How the Dutch Are Coming to Terms With the Colonial Past

By : Bastiaan Scherpen | on 6:42 PM November 21, 2011
Category : News, Life & Style

After a brief controversy, a ruthless former governor-general of the Dutch East India Company is back on his pedestal in his Holland birthplace. Literally, that is.

The statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587-1629) in the city of Hoorn, North Holland province, was accidentally hit by a vehicle during construction works in August. Despite calls to use the opportunity to replace the effigy with one of a less controversial figure than the man nicknamed the Butcher of Banda, the Hoorn City Council in late September decided to restore the monument. It was placed back on Oct. 19.

But the dispute over the statue of Coen doesn’t stand alone.

Together with a similar debate about a royal vehicle and a recent lawsuit over a massacre by Dutch soldiers in a West Java village, it shows that 66 years after Indonesia declared its independence from the Netherlands, the former colonial power is finally, and slowly, coming to terms with the legacy of its often-brutal rule in the archipelago.

Controversial Carriage

Henk Schulte Nordholt, head of research at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), says the Dutch are gradually starting to realize that it cannot erase its colonial past.

“It will be with us in various postcolonial manifestations,” he told the Jakarta Globe in an e-mail exchange, citing migrants, food and memories as examples.

Yet this growing awareness also leads to criticism of long-accepted practices. Dutch lawmakers and rights activists recently called for a panel depicting a controversial scene to be removed from a ceremonial vehicle owned by the royal family.

On the horse-pulled Gouden Koets (Golden Carriage), colonial subjects — including Javanese people — are shown apparently presenting gifts to their Dutch rulers. The vehicle was a gift for then-Queen Wilhelmina by the citizens of Amsterdam in 1898. It is still used every year to transport the Dutch monarch ahead of a speech from the throne.

According to Harry van Bommel from the Socialist Party and Mariko Peters from the Green-Left party, the panel is reminiscent of a “gruesome period in Dutch history.” In September, they urged Queen Beatrix to remove the disputed panel, which is called Hulde der Kolonien ( Tribute of the Colonies).

Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who is accountable for the royal family’s actions, spoke of the request as “bizarre.”

“Rewriting history by destroying the Golden Carriage, that’s not something I would support,” Rutte, who holds a history degree, told a press conference.

Frans Grijzenhout, a professor of art history from the University of Amsterdam (UvA), said the carriage is a historical artifact that has full right to its integrity.

“It is no use to infringe on that and remove parts from it as a consequence of new insights into the position of the Dutch in the former colonies,” he said. “No matter how valuable these insights may be.”

Rewriting History

Both in Indonesia and in the Netherlands, there is a need for a holistic approach to the colonial past, said another expert, Bambang Purwanto.

“Like it or not, Indonesia and the Netherlands for a long time shared their history. To deny this is tantamount to fooling ourselves,” said Bambang, a history professor from Yogyakarta’s Gadjah Mada University.

Grijzenhout believes it would be a good idea to reconsider the way the colonial past is represented in the Netherlands, citing the Monument Indie-Nederland (Indies-Netherlands Monument) in Amsterdam as a good example.

Unveiled in 1935, that monument was meant to honor Gen. J.B. van Heutsz (1851-1924), a commander of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL) and governor-general.

In 2004, the local government decided to change the monument into a memorial for all aspects of Indonesia-Netherlands relations during the colonial period. All references to Van Heutsz, who had gained particular notoriety after brutally countering resistance in Aceh, were removed.

Rawagede Ruling In another case that highlighted violent aspects of Dutch colonial rule, a court in The Hague in September ordered the Netherlands to pay damages to relatives of victims of the 1947 Rawagede massacre. The landmark ruling was hailed in Indonesia.

By some accounts, over 400 were killed in December 1947, when Dutch soldiers tried to force people in Rawagede to give up the location an Indonesian soldier.

Schulte Nordholt, who is also a professor at Amsterdam’s VU University, thinks it is strange that the Netherlands is still prosecuting former Dutch members of the German-led SS during the Second World War while at the same time trying to “cover up crimes committed in Indonesia.”

“Apart from Rawagede there are the killings by Raymond Westerling in South Sulawesi, with 3,000 victims,” Schulte Nordholt said. “The Dutch government was deeply involved in a cover-up of this case and protected Westerling,” a move described by the historian as “nothing less than a bloody shame.”

Westerling led a vicious counterinsurgency operation in Sulawesi in 1946-47. He was never prosecuted in the Netherlands, nor extradited to Indonesia.

But monetary compensation might not be a cure-all solution.

“What would our reaction be if the children and grandchildren of people murdered in the Bersiap period would take their case to court?” Bambang said, referring to the chaotic early days of the Indonesian Revolution, during which many people of Indo-European descent, and others, were killed. “The same applies to East Timor: don’t think that we are a nation without flaws and sins.”

Bambang said a statement of apology would be preferable to money. “The true lesson from history should be that such crimes against humanity should never happen again,” he added.

Back on a Pedestal

The Netherlands has never formally apologized for cases like Rawagede or other atrocities.

Under Coen’s command, in 1621, thousands of residents of the Banda Islands were massacred in an effort to monopolize the spice trade in the area.

The statue of the Hoorn native was made in 1887 to commemorate his 300th birthday. A month before it was damaged this year, the City Council of Hoorn, after being petitioned to do so by citizens, decided to alter the text accompanying the statue. The information should also reflect the violent side of Coen’s actions in Asia, officials said at the time.

Today, the statue is still accompanied by its old plaque, with a Dutch text providing basic information about the man who founded Batavia, present-day Jakarta.

But Hoorn is working on a more complete text, both in Dutch and in English. In a draft version released last week, Coen is described not only as a “visionary administrator,” but also as the architect of “aggressive policies.”

Bambang, who also holds the Leiden University chair in the history of Dutch-Indonesia relations, believes that replacing the controversial statue would have been a mistake.

“Taking away the statue of Coen would mean to deny the reality of the shared Dutch-Indonesian history,” he said. “History brings not only good things, but also misery, and all of that must be represented.”

The UvA’s Grijzenhout also said Hoorn had made the right call. “It is never a good idea to do away with the past, and much better to comment on it,” he said.

Coming to terms with colonial history clearly is a work in process on both sides of the old fence.

“We look at it from different perspectives,” Schulte Nordholt said. “But in my cooperation with Indonesian colleagues, as we try to define together new common research themes, we increasingly feel that the colonial past is our common history, which should not be marginalized or silenced.”

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