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Dr. Isaäc Groneman’s Study on the Javanese Keris

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In 1832, Isaäc Groneman was born in Zutphen, the Netherlands. Here, he studied medicine and became an obstetrician. After practising the profession of an obstetrician for several years, he decided to leave the Netherlands. In 1858 he went to the Indonesian archipelago and worked as a doctor in Java. He became the private doctor of the sultan in Yogyakarta. When Groneman was living and working in Java, he had great interest in the Javanese culture, which lead him to publishing works on a large variety of different topics. His main interest was the Javanese archaeology and the traditional culture of the Central Javanese realms such as wayang, the Islamic court festivities (on which he wrote an article about the circumcision of the prince), the keris and many more. Some of his works are ‘De Gamelan te Jogjakarta‘ (1890), ‘The Tjandi-Borobudur in Central Java‘ (1901), ‘De Wajang Orang Pregiwa in den Kraton te Jogjakarta‘ (June, 1899), ‘The Hindu Ruins in the Plain of Parambanan‘ (1901) and many more. His most notable work is his study of the Javanese keris. Isaäc Groneman extensively studied this aspect of the material culture of Java.  In his later years, Groneman became indignant towards the poor conditions of Java. This was due to the contradictions between the Dutch colonial legislation and the daily life of the common Javanese people. With this in mind, his efforts to save the Javanese keris and the keris smithery can be explained as he thought its decline was a fault which could and had to be put right.

Dr. Isaäc Groneman's Study on the Javanese Keris

In his seventies Groneman began to concern about the miserable state of the keris smithery in Central Java. Thus, between 1904 and 1913, he published a booklet and eleven articles in newspapers and periodicals in which he expressed his concern on the subject. His large article ‘Der Kris der Javaner‘ was published in the periodical Internationales Archiv für Ethnographie. The largest part of his keris oeuvre, however, does not deal with the keris as such, though he reports on many important things about these weapons. Rather, he uses the Javanese keris as a specific example of the declination of the centuries old material cultural traditions to which Groneman himself had become very attached. In this light Groneman can be described as a cultural activist to save the Javanese keris from extinction. He, however, stood pretty much alone in this battle.

Groneman - The Javanese Keris

His main concern was the decline of the forging of kerises what he called the ‘real’ pamor. This problem was published in two articles in the Java Bode in 1904. The Java Bode was the largest newspapers in the Dutch Indies at the time, so his articles would be read by a large number of people. David van Duuren concluded his main argument as follows:

‘The pamor material for the kris smiths connected to the courts of Yogyakarta and Surakarta originates from an iron meteorite that fell to earth at the end of the eighteenth century in the neighbourhood of the Prambanan temple complex. The meteorite was excavated and transported to the kraton of Surakarta. From that time on, the weapon smiths of the Vorstenlanden used small pieces of meteoric iron to produce the pamor pattern in their krisses, pikes and other status weapons. After etching the blade with acidic substances, it is the small percentage of nickel always presents in meteoric iron that causes the characteristic silvery pattern that faintly lights up against a background of iron or steel that has become darkly coloured by the effect of the acids. However, the supply of meteoric iron, already scarce and expensive, will gradually become exhausted. The petty weapon smiths and their assistants who now and then receive a commission from their noble clients – they are becoming fewer and fewer – are poor and consequently can no longer pay for their raw materials. The Javanese weapon smiths are destitute. By making a kris, they do not earn more than starvation wages. Their trade threatens to become extinct if nothing changes. However, the solution of the problem is quite simple: replace the expensive meteoric nickel iron by cheap nickel originating from other sources since it is the nickel component in the kris that provides the contrast in colour’ (Groneman 2009:19).

Groneman The Javanese Keris

Other material he included on kerises is all repeated later in his book ‘Der Kris der Javaner‘. Aside from his remarkable plan to save the forging of traditional weapons on Java by replacing meteoric nickel with an other type of nickel, other articles by Groneman on the Javanese keris later became increasingly important research material in the study of the keris. Groneman introduced and described the role of nickel in pamor. He studied and researched the chemical composition of the special type of meteorite that is used to produce the pamor patterns on the blades. He analyzed a small piece of the meteorite in the laboratory of ‘s Lands Plantentuin at Bogor. Groneman was convinced that the nickel could not be damaged by the mixture of arsenic and lemon juice. This mixture was applied to the blades of the keris to bring out the pamor pattern. The iron material, however, was not always resistant to this mixture. Therefore, the use of nickel, according to Groneman, was considered a better choice than using meteorite iron.

Isaac Groneman Javanese Keris

After the purchase of pure nickel, Groneman ordered Karja di Krama from the Paku Alaman princedom to forge a blade with this new material. The nickel that Groneman bought was much lower in price than the price of the meteorite iron which contained only a relatively small amount of nickel compared to Groneman’s nickel. The result of this new method for making a keris was a moderate one. Groneman argued that the result would enhance to a higher level if the small blocks of pure nickel would be replaced with thin nickel leaves. Groneman was able to get his hands on these nickel leaves. Franz Heger, the director of the Ethnology Department of the Naturhistorisches Hofmuseum in Vienna, sent a parcel of pure nickel leaves to let Groneman continue his research.

Groneman Javanese Keris Book

The research became a success. The pamor patterns were now more clearly visible due to the use of pure nickel. Groneman assumed that this new method of keris making was to be preferred above the old one. Pure nickel is freely available and the price is much lower than the scarce meteorite iron material. When using pure nickel, the pamor patterns would turn out even more beautiful and shiny. This is due to the high percentage of nickel in the content, whereas the level of nickel in meteorite is relatively low. Groneman thought that he had saved the Javanese art of making the keris. Its tradition could be continued by the Javanese smiths. In using the scarce meteorite iron, it could be replaced for a much cheaper and also better material: pure nickel leaves. However, there was no one who shared this opinion with Groneman.

Dr. Isaac Groneman and his Daughter

Hence there was no question of the revival of the Javanese art of pamor making. Meanwhile, Groneman waited in vain for someone who was interested in his research and his innovative results of the research he conducted. In spite of the results of his research, no one responded to his attempt to save the Javanese keris smithery. These setbacks had turned Groneman into a embittered man. In 1910 he expressed his personal discontent on the matter in the Koloniaal Weekblad. He expressed in despair that no one in the society (including its authorities) had shown even the slightest interest in, what he thought, his groundbreaking research, which, he believed, could have saved the art of keris making.  In the end, in 1912, the retired Groneman committed suicide at the age of eighty.

 


Reference:

– Groneman, Isaäc, 2009: ‘The Javanese Kris‘. Leiden: KITLV Press.

– Adam, E., 2012: ‘The Contextualization of the Groneman Collection from the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden‘. Leiden.

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