Modernism over Colonialism

Ananta Pramoedya Toer’s “This Earth of Mankind”

            “This Earth of Mankind” is a story that speaks of the conflict between modernism and colonialism amongst the Dutch and Indonesian relations. A story consisting of  both the rapid change and the stagnant ideals of the characters, it is a story that conflicts on the issues of power: gender, sex, and humanitarian rights between the Natives and their Colonizers. The protagonist, Minke, becomes the narrator of this inequality as he becomes a victim of an unjust constitution that favors the Dutch over the Natives. He becomes a vigorous character as he notices not only the faults of his oppressors but also the ineffective demeanor of his own people, including himself. “I am sure that everyone will know how I felt at that moment: angry, furious, annoyed, but not knowing what I had to do. In such matters I was still a snotty-nosed little boy” (328). In the end, even with his integrity in writing, noble Javanese ancestry, and adequate education he was powerless over the Dutch just like the rest of the Natives.

            In the first part of the novel, Minke admires the Europeans and Americans. There is the notable education, machinery, zincography, and the many latest discoveries that they have to offer him. He is in awe of the technologies and other conveniences that are being created for the humanity. Here, he ponders on the meaning of what it means to be modern. “Modern! How quickly that word had surged forward and multiplied itself like bacteria throughout the world. (At least, that is what people are saying) So allow me also to use this word, though I still don’t fully understand its meaning” (18). This excerpt shows the naïvety of the protagonist as he has yet to understand that these benefits have their drastic drawbacks: that the colonizers offer these commodities in exchange of taking over them, getting more capital, and acquiring power.

            This favourable tendency of Minke towards the Europeans instantly changes upon his meeting the Native Nyai Ontosoroh and her beautiful half-breed daughter Annalies Mellema. From here, his change of perception evolves into a tripartite perspective: The Natives, The Dutch, and himself as an individual who depends on both parties. He began to have a change of understanding on gender as he observes the superiority of the Nyai. “She was amazing this nyai: The people and everything around her were indeed in her grip, and I, myself, too. From what school had she graduated that she appeared so educated, intelligent? And she was able to look to the needs of several people at once, with a different manner for each” (49). Minke observes the magnificence of Nyai Ontosoroh as her demeanor contrasts her identity as a female Native concubine. She debunks his ideology that women, especially Native women, are illiterate and dependent.

As Niekerk observes, To some extent, the novel develops its own vision of gender, tries to conceive of the role of women in society differently, and eventually seeks to translate its findings into an ideology” (86). Nyai becomes an antithesis of such weakness as she does her best to overcome Dutch Indonesian’s system of discrimination and inequality through her hard work, grace, and intellect. Modernity becomes imminent in this part of the story as Minke’s ideals change into a more feminist approach. “I could not restrain my curiosity to know who this extraordinary Nyai Ontosoroh really was” (74). Nyai’s distinctive characteristic even stimulated him to write about such a phenomena in his newspaper article work.

However, contrasting the ideals of her own actions, Nyai Ontosoroh refuses to let go of her identity as a concubine and a slave believing that it is for her own betterment to accept her place in the society. “The wounds to my pride and self-respect still haven’t healed. If I remember how I was so humiliatingly sold . . . In this, let me be the only victim; I’ve already accepted my fate as a slave” (94). Nyai Ontosoroh, tries her best to defy the society’s negative label towards her yet she also fails to perceive herself as a person who is worthy of everyone’s respect and acknowledgement. She becomes an example of modernity’s ineffectiveness towards colonialism. Niekerk asserts, “Eventually the reality of being the property of a colonialist, of being primarily a sexual object, will catch up with her” (84). Her own sense of modernism did not guide her to strongly reinforce herself against the colonialist’s power of labeling her as a concubine.

