In a 1935 letter to her former teacher named H. Wellensiek, the Javanese Marjani fondly remembered her years at the Koningin Wilhelmina School (Queen Wilhelmina School, KWS), a Dutch-language Protestant school for elite Javanese girls in the city of Yogyakarta. Marjani contrasted this phase ‘full of fun and good cheer’ (‘vol pret en jool’) with her current life in the small village of Subah in Central Java. She lived with her brother, who was a district head in the Javanese branch of the colonial administration. Marjani complained about the boredom she encountered: ‘I am slowly getting used to it but at the beginning, oh no! You can imagine what it was like for a girl coming from a boarding school. No Europeans, being completely surrounded by dessa [village] people’.2 At the same time, Marjani assured her teacher that she was striving to ‘follow God’s guidance’ and to resign herself to her fate, ‘as this is what you taught me in school’.3 This letter is the only trace that Marjani has left in the KWS archive. Based on the source material, little can be concluded about her life, except that she successfully completed her primary education and subsequently pursued domestic education.

Marjani’s letter is an example from a collection of correspondence between students and former teachers who had returned to the Netherlands, which is held in the archive of the KWS support committee. The KWS was established in 1907 in the Central Javanese city of Yogyakarta by a group of engaged upper-class women in the Netherlands with connections to the Protestant mission. Marjani’s letter ties together some prominent themes connected to KWS education. Alluding to the domestic values that had underpinned the school ideology, Marjani assured her former teacher that she tried to help out as much as she could in the household of her prominent brother; by writing in Dutch, identifying with Europeans and distancing herself from the common ‘dessa people’, she located herself firmly within the Javanese elite; and finally, she invoked notions of Protestant Christianity.

This article takes a close look at the KWS to demonstrate how schools like these functioned on two different levels in the late-colonial Dutch East Indies (circa 1900-1942). On the one hand, these institutions represented an opportunity for local families to enhance their status by allowing their daughters to receive a prestigious Dutch education. Simultaneously, Dutch colonial actors used the schools for their attempts to reform Javanese family life following a particular European bourgeois – and, in the case of the KWS, an explicitly Christian – model. At the KWS, these attempts focused on removing girls from their Javanese cultural background by offering them an alternative familial environment at the boarding school.

Scholars writing about girls’ schools in colonial contexts have often done so out of an interest in missionary work.4 In addition to this field, this article contributes to a wider literature that has inquired about the impact of European-style education on local women in later life, often relying on oral history interviews.5 Frances Gouda and, more recently, Elise van Nederveen Meerkerk have worked with students’ letters in the context of the privately funded Kartini and Van Deventer girls’ boarding schools on Java, and analysing educated young women’s ambiguous sense of belonging in colonial society as well as their ambitions.6 Here I draw on a similar body of sources from the period between the turn of the twentieth century and the end of de facto Dutch rule in Indonesia, while situating them in the context of a microstudy. Furthermore, by paying attention to local social dynamics, the article engages with the question of how local children ‘became available’ to colonial reformers.7 As is demonstrated in this special issue, the answer to this question varied considerably in different contexts. The contributions of Maaike Derksen, Geertje Mak and Marleen Reichgelt, for example, show how Papuan children were forcibly removed from their environments and sometimes even ‘bought’ by Dutch missionaries.8 On the other end of the spectrum of colonial practices of child separation were elite schools such as the KWS, for which local parents readily paid high school fees. While such projects may seem more benign, because they did not involve physical violence, they ultimately served similar goals. As was the case in the other child separation projects presented in this special issue, the mission that KWS teachers and supporters set for themselves amounted to a project of culturally as well as physically creating distance between children and their environment of origin. In the case of the KWS, however, this process was never complete, even if only because school years inevitably must come to an end, and because boarding students still visited their families regularly.

