This is a work of fiction. Characters, organizations, places and events are either products of the author’s imagination or when factual, used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2019 Theodore A Henning II
Other KDP publications by Mr. Henning include:
Mr. Henning’s music is offered at:
Regent van Given and Secretary Ansel van der Kraatj sat in the dining room trying to discuss the events of the previous night’s Hall Commons meeting over hot Java-bean coffee. The verandah would have been more suitable to van Given’s liking but that was out of the question. Monsoon rains crashed hard during the night, and completely engulfed beautiful Manokwari in shadowy gray drab. The unending curtains of rain assaulted the red tile roof sounding much like militant waves of canon fire, thunderous volley after volley.
The discussion, if it could be called that, was more an oral dual. They somewhat strained with raised voices against the drone. Considering the severity of the weather it was commendable that van der Kraatj had left his quarters at all to make his way up and over to van Given’s house for the debriefing. No longer was the air sweetly humid and tolerably tropic. Without the sun’s rays there was a cold dankness that permeated everything and seemed to indifferently inch its way into one’s marrow. Both men perceived the gnawing sensation and yet, each equally found a measure of solace in the warm cups they clasped. Sipping their hot coffee between shouts, the conversation continued.
“We’ll be locked in like this for several days,” said Secretary Ansel, “ I’ve seen these monsoons hang around without a let up for a week. Actually, we were lucky the rain started when it did. Wet weather always seems to diffuse local hostilities. Although, that thunder and lightning did seem more severe than usual.” He wiped his lips with a kerchief and continued.
“Quite frankly, Mr. van Given, I was surprised at how readily the Hattam big man and his nephew accepted the tribute we offered.”
“Indeed! That Hattam fellow had the countenance of a tough negotiator. Had it not been for his nephew’s anxious glances, he might have held out for a lot more. I almost feel foolish, though, to report that we stayed hostilities and the Queen continues in quiet possession of the 1000 hectares for a mere ransom of three iron axes, several woven throws and a copper cooking pot!”
Beneath the broad smile on van Given’s face lay a genuine concern that could have easily surfaced as a grimace. Had the settlement truly been fair? Were not these naked fellows fully human as himself, to be regarded with the same degree of dignity as he expected to be? His conscience dictated that he, the new Regent, be seen to deal justly in all situations. From the vantage point of last night’s recipients, was the settlement really just?
“I know what you’re thinking, but you must keep in mind that although a real disparity of means will always exist between the aboriginals and ourselves, never-the-less it comes as no surprise that we are perceived to be the providers. Rest assured this same matter will surface sometime in the future and more axes, and throws, and pots will be given away. It is impossible for them to understand our European ways.”
The coffee had taken the bite off the chill, so he opened the top button of his tunic and continued.
“Regent van Given, you must understand. Things here are somewhat different than over there in the Sultanate’s territory. Here, land ownership, or true ownership of anything among these papuan aboriginals, appears to be in the hands of the many. I should propose, in their thinking, this land remains their corporate possession. We are societal freeloaders so to speak, only temporal occupants. Ancestral spirits, too, although dead by our standards are just as much a part of the natural course of their livelihood, including being the unseen possessors of the land.
“While this we presume remains their thinking, they may place periodic demands on us and we gladly pay off with such goods as they value. However, in never coming to an understanding of our ways, they for the moment only feign contentment with the things they receive.”
“So, if I understand you correctly, the Hattam actually believe this land is still theirs?” Van Given asked quite puzzled.
“In no uncertain terms! They summarily have it in their thinking that all their ancestral land is their land, regardless of who has momentary possession and use. Thus, we might infer from their perspective, that they’ve never really sold any land at all, as in our European concept of sell with the conveyance of title held in fee. And we are speaking most specifically of this Manokwari parcel the Queen has repeatedly purchased for a pittance!”
Van Given was somewhat taken back at the revelation. Even if the Hattam, or any of the aboriginal groups for that matter, lacked a colonial concept of total land rights relinquishment, they must have some notion approaching it, as when another tribe wins in battle over a piece of land, van Given thought. So, he naively voiced the question, “How do they deal with the problem when they lose land through tribal war?”
“They don’t, usually!” Secretary Ansel replied. “They don’t usually loose land. From one tribe to another they usually do not war over land issues. You see, even the clans within the same tribe have territorial domains that seem firmly fixed geographically and appear to have been so since antiquity. No one group is pressing in to take over the territory of the other. Yet, with that said tongue-in-cheek, there is the question of Biak and Numfor islanders migrating here to the coast. Feuding because of them has gone on for many, many years. Although the Hattam, and Meyah to the north west, are recognized as inland mountain peoples, aboriginal migrations to their coast are viewed as encroachments and do provide opportunity for hostility and conflagration.”
