Response: Rewriting Dutch Colonial Histories

Paul Doolan
Zurich International School and the University of Konstanz

I sincerely appreciate that Saadia Boonstra and Caroline Drieёnhuizen took the time and effort to offer a reply to my article. However, their critique was based on a misreading. Perhaps it was the obscurity of my prose, or maybe it was the title (not of my choosing) “Decolonizing Dutch History” that led to a misunderstanding.

Their opening sentence already indicates a misreading. They claim that I “criticized Dutch historians for their failure to decolonize Dutch and colonial history”. But that was not the point I wished to make. I wrote that my concern was “in particular, the nature of Dutch warmaking during the final years of the Asian colony, 1945-1949.” In other words, my subject was the history of decolonization, not the decolonization of history. There is a difference.

The point that I made in a nutshell is this – for many decades Dutch historians have inadequately investigated the decolonization of Indonesia (1945-1949). In my article of 80 lines, 60 lines focus directly on the decolonization of Indonesia. In their response of 38 lines just four focus on this topic. My claim is that if you mention the subject of decolonization, many Dutch historians of colonialism prefer to start talking about something else. I think Boonstra and Drieёnhuizen inadvertently have proven my point.

Thus, I named four historians doing excellent work on the decolonization of Indonesia. As a result, Boonstra and Drieёnhuizen took me to task for not including others, offering a long list of “historians” who are decolonizing Dutch and colonial history. Of the 17 that they list, nearly half are not historians. Of those that are, nearly half have never written anything at all on Indonesia. Of the handful left, not one has written a significant piece on the decolonization of Indonesia. Hence, I would suggest, my choice of four still stands.

To believe Boonstra and Drieёnhuizen, winds of change wafted across the North Sea during the 1990s and the fresh air of the “Anglo-Saxon theory of postcolonialism” cleansed the dusty studies of Leiden. But I would propose that we should not ignore the historical context.

A public debate on decolonization (1945-1949) was raging during the 1990s, fueled not by the historians within the guild but by outsiders like film director Hans Hylkema, documentary maker Roelof Kiers and post-memory novelists Marion Bloem, Jill Stolk, and Graa Boomsma.

The debate that is shaping the cultural memory of the years 1945-1949 continues today, thanks to “outsiders” not necessarily initiated in the delights of postcolonial theory, like journalist Anne-Lot Hoek, activist Jeffrey Pondaag, lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, and novelist Alfred Birney. In other words, it is not historians alone who have magically conjured a debate on the nature of decolonization. Dutch historians are responding to forces within the present historical context, as are foreign historians and non-historians.

Which brings me finally, and somewhat uncomfortably, to Boonstra and Drieёnhuizen’s last sentence. They admit there is room for “outsiders” (thank you) and call for greater inclusion of Indonesian historians, but then they counter this point by concluding that “it is even more important that Dutch historians … rewrite colonial histories.” Can it be that they are suggesting that Dutch historians are “more important”? Or perhaps it is I who am the one guilty of misreading on this occasion?

3 thoughts on “Response: Rewriting Dutch Colonial Histories

  1. Sorry Paul,
    Obviously you wrote an entirely different article than the one we read. The overall gist of you article was aimed clearly at the present day Dutch historical establishment and how they do business. On the strength of your article one could be mistake for thinking that the colonial violence in Indonesia is a convient stick for you to beat the eatablisment with. That’s why you got the reply you did.

    No I did not count the number of sentences but I did re -read your article having read your response to the rebuttal . Pal it’s not about the numbers its about the tone and target and there is no mistaking yours. Have the balls to say so and stop trying to pretend it’s not so.

    Can you explain to me why the gender and skin colour of the teaching staff and their students are important at all to the discussion? As you brought this up in the first 2 paragraphs it must be very pertinent.

    Of course we all know that a double standard exists, you can take a lump out of a bunch of white men. Just as well the guild isn’t populated by black lesbian feminist transgenders because that would be rascist/ misogynist/ fill in whatever “ist” appropriate.

    The sad thing is that generally I agree with the point that Dutch colonial violence is somewhat the elephant in the room. The average Joe on the street knows it and by and large the Dutch are well aware of the blood in their past. But this has nothing to do with an academic storm in a tea cup in the 1990’s. Only a professional historian could have made that mistake. The hippies of the 60’s were the ones who brought the elephant into the room.
    Your basic argument is fine it is just a pity about all the SJW BS. Ignore all of the above because it was written by a white middel aged priviliged fascist male pig.

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