An administrative map of Central Java from 1905. The principality of Yogyakarta is indicated in yellow on the south coast in the middle of the map, with the city of Yogyakarta in the centre.9

Viewed against this background, elite schools such as the KWS allow for an understanding of the widely diverging ways in which child separation practices could work out on the ground. Moreover, as this article will show, the school served the interests of a particular Javanese social class at the time. This case study thus confirms that some colonial projects involving local girls fitted the agenda of local populations just as much as that of colonial actors, as other scholars have noted before.10

Over the years, the KWS was able to secure a position for itself in the Yogyakarta school landscape and attracted considerable numbers of students. It existed as an independent Dutch-language girls’ school until the end of the 1930s. The first part of this article offers an explanation of the popularity of the KWS in Yogyakarta elite circles in the first two decades of its existence. It then turns to the school itself, shedding light on the relationship between Christianity and ideas about family life that dominated its educational ideology at the time. Coming from a Javanese cultural background, and imbued with bourgeois and Christian values at school, KWS students grew up in an environment fraught with paradoxes. Their letters allow for a glimpse into the diverse ways in which KWS graduates balanced these two worlds and made use of their education. The final section of this article is devoted to an in-depth exploration of some of these documents.

A Protestant school for the local elite

The opening of the new building of the KWS in 1913 was a festive occasion with a distinct Christian element to it. The students sang a welcome song, as well as some psalms, and in a long speech the Reverend D. Bakker, president of the KWS school committee, asked for God’s blessings.11 Apart from members of the local European community and the Javanese nobility, the school received the Resident of Yogyakarta, J.H. Liefrinck. Elise Idenburg-Duetz, the wife of Governor-General Alexander Idenburg and the patroness of the school, also sent a telegram to express her best wishes.12

In its display of Dutch language skills by Javanese girls and its collection of distinguished guests, the opening ceremony reflected the elite dimension of the school. Schools for Indonesian children that used Dutch as the language of instruction were extremely rare at the school’s opening in 1907, and the few schools that existed were all aimed at specific groups of elite Christians.13 The KWS was the first Dutch-language school for girls whose family traditions were rooted in Javanese Islam. It was followed shortly afterwards by the Franciscan Sisters’ school in nearby Mendut that opened in 1908.14

The combination of upper-class sensibility and Protestant Christianity was central to the KWS school project from the start. Johanna Kuyper, a daughter of the prominent Calvinist politician Abraham Kuyper, started organising a support committee for the school after having worked as a nurse at the Protestant hospital in Yogyakarta.15 Both Johanna Kuyper and her sister Henriëtte would remain central figures in fundraising efforts for the KWS for years to come. Making use of their extensive network in the Netherlands, the Kuyper sisters brought together an all-female support committee for the school, made up predominantly of members of the nobility and the patriciate.16

The activities of Johanna and Henriëtte Kuyper fitted into the Protestant Christian tradition of women’s charitable work. This had its roots in the Réveil movement of the second quarter of the nineteenth century, which had encouraged upper-class women to take up a public role in areas that were traditionally associated with women, such as the care for the sick and the poor. Dutch women had been engaged in auxiliary activities for the Protestant mission in the Dutch East Indies from the 1820s onwards.17 As noted by Geertje Mak, Marit Monteiro and Elisabeth Wesseling in the introduction to this special issue, such activities opened up opportunities for bourgeois women to claim a space for themselves in the public realm, positioning themselves as responsible members of the citizenry.18 At its first meeting in Amsterdam in 1905, the Damescomité (Ladies’ Committee) established that the main goal of the prospective school would be to provide ‘Javanese girls from the higher classes’ with school education in the intellectual, moral and spiritual sense.19 In line with its upper-class outlook, the KWS was exclusively open to girls from priyayi families, the Javanese nobility. On a practical level, the elite outlook meant that Dutch was the language of instruction. The curriculum included writing, reading, calculation, needlework, geography, singing and Biblical history. Malay and Javanese would also be taught.20

