*Singapore History is a series where we delve into the lives of prominent names in Singapore’s history, and find out what happened to them after leaving footsteps in our historical past.

Maria Hertogh was more than just a name in our history textbooks

More than 55 years after the riots that erupted on 11 December 1950, Maria Hertogh’s name is still brought up when issues involving race and religion arise. However, there is a lot more to her story than just the legal tussle which resulted in the racial riots. We delve into her storied past, and what happened to her after the racial riots.

The backstory

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Born Maria Huberdina Hertogh in 1937 to a Dutch Catholic family, she was known as Bertha (or Berta) Hertogh to the Dutch, although later court proceedings and the English Press used the name Maria Hertogh more frequently. Shortly after her birth, Maria was baptised by a Catholic priest. Her father, Adrianus Hertogh, was a sergeant in the Dutch Army, while her mother, Adeline Hunter, was a Eurasian of Scottish-Javanese descent raised in Java.

During the Second World War, the Imperial Japanese Army captured Maria’s father, and he was detained until 1945. In the meantime, Adeline brought her five children to stay with her mother, Nor Louise. In 1942, Adeline gave birth to a boy, her sixth child. Maria was the third of her children, and also the youngest daughter. Three days after the birth of the baby boy, Maria went to stay with her grandmother’s close friend, a 42-year-old Malay woman from Malaya, Aminah binte Mohammad.

Trouble brews

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Adeline Hertogh on the left; Che Aminah on the right.
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Maria never returned, until 1950.

Adeline’s account was that she consented Maria to stay with Aminah in Bandung for only three or four days. Five days later, Maria was not returned, so Adeline set out on a borrowed bicycle to get her daughter home. She claimed that a Japanese sentry on Bandung’s outskirts arrested her since she did not have a pass and was sent to an internment camp.

While she was interned, Adeline smuggled a letter to her mother, asking for her children to be sent to her. Nor Louise did so, but Maria was still with Aminah, so Adeline requested for her mother to retrieve Maria. Nor Louise wrote that Aminah wanted Maria to stay for another two days, and would bring Maria to the camp herself after. Aminah’s promise fell through and Adeline did not get to see Maria throughout her internment. After Adeline was released, neither Maria nor Aminah could be found.

On the other hand, Aminah claimed that Adeline offered her a child to adopt since Aminah did not have any children, and that she would answer to Adrianus for having given a child away. She also said that Adeline did not ask for her child back during the three years Maria stayed with Aminah.

Maria’s new family

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Aminah gave Maria a Muslim name, Nadra (or Natrah) binte Ma’arof, and raised her as a Malay Muslim. Aminah and her family relocated to Jakarta before their return to Bandung. Aminah’s fluency in Japanese allowed her to work as an interpreter for the Japanese military police until the war ended. In 1947, the Indonesian National Revolution broke out. Aminah and her family moved to her hometown in Terengganu, Malaya for fear that harm would befall her family since Maria was a putih (White Child). By then, Maria was no different as any other Malay Muslim girl – she wore Malay clothes, spoke only Malay, and practised Islam devoutly.

The search for their lost daughter

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After the war ended in 1945, Adrianus was released and reunited with Adeline. They began looking for their lost daughter, lodging a request with Dutch officials. Eventually, Maria and Aminah were traced in Kemaman. Needless to say, a fierce custody battle ensued, and drew international attention as the press sensationalised the case. After initial court ruling granted custody to the Hertoghs, Maria and Aminah both shouted in Malay that they would rather kill themselves than be separated. They would eventually part in tears when Aminah’s lawyer explained that Maria had to be surrendered until an appeal was filed.

However, the Appellate Court (appeals court) later found ambiguity in the representation of Maria’s birth father and the initial verdict was overruled, to Aminah and Maria’s joy. Estranged from her birth parents and resenting them for giving her away, Maria wished to stay with Aminah.

 The first marriage

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Four days later, Maria married a 22-year-old teacher, Mansoor Adabi in a Muslim ritual. According to Mansoor, it was “love at first sight”. It was speculated that the marriage was a move by Aminah to stop the Hertoghs from fighting for Maria’s custody, since Maria returned to stay with Aminah after the wedding night and the couple did not consummate their marriage.

The marriage did not deter Adeline from fighting for her daughter, even though Maria was a willing party. Maria said:

I will not go to any country outside Malaya. It is no use Mr Hertogh trying to separate me from my husband.

I am a Muslim, I have made my choice and I will stay with my husband now until we die.

The legality of the marriage and custody of Maria was raised in court. At the time, Maria was 13, and considered underage in accordance to Dutch laws, where the minimum age for marriage was 16. Thus, the marriage was overruled, with Justice Brown of the Singapore High Court declaring it illegal “on the grounds that under her personal law, [which was] Dutch law, Maria was not [of] an age to contract a marriage”. The Muslim community was upset by this ruling, and perceived it “as being directed against the Islamic law of marriage”.

