Kartini was born into an aristocratic Javanese family in a
time when Java was still part of the Dutch colony, the Dutch
East Indies. Kartini's father, Raden Mas Sosroningrat,
became Regency Chief of Jepara, and her mother was Raden Mas'
first wife, but not the most important one. At this time,
polygamy was a common practice among the nobility.She also
wrote the Letters of a Javanese Princess.
Kartini's father, R.M.A.A. Sosro-ningrat, was
originally the district chief of Mayong. Her mother was M.
A. Ngasirah, the daughter of Kyai Haji Madirono, a teacher
of religion in Teluwakur, Jepara, and Nyai Haji Siti Aminah.
At that time, colonial regulations specified that a Regency
Chief must marry a member of the nobility and because M. A.
Ngasirah was not of sufficiently high nobility, her
father married a second time to Raden Ajeng Woerjan (Moerjam),
a direct descendant of the Raja of Madura. After this second
marriage, Kartini's father was elevated to Regency Chief of
Jepara, replacing his second wife's own father, R. A. A.
Kartini was the fifth child and second eldest daughter in
a family of eleven, including half siblings. She was born
into a family with a strong intellectual tradition. Her
grandfather, Pangeran Ario Tjondronegoro IV, became a
Regency Chief at the age of 25 while Kartini's older brother
Sosrokartono was an accomplished linguist.
Kartini's family allowed her to attend school until she
was 12 years old. Here, among other subjects, she learnt to
speak fluent Dutch, an unusual accomplishment for Javanese
women at the time. After she turned 12 she was 'secluded'
at home, a common practice among Javanese nobility, to
prepare young girls for their marriage. During seclusion
girls were not allowed to leave their parents' house until
they were married, at which point authority over them was
transferred to their husbands. Kartini's father was more
lenient than some during his daughter's seclusion, giving
her such privileges as embroidery lessons and occasional
appearances in public for special events.
During her seclusion, Kartini continued to educate
herself on her own. Because Kartini could speak Dutch, she
acquired several Dutch pen friends. One of them, a girl by
the name of Rosa Abendanon, became her very close friend.
Books, newspapers and European magazines fed Kartini's
interest in European feminist thinking, and fostered the
desire to improve the conditions of indigenous women, who at
that time had a very low social status.
Kartini's omnivorous reading included the Semarang
newspaper De locomotief, edited by Pieter Brooshooft, as
well as leestrommel, a set of magazines circulated by
bookshops to subscribers. She also read cultural and
scientific magazines as well as the Dutch women's magazine
De Hollandsche Lelie, to which she began to send
contributions which were published. From her letters, it was
clear that Kartini read everything with a great deal of
attention and thoughtfulness. The books she had read before
she was 20 included Max Havelaar and Love Letters by
Multatuli. She also read De Stille Kracht (The Hidden Force)
by Louis Couperus, the works of Frederik van Eeden, Augusta
de Witt, the Romantic-Feminist author Mrs. Goekoop de-Jong
Van Beek and an anti-war novel by Berta von Suttner, Die
Waffen Nieder! (Lay Down Your Arms!). All were in Dutch.
Kartini's concerns were not just in the area of the
emancipation of women, but also the problems of her society.
Kartini saw that the struggle for women to obtain their
freedom, autonomy and legal equality was just part of a
After Kartini died, Mr J. H. Abendanon, the Minister for
Culture, Religion and Industry in the East Indies, collected
and published the letters that Kartini had sent to her
friends in Europe. The book was titled Door Duisternis tot
Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light) and was published in 1911.
It went through five editions, with some additional letters
included in the final edition, and was translated into
English by Agnes L. Symmers and published under the title
Letters of a Javanese Princess.
The publication of Kartini's letters, written by a native
Javanese woman, attracted great interest in the Netherlands
and Kartini's ideas began to change the way the Dutch viewed
native women in Java. Her ideas also provided inspiration
for prominent figures in the fight for Independence.
There are some grounds for doubting the veracity of
Kartini's letters. There are allegations that Abendanon made
up Kartini's letters. These suspicions arose because
Kartini's book was published at a time when the Dutch
Colonial Government were implementing 'Ethical Policies' in
the Dutch East Indies, and Abendanon was one of the most
prominent supporters of this policy. The current whereabouts
of the vast majority of Kartini's letters is unknown.
According to the late Sulastin Sutrisno, the Dutch
Government has been unable to track down J. H. Abendanon's