It was no coincidence that the supporters of the KWS directed their energies towards Yogyakarta, as the Dutch Reformed mission had a strong base there in the form of a flourishing missionary hospital.21 The colonial government was wary of religious tensions between different Christian denominations and did not allow other groups to do missionary work in Yogyakarta until the 1920s, which meant that the Reformed mission initially had relatively little competition in the city.22 Furthermore, the advent of the Ethical Policy around the turn of the twentieth century – of which Abraham Kuyper was one of the central ideologues – meant that the colonial government actively started to encourage the social efforts of the various Christian missions in the colony.23 This influenced the educational landscape in the principality of Yogyakarta to a large extent, as many private educational initiatives started to receive financial support from the government.24 The KWS also received public financial assistance and was thus partly an exponent of the Ethical Policy.25 But all these factors cannot sufficiently explain its popularity. The school was eventually able to attract considerable numbers of students precisely because the social position of certain priyayi groups was undergoing important changes at the beginning of the twentieth century.

The social ambitions of a Javanese elite group

While it is difficult to give an exact definition of the priyayi classes, in the context of Yogyakarta they can be described as nobles of the robe with connections to one of the local royal houses. In the political constellation of the Dutch East Indies, the Yogyakarta area had a special position as part of the vorstenlanden or principalities. As such, it was not directly ruled by the Dutch government but by the Sultan of Yogyakarta. In precolonial forms of governance, priyayi men functioned as intermediaries between courts and wider Javanese populations, meaning that their position could vary from that of a provincial chief to urban courtiers.26 After the Java War (1825-1830), which brought the island of Java under effective Dutch rule, the priyayi elite acquired an important coordinating role in the system of forced agriculture known as the Cultivation System.27 By the beginning of the twentieth century the priyayi class had essentially become a civil service. As such, they made up the Javanese layer within the dualistic structure of colonial governance, called the Inlands Bestuur (Native Administration).28 Important differences, however, existed within the priyayi elite. There was a gap in wealth and status between regents, who held the highest office within the Javanese administration, and the legion of lower-ranking officials such as district chiefs and village heads.29 Dutch colonial policy maintained and even enlarged this distance. The office of regent, for example, was made hereditary, limiting families’ possibilities for social mobility within the priyayi class.30

Knowledge of the Dutch language significantly increased the career chances of priyayi boys in the Native Administration. In this context, Dutch-language education became highly sought-after by lower-ranking priyayi families who wanted to secure a position in the colonial administrative elite. As early as the 1860s, some high-ranking priyayi young men studied in the Netherlands; others were tutored by Dutch teachers at home.31 By the beginning of the twentieth century, this interest in education had trickled down to lower-ranking priyayi families. It was not easy for them to get their children into Dutch-language schools, as access depended on Dutch officials’ assessment of children’s social status. In practice, then, Dutch schooling was mainly available to the sons of regents, much to the dismay of other members of the Native Administration.32 Budi Utomo, the first Indonesian political organisation, initially started out as a lobby group for lower-ranking priyayi educational access in 1908.33

Priyayi from less prominent families sometimes went to great lengths to have their sons admitted to Dutch-language schools. In 1901, for example, an East Javanese district chief requested admission to a European school for his ten-year-old son at the office of the Governor-General in Batavia. The father explained that he envisioned a career in the Native Administration for his son and hoped eventually to send him to a secondary school for the education of Javanese civil servants.34 The boy was eventually admitted to the school of his father’s choice.35 The Indonesian national archives hold several such letters that reflect the ambitions of lower-ranking priyayi.36

The priyayi interest in Dutch education was initially almost completely limited to boys.37 Education for girls was more contentious in priyayi circles. Priyayi women’s roles were traditionally confined to the domestic sphere, and girls received domestic instruction and batiking lessons at home.38 While parents thus had a direct economic incentive to send their sons to school because it enhanced their career opportunities, this was not the case for their daughters. Cultural practices surrounding girlhood, moreover, meant that priyayi parents had their reservations about coeducational schooling. Priyayi girls were traditionally secluded in their residences when they reached marriageable age, around the age of twelve, and lived a secluded life until they entered into an arranged marriage.39 Dutch colonial officials interpreted such practices as the reason for the relatively low attendance of Javanese girls in public coeducational schools.40 In their responses to a government survey about girls’ education that was sent out to the regents of Java and Madura in 1909, several high-ranking officials confirmed this Dutch observation and stated that local people, including themselves, objected to coeducation for girls of marriageable age. They argued for girls’ schools with only female teachers to preserve girls’ respectability.41 In this regard, the KWS was more in tune with priyayi cultural sensibilities than public coeducational schools.

