Colonization: Shared History or Grudge Kept Alive?

I stole this picture from Rijksmuseum's invitation. It's a charming picture, right? This picture is also used as front page of this book.

I stole this picture from Rijksmuseum’s invitation. It’s a charming picture, right? This picture is also used as front page of this book and its English version. You’ll see more in this post.

“So, do you think Indonesia’s better off occupied by The Dutch?”

One evening, my Dutch friend asked me that. It was clearly a joke. Yet, it got me thinking. The Dutch’ occupation of Indonesia did leave a very important mark in the country’s history. And it colored my point of view towards Netherlands as well. Don’t get me wrong, I do like this country and its people. I don’t think that Dutch people are rude. Okay, some people are, as rude as an immature child trying to make a statement about something. But I can’t help feeling bitter about Utrecht’s Oudegracht or this event from Rijksmuseum.

One friend once remarked that this beauty was constructed out of money from spices and such. Picture from Wikipedia.

One friend once remarked that this beauty was constructed out of money from spices and such. Picture from Wikipedia.

Who knows the proper way to “Colonize”?

Elizabeth Pisani in her book, Indonesia etc., wrote that “Indonesian love to blame the Dutch for everything.” She went on and explain that some Indonesian secretly wished to be colonized by Brits instead, simply because those Brits educated their colonies. I never agreed on this view, though, especially because it doesn’t make sense. Granted, former Brit colonies that turned into a Commonwealth member (read: Malaysia and India) might have better economic growth and infrastructure compared to an averaged Indonesia. But, there’s no way “being colonized” has something to do with that.

Thank goodness, I found an answer in John Kampfner’ book The Rich: From Slaves to Super Yachts, a 2000 year history. In an (unintended) comparison of both occupation of Indonesia and India, I deducted that the Brit didn’t purposefully educate their colonies (to be their worker for industrial age), while the Dutch left their colonies stupid. The commodities from Indonesia (or Spice Island, as referred by that book) were spices (read: an extracted commodities), while main commodities of India were textiles (which were produced in a sort of factory/workshop). Then, it made sense that people of Dutch East Indies were less trained in industrial skill that British Indian people; there was no need to develop such skills at that time.

Interesting portrayal you got there, Meneer! Picture from Wikipedia

Interesting portrayal you got there, Meneer! Picture from Wikipedia

For me, it emphasizes the fact that there’s no better colonizer. In purely economic sense at that time, there is no foreseeable returns from taking care of those being colonized. They were just gears in a production line, after all. My Malaysian and Indian friend also commented that being part of Commonwealth had no contribution to their economic growth, or at least they thought so. It’s interesting to note (from my unscientific observation of Indian stereotype in American sitcoms) that Indian people are mainly software engineers. This profession needs no proficiency in industrial skills, and both Indian and Indonesian can learn it from anywhere in this internet age.

How to feel toward the word “Colonize”

This silent wish of Indonesian people is also contradicts the mentality which is drilled via our History class during grade school. That Indonesian people drove away those ‘Meneer Londo’ using sharpened bamboo sticks, while they attacked ‘us’ with advanced weaponry. I myself think, despite my utmost honor for our departed Heroes of Independence, it’s an over-romanticize of a fact that Indonesian at that time were merely seizing up lack of power due to bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—at least until I learned more about four years ‘agression’ (Indonesian term) and the Battle of Surabaya.

Still, my History lesson regarding Dutch occupation implies that Indonesian independence was not “given” but “fought”. And that doesn’t come hand in hand with that silent wish of being occupied by Brits. Because, those who fought for their freedom must be strong, and the strong wouldn’t want to be dictated by anyone else, would they?

It is an interesting coincidence that Ayu Utami touched this issue during her talk on first page presentation of Bitter Spice: Indonesia and the Netherlands since 1595, in Rijksmuseum last night (10/11). She said, more or less, “Indonesian patriotists will be disappointed in the less-patriotic presentation of the museum collection.” Hers was a difficult talk, definitely, but there are some things that I agree with. Exploration and discovery are part of Age of Reason, she explained. But, history recorded that exploration progressed into exploitation, colonization, and objectification. Or, discoveries were funded from exploitation. Thus, there was a moral dilemma attached to discoveries and the Age of Reason itself.

I personally applauded their bravery (or bravado) to venture out into open seas. Picture from here.

I personally applauded their bravery (or bravado) to venture out into open seas. Picture from here.

Her analogy was, “Imagine telling your son, who is excited upon discovery of ant’s nest, that you should not destroy or occupy it, because it’s not ethical.” To say such things is a good thing, of course, for a moral human being. But, at the same time, it will be a killjoy for the child, also preventing him/her from learning. And, what if such discovery was already done?

She went on and said—after a series of lengthy and seemingly-disconnected anecdotes—that Indonesian people are trapped by its own patriotism. More specifically, Indonesians are trapped with black-and-white mentality, by assigning ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’. And trapped people can’t move anywhere, including forward. Her proposal towards Indonesian, thus, was to “have an open mind and accept the alternative, probably less patriotic, narratives of colonial times.”

I reminisced the time where Theo and I were answering question from an eager Dutch high school girl regarding our history lessons. When being asked whether we had a bitter sentiment towards modern-day Dutch, we just shrugged. Granted, those living in wartime must felt uneasy when this topic was brought up. But people our age, who barely studied history properly, has no right to be bitter about the past. There’s always two sides of a story, and it’s unfair to hold a bitter grudge for those who don’t even remember their past. And, well, it’s in the past, right? No matter how severe we cursed, nothing from the past will change. And holding grudge is a sign of weakness, while Indonesia is a strong nation who fight for its own independence.

Thus, I agreed to Ayu’s proposal. If we truly are a great nation, then we should hold no grudge. It was a part of history, anyway. It’s time to be open-minded and see if there’s great stuffs we can accomplish together. This ambiguously-nice initiative is one such example. That doesn’t mean we should shut it off, though. We do everything we can to prevent the dark history to repeat itself. Yes, that means including us (read: Indonesian) as colonizers.

This post put a conclusion for my inner dispute regarding colonization. But, I won’t stop here. I still need to find the ‘essence of Indonesia’: why it came into being, why is it united, and why is necessary to keep it together. Hope I can find the answer, soon.

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