The jamu women: herbal medicine in colonial Indonesia

The jamu women: herbal medicine in colonial Indonesia

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my upcoming trip to Indonesia. Back in the Netherlands, I am cherishing the new memories of everything we saw and did. Throughout Indonesia, we encountered many reminders of the shared Dutch-Indonesian colonial past. Predictably, some were rather embarrassing, such as the fact that as we were travelling, the Dutch government finally apologized half-heartedly for the atrocities committed by captain Westerling.

Caricature wajang puppets at the National Wajang Museum, Jakarta, Indonesia

Caricature wajang puppets at the National Wajang Museum, Jakarta, Indonesia

Others were endearing or even funny, such as the caricatural wajang puppets of J.P. Coen (1587-1629), founder of Batavia, in the National Wajang Museum. Understandably, in many cities little is left of Dutch colonial architecture, and finding traces of the medicine and chemistry of the eighteenth century would have required archival expeditions, something I had promised my better half to refrain from during this holiday. However, many other, more recent souvenirs of a shared history of medicine were easily found. The most enjoyable was probably a visit to the jamu factory of Nyonya Meneer in Semarang, a big harbour city in the north-east of Java, the city where my mother-in-law was born.

Portrait of Nyonya Meneer in the factory museum, Semarang, Indonesia.

Portrait of Nyonya Meneer in the factory museum, Semarang, Indonesia.

About fifty years earlier, Nyonya Meneer (1895-1978) was born in East Java. Here actual name was Lauw Ping Nio, but she probably was required to have an Indonesian name too as she was a member of the ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia. ‘Meneer’ (which means ‘mister’ in Dutch) was likely a degeneration of the Indonesian word ‘menir,’ broken rice, which her mother was said to have craved during her pregnancy. When Nyonya’s husband suffered from severe intestinal complaints in the 1920s, Nyonya Meneer started to make him jamu medicines, traditional Indonesian herbal cures. Eventually, she set up a business to sell them to others too, and today Nyonya Meneer jamu products are sold throughout Asia.[1]

Advertisement for breast-firming herbs, probably 1940s.

Advertisements in Dutch and Indonesian for breast-firming herbs, probably 1940s.

In the small museum at the factory site, you can see a nice selection of historical documents, photographs, some of Nyonya Meneer’s personal belongings, an explanation of the production process, and objects such as raw ingredients, storage containers, product packaging, and historical production tools. In the museum, it quickly becomes clear how intertwined the lives of the Indonesians and the Dutch were in the colonial era. Nyonya Meneer taught herself the basics of pharmaceutics from a Dutch handbook, and many of the advertisements from before 1950 are in Dutch, as jamu was popular with both the Dutch and the Indonesians. This also shows from the fact that a 1907 Dutch handbook on the curative powers of Indonesian plants was so popular that it was updated and reprinted at least ten times in fifty years.[2] As late as the 1980s an Indonesian translation was sold.[3]

What is interesting to see is that women, both Indonesian and Dutch, dominated the domain of jamu or traditional herbal medicine in twentieth-century Dutch Indonesia and that it was a shared domain with Semerang as its centre. Nyonya Meneer founded an emporium and ran her company almost single-handedly for about half a century, and ‘Kloppenburg,’ the handbook written by Mrs.’s  Kloppenburg-Versteegh (1862-1948) and originally published in Semarang, was a household name for Dutch women in Indonesia.

The most obvious explanation for this would be that herbal medicine was traditionally the domain of women, and that women would have to deal with ill family members and manage the household budget, which may have created a market for the relatively easily obtainable jamu products. However, this is just speculation, and my visit to the Nyonya Meneer factory raised many more questions that are worth answering, such as whether Mrs. Meneer and Mrs. Kloppenburg-Versteegh ever met, how Semarang came to be the centre of Jamu production, et cetera. Who knows, maybe I or someone else will one day have a chance to investigate further.