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The first ten years of my life I was not black. I was in many ways different from those around me, but not darker. That much I know. Then came the day when I became aware that my colour had deepened. Later, once I was black, I paled again.
On every tea field I had, I always planted some poinsettias, also called flame-leaf or euphorbia. A touch of scarlet amid the green every hundred yards or so prevents blindness among the pickers. Seeing the same colour for hours on end causes the vision to blur, like staring into the sun. A single flash of a different hue restores the contrast.
Such a lone red plant has a remarkable effect on its surroundings. Everything that is green draws together. Before the eye, all the variegated shades of green in the tea bushes, which were clearly distinguishable at first, blend into one sea of colour. Differences disappear. The decor becomes monotonous. What else is there to say other than--yes, how green it all is. A very green sort of green. Or rather: it is offensively un-red!
Conversely, the red plant itself burns a brighter red when set off by the green than when it grows among its peers. In the bed I always reserved for poinsettia seedlings, there was little to distinguish one plant from its neighbours. My poinsettia did not turn scarlet until I planted it out in new surroundings. Colour is not something one has, colour is bestowed on one by others.
It is 1900. Anniversary celebrations are popular this year in Buitenzorg society. Wedding anniversaries, the anniversary of Grandmother's demise, Madame's umpteenth change of hair colour. Anything for a celebration. Indeed the new century is being fêted week in week out, and only so that ghosts may be laid. Everyone wishes to convince themselves and each other that all is well and that bygones should be bygones. A great show is made of having no fears about the future.
And so word has been put about that it is half a century since I arrived in the Indies. Congratulations for nothing! Notwithstanding my profound reluctance, Adeline Renselaar, Mrs. van Zadelhof's cousin, has set her mind on having a celebration. She has already involved three families in her machinations, and was even seen in the Deer Park last week, chattering to the governor about this very matter.
A small committee of organizers sprang a visit on me this morning to discuss the timing and location of my jubilee. They enquired after the sensitivities of my elderly stomach, so that they might take them into account when planning the menu for the banquet. The style of 1850, which is the date of my arrival in Java, is to prevail in every detail. It is no concern of mine. The expense appears to be immaterial.
"We do not see much of you at our social gatherings," said Mrs. Renselaar, that stout harpy with her eagle beak.
"Of course that is your business entirely, but you cannot deny us the right to celebrate on your behalf. That would be unfair. One cannot grudge other people their pleasures. Besides, I wish to deepen our acquaintance. To think that we have been exchanging greetings all these years without the faintest idea of what was going on in each other's lives. But now, now that my husband has told me about your, well, about the affair . . . What I mean is, the least we can do now is pay tribute!"
I only heard half of what she said, because the whole time our farcical exchange lasted I could smell my coffee fields burning. I saw Willem Gongrijp give a little shudder of glee at each gust that came our way. He is the self-appointed master of ceremonies, while everyone knows he cannot wait for me to croak so that he can get his hands on my land. With him on the committee there is no need for a wicked fairy. I answered their questions with due civility, but when I finally got rid of them, the sense of time running out weighed heavily in my room. I crossed the river and sought eternity in Wayeng's lap--twice in fact--but there is no love strong enough to deflect me from my thoughts.
I left her embrace in the night. I needed fresh air. Aquasi Junior, who lay beside us, woke up and wheedled for attention. So as not to disturb Wayeng I took my son outside. We sat together for a while, until he fell asleep with his head on my knees. Not being used to this, at first I hardly dared move. Now and then, however, I had to shift my position because my muscles had become stiff. He did not seem to notice. He turned over and lay sprawled on his back, utterly serene. I brought my hand to his face and traced the contours without touching him. After a while I became bolder and stroked his hair. It is soft and loosely curled, quite unlike mine. I stroked it again and could not stop. I was brimming with love. The sky was overcast, but now and then the moon emerged to show me a glimpse of his face.
