Foolish midwives and weak women in Childbed: Gendered opinions on Midwifery in the Dutch East Indies, 1850-1900

European physicians in general had a low opinion of midwives. Going to the Indies, they took these opinions with them in their backpack. In the colony, Europeans looked down on the indigenous healers, the dukun, their contempt for dukun was even stronger for those specialized in obstetrics. The European sources on the doings of these traditional birth attendants (TBA) are real horror stories written with a lot of emotion. The attitude of the European doctors was taken over by the Western-trained Indonesian male doctors. Neither group realized that their help was only called in when a dukun could not handle the delivery because of a complication. They never watched a normal delivery which a TBA could handle perfectly well. This low esteem of TBAs was the main reason why the colonial government established a midwifery school in 1851. They wanted to educate young Indonesian women to become midwives and to replace the dukun. However, the colonial government was accused of letting white and brown mothers down in the most difficult hours of their lives by not providing sufficient obstetric care in the Dutch Indies – which in their view should be Western obstetrical help. This attitude was in line with the prevailing climate of those days, in which men wanted to protect both the workers, and the weak female species. The horror stories about the TBA and compassion with the women in childbed put pressure on the government to improve obstetric care. A fact that was underestimated was that indigenous women preferred TBAs, as they knew and respected the indigenous traditions and magical rituals in the process of childbirth. In the end, the colonial government decided to give priority to general health care and hygiene.

After her graduation as a historian, Liesbeth Hesselink (1943) worked as a teacher in secondary schools, as a civil servant first for the ministry of Education and later for the municipality of Leiden. She also represented the Dutch Labour Party as a member of the board of Councillors for the municipality of Leiden for eight years. After her retirement, she attained her doctorate in 2009 with her thesis titled Genezers op de koloniale markt, inheemse dokters en vroedvrouwen in Nederlands Oost-Indië 1850-1915, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009 (Healers in the colonial market place, indigenous doctors and midwives in the Dutch East Indies 1850 – 1915 ). Other publications: “Crossing Colonial and Medical Boundaries: Plural Medicine on Java, 1850-1910” in A. Digby, W. Ernst and P.B. Mukharhji (eds.), Crossing Colonial Historiographies: Histories of Colonial and Indigenous Medicines in Transnational Perspective, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, planning to appear in September 2010, p. 117-43.


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