Corporal Van Kooi by  JC Leich Bronbeek Museum, Arnhem, Netherlands

Corporal Van Kooi by
JC Leich
Bronbeek Museum, Arnhem, Netherlands

Coming across an article by Ineke van Kessel about the little known story of West Africans who served in the 1800’s Dutch East Indies Army. I became curious and wanted to find out more about their contributions.

Recruitment took place in Elmina and Kumasi, Ghana from 1831 to 1872 to solve a manpower problem of the East Indies army or KNIL (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger).   Most of the 3,080 recruits were men from the area of present day Ghana and Burkina Faso. These men married and had children with Javanese and Indonesian women creating an Indo-African community.

The army career ran in the family with sons and grandsons of the African soldiers serving in World War II against Japan and the Dutch war against Indonesian nationalists.

Some soldiers returned to Ghana after army service like Corporal Jan Kooi, the first African soldier to be awarded the highest military honours in the Dutch army: the Militaire Willemsorde (4th class).  Willem Nelk returned in 1881, whilst his son Joseph stayed behind to join the Dutch East Indies army aged 15 serving until 1910.

One such descendant is author and journalist Griselda Molemans. Whilst writing her book ‘Daughters of the Archipelago, she met Mrs. Evelien Cordus-Klink, a great-granddaughter of African soldier Klink. She and her husband said they knew an “uncle Molemans” in the African Quarter in the garrison town of Poerworedjo.

Intrigued by this information as only having knowledge of her Dutch-Indonesian ancestry.  A visit to the National Archives in The Hague solved the mystery. She discovered inscription documents for her great grandfather Jan Molemans and then his father, an African soldier Molemans born in Omsoum, Burkina Faso.  She decided to fly out to Burkino Faso and find out more about him.

His real name was Yambaga Ouédraogo and his title was ‘naaba’, village chief. He was 22 when he was abducted by slave hunters and taken to Kumasi, where he was sold to the Dutch KNIL army.  Enlisting on 28th March 1840, he bought his freedom for 95,50 guilders which was deducted from his salary every month.

The village elders in Omsoum said he had three wives and six children and that he always wore a panther skin as a royal sign. Omsoum is a small village in the Yatenga region, inhabited by the Mossi tribe. The villagers never knew that their chief was abducted and shipped to the Dutch-Indies; they were convinced he was transported to Timbuktu and had sent out a few men to try to retrieve Yambaga.

Their contributions to the Dutch army have been little known until now. To preserve the history of the African KNIL-soldiers and their descendants. Mr. Daniel Cordus founded the Indo-Afrikaans Kontakt (IAF) in 2002 for people to connect and meet.

Charting her journey in finding out about her African ancestor Griselda wrote a book “In the tracks of the Panther” and is producing a documentary ‘The Forgotten Warrior’ about the loyal KNIL army Indo-African men who survived imprisonment at the Burma Railway and Japanese mines, but were discriminated against when they moved to Holland.

Let’s hope there are more panther’s stories to be told.

Thanks to Griselda for sharing her story.

Sources: West Africans in the Dutch Colonial Army by Ineke van Kessel https://openaccess.leidenuniv.nl/bitstream/handle/1887/4762/ASC-1241494-091.pdf?sequence=1

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