Tracking the Panther: The Dutch West African Army

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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


Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) Centenary of his death


Went to a great talk recently at the National Portrait Gallery by author Charles Elford about composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to mark the centenary year of his death.  Even though Charles had written his own book about him, he read excerpts from another author Jeffrey Green.

I had heard of Samuel before but this talk really gave a more detailed insight into his achievements.

Samuel was born 15th August 1875  to Alice Hare Martin, an English woman, and Dr Daniel Peter Hughes Taylor, from Sierra Leone.  There is no evidence of them being married. He grew up with his mother and her family in Croydon.  Samuel did not know his father who had left before he was born.    

Receiving a scholarship to attend the Royal College of Music aged 17.  His most well-known composition was Hiawatha Wedding Feast.  Samuel married fellow student Jessie Walmisley on 30th December 1899, despite opposition from her family due to him being mixed race.  They had two children Gwen and Hiawatha.

Unfortunately, by selling the rights to publishers of his work it left him with no royalties.  It was exhausting listening to the many jobs he held down to make ends meet which included lecturer and conductor at numerous organisations.  African-American spirituals were a huge influence to his music and he formed friendships with poet and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar and historian and Pan-Africanist WEB Du Bois. Travelling extensively and even meeting President Roosevelt at the White House in 1904.

There was a cost to being overworked and he fell ill at West Croydon station, eventually dying of pneumonia aged 37 years old on 1st September 1912.

At the question and answer session at the end of the talk I asked if there were any of Samuel’s descendants here and was surprised to see a couple of hands shoot up.  It was great speaking with them.

There was one mystery, we learnt that Samuel found out his father had died.  I wonder who told him and his feelings about that?

I left having learnt more about this great composer and my overriding feeling was that he had so much more to give but it was sadly cut short.

Who Do You Think You Are? What’s the verdict?


Did anyone see yesterday’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are on BBC1 with actress Samantha Womack?

What with sticky fingered relatives and abandoned children.  It was all exciting and informative stuff.

Her reactions were classic television moments.  The television crew must have been rubbing their hands with glee.  Cue lots of surprised open mouth shots and Samantha showing off her numerical skills by calculating relatives ages.

I wonder what happened to Jessie?  Was it happy ever after?  Does Samantha have family in the USA?  None of these questions were answered.  Although I understand they can only fit in so much.  It would have been great to see the full story.

In this episode newspaper archives were relied upon.  I love reading old newspapers, they are so informative. You learn so much and really get a real feel for what’s happening in the world at that time.

Check out British Library Newspapers at Colindale Avenue, London, NW9 5HE.  Website:  Remember you will need a readers pass to access their records.


India Office Records at British Library

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I have researched many British India family trees.

The India Office records at the British Library is a fantastic resource if you have British ancestors who lived in India between 1600 to 1947/8.

Tip of the day – it should be noted that if you are searching the baptism records it does not indicate who the child’s parents are.  Therefore if you are searching for an ancestor with a very common surname it can be time-consuming.  Try and see if their names appear, which would then reduce your time.  Better still contact me and I can conduct the on-site research for you.

British Library family history sources include:

Biographical index

Returns of baptisms, marriages and burials

Wills, Administrations and Inventories

Pension Fund records

Military Service records

Civil Service records

Watch out for website transcription errors


Whilst researching a rather large family tree. I kept overlooking a transcribed entry on the ancestry website that should have matched but the surname was Hagelgans.  Unusual I thought and continued repeatedly searching for this missing family member.

Eventually I decided to look at the actual record to rule it out.  Found out it was the missing family member I was searching for – surname Hazelgrove!

Moral of the story? Always check the actual original image.  No website is full proof in regards to mistakes.