Religion will always play a big factor on one’s strong sense of idealism. It is one’s faith, one’s belief on how things should be done, as dictated by a higher calling or God. Therefore, most deem that it is one’s main duty to follow this. Modernity can become a futile thing besides such a belief. A scene that I found most appalling in this novel was the scene when Herman Mellema’s legitimate son Maurits Mellema confronted his father with harsh criticisms about his preferred life in Indonesia:

  “Even if you married this nyai, this concubine, in a legal marriage, she is still not Christian, you, sir, are still more rotten than Amelia-Mellema-Hammers, more rotten than all the rottenness you accused my mother of. You, sir, have committed a blood sin, a crime against blood! Mixing Christian European blood with colored, Native, unbeliever’s blood! A sin never to be forgiven!” (99).

Herman Mellema’s reaction to this accusation towards him was to become stupefied, speechless, and numb. Defenseless to his son’s insults, he followed after him, and left Nyai’s home. After this scene, he withdrew himself away from Nyai, who in his eyes is now a reminder of his shame of being unacceptable and wrong. Because of this scene, I believe that one’s religion can become a contradiction to one’s sense of modernity or ability to change one’s perspective. Herman Mellema was unable to change his views about the nyai as she is never considered pure in his own religion. This powerful belief was harshly reinstated to him by his oldest legitimate son.

The unprejudiced law becomes another barrier of modernism in the novel given that the laws were made out of greed, solely benefitting the colonizers. During the ending, the novel bends towards an agonizing twist, as Maurits continues to haunt Nyai, claiming his ownership over her property after Herman Mellema’s death. Given that he is of pure European blood, unlike the Indo Native Nyai Ontoseroh, the Dutch government resided all of the possessions to him. During the hearing Nyai fought not only for the ownership of her land but also for her ownership to her only daughter, Annalies. Nyai refutes the Dutch with her sentimental but accurate argument:

 “Nobody ever challenged my relationship with Herman Mellema. Why? For the simple reason he was a Pure-Blooded European. But now people are trying to make an issue of Mr. Minke’s relationship with Annelies. Why? Only because Mr. Minke is a Native? Why then isn’t something said about the parents of all Indos? Between Mr. Mellema and me there were only the ties of slavery and they were never challenged by the law. Between Mr. Minke and my daughter there is a mutual and pure love…. Europeans are able to purchase Native women just as I was purchased. Are such purchases truer than pure love? If Europeans can act in these ways because of their superior wealth and power, why is it that a Native must become the target of scorn and insults because of pure love?” (287).

However, her arguments became futile for several reasons: She is a female native concubine asking the seats of Dutch power to change their laws for the sake of equality. The Colonial Power shows its dominance to the Natives by silencing them with threats. This was also shown in the novel. “We’ve been defeated, Mama,” I whispered. “We fought back, child, Nyo, as well and honorably as possible” (359). Colonialism and its law wins over righteousness. Modernity becomes pointless in this perspective.

However, in the end of the novel, Minke has revolted against the Europeans. This is unlike the former Minke who once admired the Europeans with innate excessiveness:

“Is this how weak a Native is in the face of Europeans? Europe, you, my teacher, is this the manner of your deeds? So that even my wife, who knows so little about you, lost all belief in her… This Earth of Mankind little world—a world incapable of providing security even for her. Just one person” (358-359).

            Because of this understanding, a recognition of liberty appears before the future of the Native Indonesians. Minke’s renewed sense of nationalism becomes heightened due to the inequality that he went through. The succeeding sequel of this novel emphasizes on revolutionary ideas and motives. Colonialism, only then, becomes a fragile idealism, as people with strong character and reason voices out the many wrongs of Colonialism towards the entire wronged population. This becomes the efficiency of modernity. “…modernity is the result of a process of modernization” (81). Modernity  becomes a new way of thinking towards independence.

This Earth of Mankind by Pramoedya Ananta Toer - Reading Guide ...
This Earth of Mankind

Note: Written on July 2017

Published by Asha Gutierrez

Writer | Vegan | Feminist

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