Read: Bali: The Triple Taboo

This excerpt, from Chapters Eight and Nine, “The Triple Taboo” and “A Pivotal Year” recounts the newspaper and Nazi-inspired “zedenschaandal” that prompted the arrests of Walter Spies and several hundred other men in the Dutch East Indies.

By 1938, the refuge for whites being promoted by ultra-right-wing Dutchmen, especially the Vaderlandsche Club in Batavia, had faltered. The movement had stated its goal was to form a new Hollandia, “a fatherland for all Dutchmen in the Netherlands Indies and an area to absorb Holland’s own excess population.” The number of white colonists had reached 102 in 1936, but in the following year, only 50 new migrants arrived to set up their segregated homeland. The crusade for the protection of “European values” in the Indies proposed by the Vaderlandschers needed a boost. Vaderlandsche Club founder Henri Zentgraff, the editor of the Java-Bode newspaper in Batavia, would provide it.

Henri Zentgraff, editor Java-Bode

That autumn, both his newspaper and De Ochtendpost began reporting that a navy officer, a judge, and a doctor in Surabaya, on Java’s north coast, had been recalled because of sex with underage native “boys,” although the newspapers did not state the ages of the males involved, preferring to blur the meaning of the word “boy.” Zentgraff coupled his report with an editorial attacking the Dutch Scientific-Humanitarian Committee, the homosexual rights group in the Netherlands that was supporting Magnus Hirschfeld’s civil rights efforts in Germany. The Dutch committee had no local affiliate in the Indies, but Zentgraff pressured the police to act, and they soon began spying on the sole male in Java who was receiving mail from Jonkheer Jacob Schorer, the founder of the Dutch committee. As Walter Spies had long ago warned his mother, one always had to worry about colonial postal inspectors.

That local man would be known in the press reports as “Van E.” On November 28, 1938, when he invited men who seemed to be under the age of twenty-one into his hotel room, the police arrested him. The police never presented proof that sex had occurred in the hotel room and, at any rate, the so-called “boys” might likely have been considered adults for the purposes of heterosexual sex. As had happened to Leopold Ries in Holland in 1936, the police raided Van E.’s personal belongings as they were arresting him, and seized his letters to other men in the colony. That provided them with a first list of people they considered suspects, good enough for Zentgraff to then claim that a network of men throughout the Dutch Indies might be having sex with the native “boys.”

A media-based Zedenschaandal — a morals scandal — was born overnight.

The Java-Bode stories avoided listing the ages of any of the Asian “boys” supposedly being victimized. Zentgraff would never mention the well-known difficulty that ages of native males were often not known because the Javanese did not use European calendars. It could be quite impossible to distinguish physically between a twenty-year-old and a twenty-one-year old who had no idea or record of his birth. Zentgraff’s articles also failed to note that the Dutch colonial law being used, Article 292, had different interpretations. Some believed it applied only to European males having sex with other European males under age twenty-one, not to sex with native men governed under their own local laws, such as the Balinese adat. Those local customs typically held that a male became sexually mature when he was biologically mature, and he was then free to consent and to make choices about partners. That could be at an age closer to puberty, such as thirteen or fourteen, and certainly by ages seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, and twenty.

Steadily, arrests spread. In 1935, only three Europeans had been charged in court with such violations of Article 292. In 1936, the number had barely risen — to six. In 1937, it had dropped to five. In the months of 1938 before the renewed campaign by Zentgraff, another five had been arrested. But within the two months of December 1938 and January 1939, at least 223 European men were arrested. More than 100 native males were also detained. Three European men committed suicide because Zentgraff published their names in Java-Bode. No one knows how many Europeans chose to flee nor what the impacts were on the native males.

In Bali, meanwhile, the new resident governor, H.J.E. Moll, waited to make his move.

Mary Pos, evangelical travel journalist

She was not what you would imagine a Dutch daughter of a Christian evangelist to be, at least not in appearance or demeanor. With long curly hair, a radiant smile and what one writer called her “sensual persona,” Mary Pos seemed more the Hollywood star than the missionary. She worked as journalist and lecturer, and in the late 1930s, she traveled throughout the Indies, bringing along both zeal to help save the natives and conviction that the Indies belonged to the Dutch and should always remain so. She believed in emancipation for women, even native women, but her concept of masculinity was more traditional. Supposedly she loved rugged men in uniform. One of her books would be titled The Reality on Bali, and by that she had something quite different in mind from the “paradise of Bali” imagined into being by Walter.  If in Walter’s Bali, masculinity and men lived harmoniously with nature, in Pos’s Bali, masculinity was rapidly degenerating and its victims were both women and men.

Christian missionaries had long been angry about being banned from the island by colonial officials, but it had proven fruitless for them to directly assail the notion of the “living museum.” Missionaries like Pos had settled on an alternative strategy. Bali, they would argue, had begun to decline morally under the impact of the Westerners who were already there. For proof of that, they contended, one needed to look no further than the voyeuristic photographs of bare-breasted Balinese women or Miguel Covarrubias’s artwork in various magazines. [Covarrubias was one of Walter’s friends.] The cover of the April 1937 edition of Asia magazine had featured one of his paintings of a slender Balinese woman wearing a bright sarong topped by two sharply pointed breasts, while another appearing in Life in 1938 had shown fourteen bare-breasted women carrying elaborate offerings atop their heads while naked children stood and watched. Covarrubias had also painted males; his Balinese Fishermen with Outrigger showed seven naked men launching an outrigger.

Krause, McPhee, and Covarrubias had intended their images to be reflections of a Bali innocent in its nudity and pan-sexuality. But with little effort, that image could be twisted by missionaries into a horror of any mingling of naked adults, teenagers, and children. Their goal became demonstrating that the Dutch policy of preventing Christian missionaries from converting Bali was leading to moral decay and child sexual exploitation.

In December 1938, as Zentgraff’s Zedenschaandal was beginning, Mary Pos lectured in Surabaya. While no one seems to know exactly what she said, her later memoirs are clear about imported Christianity needing to trump the preservation of local culture:

Walter Spies among Balinese men

“Everything was allowed and everything was possible on Bali but the Christian doctrine. People forget that there is something more important than art and culture, but how could they see that, if they show nothing but the greatest indifference for their own soul and bliss.”

Europeans on the island, she continued, slandered God and pursued “unnatural” sins, targeting one man in particular:

“I have seen myself how one of the most well-known Europeans on Bali — in this case no Dutchman — arrived at the market in a convertible, surrounded by six of his favorite Balinese boys! A mockery and a tearing down of morality, a degeneration of the highly prized virtues of this people — not to be spoiled by the work of missionaries!”

One European on Bali was well-known for driving a convertible: Walter Spies.

Copyright (c) 2012 Hong Kong University Press

One thought on “Read: Bali: The Triple Taboo”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: