Rewriting Dutch colonial histories – Final response

"Java, War of Ghosts" by Jompet Kuswidananto, 2009. Collection of Leo Sih, installation at Tropenmuseum "Grand Parade" (2014-15).
“Java, War of Ghosts” by Jompet Kuswidananto, 2009. Collection of Leo Sih, installation at Tropenmuseum “Grand Parade” (2014-15).

Sadiah Boonstra and Caroline Drieënhuizen

Before the holidays we read Paul Doolan’s response to our post with great interest. We appreciate the time and effort Mr Doolan took to reply to our post as we think a fruitful debate will progress knowledge. With this writing we give a final reaction to Mr Doolan and if it is not for knowledge progression, it will at least get Dr Sadiah Boonstra’s name spelled correctly.

In his response Doolan claims that our critique was based on a misreading and that he was referring to a specific period of time, namely 1945-1949, but that we “prefer to talk about something else”. However, in our view this period cannot be separated from the larger framework of colonialism as political, social, cultural and economic structures of domination. And this is exactly what Dutch historians and others have been trying to deconstruct over the past decades as set out in our previous response. We therefore uphold our argument against Doolan’s representation of a Dutch historical “guild” based in Leiden. Instead of calling on “outsiders”, as Doolan suggests, we favor collaborative methods to uncover the depth, multilayeredness and reach of colonialism. 

History of decolonization conflates with decolonization of history

Doolan claims that the history of decolonization rather than the decolonization of history was the subject of his original blog and considers our reaction as an illustration of how the Dutch historical colonial “guild mentality” is still intact. In his original article Doolan evokes an image of a “carefully guarded guild space” that holds Dutch colonial history in its clutches. He considers “The Dutch Guild as Colonial Gate Keeper” which blocks historical debates, “a sad reflection of the state of colonial studies in the Netherlands”. Doolan subsequently claims that he was referring to just one particular, albeit significant, part of colonial history: the period of 1945-1949, and was not referring to colonial history writ large.

In our opinion however, the history of decolonization and the decolonization of history cannot be separated. Colonial history and its legacies are deeply interwoven in the fabric of Dutch modern society in the form of economic prosperity, cultural hierarchies, social constructions, practices and values. Applying Edward Said’s concept of the cultural archive, anthropologist Gloria Wekker points out that our knowledge, structures of social attitudes and feelings are based on imperial rule. The cultural archive plays thus an important role in meaning-making processes, including historiography.

Illustrative of this are the imperial histories that were rewritten after World War II “to help make sense of the unfolding reality of decolonization” – as Simon Potter (2014) puts it – in a search for new national identities that would foster social cohesion. The history of decolonization was incorporated into new national narratives and confined to a specific place and time. These narrower narratives became the dominant colonial historiographies that obscured the racial, violent, and transnational nature of imperialism.

We thus need to critically engage with, confront, and historicize the cultural archive in order to get more insight in the workings and legacies of colonialism. Empires should not be understood as singular world systems – as they were conceived in these national histories – but as transnational networks in which goods, peoples, and ideas were exchanged that shaped identities and histories in both Europe and in former colonies. For instance, Surinamese and Indonesian nationalists met each other in The Hague in 1929 and exchanged political ideas about democracy and independence.

This interwar example illustrates as well that decolonization cannot be reduced to just one political moment in history, but is a long lasting political, social and cultural process that deeply affected newly-formed nation states and former colonizing countries. The history of decolonization then goes beyond an understanding of the important and unsettling period of 1945-1949 from a Western point of view; rather it should be regarded as a long-term process. To achieve and understand decolonization we should move away from Eurocentric, traditionalist perspectives and embrace a critical approach to and analysis of the cultural archive.

Our insistence on rewriting colonial histories 

The complex, multi-faceted character of colonialism and the working of the cultural archive can only be analyzed by writing multiple histories as we suggested in our previous post. Historians should make a point of executing research through engaging in dialogue with historians – male and female – from both former colonizing countries as well as from former colonies, to exchange and enrich ideas and perspectives, to connect and relate to a multitude of experiences, voices and realities in the past and the present and move away from Eurocentric perspectives. In contrast to what Doolan suggests, that we feel “more important as Dutch historians” (for the record: Sadiah is of mixed descent), we call on our colleagues in former colonies to help us understand different experiences and realities of colonialism.

Another form of collaboration should take place with what Doolan calls “outsiders”: academics, artists, journalists, lawyers, activists, curators, writers, and others, who take an interest in imperialism and colonialism. Such outsiders have stimulated the debate, not only on the period 1945-1949, but also about what Zwarte Piet and other issues related to colonialism. Such interdisciplinary initiatives have been and are taking place. In 2015, for instance, the International Institute for Asian Studies based in Leiden organized the Forum “Artistic Interventions: Histories, Cartographies and Politics” that aimed to “critically interrogate prevailing categorizations of the history and cartography of Asia as institutionalized in Western humanities and open up alternative and new forms of knowledge and practices.”

For years curators and artists confront collection, exhibition practices and colonial history in the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum / Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. One gripping example is a version of the installation “Grand Parade” by Indonesian artist Jompet Kuswidananto in which he shows how people have dealt with the past. This installation emphasizes the malign politics of colonial history and urges the viewer to critically reflect on Indonesia and its history. Kuswidananto encourages spectators to consider Java not “as a faraway place, but as a concept of humanity.”

Such artistic interventions are extremely valuable for a reinterpretation of the past. However, we believe that it is the core task of the historian to write histories and to develop methods and approaches suitable to the task at hand. Rewriting histories as a means to decolonize history includes rewriting histories of decolonization to the end that favors a collaborative, critical method and approach with fellow historians as well as outsiders.

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