Sensationalism of the press

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While waiting to leave Singapore for her home country, Maria was put up at a convent. This arrangement proved to be a bad move, with its subsequent course of events being the spark to the racial riots. The convent grounds did not bar the press from entering, and the media took and published photos to sensationalise the case. Photos of Maria surrounded by signs of Christian faith, such as photographs of her holding hands with Reverend Mother, or her kneeling before the Statue of the Virgin Mary were published, which offended the Muslim community. To add fuel to the fire, some publications even explicitly described the case as a religious issue between Christianity and Islam.

The riots

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On 11 December 1950, a small crowd carrying banners and flags with a crescent and a star had gathered around the Supreme Court before the hearing of Aminah’s appeal.The crowd grew to 2,000 to 3,000 people by noon, when the hearing began. Within five minutes, the court dismissed Aminah’s appeal. The Muslims believed that the colonial legal system was unfair to the Muslims, resulting in the racial riots.

Eurasians and Europeans were dragged out of buses and cars and beaten up, with some even killed. Cars were overturned and burnt. The rioters attempted twice to march to the convent Maria was in, but failed. Authorities relocated Maria and her mother to St John’s Island. The riots went on for three days, with an imposed curfew for two weeks. Reinforcements were called in on 12 December, but the situation only returned to normal on 13 December, leaving 173 injured, 18 killed, 119 vehicles damaged and at least two buildings set on fire.

Return to Netherlands

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During the upheaval, Maria and Adeline departed for the Netherlands via KLM airlines on 12 December, to the Hertogh’s home in Bergen op Zoom’s outskirts. The KLM plane landed two hours later than expected. A tired Maria trailed sadly behind her mother as they got off the plane. The truth hit her as the cold, merciless December wind blew towards her – she was cruelly parted with her foster mother, the mother who was closer to her than her real mother was.

With tears welling up in her eyes, she heard several voices calling her name, some shouting “Bertha”, others “Nadra”. These people were from the Bertha Hertogh Committee, a committee set up to provide the best legal representation and funds for expenses incurred by the Hertoghs. Banners with words “Welcome Nadra” and “Welcome Back Bertha” greeted her  – she symbolised victory, power, joy and success for the nation that suffered a defeat in the war. Maria only felt that these people were revelling in her pain.

She voiced out her thoughts about that fateful day:

My father greeted both of us. I saw many photographers, reporters and other people at the airport. However I didn’t care about all that at all. I was too preoccupied with what I was going through. We were brought to the press conference room. I was too angry and upset. I didn’t speak to anybody. Not long after that, we were taken by car to where my mother lived, led by police outriders in front and several cars behind. At that time, I felt like a hero coming back from the war…

Che Aminah and Mansoor

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An Utusan Melayu journalist asked Che Aminah about her thoughts of Maria being taken away.

If other people are upset about this, then I am upset a thousand times more, but this cannot be seen by the eyes just like you cannot see the number of lentils there are in a pound.

She also said that she did not get to meet Maria after she was taken to the convent.

Not even for a moment until Natrah was flown off to the Netherlands, but I am confident that Natrah will firmly keep to her faith, I am confident she will not forget me just as I won’t ever forget her.

When the same journalist went to visit Mansoor at his house, he was not in. Nevertheless, the reporter found his desk filled with Maria’s photos, along with a poem.

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A new identity

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Maria reunited with her sisters. Meeting them reminded her of her good old days with her adopted siblings, and she hugged them warmly upon seeing them.
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Relocating to a foreign land meant Maria had to learn to adapt. Besides her mother who understood Malay, there was no one else in the family she could communicate with. The name she had grown so used to, Nadra, was changed back to Bertha. She would no longer be clad in a baju kurung, but wear thick layers to keep warm instead. A new diet of potatoes, meat, and milk would replace her usual diet of rice, deep-fried fish, and sambal belacan. However, she still demanded rice with every meal. Her Muslim identity, Nadra, lingered as she continued praying five times a day, swamping her helpless mother with enquiries about where the Qiblah and mosque were.

Nonetheless, she obeyed Adeline’s wishes and picked up Dutch from a nun who came to her house daily, until she was proficient enough to attend a convent school. Whenever Maria left the house, she was escorted by policemen in plain clothes, out of fear that kidnappers would take her back to Singapore.

An interview with Netherland’s daily De Telegraaf nine years later revealed that Maria felt like a prisoner physically and mentally. However, Maria slowly adjusted to life there, attending Sunday masses with her family. She also gradually learnt to communicate with her family and shared a room with her two older sisters. In school, she did well at the primary stage and went on to another school to learn professional dressmaking.

Threats to the Hertoghs

The Hertoghs received threats and death threats.

