Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Voicing the colony

This project studies travel writing about the Dutch East Indies written between 1800 and the end of the Second World War. By analyzing both Dutch travel texts and Indigenous travel texts in Javanese and Malay, it presents a new, double-voiced perspective on (the historiography of) the Dutch colonial past.

2020 - 2025
Rick Honings
Beeld: Collectie KITLV, Leiden

Project summary

The Dutch are struggling with their colonial past in the Dutch East Indies, as current debate illustrates. But there is a related historiographical problem that, in the context of a postcolonial multicultural society, has become urgent. In past decades, Dutch scholars have chosen a Dutch focus almost exclusively. The Indigenous voice has been neglected.

Voicing the Colony offers a new, double-voiced perspective by focusing on non-fiction travel writing: a highly relevant social genre, because it is able to reflect, represent, and co-shape reality. The recently opened Asian Library at Leiden University offers a rich collection of travel texts about the Indies, in both the language of the colonizer (Dutch) and in the two major languages of the colonized people (Javanese and Malay). The goal of this project is to study this corpus of texts written between the beginning of the nineteenth century and the end of the Second World War. It investigates how Dutch travelers wrote about the colony, and analyzes the political effects of such representations. To balance this picture, this project will examine the Indigenous perspective. How did Indigenous travelers ‘reclaim’ the land that was taken from them?

In contrast to Indigenous peoples living under British colonization, the peoples of the Indies were largely excluded from the use of Dutch. As a result, hardly any instances of ‘writing back’ in Dutch are to be found. This project will maximize the opportunity to rewrite the historiography of Dutch colonization from a dual-focused perspective. By studying Indigenous travel texts in addition to Dutch texts, in cooperation with a team of experts in Indonesian languages/culture, this project will offer a platform for the voice of

the subalterns of the Indies. At the same time, it will shed light on Dutch Vergangenheitsbewältigung: the struggle to come to terms with our colonial past.

Main aims

Although literary historians have published about the literature of the Dutch East Indies for decades, non-fiction travel writing has barely received attention. More importantly, colonial history has been studied almost exclusively with a Dutch focus. Voicing the Colony aims to present a new, double-voiced perspective. It has two key objectives:

  1. To analyze the Dutch narrative
    This project will reconstruct 145 years of Dutch colonial ideology.
  2. To analyze the Indigenous narrative
    At the same time, it will balance the colonial imagery by presenting the neglected Indigenous perspective(s) of the Indies through analysis of Javanese and Malay texts.

The present project consists of a three-tiered plan:

  • First, the project will investigate in which ways Dutch and Indigenous travel authors represented nature, culture and the different population groups of the Indies.
  • Secondly, it determines in which respect such apparently veracious texts served a political function, for example in legitimizing imperialism or offering resistance.
  • Answering question 1 and 2 will enable the project team to answer the last, and most important, comparative question: in what respect does the colonizers’ vision correspond with or diverge from that of the colonized people of the Indies?

By analyzing the Dutch and Indigenous narratives, it will be possible to set different perspectives next to one another in comparison. The present project will recalibrate the Dutch-focused narrative of the colonial past, illustrating that history is a story more accurately told by many different voices. Voicing the Colony will correct the biased, dominant perspective that is still characteristic for the Dutch historiography of the Indies by offering a platform for the voice of the colonized subalterns of the Indies. In doing so, it will contribute to recognition of the Dutch Vergangenheitsbewältigung.

Three subprojects

Led by Rick Honings

How was the colony represented in Dutch travel writing from the beginning of the nineteenth century to 1870? And what potential political function did this genre fulfill? These are the main research questions of subproject 1. In this period, the colony was ‘explored’ for the first time by Western travelers. As a result, most texts have the character of a ‘voyage of discovery’, with the corresponding rhetoric: the colony was often represented as an ‘empty’ and uncharted paradise. The year 1830 saw the

introduction of the Cultivation System, which required Javanese farmers to reserve a fifth of their land for the production of crops for the European market. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the Indies were colonized with this system. In 1860, Multatuli protested against the exploitation of the Indigenous people, contributing to the abolition of the System in 1870.

The 1800-1870 period will be divided into four sub-periods: 1800-1816, 1816-1830, 1830-1850 and 1850-1870. Since hundreds of texts are available, case studies will be selected for each sub-period. Classification and analysis of these materials into overlapping categories will be done according to traveler type, as follows:

  • totoks (full-blooded Dutchman)
  • Indo-Europeans
  • Indonesians (texts in Dutch and in Dutch translation)
  • female
  • male
  • child

Mary Louise Pratt has argued that female travelers represented the colony in different ways than did male authors, as did Indigenous authors and persons of mixed heritage in comparison to people of homogenous ethnicity. Is this also the case in Dutch texts?

