Universiteit Leiden

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Beeld: Collectie KITLV, Leiden

Rick Honings receives Vidi grant for Voicing the Colony

University lecturer of modern Dutch literature Rick Honings, associated with the Faculty of Humanities, has received a Vidi grant of 800,000 euros. This allows him to carry out research into a more nuanced image of our colonial past.

Rick Honings

One of the social problems the Netherlands struggles with is its colonial past. In recent years, the debate on how that past should be judged has heightened. According to some, the old 'Something big went down there' should be replaced with 'Something horrible went done there' (in Reggie Baay's words). In dealing with that past, it is important to notice that colonial historiography is mainly based on Dutch sources.

In the period between 1800 and 1945, many reports and texts were written about the journey through the Dutch East Indies, both in Dutch and in Malay and Javanese. The Malaysian and Javanese texts and reports have - partly as a result of the language barrier - played virtually no significant role in research into Dutch-Indies literature. ‘Wrongly so’, believes Rick Honings, University lecturer in modern Dutch. ‘Precisely these stories can create a more nuanced picture of our colonial past.’ Honings is being supported in this by the NWO and, thanks to the Vidi grant, will lead a research team for the next five years.

Giving a voice to the colony

When asked about the meaning of the title of his research request Voices of the Colony, Honings says: ‘I would like to use this research to show a different voice, to illustrate that every story, including that of our colonial history, has several sides. Hopefully, this will give us some nice results, because Indonesian travelers looked at their country, the people, and of course also at colonialism in very different ways than Dutch travelers.’

‘With the rise of travel writing studies, the genre of travel literature has received more attention in recent years. Travel texts from the colonial period are wonderful research sources because although travelers felt that they painted an objective picture of their journey and everything they saw, their texts are definitely ideologically coloured. This calls for a critical, post-colonial perspective.’ The aim is to investigate to what extent the representations of different types of travelers differ and have changed over time. Are there differences between how men and women wrote about the Dutch East Indies? Is there such a thing as the child's voice? And in what way do the observations of totoks differ from those of Indo-Europeans and Indonesians?’

Combing through a century and a half of travel reports in five years

In the Asian Library of the Leiden University Library, there turns out to be a large collection of travel reports, in Dutch as well as in Javanese and Malay. This collection of personal descriptions of travelers might shed a whole new light on colonial history in the Netherlands. But this treasure is largely hidden in handwritten Javanese and Malaysian letters and texts. Thanks to the Vidi grant, Honings, as project leader, can set up a research group, including at least a doctoral candidate and a postdoctoral researcher. This postdoc must be promoted in the Indonesian language and literature and be able to read and translate these complex documents.

The three of them will map and analyze nearly a century and a half of travel records. They will focus on the time period 1800-1945. ‘From 1800 to 1870 there was mainly talk of travel with the rhetoric of discovery, says Honings, and in the time period starting from 1870, there was more talk of tourist travel. Together with a Ph.D. candidate, I will take care of the texts written by Dutch travelers, and the postdoctoral researcher will look at the Indonesian texts. Together with the postdoc, I will write a book in which the two perspectives will eventually be brought together, in order to create at a new, two-voiced perspective on the Dutch colonial past "in the East".

Teamwork and competition

Honings: ‘I am very happy that we have acquired this Vidi. We are because this is definitely teamwork. It took many hours of preparation, constructing and reading before the 30-page-long request could be submitted to the NWO. And even then, this competition is very thrilling.’

He would, therefore, like to thank a number of people for their support and contribution: 'I would like to thank Thony Visser, Olf Praamstra, Erik Kwakkel, Ineke Sluiter, Ylva Klaassen, Casper de Jonge, Frans-Willem Korsten, and many others from LUCAS for their help and encouragement to make this a success'.

Vidi grants are awarded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) to experienced researchers who, after their PhD, have already successfully carried out research for a number of years. A total of 85 researchers were awarded a Vidi grant of 800,000 euros this year. This will enable them to develop their own innovative line of research and to set up a research group over the next five years.

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