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The second marriage

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In December 1955, Maria announced her engagement to a 21-year-old Dutch Catholic, Johan Gerardus (Joep) Wolkenfeld, who was doing his military service. They met during a party for new call-up men. In her engagement party, Maria and Johan exchanged rings in the presence of her parents, siblings, and Johan’s mother.  The couple later attained a special consent from the magistrate to get married, bypassing her parents who felt that she was too young to get married. On 20 April 1956, the pair got married by a Catholic priest, with Maria’s eldest brother being the only member of the Hertogh family present. On 15 February 1957, Maria gave birth to her first son. She had more children over the next fifteen years – thirteen in total, with three not surviving their infancy, leaving four girls and six boys.

No happily ever after

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Maria told De Telegraaf that she “often had rows” with her mother, who lived nearby. The papers also said that she yearned for her Malayan homeland. Maria’s first and second husbands, Mansoor and Johan, started to correspond, both wishing for Maria to travel to Malaya to call on the aged Aminah. The trip never materialised due to financial difficulties, and Aminah passed on in 1976.

The year before, a television programme titled “The Time Just Stood Still” was produced, a retelling of Maria’s story. It showed flashbacks of her life through old newsreels, with comparisons to her life in Holland with another husband and children. It was partly filmed in Singapore, with interviews with Mansoor, who avoided mentioning the past although the fond memories were still vivid in his mind. It also depicted a happy Mansoor, in a well-off family with his wife. The documentary affected Maria adversely, who compared her miserable life with Mansoor’s. A 38-year-old Maria also appeared in the programme but did not say much.

The murder plot

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The production had lasting effects on Maria. On 16 August 1976, Maria was put on trial in a Dutch court for allegedly plotting to murder her husband. During the trial, she confessed that she started to have thoughts about killing her husband after the television programme. She said:

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She wanted to leave him, but was afraid that divorce proceedings will lead to her losing custody of her children. While working at her husband’s cafe-cum-bar, she came into contact with two regular customers. They began plotting the murder, eventually buying a revolver and recruiting a fourth accomplice to execute the murder. However, the police got wind of the murder as the last accomplice chickened out and gossiped about the plan. All four of them were arrested. In her defence, Maria’s lawyer emphasized on her background, which the court acknowledged. Maria was acquitted after a one-day hearing, since the plot was never carried out and there was no evidence that she had offered any inducements to the other three.

Later that year, a Malaysian newspaper reported that Maria suffered from a mental breakdown, which her children denied.

The third marriage

In 1979, Maria married a regular patron at the cafe, Tom Ballermans, one of the conspirators Maria worked with to plot her husband’s murder. Four years later, the couple filed for a divorce.

Returning home

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Maria later moved to Nevada to start anew with an Indonesian who became an American citizen, Ben Pichel. She took up residence in Nevada, leaving her children behind in Holland. She took on jobs as a cook, then a hotel maid, and as a cleaner. It was said that Maria missed her children, who were far away from her. Maria and Ben visited Kemaman subsequently, paying a visit to her elder adoptive sister, Kamariah, a Japanese girl Che Aminah adopted earlier. The visit was highly emotional – it was their first after a long separation of 48 years, but also the last, for Kamariah later died of leukaemia.

Epilogue

Around 2001 to 2003, Maria left Ben. She settled down into a house in Huibergen, near Bergen op Zoom, near the homes of two of her daughters. On 8 July 2009, 72-year-old Maria passed away in her house due to leukaemia (the same illness that took the life of Kamariah), with her 10 children surrounding her. Maria’s will stated that instead of a burial, she wanted her body to be left for medical research, with the belief that her body could be used to help others with leukaemia.

Here’s a video of Maria Hertogh, filmed two months before her death in July 2009.

Maria Hertogh’s tragic life

Unwillingly embroiled into a legal tussle that affected not just the lives of two families, Maria Hertogh was put in the limelight and faced tremendous pressure from the media. In the process, many innocent lives were sacrificed in the riots. In Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia, she will no doubt always be part of the social memories of the Malays.

History lessons aside, Maria said that her happiest times were her childhood with Che Aminah. She married the love of her life, Mansoor, a person whom she never forgot. Her heart was broken when she was cruelly whisked off to the Netherlands, and was never mended till her death. After returning to the Netherlands, she pursued happiness relentlessly, but her efforts were futile. Up till her death, was she ever happy?

What if, in an alternate universe, Maria was allowed to stay with Aminah instead of being coerced to return to her birth parents? Could this whole tragedy have been averted?

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Featured image via Youtube
With reference to Singapore Infopedia, Our Story, A Crowd of Twisted ThingsSingapore InfopediaColonialism, Violence and Muslims in Southeast Asia: The Maria Hertogh Controversy and its aftermathNatrah: In the Name of LoveTangled Worlds: The Story of Maria HertoghSingapore and the Many Headed Monster, Wikipedia