My son is nine years old. I am in my seventy-third year. By the time he leaves school I will be seventy-six. By the time he falls in love . . . I will not live to see him a grown man. (I would wish him to study at Delft in Holland, but funds are low. I think I shall write another letter to our young queen, informing her of my plans.)
I am too old. I do not even know whether my children see in me a father or merely a kindly old man who visits their mothers from time to time. That is the price one pays for having postponed happiness for so long.
There I sat with my child. I was seized by the notion that one day he will want to know what sort of man his father was. I cursed Adeline Renselaar. It is because of her poking about in my past that I am beset by such thoughts.
It was still night when I returned to my house. I sought out the boxes that I had secluded in a safe place. Not safe enough. I have often considered burning all these letters and notebooks, but could never bring myself to part with them. They are all I have left to remind me of the other men I have been.
Just before daybreak I felt the need to relieve myself. I was already holding the chamber pot when something in me rebelled. I stared at the hairline cracks in the Delftware and felt utterly out of place in the darkly panelled room with its velveteen curtains. I set off for our small outdoor washroom, but halfway there I changed my mind and made for one of the trees, opened my clothing in the open air, which gave me a childish thrill, and let my water splash against the trunk. For the first time in years I noticed the impudent croaking of the frogs, although it is never absent. I stooped to see the foam blister and sink among the roots, first dark, then silvery white in the gloaming. It was a signal for butterflies, and a few minutes later the place was teeming with them.
It is of course improper to relieve oneself against trees, at any rate once one's student days are over. In fact I never do so in the open. Never. I leave that to the natives. But this morning I was overcome by an indomitable urge. Oddly enough I felt no shame.
The sapling that served as my urinal is not a native species. It came from a consignment of seeds, fruits, plant cuttings and rootstocks I ordered from the Gold Coast. The greater part of the consignment was lost to the rains. But this shoot was willing. The tree it came from is not overly delicate, and will adapt to any environment. It is the tree that was called kuma by us, in the kingdom of Ashanti. There, I believe, it was common practice to relieve oneself against trees. I have no recollection of any embarrassment.
The story of the tree is, in brief, as follows: One day Osei Tutu cut two branches off the kuma tree. He planted them in the earth, at some distance from each other. One cutting adjusted well to its surroundings, sending down roots in the soil--asi in the Twi language. It sprouted buds and bore fruit. The other cutting shrivelled and died. Osei Tutu founded his capital of Kumasi, seat of the mighty Asantehene of Ashanti, at the foot of the thriving kuma tree. Kuma-asi, the soil under the kuma, is my native soil.
It was this story that I wished to tell my servant this afternoon. I was in my study hunched over my papers when the old rogue stole over the veranda. He let down the blinds against the sun, which at five o'clock sinks beneath the palm fronds and glares into the house. Feeling mellow towards him, I beckoned him to my side and thought to divert us both with some musings on the kuma tree.
"Osei Tutu cut off two branches," I began. "He planted them in the earth, at some distance apart. One of them adjusted well and rooted. The other withered and snapped. Our capital city marks the spot where the tree thrived. Kuma-Asi, seat of the mighty Asantehene of Ashanti." I noticed his eyes wandering, so I leaned over to set him at ease and, speaking to him, man to man, I took him into my confidence.
"Osei Tutu was my great-grandfather. Did I ever tell you that, Ahim?"
"Only three times since this morning, tuan."
"You are a liar," I said. "I just happen to have these old letters in front of me. Pure coincidence. Memories. I have not given that old tale a thought in years."
Ahim said nothing and made to dust off the portrait of the young Queen Wilhelmina, which I keep on the ornamental easel by my desk. But his smile stung me like a nettle. So I barked: "Have you been to the post?"
"You are lying!" I roared.
I am not in the habit of raising my voice against servants. Not that I have any others besides Ahim.
"You have been stealing my letters, to sell at the thieves' market behind the madhouse. Don't think I don't know.
