2nd Lieutenant Pieter Hermans

...A significant bone of contention was the career of Pieter Hermans, the only African who rose to the rank of officer in the course of the 19th century. His unusual career did not fit the colonial pattern and, therefore, became a source of conflict and considerable correspondence. The African sergeant had been appointed second lieutenant with the 1st infantry battalion, and received half the amount of pay to which a European second infantry lieutenant was entitled. That meant that he was treated as an Amboinese lieutenant. Not surprisingly, he complained. As a sergeant, he had received a regular European salary. Pieter Hermans, born in Axim, Ghana, in 1812, was literate and put his complaints in writing. He was probably of mixed Afro-European descent because his father's name was given as Jan Hermans while his mother is mentioned only as Johanna. He belonged to the very first detachment of recruits that had arrived on the ship Rotterdams Welvaren in Batavia on 15 March 1832. His career was quite successful. By April 1834 he had been promoted to sergeant, followed by this promotion to second lieutenant in 1837. Yet all was not well. Hermans complained about being paid as a ‘native lieutenant’ and he also added a number of grievances voiced by his mates who had travelled with him in 1832. The Africans complained about ill treatment and a lack of proper bedding and said that they received neither rice nor meat. The issue of maltreatment was investigated and was found to be ‘highly exaggerated’, while redress was given for unspecified ‘real grievances’. Colonel Michiels, commander on the west coast of Sumatra, explained to Hermans that he was not being treated as a native but as an Amboinese, and therefore as a Christian. Hermans, baptized in 1835, remained deaf to this argument and insisted that the colonel put his grievances to the commander-in-chief of the army in the Indies. His superiors warned the African lieutenant that his behaviour would block opportunities for advancement for his fellow Africans. Hermans’s military career came to an end due to his insistent demands for equal treatment. In 1842, the commander-in-chief proposed dismissing him since his ‘misconduct and lack of zeal’ was deemed harmful to the army. He was to be sent back to Africa via the Netherlands with an annual pension of Dfl 184. 

Throughout the 1840s, a few reports trickled in about new disturbances and fights, but army correspondence no longer reflected a sense of urgency. Obviously, both the army and the Africans had settled into a routine both sides could live with. The disturbances apparently did not exceed normal patterns, and once or twice the commander in chief even concluded that the Africans had understandable grievances that needed redress. The story of the Africans in the East Indies was given anew and unexpected turn by the 3rd Expedition to Bali in 1849, a successful expedition after two previous failures, which was celebrated with much pomp and circumstance on the main square in Batavia. The untiring efforts of the Africans, their courage, loyalty, state of health, strength and endurance had greatly impressed the newly arrived commander -in- chief, Duke Bernhard van Saxen-Weimar Eisenach. In his view, this experience proved that Negroes were very suitable as troops.

The Africans compared favourably with the European part of the Army below the rank of officer, which consisted for the greatest part of "soldiers with a criminal record, deserters from the Dutch National Army, drunkards, deserters from the the Belgian and French and Germans, most of whom are rascals and tramps, and for whom the service in this colony is a last refuge." The Africans could hardly be blamed for all the problems which were elaborated in earlier military correspondence: they simply had been unable to understand that promises of equal treatment, which had made in the name of King, were not kept. And since they had been unable to express their grievances in Dutch or Malay, discontent had escalated to violent protest. The new commander -in -chief, supported by new govenor in Batavia, urged a resumption of African recruitment. The enthusiasm of the Duke is perhaps not so surprising: twenty years earlier, he had been one of the main advocates of recruitment of Negroes(either from America or from Africa) to solve the manpower problem of the army in the East Indies.

Copyright © 2001 Ineke van Kessel. Kessel@fsw.leidenuniv.nl