To paraphrase W. S. Gilbert, the Muslim’s lot is not a happy one. Nothing is guaranteed to quicken the pulse more than a negative Muslim headline. But before we rush to condemn or condone the Muslims, the news media, or Western culture at large, an historical perspective exists to give cause for reflection. If nothing else, the case of Maria Hertogh still proves that ignorance and arrogance make a deadly cocktail.
Maria Huberdina Hertogh was born on 24 March 1937, at Tjimahi in the Dutch colony of Java. Her father was Dutch, a sergeant in the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. Her mother, Adeline, was a Eurasian. Maria was their third child, and was baptised a Roman Catholic on 10 April 1937.
By the end of February 1942, the shadow of war had fallen across Asia. The Japanese had advanced down Malaya. Singapore had been captured two weeks earlier. The Hertoghs knew that it was only a matter of time before the Dutch colonies were attacked. No help could be expected from Holland, which had been conquered by the German Nazis. The British were in tatters. Stories of Japanese atrocities against European women and children were rife.
Sergeant Hertogh feared for Maria’s safety. Yet, ironically enough, it would not be the Japanese who caused him to lose all trace of his daughter for years.
When the Japanese invaded Java in March 1942, he became a prisoner of war.
At some time later in 1942, Adeline Hertogh’s mother, a Mrs. Hunter, introduced her to an old friend from Singapore, Cik Aminah binte Mohamed, who lived in Bandung. (Cik — prounounced “Chik” — is a polite form of address.) She was divorced from an Indonesian businessman named Ma’arof. After 14 years of marriage, Aminah was still childless. It was after that meeting that Maria, who was just five years old, came into Cik Aminah’s custody.
In the confusion that follows a war, human lives are wrenched apart. Cik Aminah had moved to northeastern Malaya. The Hertoghs and their two older children were repatriated to Holland. But Mr. Hertogh never lost the dream that one day he would be reunited with his little daughter. As the months turned into years, it seemed that Maria had vanished forever, another victim of war.
Then, in September 1949, word reached the Hertoghs that Maria was indeed alive, living in Kemaman in the Malayan state of Trengganu. Overjoyed, the Hertoghs rushed to the authorities. The Dutch Consul-General in Singapore was notified. On behalf of the Hertoghs, he applied to the courts for custody of the missing girl.
On 19 May 1950, the Singapore Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Murray-Aynsley, ordered that Maria be placed in the charge of the Director of Social Welfare. She would stay in the York Hill government home until her return to Holland.
Outside the Supreme Court, Maria and Cik Aminah clung to each other for an hour, sobbing and vowing they would not be parted. Cik Aminah could not believe the news. She was going to lose her daughter. The beautiful girl with the fair skin, innocent face, shy smile and beguiling eyes would be taken away forever. With tears streaming down her face, Maria — now named Nadra binte Ma’arof, aged 13, raised in the Muslim faith — cried to newspaper reporters in Malay, the only language she could speak. “Aminah is my mother. She has loved me, cared for me, and brought me up.”
As a Dutch consular official led her away, the terrified Maria screamed to Cik Aminah for help. “Do you love me, mother? If you love me don’t leave me. I don’t want to go with this man.”
The innocent child’s torment, and the grief of her foster mother, fuelled sensational headlines around the world.
While Maria was in the York Hill home, Cik Aminah’s old friend Cik Wok Adabi comforted her. Cik Aminah was determined that Maria would stay with her. Maria was now a Muslim, and quite able to make up her own mind about where she wanted to live. Aminah knew that Maria’s love and loyalty were with her, and no court could be allowed to separate them. Through her lawyers, she lodged an appeal.
Meanwhile, Cik Wok Adabi shared her old friend’s grief, as did her son, Mansoor Adabi, a 22-year- old English teacher at the Bukit Panjang Government School. Mansoor had been born in Kota Bahru, educated in Kelantan and, after the war, at the Victoria School in Singapore. He visited Maria at the York Hill home. It was love at first sight, the studious young man said later.
On 28 July, Cik Aminah won her case on a legal technicality. The full Court of Appeal ordered that Maria be returned to her foster mother. Aminah broke down and wept with joy. “I have never been so happy in my life,” she told reporters. She stumbled from the court, surrounded by friends and well-wishers. The Straits Times wrote, “Nearly everybody has one moment of supreme happiness. Today was Aminah’s day.”
And when Aminah picked up Maria from the government home, Mansoor Adabi was with her.