Or flogging them to that man on Gunung Batu. You think my letters contain state secrets in code and that the assistant resident's spies will pay good money for them. I know what you're up to. I'll have you arrested and whipped this very afternoon."
I am well aware that it is at least six months since I received any letters, and even then there was no message from our young queen, although I have written to The Hague three times already and maybe even four. Not a word from Weimar, either, although I send a lengthy missive there each week. The grand duchess is dead. She died years ago. I learned this from the Saxon envoy, whom I meet regularly in the Botanical Gardens, where we sit on a bench under the casuarina tree and converse in what little German I can still remember. But he assures me that her poor Carl Alexander still thinks of me and even asks after me now and then. Sasha is a man of honour who would not forget an old friend, so where have his letters got to?
Of course I know that Ahim is not embezzling anything--he is too dense to be wicked--but his insolent grin riled me, and I was only paying him back for going out of his way to torment me, a defenceless old man.
"So what did you pilfer this time? Post from The Hague, I shouldn't wonder. Disappointing, was it? Those royal dispatches contain nothing but kind words," I sneered. "They are tokens of respect. From your queen to your master!"
"The letters have stopped," he had the effrontery to say. He was right, of course, but there was no need to rub it in. I lowered my voice ominously so as to intimidate him.
"Do you know what we Ashanti used to do with liars?"
"Indeed I do, tuan. Cut out the tongue and impale the body by the palace gate so that it may be pissed on by the people," the villain replied, as if I was beginning to bore him.
"Quite right," I said, as coolly as I could. "Those were the days."
"And yet I go all the way to the post office every week. Even though I know there will be nothing."
"You're lying. From now on I will go myself."
"You are too old, tuan."
"And you can call me by my rightful name, you cur."
"As you wish: you are too old, Prince Aquasi." Ahim bowed his head, but not low enough to my taste. I am amazed at how little it takes for me to lose my temper nowadays.
"You can stuff your Judas ways you know where. Ahim, pay attention! The letters. I have written three to the young queen and two to the grand duke, all of them unanswered."
"They have forgotten you."
"If you have already been to the post, then it must have been too early.
What do you care whether you do a decent day's work? Go back there, I tell you."
"The courier from Batavia had already been and gone by the time I arrived. Your wife was there. Ask her."
"No, Lasmi. She was on her way to see the doctor with little Quamina. There was a package for him, which the clerk asked her to deliver."
I have never heard of the post from Batavia arriving at Buitenzorg later than two o'clock, not even in the rainy season, but I was beyond reasoning.
"I want you to go anyway."
"I am not getting any younger," Ahim protested. "It takes me an hour on foot. Do you expect me to make the return journey in the dark?"
"That is immaterial to me. It will teach you not to tell a pack of lies and leave me empty-handed." A pity that a man seems the weaker for his show of strength. Ahim was unimpressed.
"I'll go for the next delivery, as I always do, Raden."
"Are you saying you won't do as I say?"
"There is no point."
"I shall have you beaten."
Ahim sighed and retorted wearily, as if to a slow-learning child: "In that case I will lodge a complaint with the resident. There will be a court case. Nothing but trouble. And who will go to the post office for you next week? Times have changed, Raden Aquasi, Prince. Not for me, though. I am the last slave in Java. Just my luck."
"What do you know about slavery, you simpleton? When I was a boy I had slaves of my own. Not just one, over a hundred. They were men, tall and broad-shouldered. Not soft-bellied like you, with your womanly wrists. They had big teeth, not filed into little points like yours. A hundred strong men, just for me. Do you know what I would have done with you then?"
"Yes, their heads rolled every day."
"And do you suppose they cared?"
His indifference enraged me, and I started shouting. "That they cared, is that what you think? Not on your life. They were proud to be dispatched to their ancestors at my hands. They stood in line with patient faces. Strong features, sincere smiles--wide, not like those girlish half-smiles of yours, which do not even hide your contempt. No, they were glad to die for me. They were men. You wouldn't understand. You were born to be a hindrance."