The initiators of the KWS were aware of the growing interest in Western education in priyayi circles and expected that girls would soon ‘follow in the footsteps’ of boys.42 Nevertheless, the first headmistress of the KWS, Wellensiek, encountered resistance from priyayi parents when she tried to find her first students in 1907. She was repeatedly turned down when she went from door to door in Yogyakarta to advertise the school. Wellensiek later recounted that the girls’ parents and grandparents were of the opinion that ‘learning was of no use for a girl’ and that it ran counter to tradition.43 In fact, the only way in which Wellensiek could persuade parents to register their girls was by allowing their brothers to be registered as well. The first children to enter the school were a four-year-old girl and her seven-year-old brother.44 In this way, local elite families tried to instrumentalise the school to ensure their sons received the education they desired.

Initially, the KWS was forced to maintain the practice of admitting the brothers of female students to ensure financial stability. In 1913, there were 36 girls and 22 boys at the school.45 Ten years later, however, this image had changed completely. By 1923, 134 girls were registered at the school, 83 of whom lived in the boarding school. No boys had been admitted for several years.46 In these ten years, Dutch-language education for girls changed from ‘a minority interest’47 among priyayi to something that many parents were willing to pay significant sums of money for. This development was most likely connected to the higher numbers of educated priyayi men, who wanted a spouse with a similar educational background.48

In short, being able to speak Dutch had become a prestigious skill not only for men, but for women as well: from the opening of the school onwards, KWS teachers reported that Javanese parents first and foremost wanted their daughters to learn Dutch, prioritising the language over other school subjects.49 For parents, girls’ education thus became an investment through which they could improve their daughters’ marriage chances and anchor themselves more firmly in the Javanese administrative elite. Educated girls, in this context, functioned as ‘a site to display familial status’.50 Over the years, the vast majority of the students at the KWS were the daughters of so-called gouvernementsprijajis, lower-ranking priyayi who worked for the colonial government.51 In their letters, graduates identified themselves as the daughters, sisters and wives of Javanese administrative officials and doctors in Dutch government service.52 The high student numbers at the KWS should thus be seen in the light of the social ambitions of these priyayi families.

The students of the KWS posing with teaching assistant N. Bakker and headmistress H. Wellensiek. The picture was taken at the occasion of the birth of Princess Juliana in 1909 and several students are holding Dutch flags. Two years after its opening, boys were in the majority at the school, which the Dutch initiators had originally intended for girls only. This shows that priyayi parents instrumentalised the school for their own aims, namely the education of their sons.53

It should be noted that the popularity of the KWS lasted for only a few years. The priyayi demand for expensive girls’ boarding schools started to wane from the middle of the 1920s onwards. By that time, coeducation had become increasingly accepted in Javanese circles, and the rapid expansion of the educated middle class in Javanese cities such as Yogyakarta meant that once-strict social divisions in Javanese society were increasingly blurred, making priyayi-only schools obsolete.54 The KWS also had to deal with increasing competition: by the end of the 1930s there were thirteen Dutch-language primary schools for Indonesian children in the city.55 Finally, during the economic crisis in the 1930s, the salaries of lower-ranking priyayi suffered from budget cuts, and fewer and fewer families were willing or able to pay the school fees.56 A combination of these factors ultimately gave the KWS the final push towards conversion into a coeducational school for all social classes.57

