Memories exist in all shapes and sizes. This is also true of memories concerning the former Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia. They are not only painted in light, sunny tints. Elsbeth Locher-Scholten, a former senior lecturer at Utrecht University who specialises in the history of colonialism and decolonisation, wrote a column for Getuigen & Tijdgenoten (Witnesses & Contemporaries) about colonial violence and colonial memories, partly because of current discussion concerning Kester Freriks’ book Tempo Doeloe, een omhelzing.

By Elsbeth Locher-Scholten

Memories come in all shapes and sizes. This is also true of memories concerning the former Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia. They are not only painted in light, sunny tints. Louis Couperus already described that in his Van oude menschen, de dingen, die voorbijgaan… (1904),[1] which I just happen to have finished reading again. In the novel, two individuals in their nineties in The Hague are weighed down by that one, very heavy memory of a murder committed on Java sixty years before, when the lover fatally stabbed the wife’s husband with a kris in Tegal; violence in the colony as a suppressed family secret, with repercussions into the third generation.

Memories are always multifarious and have long offshoots. They are part of one’s personal identity and are frequently disputed. There are no debates more heated than those between brothers and sisters about what it used to be like at home. There are numerous examples of conflicts in German families about memories of the Second World War and the parents. The same is true with respect to the colonial ‘family’.

Tempo doeloe, een omhelzing (2018),[2] a work in which author Kester Freriks suggests retaining a positive memory of the Dutch East Indies, therefore causes surprise. Children of the 1930s (the author was born in the 1950s) do indeed often cherish their sunlit images of Dutch East Indies harmony and freedom, of gardens and mountains, of good relationships with beloved servants and of their white appearance in a tropical paradise; memories that were fed by family films that were popular at the time and that stand in sharp contrast to the horrors of the Japanese camps and, later, the Indonesian War of Independence.

Political and other events often place childhood memories in a different light as the individual concerned grows older. Childhood memories, including those relating to the parents, are often sunny. Only later do the heroes of youth come down from their pedestals and the memories of them become multi-coloured. It is part of becoming an adult. In the same vein, memories of the colony seem to be illuminated more richly and in greater detail now, including those of colonial violence. The colonial fathers are also no longer on pedestals. There is far greater scope for the dark memory of their violence. Kester Freriks is clearly troubled by this development and states that it is damaging his own sunny memory and depriving him of that memory. Theft of the memory: does such a thing exist? It rather evokes associations with the more common ‘family’ argument about the ‘true’ memory.

In addition to the sun, which in the family films of the 1930s, for that matter, is always a benign presence, memories of the Dutch East Indies have come to include the Bren gun, the mortar and the howitzer; in addition to the family party, they have come to include patrols carried out by the Royal Netherlands Army and the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL). And it is not only the initiatives of professionals, historians like Rémy Limpach with De brandende kampongs van Generaal Spoor (2016)[3] and the academic research programme into violence in the 1945-1949 war in Indonesia, started in 2017, that are charting this shift.

Eurasian writers are also making themselves heard; writers like Alfred Birney with his prize-winning De tolk van Java (2016)[4] and Reggie Baay, who published Het kind met de Japanse ogen (2018);[5] two authors who write about their fathers, KNIL soldiers in the period 1945-1949. Their stories are ones in which traumas resulting from a violent upbringing (Birney) or from experiences of violence on the Burma Railway (Baay) transform into military violence in the outside world. In these cases, too, the long offshoots extend into the following generations. With all their similarities and differences, their courage and honesty, these books are the impressive expression of a new and until now less known colonial memory.

Colonial violence seems to have made a comeback. But was it ever gone? Couperus already knew: he did not set his story about the murder in the Achterhoek region of the Netherlands. As a small country, the Netherlands has a limited history of violence on the European continent, certainly in comparison with other countries. It used violence elsewhere, where it was more powerful and its violence more remunerative; it ‘diverted’ its violence to the colony. From 1800 until the beginning of the twentieth century, not a year went by in which the KNIL did not carry out local expeditions or ‘pacification’ operations. However, because of the colonial development policy, the Ethical Policy, introduced after 1900, that reality receded from awareness and was covered by a mantle of love for the country. Military history was never very popular in the Netherlands. A paradigm shift is now occurring in the way in which the colony is remembered and in the historiography regarding the colonial era. Is that a bad thing? No, just a sign of becoming mentally mature.

[1] ‘Of old people: the things that pass’.

[2] ‘The olden days: an embrace’. When used to refer to a historical period, there are different interpretations of tempo doeloe (tempo dulu in Indonesian; lit. ‘the time before’).

[3] ‘The burning villages of General Spoor’.

[4] The work will be published in English as The Interpreter from Java (trans. David Doherty).

[5] ‘The child with Japanese eyes’.