And as if to substantiate my accusation he had the impertinence to answer back. "If I were merely your servant, Prince, you know I would have left long ago. If I were looking for a well-paid position, or had to support a family, I would have packed up and left when we were still at Suka Radya. I would have stopped working when my wages stopped. Just like the others. And if I had borne a grudge against you . . . No, whether you like it or not, we are doomed to stay together. I saw you when you first came. I saw how you struggled. And I will see you go, too." With these words the old fool shambled off, as if I had signalled the end of the conversation. He let down the remaining blinds, muttering: "I will stay. And tomorrow, tomorrow I suppose I shall go to the post office again."
I pretended to be touched by his sentimental ramblings, and continued in a convivial tone.
"Do you think it possible that my letters never reached Holland?"
"First you accuse me of lying and then you ask my opinion. You were feverish again this afternoon, when you were resting. I heard you cry out. The watchman heard you too. You were babbling in your sleep. What are you afraid of?"
Am I bound to answer my servant's questions? I remained silent, but the shameless brute was undaunted.
"Shall I look into the future?" he asked. "Or into the past?"
"Those are heathen practices."
"And making heads roll isn't?"
I shrugged. "It is you and your constant harassment that make me think of such things in the first place."
Ahim responds to criticism like another man to a pat on the back. He just smiles and tilts his head like an old spinster. It gives him an infuriatingly condescending air.
"Well, what shall it be, cards or tea leaves?"
I was not in the mood for either.
"I've had enough of the past," I said. "More of it keeps coming."
"We are old," said Ahim. "That's what happens with age."
"My head has been pounding all day with the sound of the knives chopping down the coffee plants. Each blow triggers a memory."
"The plantation. Yes, it is sad. Now all we have left are paddy fields."
"Because you are too damn idle to work, that's the trouble. Am I to be pestered with your visions of the future on top of everything else? Bring me some writing paper. And tell them to stop chopping for the day. I cannot abide it any longer."
Ahim shuffled to the writing desk, brought me a sheet of paper and demanded to know who was to be the happy recipient this time.
I said nothing, and to mislead him I scrawled on the paper, muttering under my breath, "My very dear old friend . . ." But he interrupted me.
"The grand duke of Saxe received a letter not long ago."
"How would you know? It is quite possible, probable even, that you mislaid it somewhere. Deliberately. Get out of my sight or I'll have you flogged."
"And who do you suppose would cook for you tonight, tuan?"
It was not, as it happens, my intention to write a letter. Since yesterday's visit I have been tormented by the notion that, when the worthies of Buitenzorg dance the polonaise at my jubilee or on my grave, they will think of me as an endearing little old man with tightly curled grey hair they cannot resist tweaking. I am filled with the desire to confront Willem Gongrijp and his cronies with the man I once was. But I lack the strength. Realizing how feeble I have become made me wish to put some order into the thoughts that are still harboured in my soul. I set about arranging them into a speech, which I hoped would make my jubilee audience sit up and listen. So as soon as Ahim left I started off with the facts, as follows:
I am Aquasi Boachi, born prince of the kingdom of Ashanti on the Gold Coast of Africa. I was educated at Delft, but have lived in Java for the past fifty years and at Suka Sari since 1888. The said estate, which I run, having an extent of 89 bahu or 630 hectares, is located in the residency of Batavia, section and district of Buitenzorg, east of the main road to Gadok, two and a-half posts south-east of Buitenzorg station at an altitude of 959 Rhineland feet. The owner is Mrs. M.C. van Zadelhof, née Tietz. She leases me her land for an annual sum of 21,800 guilders. The population living on the estate, which counted 804 souls upon my arrival, has more than doubled in the past twelve years: there are now 1963. They are content, which is no mean achievement considering that the profits have not increased during that time, indeed in some years they have decreased. I have had to desist from the cultivation of tea. My production nowadays consists of rice and, until recently, also coffee. Whereas in 1889 my coffee yield still amounted to 51 picul, two years later it was only 30 and, because of unseasonable rains and the poor quality of the soil, that figure has dropped to 1/2 picul, being a mere 63 kilograms, for the whole of last year. Consequently I have been obliged to discontinue coffee planting altogether and consider expanding the area under paddy, which crop seems indestructible. It is not a rosy picture I paint, but I am proud to say that not a soul on my estate has suffered from these setbacks. Not a soul, I say, except myself. I find consolation in the love of my children. Of the five I have fathered, three survive. My son Quamin works on a tea estate in the Preanger. The two little ones, Aquasi Junior and my daughter Quamina Aquasina, were born of women that live and work on my land.