Christian criticism on Javanese family life

As was the case with priyayi parents who were looking to enhance their daughters’ marriage chances, the decision of the Ladies’ Committee in Amsterdam to focus on the female segment of the elite was guided by conceptions of gender and class. The Dutch initiators of the KWS believed that girls who spent their school years at a Christian school would likely become catalysts of Christian influence in their own direct environment. In their fundraising material, they presented young Javanese elite girls as the ‘future wives’ of priyayi men and the ‘future mothers’ of coming generations who would be able to spread Christian values in their own families.58 In this way, the initiators imagined the school as an opportunity for the Protestant mission to reach the upper echelons of local society. The high social status of these new Christian families, moreover, would then assure the spreading of the faith among the wider Javanese population, so the mission hoped.59 This assumption was rooted in the highly romanticised image that many Dutch social reformers had of the priyayi classes.60 Drawing on the wider Dutch ‘Orientalist infatuation’61 with the refinement of priyayi culture, the support committee described the priyayi classes as ‘the designated leaders of their ignorant people’.62

The city of Yogyakarta, circa 1925. The red shading indicates wealthier neighbourhoods, including predominantly European areas, while the orange shading represents less advantaged urban areas where local Javanese people were in the majority. The KWS was located in Bintaran, a well-to-do neighbourhood to the east of the kraton, the residence of the Sultan. The school was close to the palace of the Paku Alam, the other royal residence in the city.63

The Amsterdam Ladies’ Committee explicitly directed its ambitions towards the domestic realm. Javanese priyayi homes at the time looked quite different from the bourgeois Christian ideal of the nuclear family. Priyayi households were large communities where family members of different generations lived together, often linked through polygamous marriages. The number of household members was usually not fixed, as it was common for extended family members and other guests to live with relatives for an extended time.64 As other scholars have noted before, this living situation attracted a lot of criticism from social activists – both Dutch and Indonesian – including Raden Adjeng Kartini, a regent’s daughter who rose to fame with her pleas for education for elite Javanese girls.65

In the discourse of the KWS, Javanese family homes represented a dangerous environment that was far from appropriate for the raising of young girls into responsible housemothers. Supporters of the school especially condemned polygamy and arranged marriages. Henriëtte Kuyper informed the readers of a Dutch Christian women’s magazine that priyayi girls were ‘simply sold without any right of say, to an unknown man whose property they become, and who can sell or cast [them] out at will’ when they were ‘practically still children’.66 Needless to say, such judgements lacked nuance and did not necessarily reflect local customs. While upper-class Javanese girls indeed often were betrothed in their early teens or even earlier, their actual marriage often took place years later.67 The same goes for Kuyper’s claim that it was common for Javanese men to have over twenty wives.68 In fact, Islamic law did not allow men to have more than four wives at the time, even though divorce and remarriage were common.69 As in British India, where ‘child marriage’ was vehemently discussed by British social reformers70, such remarks were an expression of the colonial maternalism that is discussed in the introduction to this special issue.

In the eyes of the Dutch KWS supporters, the Javanese religion lay at the root of the moral corruption they identified in Javanese family life. In their fundraising material, they described this belief system as a mengelgodsdienst, a curious mixture of animism, Buddhism and Hinduism with a thin veneer of Islam.71 Again, such simplistic portrayals did not convey local realities, as Javanese religion was a synthesis between the observance of the five pillars of Islam, the belief in local spiritual forces and Sufi practices.72

Unsurprising for Christian social reformers, the supporters of the KWS saw Christianity as the basis of Western civilisation and social progress.73 They painted a binary image of Christianity as being founded on love and charity, arguing that the Javanese people lived in fear of God and other spiritual powers instead. In the argumentation of the support committee, this supposed lack of familiarity with God’s perfect love accounted for the flawed family lives of the priyayi.74 Indeed, KWS supporters’ criticism of Javanese home life concentrated on what they perceived as a lack of affective bonds within family units. Because of a lack of trust and intimacy in Javanese marriages, they argued, Javanese women were unable to be their husbands’ ‘life companion’ (levensgezellin).75 They contrasted this image of flawed Javanese marriages with the ideal of Christian companionate marriage. This idea of married life as a mutual effort of two people, connected by an intimate bond, was central to Christian ideals of domesticity and family life at the time.76 But this criticism was not limited to husbands and wives alone: all Javanese family relationships were supposedly founded on fear and hierarchy.77 The boarding school at the KWS was supposed to function as an antidote to this environment by introducing Javanese girls to ‘the free and happy life, as it blossoms in our Christian families’.78

