Indonesia is an archipelago with vast cultures and subcultures. Each of the islands flourishes with distinct traditions and values, yet the bodies of Maritime waters did not barricade but bridge our cultures to mix and amalgamate. This did not only happen between fellow indigenous islanders; traders and travellers from afar land and, should they find the land hospitable, reside near the strategic seaports to further trade their commodities. Among the many ports, Batavia, a coastal city planned by the Dutch settlers and the centre of commercial, maritime, and military operations for the Dutch, became an internationally renowned sea hub of the Dutch East Indies.

It was a civilisation of its time where slavery has yet to be abolished. The Dutch just moved slaves from colonies they newly acquired from the Portuguese, supposedly Malacca. However, not long after arriving, the slaves were freed and became a mardijker, the Dutch term that means “freed man”. The mardijkers brought a language along with them and soon it became the lingua franca of the novel city.

However it is not exactly Portuguese, actually. Portuguese evangelists used Portuguese to spread the Christian gospel in Malacca in 1511, but the indigenous peoples did not formally learn Portuguese per se. The children of Portuguese settlers and local residents understood bits and pieces of the language and used that knowledge to create a hybrid language with Portuguese vocabulary and indigenous sentence structure. When this hybrid language is spoken as a common means of communication, it is called a pidgin, but as it is passed down a generation to their children as a mother tongue, it becomes a creole.

When parents of different languages have children with a hybrid language, the language is called a pidgin. When pidgin speakers pass that language to their children, it becomes a creole.

 

In fact, this is not the only instance where indigenous peoples use this sort of foreign-native hybrid language: Haitian Creole is a French-based creole spoken in Haiti, Cebuano is a Spanish-based creole spoken in an area in the Philippines called Cebu, and Jamaican Patois is an English-based creole spoken in Jamaica, you can even hear Patois in Rihanna’s song Work.

Dry! … Me a desert him

Nuh time to have you lurking

Him ah go act like he nuh like it

You know I dealt with you the nicest

The Dutch tried and failed to impose the Dutch language on the Creole community. Soon, the Creole of Batavia surprisingly was not discouraged as a common language of the people as long as it is capable to be a continued lingua franca. The Dutch themselves spoke to their slaves in Creole and they thought that it was decent since Creole speakers were in line with the Dutch for promoting Protestantism, instead of Catholicism. It also supports the continuation of a Portuguese lingua franca within the Dutch East India Company. The language does thrive well and there was even a pedagogical guide to teach new settlers basic conversations in Batavia Creole. By this time, Batavia Creole was used universally by either slaves and slaveholders, locals and migrants.

The Batavia Creole only began to see its decline when Betawi language, a Malay-based creole, became a prominent lingua franca. The population progressively switched from using a foreign-derived lingua franca to one from its own islands. Unfortunately while one might see this change as it prideful progress, it is also the beginning of a loss of what used to be a cross-generational culture. A group of 150 Batavia Creole speakers were supposedly moved to one area on purpose called Kampung Tugu in order to preserve the language; hence, the adoption of the new name, Tugu Creole. Yet as time goes on, the residents of Kampung Tugu cannot help as they watch the language of their predecessors fade away.

The last known prominent speaker of the Tugu Creole, Joseph Quiko, passed away in 1978. Now, the memories of the language only exist in lyrics of songs titled Cafrinho, Gatu Matu, and several others under a genre named Keroncong Tugu.

What this tells us is that language, as a part of our culture, does not live forever. When a language dies, so does the culture, hence a loss of heritage. We should be proud to inherit any culture given to us, especially the ones that contribute to our diversity. Batavia Creole is one of those languages treasured not only by the ones who were born with it but also prided by all social circles of people in that era. It is unfortunate to see a once precious gem vaporize into thin air.

By Michael Mandalay