The curious yarn of a Kiwi in Java © Duncan Graham 2008
Hanging on the wall of a cramped kampong house in Singosari, East Java is a set of grainy soft-focus photos of the family’s ancestors. Sunshine, termites, damp and age haven’t treated them well, and the pictures started with a disadvantage.
In the early days of photography the rules were rigid; you had to dress formal and look severe. Today it’s difficult to sense the soul behind the monochrome stare, humanity in the flat featureless features.
And so it is here with the portraits of a gaunt, long faced foreigner in a bow tie flanked by Javanese teenagers, or with his housekeeper, equally stern. They seem to say; ‘We don’t trust this newfangled technology’.
The man wearing the ‘butterfly’, as they say in Singosari, was Charles Mainwaring Pilliet, a New Zealander who fled a disciplinarian father in his homeland to become an adventurer in South East Asia. He eventually died in 1959 in East Java aged 90, nursed by Mutmainah one of his adopted nieces.
Now 68 she recalled the day of his passing vividly: “As we took the body out of the house a powerful wind sprang up,” she said. “Windows banged open or slammed shut. The trees shook and bent their branches. We knew he was a paranormal.
“He was fanatical about the number seven. We had seven windows in the house and seven trees in the garden. He gave me seven bracelets.”
Who was this strange septenary Kiwi who apparently supported the Indonesian revolution and loathed the Dutch? What was he doing squatting in an Indonesian village and dying poor after being cheated of his wealth by the Madurese wife of a Scottish banker who got Pilliet to sign over his estate to her husband?
At the end of his life the old Kiwi was reduced to boiling buffalo bones to extract fat for sale as a rheumatism cure and getting the kids to hawk this door-to-door.
Now his great, great nephew Michael Pringle is trying to put together the missing threads in the tapestry of his colourful relative’s life. Pringle came to Indonesia 11 years ago to research the story and will return in January to see if he can sew a more complete narrative.
Unfortunately the old man’s books seem to have vanished. Mutmainah said he kept thousands in cupboards and wardrobes, but only the furniture remains.
Pilliet was born in 1869 in NZ’s South Island into a family with legal, journalistic and political connections, and ancestors from France. His mother died when he was three. It seems he didn’t get on with his stepmother and was raised by his grandfather.
Pilliet worked as a merchant seaman, then a miner before leaving for what was then the Dutch East Indies.
“His experiences on the west coast of Sumatra were extraordinary,” said Michael Pringle who is writing a biography of Charles’ father Walter. “Charles hunted tigers and elephants up remote rivers and undertook extremely dangerous exploratory forays into regions which had never previously seen a white man.
“ He suffered numerous bouts of malarial sickness and was probably lucky to have survived. In 1899 he was exploring the northern coast of the Celebes (now Sulawesi) sleeping in the open to avoid leprosy and other diseases that were rife in the villages.”
In Sulawesi Pilliet apparently fathered a daughter with a local woman, though the child later died. He set up house in Kupang, owned a lugger and traded in pearls in Western Australia and Singapore, amassing considerable wealth. He became the British consul in Dili where he worked as a spy monitoring German activities in the area.
He seems to have been fascinated by Eastern religions and philosophies. He read widely and in 1923 moved to Lawang, about 15 kilometers north of Malang where he built a house and had coffee plantations.
“He had a Javanese housekeeper who moved her two young nieces in with her for company,” said Pringle. “Charles became very fond of these children and almost adopted them as his own, picking them up from school and treating them with great affection. He was well regarded by the people of Lawang and taught the local children English in his house.”
Stories vary about his time during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia. One version has him being transported to the Changi prisoner-of-war camp in Singapore, though Mutmainah is adamant that didn’t happen.
She said he was arrested by the Japanese and released later when they discovered he wasn’t Dutch. This seems unlikely because New Zealand, along with Australia, was fighting with the Allies and Pilliet would have been considered an enemy alien.
However Mutmainah said that after the war he did stay for a year or more in Singapore where he had a Jewish friend. This may have been during the four-year war for Indonesian independence.
When Pilliet returned to Java he was a poor man though he got some support from his family in NZ.
Why didn’t he go back to his homeland? Mutmainah said this was because of his antagonism towards his father, but Walter had died in 1885 aged 45 from typhoid when young Charles was still a teenager. If this was the reason the hostility must have run deep.
What attracted Pilliet to East Java? Mutmainah said he spoke Indonesian, but not Javanese. He doesn’t seem to have gone native and continued to read newspapers from Singapore, drink whisky, make his own wine and dress as a European.
Pringle is particularly keen to trace his great, great uncle’s books. These were probably in English because the old man refused to use the Dutch language. They may well have been sold to libraries and were probably about philosophy.
If you have any clues or anecdotes, please contact Michael Pringle at firstname.lastname@example.org
(First published in The Jakarta Post Saturday 11 October)