Learning how to ‘do family right’

Two years after the opening of the school, the parents of one student decided to register her as a boarding girl because they considered their daughter too old to be seen in public on her way to school every day.79 The idea of sending out a daughter was not foreign to priyayi culture, as priyayi girls often spent some time at the residence of a regent to acquire domestic and social skills.80 The first boarding student was soon followed by another girl and two sisters from Demak. In the yearly report of the school, the entrance of the first boarding students was celebrated as a triumph, and the Ladies’ Committee proudly printed a studio portrait of the four girls. The photograph, which showed the girls wearing their richly decorated batik sarongs, was clearly meant to impress the school’s supporters with its aristocratic atmosphere.81 By the end of the 1910-1911 school year, eleven of the eighteen girls at the school were boarding students. There were also thirteen boys registered at the school, but they were not allowed to live in the dormitory.82

There is no doubt that the teachers at the KWS and its supporters saw the boarding section of the school as the most important means for evangelisation, as this institution represented an opportunity to bring elite Javanese girls permanently into a ‘Christian environment’.83 The word ‘environment’ is of vital importance here. For the school’s initiators and supporters its Christian character lay not only in Bible readings and church visits. They interpreted Christianity not simply as a matter of personal beliefs: instead, using a biblical metaphor, committee members likened the religion to ‘sourdough’ (‘een zuurdesem’) that permeated life in its entirety.84 The school could, therefore, only be successful if the girls not only acquired knowledge of the Gospel but also gained first-hand experience of a Christian way of life that could counter the effects of their Javanese cultural background.85 In other words, to build on a phrase used by gender historians Mary Huber and Nancy Lutkehaus, the boarding school was meant as a space where elite Javanese girls could learn how to ‘do family right’.86 This implied separation from their own cultural sphere. As one teacher phrased it, ‘When our students go home at one in the afternoon, we have lost them’.87

The first boarding school students of the KWS, 1910. Little is known about their family background beyond their connection to the priyayi nobility. One of the girls was the daughter of a djaksa, a prosecutor in the Javanese legal system. Two of the first boarding students were sisters. By presenting this picture in its yearly report, the KWS support committee aimed to provide proof of the success of the school in attracting boarding students to supporters and potential donors. The aristocratic and solemn atmosphere of the portrait eludes to the Dutch colonial fascination with the priyayi classes.88

Affective bonds among the girls played an important role in the project of emotional and spiritual reform that ultimately came down to the creation of an ‘alternative family’ at boarding school. Teachers illustrated the familial atmosphere in the dormitories with anecdotes about the older girls fulfilling a motherly role for their younger schoolmates, tucking them into bed and saying evening prayers with them. The students and teachers shared their meals together, which was also presented as an aspect of Christian family life unknown to the Javanese.89 When there were around fifty boarders, a second dormitory was built on the terrain of the school, so that the small-scale environment could be preserved. ‘Two dormitories mean: two families. And in all respects, this is preferable to one big institution’, the support committee stated.90

To ensure that Protestants in the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies would continue to make donations to the school, it was crucial that the support committee showed proof of the effectiveness of its strategies. Teachers presented Javanese girls as receptive to their message of Christian bourgeois domesticity. Publications mentioned, for example, that girls were ‘not left untouched’ by their stay in a Christian home91, or that God was ‘working in their hearts’.92 It should, however, be emphasised that the large majority of the students at the KWS never converted. Throughout all yearly reports, there is mention of about twenty baptisms and confirmations, while there were around 400 alumni by the mid-1930s.93 For a young priyayi woman, conversion to Christianity meant a radical break with family tradition and a formal abandonment of Islam. Clearly, most students and their families were not interested in taking this step. The low number of conversions aligns with Merle Ricklef’s observation that very few priyayi were attracted to Christianity.94 It is unclear to what extent parents were aware of the prominent place of religion at the school, as the school board obscured the religious aspects of daily school life in its advertisements aimed at priyayi families.95 But even if parents did know about the Christian outlook of the KWS, it is quite possible that they considered it a small price to pay for the social advantages it could offer them.

