapore. The next day, Maria and Adeline Hertogh departed for the Netherlands by aeroplane. After landing in Schiphol Airport, they quickly proceeded to the Hertogh home on the outskirts of Bergen op Zoom.

At first, Maria could only talk to her mother, the only one in the family who understood Malay. She demanded rice with every meal, resenting the western diet. She continued to say her Muslim prayers five times a day. In addition, a policeman in plain clothes was assigned to escort her whenever she left the house, for fear of possible kidnappers who might take her back to Singapore, following reported sighting of "oriental strangers" around town. The house was also placed under surveillance.

Slowly, Maria began to adjust to her new environment. A nun came to the house daily to teach her Dutch until she was proficient enough to attend a local convent school. She also began to attend Mass with her family. Back in Singapore, Aminah and Mansoor had apparently given up hope of retrieving Maria after leave to appeal to the Privy Council was not granted. Earlier interest of the several Muslim groups involved had also gradually died down.

On 20 April, 1956, Maria was married to Johan Gerardus Wolkefeld, a 21-year-old Dutch Catholic. On 15 February, 1957, she gave birth to a son, the first child of ten. However, Maria did not seem to be content. As she told De Telegraaf, she often had rows with her mother, who lived near by. She also said she still longed for her Malayan homeland. Johan and Mansoor began corresponding. In letters both expressed wish for Maria to travel to Malaya to visit the aged Aminah, but such trip was never made due primarily to financial difficulties. Aminah died in 1976.

The life story of Maria took another dramatic turn on 16 August of the same year, when Maria found herself on trial in a Dutch court charged with plotting to murder her husband. She admitted in court that she had been thinking about leaving her husband but was afraid to start divorce proceedings in case she lost custody of her children. She came into contact with two regular customers at her husband's cafe bar. The trio bought a revolver and recruited a fourth accomplice to carry out the actual murder. However, the latest member got cold feet and gossiped about the murder plan. The police quickly learnt of it and arrested all four conspirators.

In her defence, Maria's lawyers brought up her background, which the court acknowledged. With this in mind, and because the plot was never executed and there was no proof that she offered any inducement to the other three, the three-men bench acquitted Maria. Meanwhile, Maria had also filed for divorce on the grounds of the irreparable breakdown of her marriage.

See also

Notes

  1. Her full name at birth was Huberdina Maria Hertogh. To Dutch and other westerners she was normally known as Bertha (or Berta) Hertogh. The name given to her when circumcised by Muslim rites was Nadra binte Ma'arof, which was the name used by the Malays and other Muslims. However, Maria Hertogh was the name most frequently used in court proceedings and the English press.
  2. There was an uncanny parallel between the early lives of Maria Hertogh and her mother. Adeline Hunter, born a Eurasian, was adopted by a Muslim family at a young age. She married Adrianus Hertogh at the age of 15, upon which she converted to Christianity. Maria would later go through the same conversion, at around the same age, albeit involuntarily. Moreover, both were eventually married to Dutch soldiers.
  3. If and only if both conditions were met could the Muslim law practiced in Singapore be applied to the case, which would render the marriage valid.
  4. Karim Ghani was arrested along with several members of the Nadra Action Committee and held at the detention camp on Saint John's Island for 15 months under Emergency Regulation 20 for his part in the riots before being released on grounds of poor health.
  5. Family tree of Johannes Gerardus Wolkenfelt, Berthe and their ten children

References

  • Tom Earnes Hughes (1980). Tangled Worlds: The Story of Maria Hertogh. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. ISBN 9971-902-12-5.
  • Haja Maideen (2000). The Nadra Tragedy. Pelanduk Publications. ISBN 967-978-287-5.
  • The Maria Hertogh Riots (11 Dec 1950). Ministry of Education, National Education. Retrieved on October 19., 2005.broken URL

Further reading

  • Torn Between Two Worlds at "Headlines, Lifelines" website of the National Educational Multimedia kit for schools (c) Singapore Press Holdings. First published in 150 years of the Straits Times (July 15, 1845-1995).
  • In Dutch language, an Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau photo archive Flash slideshow of select news photos of the events published in Holland
  • Maria Hertogh, returned to Malaysia in 1999 aged 63, for a Dutch TV documentary De Affare
  • Singapore Media Development Authority and Christopher Chew's Monsoon Pictures Pte Ltd are developing an English language film "The Jungle Girl" aka "Nadra(period drama)" with screenwriter Sarah Lambert, Lantern Pictures, Australia.

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