Letters of a Javanese princess/Chapter 2

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18 of August, 1899.

SINCERE thanks for your long letter, your cordial words warmed my heart. Shall I not disappoint you upon a closer acquaintance? I have already told you that I am very ignorant, that I know nothing. Compared to you I feel myself sink into nothingness.

You are well informed about the Javanese titles. Before you mentioned it, I had never given the matter a thought, that I am, as you say, "highly born." Am I a princess? No more than you yourself are one. The last prince of our house, from whom I am directly descended in the male line, was, I believe, twenty-five generations back; but Mamma is closely related to the princely house of Medeira; her great-grandfather was a reigning prince, and her grandmother a princess. But we do not give a two-pence for all that. To my mind there are only two kinds of aristocracy, the aristocracy of the mind, and the aristocracy of the soul—of those who are noble in spirit. I think there is nothing more commonplace than those people who allow themselves to depend upon their so called "high birth." What worth is there in simply being a count or baron? I cannot see it with my little understanding.

Adel and Edel,[2] twin words with almost the same sound and which should have the same meaning. Poor twins! How cruel life has been to you—it has ruthlessly torn you asunder and holds you now so far apart. Once noble, meant what the word signifies. Yes, then indeed it would have been an honour to be "highly born." But now?—

I remember how embarrassed we were last year, when the ladies of the Exposition for Woman's Work called us the "Princesses of Java."

In Holland they seem to think that everything which comes out of India which is not a "baboe" or a "spada" must be a prince or a princess. Europeans here in India seldom call us "Raden Adjeng," they address us usually as "Freule."[3] I despair of its ever being different. I do not know how many times I have said that we were not "Freules" and still less princesses, but they have grown accustomed to the glamour and still obstinately call us "Freule."

Not long ago a European who had heard much of us, came here and asked our parents to be allowed the privilege of making the acquaintance of the "princesses"; we were brought out and shown to him as though we had been dolls; how stupid we felt!

"Regent," said he to our father, but quite distinctly before us—there was much disappointment in his voice—"at the word—princess,I thought of glittering garments, fantastic Oriental splendour, and your daughters look so simple."

We could hardly suppress a smile when we heard him. Good Heavens! In his innocence he had paid us the greatest possible compliment; you do not know what a pleasure it was to us to find that our clothes were simple; we had so often taken pains to put on nothing that would look conspicuous or bizarre.

Dear Stella, I am heartily glad that I seem to you like your Dutch friends, and that you find me congenial.

I have always been an enemy of formality. I am happy only when I can throw the burden of Javanese etiquette from my shoulders. The ceremonies, the little rules, that are instilled into our people are an abomination to me. You could hardly imagine how heavily the burden of etiquette presses upon a Javanese aristocratic household. But in our household, we do not take all the formalities so literally.

We often dispense with ceremony and speak our own sentiments freely. Javanese etiquette is both silly and terrible. Europeans who live years in India, and who come in close contact with our native dignitaries, cannot at all understand it unless they have made a special study of it.

In order to give you a faint idea of the oppressiveness of our etiquette, I shall mention a few examples. A younger brother or sister of mine may not pass me without bowing down to the ground and creeping upon hands and knees. If a little sister is sitting on a chair, she must instantly slip to the ground and remain with head bowed until I have passed from her sight. If a younger brother or sister wishes to speak to me, it must only be in high Javanese;[4] and after each sentence that comes from their lips, they must make a sembah; that is, to put both hands together, and bring the thumbs under the nose.

If my brothers and sisters speak to other people about me, they must always use high Javanese in every sentence concerning me, my clothes, my seat at the table, my hands and my feet, and everything that is mine.They are forbidden to touch my honourable head without my high permission, and they may not do it even then without first making a sembah.

If food stands on the table, they must not touch the tiniest morsel till it has pleased me to partake of that which I would (as much as I desire). Should you speak against your superiors, do it softly, so that only those who are near may hear. Oh, yes; one even trembles by rule in a noble Javanese household. When a young lady laughs, she must not open her mouth. (For Heaven’s sake! I hear you exclaim). Yes, dear Stella, you shall hear stranger things than these, if you wish to know everything about us Javanese.

If a girl runs, she must do it decorously, with little mincing steps and oh, so slowly, like a snail. To run just a little fast is to be a hoyden.

Toward my older brothers and sisters I show every respect, and observe all forms scrupulously. I do not wish to deny the good right of any one, but the younger ones, beginning with me, are doing away with all ceremony. Freedom, equality, and fraternity! For my little brothers and sisters, toward me, and toward each other, are like free, equal comrades. Between us, there is no stiffness—there is only friendship and hearty affection. The sisters say “thee” and “thou” to me, and we speak the same language. At first people smiled in amazement at the free, untrammeled relationship between us brothers and sisters of unequal ages. We were called children without any bringing up, and I was a “koeda koree”[5]because I seldom walked sedately but went skipping along. And they were further horrified because I often laughed aloud! and allowed my teeth to show. But now that they see how affectionate and sweet the relationship is between us, and that only the burdensome etiquette has taken flight before our freedom, they admire the harmonious union which binds us so closely together.

Thank you, dear Stella, for your charming compliment: I am as pleased as a child. There is no danger of spoiling me by praise, or I should long ago have been spoiled to death, both at home and by my friends and acquaintances.

I thank you so much for the friendly thoughts which you have for us Javanese. From you I did not expect anything else, but knew that you would have the same feeling for all people, white or brown. From those who are truly civilized and enlightened we have never experienced anything but kindness. If a Javanese is ever so stupid, unlettered, uncivilized, the power which governs him should see in him a fellow man, whom God has created too ; one who has a heart in his body, and a soul full of sensitive feeling, although his countenance may remain immovable, and not a glance betray his inward emotion.

At home, we speak Javanese with one another; Dutch only with Hollanders, although now and then we use a little Dutch expression which has a shade of meaning that cannot be translated, often it is to express some little humorous point.

  1. To Mejuffrouw Zeehandelaar.
  2. As a noble deed.
  3. In Holland honourary title given to the daughter of a nobleman.
  4. Javanese is not one language but several, there is one language for the aristocracy and another for the vulgar. A nobleman addresses an inferior in the language of the common people Ngoko, but he is answered in high Javanese known as Krama. Between the two there is a middle speech, Madja, used in familiar intercourse between friends and equals besides Krama-inggil or court speech. There is also the classical language Kawi nearly allied to Sanskrit, in which the ancient literature of Java is written.
  5. Wild Cold