Notwithstanding this lack of enthusiasm for conversion, the Dutch support committee extensively celebrated the few conversions that did occur from the 1920s onwards in the yearly reports and in fundraising material.96 Through baptism, these Javanese girls entered into the universal ‘family’ of Christianity. Like conversions, examples of girls entering into companionate marriages were heralded as important indicators of the ‘success’ of a KWS education. One alumna married a teacher from Madura, whom she helped with his correction work. She also started a needlework club for the wives and daughters of Madurese colonial officials and, according to the yearly reports of the KWS, told them stories from the Bible.97 In another instance, a former student who had been baptised married a Christian Javanese man and moved to East Java, where the couple engaged in ‘evangelising work: he as the leader of a Christian choir, she in a women’s association’.98 Such anecdotes were displayed as proof that living in the boarding school was indeed effective, because graduates recreated the Christian-bourgeois family model propagated in the school in their own lives.

To ensure the continuity of Christian influence in the life of alumnae, the KWS teachers did their best to keep in touch with them. Twenty years after its opening, the school had built up an elaborate network of former students who received Christian books and magazines. These reading materials were sent out from Yogyakarta along with a newsletter that contained Bible quotes, messages for individual readers, titbits of news about marriages and births – under the heading of ‘News from the KWS Family’ – and ideas for recipes and needlework.99 Former students were regularly invited to return to the school to celebrate Christmas and teachers’ birthdays and stay there for a couple of days.100 All these efforts were meant to keep the alternative family at school intact beyond the school years.

Mixed responses: life as a KWS graduate in changing times

‘Your naughty little student is a young lady now’, Marjani jokingly finished her 1935 letter to her former teacher Wellensiek.101 This section turns to the question of how KWS alumni looked back on their education in later years, and what effect it had on their individual lives. How did they deal with the experience of having received a prestigious education, while also having lived for some years in an environment that was designed to remove them from their own cultural background? Undeniably, the body of around 60 letters that has survived in the archives inevitably gives a skewed image of former students’ lives. Not only were they often written years after graduation, only a small percentage of alumni kept in touch with their former teachers in the Netherlands. The letters in the archive are written by around 35 different girls and young women.

Some alumnae seem to have experienced tension between their lives with their family and their school experiences. Soemanti, for example, contrasted her quiet family environment in the village of Mundinan, East Java, with the liveliness of the boarding school and said that she felt restricted in her freedom, as her parents were ‘a little bit old-fashioned’ (‘een beetje van het oude geslacht’).102 In other cases, the choices of alumni caused rifts within families. This is particularly visible in letters by young women who wrestled with their religious feelings. Three letter writers experienced severe conflict with their families after they decided to become Christians. Teacher training student Moetinah, for example, told Wellensiek that her parents had explicitly forbidden her to convert, telling her that she was too young to be thinking about religious matters. Despite their objections, she was baptised in the presence of her sister, who apparently supported her.103 Similarly, Miranti decided to get baptised without telling her mother because it would only cause ‘trouble’ (‘gezeur’).104 Tensions only grew worse when Miranti decided to take up a job teaching domestic science. Her mother accused her of forgetting all about her family now that she was a Christian.105 In this instance, a Javanese mother indeed felt that her daughter’s education had removed her from her familial roots. Miranti, however, felt happy in her busy new job.106 Eight years later, in 1937, she was still working at the secondary school connected to the KWS.107

