Indonesians in Focus: Martha Christina Tiahahu

While Raden Ajeng Kartini is known as a heroine of women’s emancipation, other national heroines were freedom fighters, such as Cut Nyak Dien of Aceh. In Maluku, a brave young woman took up arms along with her male peers against colonizers of the Dutch era. She was Martha Christina Tiahahu. Christina was born in Abubu village, Nusalaut Island, on Jan. 24, 1800. At the age of 17, she joined the guerrilla unit commanded by her father, Kapitan Paulus Tiahahu, in the resistance movement on Nusalaut Island. Their unit also backed Kapitan Pattimura, who led the People’s Army on Saparua Island in the Waisisil War against the Dutch.

Christina fought in several battles, including the one on Saparua Island in which Dutch commander Richement was killed. Commander Meyer, who replaced Richement, was shot in the neck during the same battle, and the resistance forged ahead until Vermeulen Kringer took over command of Dutch troops in the war in Maluku according to Azis Tunny.

Along with her father and other freedom fighters, including Kapitan Pattimura, Christina was captured and carried aboard the Dutch ship Eversten. All prisoners were punished except Christina, who was released owing to her age. Her father, Kapitan Paulus Tiahahu, and several other Maluku fighters were sentenced to death.

On Oct. 16, 1817, Christina and her father were taken to Nusalaut. They were held at Fort Beverwijk on the island, pending Paulus’ execution. After her father’s death, Christina vanished into the forest and lived in the wild.

In a sweep launched by the Dutch in December 1817, Christina and 39 other Maluku people were arrested and transported aboard the Eversten to Java, where they were to serve under forced labor at coffee plantations. During the journey, Christina’s health declined. She rejected food and refused medical treatment. She passed away on Jan. 2, 1818, at sea and her body was dumped into the Banda Sea.

National heroine

Following independence, the Indonesian government declared the Maluku freedom fighter a national heroine, and her death anniversary on Jan. 2 is commemorated as Martha Christina Tiahahu Day. On that day, thousands of flower petals are cast into the Banda Sea in an official ceremony organized annually to celebrate her courage in the struggle for Indonesia’s freedom.

In Ambon, the Martha Christina Tiahahu monument, upon which a statue of the heroine stands 8 meters tall, spear in hand, watches over the island and its bay from atop the hilly area of Karangpanjang.

A similar monument has also been erected in her birthplace, but her image in Abubu village looks more heroic, portraying her taking the lead in a battle.

Although Christina is shown carrying a spear in both monuments, in battles against the Dutch, legend has it that she actually hurled stones at Dutch soldiers when her troops were running out of ammunition.

Because of the great courage she showed in countering Dutch firearms with only stones, the Maluku community calls her a kabaressi (valiant) woman.

Her name also graces a road in Karangpanjang while an Indonesian warship has been christened the KRI Martha Christina Tiahahu.
The complete history of Christina’s struggle has been written by the late Yop Lasamahu in his book, Bunga Karang Dari Nusalaut (The coral bloom from Nusalaut). The author was former chairman of the Indonesian Journalists Association of Maluku.
Carrying on her spirit

A group of Maluku women in Jakarta has founded the Yayasan Martha Christina Tiahahu, a social foundation for the Maluku community headed by Djaelani Mietje Saimima.

Meanwhile, a number of female activists and journalists in Ambon publish the Martha Christina magazine, which was inspired by the young Maluku freedom fighter. The publication also involves several Maluku officials like Lies Ulahayanan, who heads the local Information Office, and Fenno Tahalele, head of the Social Affairs Office.

“The name of the magazine is solely meant to show Maluku women’s respect for the fighting spirit of Martha Christina Tiahahu, and this periodical indeed covers women’s affairs in society,” said Lies.

Maluku women’s activist Rosa Pentury told The Jakarta Post that Christina’s spirit of struggle should be inherited by every generation of women in present-day Maluku, in spite of the different conditions that prevail today.

She also acknowledged that only a few officials had so far marked Martha Christina Tiahahu Day, and in a much more modest, less festive ceremony than that held to mark Pattimura Day, which falls on May 15.

Only during this year’s 190th death anniversary of Christina was the commemoration held in her hometown of Abubu, in addition to the petal ceremony on the Banda Sea.

“In the past, the youthful Christina led armed uprisings against our colonizers. Today, Maluku women should fight injustice, poverty and other social disparities. Those in the bureaucracy, legislature and social organizations should also emulate Christina’s great passion for struggle,” stressed Rosa, who heads the Pelangi Foundation.