At his home in Bergen-op-Zoom in Holland, Mr. Hertogh was devastated by the court’s decision.
“I do not see how it is possible for the court to keep our child away from us,” he told reporters. “If necessary I am prepared to go to Singapore to get her back.”
As it transpired, it was not Mr. Hertogh who would arrive in Singapore to fight for Maria’s custody, but his wife. Yet before the bitter conflict between Adeline Hertogh and Cik Aminah exploded in court, a further complication arose.
Cik Aminah had taken Maria to stay at the home of Mr. M. A. Majid, president of the Muslim Welfare Association. A special Hari Raya feast was celebrated in her honour. Reporters crowded into the little shop house in Rangoon Road to hear Maria’s story.
“I pleaded with the matron to let me go home to mother for Hari Raya,” she told them, “but permission was never given. When the big day came, I just couldn’t help it, I cried and cried.” When a reporter told her that Mr. Hertogh might come to Singapore and fetch her back to Holland, Maria was adamant. “It is useless for him to come here,” she said. “I don’t recognise anybody as my parents except Cik Aminah.”
Within four days of her release from York Hill, Maria and Mansoor were married secretly in a Muslim ceremony. Cik Aminah told the newspapers, “Nadra is like a diamond to me, but I am happy now that she is married to the man she wants.” At last, her little girl was beyond the reach of the courts.
The Hertoghs were shattered. Many Europeans were outraged. Enough was enough, they said. The innocent child had to be restored to her own culture and religion.
Dutch Consul-General van der Gaag immediately took out another summons, this time to have the marriage declared illegal and Maria’s custody returned to her natural parents.
Adeline Hertogh flew into Singapore on 14 November. Maria told reporters, “I do not wish to see the mother who has caused me so much unhappiness.” But Mrs. Hertogh was confident. Calling her daughter Bertha, she told the newspapers, “Bertha is my child. When she sees me, and when I talk to her, she will come.” When asked whether her daughter had changed very much in the eight years since she had last seen her, Mrs. Hertogh replied, “No. From her photographs she looks just the same little girl I knew. But why have they done her hair up like that to make her look so old?”
The next day, Adeline Hertogh called at the Rangoon Road house. Reporters witnessed the tense reunion as she shook hands with Cik Aminah.
“Why do you keep on fighting?” Cik Aminah asked her. “You gave your child to me as my own daughter.”
Mrs. Hertogh replied that she had only asked Aminah to look after Maria during the war.
“Where is my daughter?” she demanded.
Cik Aminah called for Maria, saying that “Adeline” was waiting to see her.
When Maria emerged hesitantly from her bedroom, Mrs. Hertogh scolded her. “Why did you say you did not want to see me?”
Suddenly, mother and daughter were arguing in Malay. “I am not going away from where my husband is. Why have you come? I have had enough trouble.” Maria told her mother not to bother her anymore. “If you loved me, you would leave me where I am. Besides, I cannot love you because when I was a child you gave me away.”
As the reporters watched, Mrs. Hertogh began pleading with her, but Maria refused her appeals. “I am a Muslim. I have made my choice, and I will stay with my husband now until we die.”
When her mother tried to kiss her, Maria turned away and buried her face in Cik Aminah’s back. Adeline Hertogh ran from the room, crying.
On 20 November 1950, the Singapore High Court was packed to capacity. Maria’s case had made world headlines. As Mr. Justice T. A. Brown began to take evidence, all eyes were on Maria and her mother. They were sitting within a few feet of each other. Not once did they exchange so much as a glance.
Adeline Hertogh’s sworn statement was read to the hushed courtroom first. In it she claimed that after the Japanese took her husband prisoner, her mother had introduced her to Cik Aminah. Because she was childless, Cik Aminah had asked whether one of the Hertogh children could stay with her. Mrs. Hertogh said she had refused at first. Then, on 29 December 1942, she had finally yielded to Cik Aminah’s requests. She had allowed her third child, Maria, to stay with Aminah at her Bandung home, but only for three days. When Maria did not come back, Mrs. Hertogh said she borrowed a bicycle to go and fetch her daughter. On the way, she had been arrested by the Japanese and interned for the rest of the war.
She had smuggled a letter out of the internment camp to her mother, asking her to send her children to the camp. When Maria did not arrive with the others, she had smuggled another note to her mother, asking her to pick up Maria from Bandung. Her mother wrote back saying that Cik Aminah wanted to keep Maria for two more days, and that she herself would bring the child to the camp. But she never did, and when Mrs. Hertogh’s mother went again to Cik Aminah’s house, she found it empty.
