MY late husband, the Dutch environmental historian Peter Boomgaard, spent a great deal of time pondering why Indonesian women in centuries past did not give birth to many children. The few established explanations knocking around in the textbooks—lack of food, constant low-level warfare, slavery—all seemed perfectly reasonable. But he was not wholly convinced of them. Before the modern age, Indonesian societies were sparsely populated and he didn’t think high death rates told the whole story.
Population growth in Southeast Asia tracked over several hundreds of years was a line of inquiry that fairly obsessed my husband. His early work on demographic change in Indonesia under Dutch rule, attests to his tenacious pursuit of numbers. While Igo into the archives in search of juicy tales to retell, and generally regard statistics with fear and loathing, he positively reveled in the aridity of colonial bureaucratic records. Drawing on the anemic information they yield, he deduced statistical patterns in, well, just about everything, from trade and commerce to marriage and migration. When I think about aspects of human behavior in the past, such as, say, sexual practices, he thinks about fertility rates.
Based on the data he had seen, he had a strong hunch that high fertility rates were not a traditional feature of Indonesian societies but a modern phenomenon. It seemed to him that Indonesian women had been keeping a check on their reproductive capacity for a very long time. For him, the question was why and how. Numbers, he discovered, did not hold the answer.
Bride wealth as a factor
He was forced to look elsewhere. He sought out the diaries and eyewitness accounts of travelers, missionaries and colonial officials who had lived among indigenous communities and would have gained intimate knowledge of local affairs. These sources are invaluable to historians but require careful reading. The vivid details they record come booby-trapped with outlandish exaggerations and outright fabrications, and, to modern-day readers, despicable attitudes of condescension, prejudice and racism. The researcher oftentimes has to cut through thickets of unmediated disgust toward “the natives” and painstakingly cross-reference with other sources before anything can be judged to be true.
These highly subjective narratives declared, with surprising consistency, the “infecundity” of Indonesian women and their “unprolific” sexual nature. My husband settled on a number of influential factors that he thought inhibited women from bearing many children. One of the most important, it seemed, was social custom.
In parts of western and eastern Indonesia, a bride’s family was obliged to present the groom’s family with extravagant gifts and services before a marriage could take place. Gold jewelry, elephant tusks, bronze drums, foreign textiles, porcelain, even cannons and guns (the older the object, the more it was highly prized), were the sorts of prestigious gifts a groom’s family could demand. Quite understandably, this expensive custom, known as giving bride wealth, put off a lot of families who could face financial ruin. Daughters, consequently, delayed the age at which they married. Late marriages led to fewer numbers of children per woman. Hence, in areas where bride wealth was practiced, population growth tended to be low.
Another factor, it seemed, was that women themselves liked to take matters into their own hands. My husband’s handwritten research notes, at this point, are scattered with exclamation marks. According to the sources, women “checked their fertility” through a variety of means. Ingesting herbal concoctions and potions that caused abortion or miscarriage seemed to have been a mundane, commonplace, and even ancient solution. Evidence of abortifacients could be found, rather magnificently, on the 9th century bas-reliefs of the Hindu-Buddhist temple complexes of Prambanan and Borobudur in central Java.
Women also visited traditional indigenous healers who rendered them temporarily incapable of conceiving by rotating the uterus backwards, a deft massage technique known asretroflexio uteri. Infanticide, the most drastic measure, was far from unknown, especially when twins were expected. There didn’t seem to be much liking for twins—it was imagined that when different sexes shared the womb incest occurred—and one or both children were killed or neglected.
Moral opprobrium was inescapable, of course, but unevenly applied and frequently ignored. Poems composed probably before 1500, such as the Javanese Kidung Sunda, denounced abortion as a sin. But old texts did not hold much sway with the Muslim ulama of the early 20th century whose attitudes toward induced abortion were remarkably lax. On the other hand, the Dutch East India Company, the mighty trading enterprise that subjugated the Indonesian archipelago and great swathes of the globe, and eclipsed the Spanish empire before the British eventually stepped in, took a decidedly dim view of indigenous family planning methods. Company officials decreed abortion a crime on pain of death as soon as they got wind of the practice, in the mid-1600s.
Regardless of their marital status, my husband concluded, “Indonesian women were well aware of an array of traditional ways and means to limit their offspring and they were willing to apply such methods when needed.”
What motivated these Indonesian women of long ago to manipulate their fertility, terminate pregnancies, and rid themselves of unwanted children? The reasons, my husband found, were resoundingly familiar. Women decided they didn’t want children born out of wedlock. They did not want to be burdened with too many children and a family size that was unmanageable and threatened the family’s economic survival and well-being. Despite the considerable risks to their own health and lives, women of the past practiced birth control because they wanted to.