Focal points of this subproject are ‘othering strategies’ and the representation of Indigenous men and women, nature, culture, other population groups and the colo-nial system. Of course, this was a colonial society and therefore travelers inevitably looked with ‘imperial eyes’ (Pratt 1992/2008). But there were, within this ideology, more critical voices as well, who demanded attention to the dark sides of imperialism.

This subproject focuses on travel texts with a societal impact, i.e.: printed travel literature that reached a broad reading public. Unpublished manuscripts will be left aside. Not only will separate book-form published travel accounts be selected, but part of the corpus will also include texts published in newspapers and popular journals like Tijdschrift voor Neerland’s Indië (1838-1902).

Led by Nick Tomberge

Subproject 2 investigates Dutch travel texts between 1870 and 1945. How were the colony and the colonial system represented and what political function did travel writing fulfill? This subproject will be carried out by an Indonesian PhD. Because of her/his cultural background, she/he is capable to analyze texts in a more critical way and to discover things that would possibly escape the notice of a Dutch PhD.

As in subproject 1, this period will be divided into four sub-periods: 1870-1900, 1900-1918, 1918-1930 and 1930-1945. The year 1870 can be seen as a watershed. After 1870 a number of changes were introduced. The abolition of the Cultivation System and the opening of the Suez Canal (in 1869) led to some degree of Europeanization. More Dutch citizens sought their fortune in the East, while the number of European women traveling with them increased as well. Since then, touristic travel gradually replaced the ‘voyage of discovery’. For this reason, Dutch accounts of touristic trips are the main focus of subproject 2.

The introduction of tourism in the second half of the nineteenth century added a new dimension to travel writing, as travelers were no longer explorers, but set out on journeys in the footsteps of other travelers, led by popular travel guide books.

Obviously, the colonial ideology was still in place in this period but there were several political transformations in its reception. In 1899 Conrad Theodor van Deventer published his essay ‘A Debt of Honour’ in De Gids. From that moment on, the Dutch government pursued a so-called ‘Ethical Policy’, based on the insight that a colony existed not only as a place to profit from. So, the Dutch authorities began to invest in education, healthcare and infrastructure. This policy, however, legitimized rather than mitigated imperialism. Which political role did travel writing play within the Dutch imperialist project? Throughout the twentieth century, reaction to this approach would further the development of Indonesian nationalism, leading to the proclamation of independence in 1945.

To what extent did representations by touristic travelers deviate from those of the voyages of discovery? As in subproject 1, printed travel texts with a large societal impact will be chosen and classified per traveler type. Case studies for each sub-period will shed light on the development of the Dutch colonial ideology.

Led by Judith Bosnak

How were the Indies represented in reports of Indonesian travelers? In what ways did they write about the Dutch colonial system? And what potential political function did such texts fulfill in the build-up to Indonesian independence in 1945, also in relation with (political) Islam? These are the research questions of subproject 3. Two text types will be studied:

a. Accounts of Indigenous travelers within the Indies

For example, the account of the abovementioned Radèn Mas Adipati Arjo Purwalelena, pseudonym of Candranegara V, regent of Kudus and a cousin of Kartini, who traveled on Java between 1860-1875.

b. Accounts of Indigenous travelers to the Netherlands

Since the second half of the nineteenth century, Indonesians have written about journeys to the ‘Land of the Oppressor’. Such texts contain eye-openers with respect to the colonial ideology. For instance, Indonesian travelers were often astonished to see white workmen because in the Indies all white people fulfilled executive functions. An example of this type is found in the account by the Javanese prince Radèn Mas Arya Suryasuparta, who traveled to Leiden in 1913 to study.

What are the benefits of a postcolonial approach for the Indigenous perspective? It requires research by an expert in Javanese and Malay to answer that question. We do, however, have some indication that this is an applicable and fruitful methodology for this study, thanks to two travel texts that have been published in a translation.

Both works are instances of ‘autoethnography’: texts of ‘colonized subjects to represent themselves in ways that engage with the colonizer’s terms’ (Pratt 2008). There are, however, strategies evident that are not found in the Dutch texts. Despite Dutch censorship, both works contain subtle criticism of the colonial ruler. On several occasions both travelers stressed the presence of Dutch military forces and arms factories. Additionally, they focused on and longed for the grandeur of Java in past times. Suryasuparta connected this nostalgia even with a political ethics: ‘The time that one people will rule another people is past.’ In this way, prompted by nationalist consciousness, they ‘reclaimed’ their own fatherland.

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