I had to stop there, for into my mind's eye surged a bevy of ladies wearing party hats, smiling and hiding behind their fans. It cannot be helped; their celebrating my arrival in their midst half a century ago amounts to the same thing as celebrating the fact that, thanks to me, they have had something to gossip about all these years. I am not married. My children were born of gentle native women with whom I live in free love. They are much talked about in the parlours of Buitenzorg. Suddenly the prospect of addressing an audience made up of tattletales and vultures repelled me. I reflected that they might be less amused if I ventured to tell them how I once attempted to court a white woman in the theatre at Batavia, in the manner of their own Dutch men. After all, that manner permits young ladies first to pick their husbands and then their lovers, so they have nothing to complain about.
It goes like this: a gentleman with a mind to love does not leave his hat in the cloakroom, but takes it inside and places it on the rim of the balcony in front of him. This is a signal to the ladies, whom he fixes with his opera glasses. He gestures how much he is prepared to disburse. If she raises her left hand to fan some air at her cheeks she is favourably inclined, waving the right hand means the bidding is too low or that a renewed advance should be made elsewhere.
I made no headway myself. It cannot have been my hat that you found unappealing, Ladies, for you did not object to being seen next to less stylish models than mine. Thank God for the native women hovering around the tempeh stall by the stage door, where luckless men such as I could buy their favours for a cup of rice. But the love of Adi, Lasmi and Wayeng, the mothers of my heirs, has delivered me from seeking love among the rejects. I love them as they love me. I will leave to them all I possess, and I find more fulfilment in our children than I can ever explain to a Batavian audience in a few factual statements.
So I tore up my first draft. It was correctly phrased, but how can a life be summed up in dates and figures? The crucial events do not follow one another in orderly fashion, like the staging posts along the Great Post Road to Surabaya. The tracks have been effaced. Why is it, when one shuts one's eyes, that some people come to mind and not others?
Ahim is right--quite contrary to his custom--when he says that I am plagued by dreams during my afternoon rest. Even if I do not sleep, as soon as I close my eyes the memories come thick and fast. But I rarely picture Java. The images that flood my memory are never of the people I encounter daily, nor of animals, nor even of the dense greenery that has been the setting of so much of my life. Judging by my memory, fifty years in the Indies have gone by in a flash, whereas a falcon hunt at Het Loo palace back in Holland has lasted forever. The archives of the mind are wanting in indexes--save for a few catchwords maybe. But perhaps these are all that is needed.
Sometimes I imagine that God is interested only in the broad sweep. We leave our marks on the white canvas and we cannot make head or tail of the result. But He, a creative artist if ever there was one, takes a few steps back and sees what the smudges represent. If He manages to recognize me in the cautious daubings I have left behind, that is the best possible proof of His existence. I have always held that, for people like me, it is best to make one's mark in the margins of existence, inconspicuously. But in retrospect I am struck by how much of the last fifty years is a blank. Is that cause for celebration?
All this talk of anniversaries reminds me that it will be fifty years tomorrow since my cousin died. I think it was then that I lost the ability to be at one with my actions. If it is true to say, as I believe it is, that the merit of love is that it lends distinction to whosoever is loved--the one serving as a foil to the other--then we loved one another. I became distinct by virtue of the contrast between us.
