Originally published in: Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 152-2, September 1996.

Th. Stevens, Vrijmetselarij en samenleving in Nederlands-Indië en Indonesië 1764-1962. Hilversum: Verloren, 1994, 400 pp. Photographs, English language summary, index of persons. ISBN 90-6550-378-1. Price f. 65.


This is the first extensive book in Dutch by a historian on Freemasonry in Indonesia. An earlier, shorter, and English language work on this subject is Paul W. van der Veur, Freemasonry in Indonesia from Radermacher to Soekanto, 1762-1961. Ohio University, Center for International Studies, 1976. Th. Stevens works at Amsterdam University; he did much research, for instance in the archives of Dutch Masonry in The Hague.
He divides the book into four parts. First, the 1764-1870 period. Then, the `transitional' 1870-1890 period. Then, the `hey-day' of 1890-1930. Last, the `struggle to survive' from 1930 on, until 1961. Then, the Indonesian government banned the Masonic Order. Most members, being Dutch, had already gone to The Netherlands. Dr Stevens starts each part with a general overview of society and politics in Indonesia in the successive periods. He bases these chapters on existing literature; unlike the sources which make the other chapters interesting.
The author sometimes makes mistakes on matters not directly connected to his subject. On p. 152, he discusses the first Indonesian youth congress of 1926 in Jakarta. He states that this congress was a `completely different tendency within the national movement' than the Dutch-Indonesian League of Raden Mas Soeripto. However, this first congress, led by M. Tabrani, was not as radical as later youth congresses, not led by Tabrani. Tabrani and Soeripto were co-founders of the political party Partai Rakjat Indonesia. Its type of nationalism included co-operation with colonial authority.

The author has included an index of persons. An index of catchwords would also have been helpful in a book of this size. Noting details like this, I in no way mean to disparage the book's merits. Reviewers always would have written a book differently than authors have. This should never make reviewers forget how much less than what they review they themselves are writing.
Freemasonry first arose in eighteenth century England. It became an interesting factor in the history of various countries, including colonially ruled countries. For instance, Abner Cohen wrote on its impact in Sierra Leone. Stevens in his Introduction briefly mentions Masonry in India. I may add that Motilal Nehru, a prominent politician and the father of independent India's first prime minister, was a member.
The claim in Freemasonry that its direct historical origin were organizations of actually building, `operative' medieval European masons, is doubtful. Sometimes, Masons claimed even more ancient origins for their movement: the Egyptian Pharaohs or still earlier. Other, more esoterically religious, movements, like the Theosophical Society and Rosicrucian leagues, though (and because of?) arising later than Masonry and inspired by it, emphasized this type of claims even more. They, too, influenced colonial and post-colonial societies. In Cameroon today, Rosicrucianism is said to be prominent among high level army officers. In Indonesia, Masons helped to set up the Theosophical Society in the 1900's. It eventually overtook Masonry in membership in the East Indies colony, especially so among Indonesians.
Political writings by Indonesians sometimes mentioned Masonry. Raden Mas Soetatmo Soeriokoesoemo's Committee for Javanese Nationalism claimed it had four inspirations: the philosophers Hegel and Bolland, Masonry and theosophy. However, Soetatmo, an active theosophist, never joined Masonry. In this, he was an example of the limited impact of Masonry even on most of those Indonesians who might favour it.
Theosophists organized their own masonry, Co-Masonry, which, contrary to `masculine' Masonry, also admitted women members. It soon had at least six branches in Java, and one in Medan in Sumatra. Among their members was the prominent theosophist Mrs Cornelia Rensina van Mook-Bouwman. She was an author of poetry on the reincarnation doctrine, and the mother of the future Mason, and Lieutenant Governor-General, H.J. van Mook. How useful is Stevens' book to other historians? I personally can say that it was useful while I worked at my Ph. D. thesis on theosophy; even though it is only about masculine Masonry and hardly mentions Co-Masonry and other links to the Theosophical Society. Stevens deals extensively with the links of Masons to education, e.g., setting up nursery schools with mainly Indo-European pupils. He sees as a central question whether Masons have contributed `to the improvement of society'.
To answer this question, one should consider the doctrine of the brotherhood of humanity, of both Masons and theosophists. Theosophical writings modify this doctrine, by saying that there are elder and younger brothers; so, brotherhood implies inequality. Reading Stevens, one does not find such a limitation of the theory with Masons. Yet, in practice, membership did not include the low income majority of the people. The nineteenth century author Multatuli wrote a famous story about an Asian stone-mason. The parlance of the `symbolic' Masons would call him an `operative' mason, of, in practice often, a lower level than their own.
However, even if an organization has mainly elite members, still a historian may find in their writings critical notes of wider social significance.
On p. 256, Stevens quotes from the Indies Masons' Review in 1930. It provided a glimpse of colonial entrepreneurial spirit which the historian will not find in English language propaganda booklets of the Netherlands Indies government of that time:
`A sturdy 22 year old Dutch boy, imported a short time ago, enchantedly comes to tell me about his first experiences. A native dared to walk on a company road with his patent leather shoes on. He wanted to pass the manager and two young white collar employees, including my source. This really started something. The native got a brutal flogging, his shoes were taken off in a rough way, and thrown at the fleeing brown brother. My young friend helped with this beating as his boss watched contentedly, and really liked this work of civilization immensely. We have told him what we thought. However, the company adat [traditional customs] had already taken root. The shoes'' are the culprit, the brown brother will have to pass his betters barefoot.'
Details like this make Stevens' book worthwhile.