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Colonial without realising it

The nineteenth-century writer Nicolaas Beets and his son Dirk were thoroughly colonial, Nicholas without ever having been to the Dutch Indies, or any other colony for that matter. But they didn’t realise it. The new Scaliger Professor, Rick Honings, shows that writers’ archives are a treasure trove for those looking for ideas about the Dutch colonial past. Inaugural lecture on 13 September.

Rick Honings’ work as Scaliger Professor focuses on the study and promotion of Leiden University's Special Collections. These Special Collections are the ideal match for Honings’ combined research passions of  nineteenth-century Dutch authors and Indonesian-Dutch literature. One area he studied in depth was the archive of writer Nicolaas Beets (1814-1903) of the Maatschappij der Nederlandse Letterkunde literary society, part of the Special Collections.

Beets lecture Rick Honings
Nicolaas Beets (1814-1903)

The Netherlands, free from tyranny

Dankt allen God en weest verblijd,
Omdat gij Nederlanders zijt!
Dien naam, die Eer, dien Zegen,
Hebt gij van Hem verkregen.

Loosely translated as:

Thank God and be glad
Because you are Dutch
Your name, that honour, that blessing
Were given to you by Him.

Nicolaas Beets, known for his book Camera Obscura (1839), which he wrote under the pseudonym Hildebrand, was not only a writer but also a poet, preacher and professor in Utrecht. In the poem from which the excerpt above is taken (Aan mijne landgenoten/to my countrymen, 1861), Beets glorifies Dutch citizenship and praises the Netherlands, which is free from tyranny and not threatened by enemies, greed or aggression. He does this while his son Dirk, who was living in the Dutch Indies, in Java, soon rose to join the realms of the elite who ruled over the colony. Dirk lived with his wife in Batavia from 1875 to 1901.

Neither Beets nor Dirk ever had any doubts about the point or the necessity of the Dutch presence in ‘the East’. In fact, they even believed that the East Indies only benefitted from it. Honings discovered all this through the letters that Beets and his son exchanged, and which can be found in Leiden’s Special Collections. What struck Honings perhaps the most was that the colonisers regarded the situation as entirely normal. Or, as Honings says in his lecture: ‘Dutch innocence created the impeccable image the Dutch had of themselves.’

Honings also examined material from other sources besides Beets’ archive. Between 1878 and 1889, Dirk, while in the Dutch Indies, wrote ‘Letters from a dissatisfied person’, for the Rotterdamsch Nieuwsblad. After all, there was plenty to complain about in the East Indies, such as the endless monsoon rains on the one hand, and the merciless sunlight without shade on the other. What he wanted to say was that the beautiful, lush green image of the Dutch Indies was a romantic cliché. From 1881 to 1886, Dirk also wrote his ‘Batavian letters’, under the pseudonym Si Anoe, loosely translated as ‘the one’, which were also published.

A photo of Dirk Beets.
Dirk Beets lived in the Dutch Indies for over 25 years.

Our ‘cultural archive’

Dirk lived in a colonial ‘bubble’. Although he had regular contact with the indigenous population – almost all colonials had native staff – he did not mention them at all in his letters. His father didn’t ask about them either; it was as if they didn’t exist. Dirk did write about them in his newspaper publications. These showed that he could not empathise with them: in his opinion the Javanese were different, inferior, and their art and culture were of poor quality and insignificant. Yet this did not stop Dirk, having lived in Dutch Indies for over 25 years, from returning to the Netherlands with a fortune in colonial art objects.

The Javanese needed to be civilised

Honings discovered that this attitude went even further. Dirk considered the Javanese to be more like animals than people; they were unpredictable, cruel and dangerous. ‘Such racist views form the basis of the cultural archive that is still so influential today, the entirety of ideas about the native population that legitimised the Dutch colonial presence’, says Honings in his lecture. After all, the colonials were obliged to bring ‘civilisation’ to the Indies and set an example with their superiority. They were oblivious to the fact they were there primarily to take it away. 

Dirk, however, did believe in the ideas on ethical politics that were emerging in the Netherlands in the late nineteenth century. This type of ethical politics was based on the idea that the Netherlands had an ‘honour debt’ to repay in the colonies. In other words, they were there not only to take, but also to bring. And therefore more was invested in education, healthcare and infrastructure.

‘Love all collections equally’
Dutch language and literature specialist Rick Honings is the fourth Scaliger Professor. The chair has only existed since the turn of the century and is intended to shed more light on the Special Collections, which is housed in the University Library’s Scaliger Institute, and to promote research into the collections. Both the Institute and the chair are named after one of Leiden’s most famous scholars, Josephus Scaliger (see column on the right of this page). In addition to the Institute and the chair, there is also a  Scaliger medal

Honings’ predecessor, Professor Emeritus Harm Beukers, held the chair for seven years. Beukers, who died in September 2020, was an expert on the history of medicine, with a strong interest in Japan. With Honings’ appointment, the part-time chair has been formalised and officially established in the Faculty of Humanities. The chair has now become a four-year rotating professorship. Scaliger professors pursue their own interests but are expected to love all parts of the collection with equal measure. 

The Dutch Indies debate is changing

‘Ethical politics cannot disguise the fact that the Dutch East Indies were aggressively colonised, oppressed and plundered, and that the colonisers themselves were tyrants and thieves’, says Honings. Nicolaas Beets did not see this and neither did his son, even though it was happening right in front of his eyes. The debate about colonisation is now beginning to change. Honings shows that writer archives, unlike the more factually-based archives of the Dutch East India Company and other institutions, provide individual, personal views on colonialism. ‘This is a valuable addition to the debate’, he says ‘and could play a part in the re-evaluation of our cultural archives.’ 

To be published in the autumn: Jacqueline Bel, Rick Honings en Coen van ’t Veer: De post­koloniale spiegel. De Indische letteren herlezen. Leiden University Press. (The post-colonial mirror. Re-reading letters from the Dutch East Indies.) 

A photo of the street in Batavia where Dirk lived.
The street in Batavia where Dirk lived.

Text: Corine Hendriks
Photos: Beets Collection, Leiden University Library.

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