Time for Dutch Courage in Indonesia

By Doolan, Paul | History Today, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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Time for Dutch Courage in Indonesia


Doolan, Paul, History Today


* Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Dutchman, Cornelis de Houtman, on the island of Enganno, off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia. Now, over four centuries later and nearly fifty years after the ending of their rule in Indonesia, the Dutch are engaged in a soul-searching debate concerning their colonial past.

Between 1946 and 1949 two military campaigns, euphemistically called `police actions', resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 Indonesians and, according to one Financial Times Service report, 6,000 Dutch soldiers. However, the colonial power found itself politically isolated as well as economically near bankruptcy, and independence was reluctantly conceded in December 1949; a fact that even today causes controversy.

Criticism of Dutch colonial policy dates back at least to the appearance of Edward Dakker, the Dutch master known as Multatuli's Max Havelaar. At the time of its publication, in 1860, this `J'accuse' was considered a biting attack against the exploitation and abuse of the poor majority of Javanese by their European and local masters. Today, the novel is generally regarded as a classic work of nineteenth-century Dutch literature, its criticisms been neutralised and made safe due to the passing of time.

The period 1945-49 in Dutch colonial history, however, is still highly sensitive. Indeed, this chapter is conspicuous among colonial studies by its absence. Unlike Vietnam, which Hollywood has transformed into an icon of contemporary culture, post-Second World War Indonesia constitutes something of a collective blind-spot in the Dutch psyche. The case of one of the Netherlands' leading historians, the late Jan Romein, is enlightening. His wife, Annie Romein-Verschoor, had grown up in colonial Dutch East Indies. They were both self-confessed Communists. progressive idealists and committed to Indonesian independence. Yet when Jan Romein published his major study of decolonisation, De Eeuw van Azie (The Asian Century) in 1956, Indonesia earned only a superficial mention. Of the 300 pages, twenty-five were on Indonesia, while the bibliography of 267 titles contained only ten relating to it.

In 1980 a leading Indonesian historian, Taufik Abdullah, referring to the loud Dutch silence, remarked that international historiography was the monopoly of the conquerors. After all, far more works have appeared analysing German and Japanese brutality during the Second World War than the Dutch police actions -- actions which took place while Nazi leaders were standing trial for crimes against humanity in Nuremburg. If the Dutch historians were not prepared to do it, announced a historian from Singapore, Yong Mung Cheong, then he would attempt his own analysis of the complex events of 1946-49.

A significant breakthrough in terms of Dutch historiography occurred in 1988 when a new volume of L. de Jong's The Kingdom of the Netherlands in the Second World War appeared in Dutch bookstores. Each volume of de Jong's massive work had been awaited with anticipation, not only by professional historians, but also by the Dutch reading public. Bestseller status was assured. Of the eleven volumes the arrival of each invariably led to praise, criticism and open discussion in the national press. When the 1988 addition appeared, however, the outcry from some veterans of the colonial army and the conservative press was bitter and the ensuing debate more heated than usual. De Jong, who is considered a figure of national importance, had dared to criticise the atrocities that the Dutch had inflicted during their police actions.

Another writer, Ewald Vanvught, published Legal Opium in 1983 in which he argues that the control and expansion of the opium trade was a prime motor in Dutch colonial policy. Vanvught says that his work has been inspired by the inertia of the professional historians -- he himself is a freelance author.

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