I know it is late. A man does not reach the stage of full recollection until his dying days. The year of my birth is supposedly 1827. I still live well, although my health is failing rapidly. The first debility is insomnia, which is hardly surprising as I have never been a sound sleeper. The nocturnal hour, when a man must part with consciousness, has always filled me with anguish. Simply closing my eyes gives free access to the demons and the dead, which clash with my strong desire to comprehend and control all that surrounds me.
Nowadays the shades of the past have access day and night. A good night's sleep might give me some temporary relief. But I have turned necessity into virtue, and have learned to love all my visitors. I catch myself looking forward to this or that person returning to me in my reveries. The pleasure it gives me to dwell on the past is nothing but a symptom of my old age. Daring to admit that you long to return--there is no more to dying than that.
Taking leave of this life is one thing, taking leave of this century quite another. Little cause for celebration there.
All the commotion makes me nervous.
In September 1847 Kwame and I spent two days together, secluded in my student digs at Delft. It was fine weather on that Saturday and Sunday before Kwame's embarkation and before I too made up my mind to leave Holland. We wanted to be alone with our thoughts. On the evening of the Friday I decided to absent myself from professor Oudshoorn's lecture the next Monday, as this would give me two full days in which to devote myself with all my heart to Kwame, my beloved cousin, my blood brother, the man once designated to be my king. Having the extra day meant that we could postpone our grief at parting until after the weekend.
I am facing another departure. And there is to be a feast in my honour. The date is drawing near, and there are no more extra days to be won by playing truant. That is what the next century means for me.
Something irks me. In her torrent of words last week Adeline Renselaar said something that keeps nagging at the back of my mind. It took a while to sink in, but now I can think of nothing else. She had a conspiratorial air. Her husband had spoken to her of my affair. My affair? Which affair? What kind of gossip is this?
At daybreak this morning I called at Wayeng's house. She was surprised to see me. I asked her if I might spend the morning with Aquasi. And so it happened that I took a walk with my son. He was very talkative, and all I did was listen. I realized how absurd my intention had been. How could a nine-year-old child be expected to listen to the misadventure of an African boy a lifetime ago? He grew tired and I carried him home in my arms with difficulty. My heart is not up to the strain. I was drenched in perspiration.
No sooner was I back in my house than I opened my boxes again and spread out the contents on my desk: diplomas, certificates, van Drunen's report on the Dutch expedition to Kumasi, his notes on our education, letters from all and sundry, paper cut-out silhouettes, my scrapbook with friends' dedications. And although my physician tells me I should not drink, I resolved to get excessively drunk just one last time
23 February, 4 a.m.
The best plant cuttings grow in dung--even a child knows that. I have just, in a moment of mischief, done the rest of my business in the garden as well. When I finished I broke off two branches from the kuma tree. That was not difficult to do, because, although the tree can withstand the most violent storms and changes colour with the seasons, it does not thrive on alien shores the way it thrives in Africa. I planted the branches in the earth, at some distance from each other. I shall instruct Ahim that, should one of them strike root, my grave is to be dug beside it. Give him a little diversion.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It is 1837, and two 11 year old Ghanaian princes are taken to Holland to be educated. The Dutch authorities are not exactly altruistic. In exchange, Ghanaian king is to provide a steady stream of black slaves for the Dutch Guyana. Slavery is officially abolished so it¿s not a clean deal in more than one way. The princes arrive in Holland, prove to be extraordinarily intelligent and able students, albeit too different to make friends. They soon forget their mother tongue, and even though they are guests of the royal family and generally treated well, they become very quickly displaced. Their later life becomes quite tragic. One of them tries to return to Ghana, but can¿t even communicate with his own people and consequently commits suicide. The other one, Kwasi, feels Dutch, and wants to stay Dutch, but is denied positions appropriate to his education and status. Even though fictionalized, this biography is heavily based on fact. Japin spent ten years doing research for it and looking through many letters and personal effects in Holland, Germany and Ghana. Though slow in places, this book is very interesting and contains quite stunning passages and insights.