Taking a deep breath Ansel continued.
“With the establishment of this outpost, it was deemed best to compensate the locals in small measure. Our guard has demonstrated in the past the superiority of our position. Thus our encroachment, if I may state it as such, is not something of further dispute. So, we aim for a calming of hostilities with payments of little consequence.”
“Well, if land is not at issue, what then do they fight over,” asked van Given?
“Oh, pigs, women, tangible things mostly, sometimes honor, and sometimes they fight because of a superstitiousness characteristic to their nature. The tribal wars, though, usually stem from reprisal. My father killed your father, so I kill you in return and your son retaliates and so on and so on. It doesn’t ever seem to stop. The grudges are deep and numerous. You see, it appears that the basis of social order is in their group, a collective voice as a whole. If you wrong an individual, you are wronging the greater whole, his group. Thus, individual rights are seen to be intricately woven into the mosaic of clan rights in total. The individual is…”
“Eh, if I may interrupt, how did you come by such a deep understanding of the local ways and customs?”
Van Given knew he was disadvantaged in not being more informed of such things. It was his oversight, a matter he purposed to correct. Before Secretary Ansel could answer, the house steward entered carrying a tray with an urn of more steaming hot coffee. Ansel paused while the cups were refilled.
“Terima kasih, Budi. That will be all.” van Given said as he put his cup to his lips and breathed the wafting aroma.
“Hasbelt! Reverend Arnold Hasbelt. He’s got quite a reputation among the aboriginals. Speaks enough of the local languages to converse about most matters and has been quite intuitive concerning aboriginal values, superstitions and social order. His insights are most helpful. Really quite an interesting fellow. You should sit and chat with him as soon as you are settled in. He’s mostly out at his mission, but should be coming to the outpost in a few days. He generally comes in once a month around this time for supplies.”
“Hasbelt? Hasbelt?” van Given said to himself half aloud, “Where have I heard that name before? Yes, isn’t he the one who quelled a tribal dispute up in the mountains? I remember there was mention of the incident in Ternate.”
“Dispute nothing! Hell, it was war! It was flat out blood curdling around there. Two head hunting factions, Hattam and Meyah sub-clans, were at it, actually had been at it, tooth and nail for quite awhile. That reprisal stuff, you know. Hasbelt went in there on his own God-given authority and not too long afterward initiated peace between the two groups. Lucky for him they didn’t just do him in right away.”
“Amazing!” remarked van Given.
“Yes, he could have so easily suffered the fate of other evangelizing Europeans who have come to these islands.” Ansel pulled out his pipe and continued. “For sure, he is a brave if not foolish sort of fellow to have gone in there like he did. To hear him tell it, he relied heavily on the God-given part. Must be true. He was able to quickly learn enough of the language and start his mission. Been there ever since, about three years.”
“Simply amazing! And he’s the one who knows so much about aboriginal society and such?” Van Given remarked rhetorically, not expecting an answer.
“His background is quite impressive. In addition to his ministerial ordination, he holds a doctoral degree in Ancient Religions and Languages from the Conservatory of Ancient Studies in Mintz and has held the Chair in Anthropological Studies at the University of Gristheim in Bern. Quite a learned man.”
“He’s not Dutch, then?” van Given querried.
“No, not Dutch, German. However, please realize that the Utrecht Zendings has German, Swiss, and Scandinavian as well as Dutch members. The Zendings has taken an active interest to converting the heathen in Dutch East Indies. The Reformed tradition has no more fertile ground for reformation of the soul than right here in Netherlands New Guinea. Although, there are, eh, those who on philosophical grounds will argue whether aboriginals have souls at all, eh, but that’s another matter. In all honesty, Hasbelt is doing a fine job with his mission. Certainly without his presence they’d be back warring again. And only Providence knows where that would lead.”
“Yes, I’d very much like to meet him. When he does come in, Mr. Secretary, please see that we are properly introduced.” They quietly sipped. The severity of the downpour had noticeably lessened, allowing for more congenial conversation.
Van Given mused this new information in light of his recent encounter with the Hattam leader. There was much to learn and much to accomplish if he were to ensure the Dutch maintained their firm footing in New Guinea. As Van Given continued in silent thought, Ansel re-stoked his Meerschaum pipe and drew in deeply then expelled billowing white puffs of smoke. A sweet brandy-like odor enveloped the two men, a scent reminiscent of the men’s clubs back in Amsterdam. Van Given momentarily distant, was awash in thought when it struck him.