‘Een kijkje in de huiskamer’ (‘A look inside the living room’). The ideal of Christian domesticity came to the fore in the material aspects of the KWS school interior as well. The older girls on the right are portrayed while they are doing needlework, an important aspect of bourgeois girls’ education at the time. The toys of the small children on the left include a miniature Noah’s ark and two dolls dressed in costumes from Marken, a village in the Netherlands. These toys were gifts from individual women in the Netherlands who financially supported the school, as well as from women’s auxiliary committees for the Protestant mission.108

Some graduates made choices that did not directly align with their priyayi background nor with the ideals of the KWS. The letters of graduates who chose to pursue a professional career are especially fascinating because both priyayi culture and KWS educators considered motherhood to be a woman’s primary calling. KWS teachers generally approved when unmarried graduates such as Miranti took up employment. This was, in the end, the life these Dutch women had chosen for themselves as well. Most graduates who wrote about their careers likewise chose occupations that fitted the Christian ideal of women devoting themselves to caring for others. They became teachers or worked in the medical field, such as Ida, who became a midwife.109 In other cases, graduates did not express professional aspirations themselves, but were able to give their own children access to higher education. Kloempoek, for example, told Wellensiek in the mid-1930s that two of her children went to the prestigious lyceum of the Carpentier Alting Foundation in Batavia, while one of her daughters was in medical school.110

Notwithstanding their approval of some careers, teachers also warned graduates in the school newsletter not to idealise professional life too much. They stressed that having a job was not the only way to lead a fulfilling life, trying to encourage housewifely ambitions in their graduates instead.111 Married women who pursued a career were reproached in no uncertain manner. Oeminari, a teacher and mother of nine, was sharply reminded by a KWS teacher in one of the newsletters that she had to quit her job immediately if she started to neglect housework. The teacher pointed out that her God-given primary duties were in the household.112

Perhaps surprisingly, there were also instances when Javanese women turned their KWS education to use for the Indonesian independence movement. One of the school newsletters mentioned no less than three graduates who were Taman Siswa teachers.113 Taman Siswa was an anticolonial school organisation that aimed to offer an alternative to Western-oriented education, which it regarded as imperialist.114 However, working at a Taman Siswa school did not necessarily imply an ideological adherence to anticolonialism, as Agus Suwignyo has noted. Because of severe government budget cuts to public education, independent schools such as the Taman Siswa institutions remained one of the few options open for Javanese teachers in the 1930s.115 That said, some KWS students did become outspoken nationalists and even combined this with Christian sensibilities, such as the teacher Miati. While Miati recounted that she and her family had celebrated Christmas, she also expressed her hope for ‘a happy and unified Indonesia’ (‘een gelukkig en groot Indonesië’) at the death of her brother, who was active in the nationalist movement.116 Miati might have been part of the large group of Dutch-educated Indonesians who experienced a shift in their political ideas in the crisis years of the 1930s.117 Such ideas were far removed from the ideal of the compliant Christian housemother and the loyal colonial subject that the KWS had tried to instil in its students.


The KWS in Yogyakarta served divergent goals for its different stakeholders. To priyayi parents, the prestigious and expensive education at the Dutch school represented an opportunity to anchor themselves more firmly in the Javanese administrative elite and increase their daughters’ marriage chances. Elite Protestant women from the Netherlands, however, saw the school as a place where priyayi girls could be re-educated through the experience of a particular form of Christian family life. The letters of alumni show that these young women used their education to pursue widely divergent trajectories that did not necessarily align with the interests of their families, nor with those of their former teachers. Their education, coupled with their background, gave them access to a range of social groups in colonial society. While some KWS graduates chose to convert and became integrated into Christian communities, which fitted the objectives of the KWS, the large majority did not. Those who combined a professional career with marriage and motherhood effectively went against the cultural codes they had absorbed in both their Javanese families of origin and their Christian boarding school ‘family’. All in all, educated women found ways to instrumentalise their education to attain their own goals. That is not to say that the affective ties established at the KWS did not run deep. Sometimes these connections made it through tumultuous times: in 1947, in the middle of the Indonesian War of Independence, twenty former KWS students still found the occasion to celebrate Christmas together.118