Title: De Scheepsjongens van Bontekoe [translated as Java Ho!]
Author: Johan Fabricius
Published: 2003 (originally 1924)
My first Dutch novel of 2016! I read this in April so I’m way overdue, but I’m bringing you the review today. I read this novel because I had to write an essay for uni about an historical theory and a cultural artefact. I chose a book because, hey, why not? I had read this book before (around the same time the movie adaptation came out in 2007), but this time I could not really read it for fun. I decided I wanted to analyse the text and compare it to the movie adaptations (also Dutch) to see if the colonial perspective differed and how. So that was my outlook when I opened this book for the second time.
It definitely altered my perspective on the book. I remember reading it when I was around the age of 15 and loving it because of the adventure, the main characters that were around the same age as myself and because I always loved an historical novel …
Allow me to give you a short introduction: the book centres around Hajo, a Dutch boy from Hoorn, the Netherlands. He loses his father at the beginning of the book. Hajo sr. was a sailor under captain Bontekoe – Hajo’s idol. The young Hajo has always longed to go to sea like his father, even after his death. Even though he is too young to go to the East, captain Bontekoe allows him to start his seafaring career at his ship. Along also comes Rolf, the captain’s nephew, and Padde, Hajo’s friend from Hoorn. The three become good friends. The crew sails to the Dutch East Indies to bring new soldiers (this is but briefly mentioned) to the colonies and return with spices and other goods. However, off the Sumatra coast, Padde starts a fire and the ship explodes. The three friends are cast away and have to make their way to Batavia. Johan Fabricius based his book very loosely on the historical journal of captain Bontekoe who’s ship really got wrecked. It became an instant favourite amongst many (male) youngsters in the Netherlands.
Now about the book. It has everything a young adult book should have (before the term was even invented): adventure, main characters to look up to, funny dialogues and life lessons. This however makes it also very predictable and at times a bit dull. It is quite a long book and some chapters could use some editing. I can nevertheless see why it had such an impact when it was first released: there wasn’t anything like it at that moment. Now there is. When it was announced that the book was going to be adapted to the big screen, only the generation of my parents and grandparents new the book. And now, almost ten years after the release of the film, the book is again almost forgotten. Other than the traditional tropes, the book has little to offer over other juvenile fiction.
As a book, I wouldn’t recommend it. As an historical document however, the story is certainly very interesting. Remember the buzz around Pippi Longstocking? The references to ‘negro king’ in the movie had to be altered in Sweden. In De Scheepsjongens there are a lot of contemporary references that are now politically incorrect. This is of course RIGHT! Just to put it out there. However, as a historical document, it shows us how we thought, spoke and wrote in the past. In that perspective, this book is invaluable. Because only if we remember how we were (good and bad), we now how to do things better.
To cut a long story short: I gave De Scheepsjongens, or Java Ho! if you want to read it in an English translation, 3 out of 5 stars. As a book it is mediocre, as a historical document it is very worth the read.
Did you ever read a book that was not so good, but interesting as historical artefact?