Mrs. Hertogh swore that she had not seen Maria during the whole of her internment. When the war was over, she and her husband endeavoured to trace their missing daughter, but Maria and Cik Aminah were not to be found. She also swore that neither she, nor her husband, had ever authorised Cik Aminah to adopt Maria.
Cik Aminah’s sworn statement told an entirely different story.
In 1942, Mrs. Hertogh had suggested that she would like Aminah to have one of her children because she had none of her own. Mrs. Hertogh had told her that she did not know whether her husband was alive or dead, and in any case she would answer to him for having given away one of their children.
Cik Aminah had told Mrs. Hertogh that she would like to take Maria and bring her up in the Muslim faith. Mrs. Hertogh had said she was glad because she, herself, had been brought up as a Muslim. Some days later, Mrs. Hertogh had given her Maria. Mrs. Hertogh’s brother, who called himself Soelwaldi, had given her a certificate of adoption.
Cik Aminah said that Mrs. Hertogh continued to visit her frequently. Some time late in 1942, or early in 1943, Maria had been circumcised according to the Muslim faith. Cik Aminah swore that at no time after Maria was given to her, had either Mrs. Hertogh, or Mrs. Hertogh’s mother, ever asked for Maria to be returned, or for her to stop treating Maria as her own child.
The hearing lasted for five days. On 2 December, Justice Brown handed down his decision. He began by ruling that Maria’s marriage to Mansoor was invalid, describing it as a “manoeuvre” which mocked “the sanctity of Mohammedan marriage”. The judge believed that Cik Aminah had been persuaded by “some other person” to allow her daughter’s attraction to a man she hardly knew to cause her to become his wife in the space of three days. Whatever the truth of the events that occurred in 1942 was, the judge said, it was clear that Maria’s father took no part in them. “Whether he was deprived of his child through the voluntary act of her mother, or the conduct of Cik Aminah, he was never consulted, has never at any time consented, and that no blame or fault can be attached to him.” The judge said he was satisfied that Maria wanted to continue in the Muslim faith and had a real devotion to her foster mother. “But who can say that she will have the same views some years hence?”
In the end, the judge was of the opinion that Maria’s father had a legal right to bring up his child in the way he thought best for her welfare. “Upon what ground am I to deprive him of a right which the law gives him?”
Cik Aminah collapsed. Maria and Mansoor looked stunned.
In Justice Brown’s opinion, the sooner Maria started her new life, the better it would be for the child. Reluctantly, he agreed to hear an appeal against the verdict the following week.
That night, a depressed Mansoor told reporters: “I cannot express in words what I feel, but I know that Nadra will remain faithful to me.”
Over the next nine days, irresponsible newspapers and power-hungry politicians whipped the Muslim community into a frenzy. Overnight, what had been the poignant drama of a long-lost daughter became a challenge to the Muslim faith itself. Meanwhile, European passions were inflamed by lurid stories of the child bride forced into an illegal marriage.
Pending the appeal verdict, the government placed Mrs. Hertogh and Maria in the Convent of the Good Shepherd in Thomson Road. The press arrived in droves. Despite Mrs. Hertogh’s pleas, the Dutch Consul-General invited reporters and photographers into the convent. More fuel was added to the flames when the Singapore Standard emblazoned a picture of a smiling Maria holding hands with the Mother Superior across its front page. The headline proclaimed, “Bertha Knelt Before Virgin Mary Statue”. The newspaper described her as now being “a carefree child”.
The Malay press struck back. The Utusan Melayu ran photos of Maria weeping. The headline screamed, “Nadra Cries and Begs for Help”.
It was the perfect scenario for radical politicians. M. A. Abdul Karim Ghani became the self-appointed champion of Maria’s cause. He was president of the Singapore Muslim League and editor-in-chief of two Muslim newspapers. He formed a Nadra Action Committee. Tragically, his propaganda was inflicted upon peaceful Muslims in every walk of life. The Malay constables, who made up 90 per cent of the Singapore police force, were no exception.
The British authorities, too, would carry much of the blame for what happened next. Wilfred Blythe, the Colonial Secretary, ignored advice that Maria should be removed from the convent to help defuse the situation. Nor did he consider it necessary to take precautions against the brewing violence.
By Monday 11 December 1950 it was too late.
