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VOC-appointed Frisian pastor served 17th century Portuguese congregation

Silver plates keep memory alive

Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

JAKARTA - If it had not been for two commemorative plates of silver, no one in Indonesia would have known about a Frisian, Reformed pastor who in the Dutch East Indies in the early 1700s preached to the Portuguese ethnic minority, known as the 'Mardykers.' Some of the members of this Portuguese minority were employed by the Dutch United East Indies Company (VOC) and had borrowed their group's name from the Malaysian word Merdeka, which means 'freedom.' While the Mardykers strenuously retained their Portuguese language and identity, some of them had become Protestant and were assigned pastors by the VOC.

Reverend Jacobus Canter Visscher, who in 1716 left Franeker - the Frisian city then was a university town where men studied theology - for the Dutch East Indies as a 23-year-old recently installed pastor. Visscher served the Portuguese church for ten years.

The Mardykers - a mixed group - were descendants of Portuguese colonists and soldiers who stayed behind when Dutch traders displaced their Portuguese forerunners. While some Mardykers had ancestors who were taken captive by the Dutch, others preferred to stay in the tropics even if it meant switching allegiance to their enemy. Among the Mardykers were also descendants of Angolan slaves who had been set free by the Dutch and who adhered to the Islamic faith. Since VOC's 17th century management did not tolerate Roman Catholicism in its realm, many of the Christian Mardykers turned Protestant but kept their own language.

While the VOC appointed its own pastors, they supported the men poorly. Visscher moonlighted as an independent trader on Sumatra's west coast and married a well-to-do woman who was widowed when her husband, a company manager, died. When in 1735, Visscher at the age of 43, a number of commemorative plates were made carrying an inscription which reads: 'In memory of Jacobus Canter Visscher, servant of the Gospel in the Portuguese congregation of Batavia. Died October 28, 1735 - at the age of 43 years and 18 days.'

Only two plates survive of which one is kept at the Museum Sejarah.