From early morning, the crowds had been gathering outside the Supreme Court. As their numbers increased, the mood became uglier. They were soon at flashpoint. Disregarding all warnings, the British stationed 70 Malay constables outside the court. A wiser decision would have deployed some of the 400 Indian police on the force. A contingent of 119 Gurkhas, who had no emotional stake in the Hertogh case, remained in their barracks.
Inside the court, Justice Brown announced his verdict. The appeal was rejected. Maria would stay with her natural mother. Her marriage to Mansoor was illegal.
When word reached the mob outside, there was a howl of protest. People were in uproar. The crowd surged forward. Before the British police officers could stop them, the Malay constables allowed a band of demonstrators to pass through their ranks.
As the demonstration gained momentum, the British officers called for help. An hour and a half later, a force of 48 Gurkhas arrived. The Gurkhas were moved up, ready to quell the first signs of violence. The leaders of the demonstration demanded that they be withdrawn. Inexplicably, they were. In fact, they were repeatedly advanced and withdrawn by indecisive British officers in full view of the crowd. It soon appeared to the mob that the police commanders had lost their nerve.
Without warning, the crowd broke into angry groups. Men armed with sticks, makeshift clubs and knives fanned out in all directions. If Maria were to be denied justice, they would take matters into their own hands. The Europeans were the cause of her suffering, and the Eurasians, most of whom were Catholics.
The first victims had no warning of their fate. They were European businessmen, going about their appointments, unaware of the Hertogh verdict and completely unprotected. A frenzied mob hurled itself upon them, beating them to the ground, leaving them pulped and bloodied in the gutter. The mobs soon became more daring. Any white face seen on a bus was a signal for the vehicle to be stopped. Demonstrators leaped aboard, dragging the terrified passenger onto the street, clubbing him senseless, before running off in search of another target.
European drivers found their cars suddenly surrounded, their windscreens smashed. The lucky ones were able to accelerate away before their doors were ripped open. Others found themselves plucked from behind their wheels, hammered with clubs and sticks, and left for dead.
Police authority seemed to have evaporated. Mobs roamed freely through the main streets. Europeans and Eurasians were left to fend for themselves. Nine people died.
Violence erupted everywhere under the cover of darkness. One family recalled seeing people bashed in the street, their bodies hurled into a canal. The body count rose. Twenty-six people were treated for serious injuries. For many, the scars would never heal; those were the men and women who had survived the horrors of the Japanese Occupation, only to suffer worse at the hands of their fellow citizens.
The colonial government had misjudged the situation from the outset. Now the grim results of arrogance, indecision and insensitivity lay before them. The British army was called in. Singapore was put under curfew for a week. Army uniforms became a common sight on virtually every street corner. The mobs were still on the rampage, but the tide was turning against them. Nine rioters were shot dead. Police hunted down the Nadra Action Committee and arrested the ringleaders. Responsible community leaders appealed for calm. By the third day, the bloodletting was over. Eighteen people had been killed, 173 injured. Seventy-two vehicles had been destroyed, and another 200 damaged. The Governor appointed a commission of enquiry. The lessons were clear. Putting Maria Hertogh into a convent had raised community passions. Irresponsible newspapers inflamed them further. Nor should the demonstrations have been allowed to escalate into serious rioting. The Singapore police force was reorganised; younger, better-educated inspectors were recruited and multi-racial reserve units were formed. A central radio control room, manned 24 hours a day, was established, and 40 radio patrol cars were put into the streets, each with a crew of five.
Maria Hertogh and her mother left Singapore secretly, aboard a plane specially diverted from its normal route. As history so often demonstrates, they were soon forgotten when other issues such as the Malayan Emergency and Singapore’s march to independence seized the public’s attention.
From all accounts, Maria’s life was not a happy one. The traumatic events of her childhood were echoed in her adult experiences, reportedly with depression and alcohol abuse. She died of leukemia on 8 July 2009. One can only speculate whether she would have been happier had she been left with Cik Aminah and Mansoor Adabi. For colonial Singapore, it certainly would have been a better decision, while for us her story is a cautionary tale for the times in which we live.
James Aitchison is an Australian author and poet who resided in Singapore for 27 years where he researched many episodes of post-colonial Asian history. He has written over 180 books including Asia’s best-selling series of horror and mystery stories for middle readers. His books have been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Malay, and Indonesian. In 2013, he was awarded the Literature prize in the Australian Government’s inaugural Australian Arts in Asia Awards. His poetry appears globally, including the UK’s Aesthetica Creative Awards Annual 2018.
Writing as James Lee, Aitchison’s books can be seen at www.flameoftheforest.com and are available at amazon.com
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