And now for a bit of revisionism


After months of living in Amsterdam, avoiding the tourist traps, I finally went to the Rijksmuseum, the national museum of the Netherlands. Among the marble busts of war heros and large paintings of Dutch colonial ships, I spent a lot of time staring at paintings of Batavia.

Pieter Cnoll, senior merchant of Batavia, his wife and their daughters.

Batavia, was of course Jakarta as it was known in the 17th century, when the Dutch colonised the archipelago. It was named by a Dutch East Indies governor after one strand of ancestors of the Dutch, who were known as the Bavarians. The Dutch themselves were shared around by pretty much everyone who mattered in Europe at different times – Spain, France, Germany. In the 16th century, when occupied by Spain, the Dutch independence fighters spread the myth that the Bavaians were their sole original ancestors, in attempts to assert their right to self-independence from their neighbours  (Thank you Wikipedia).

Ironic that a century later they used the same myth to force their own colonial ambitions onto what is now Jakarta, Indonesia. I liked looking at the art preserved from the period on display in the museum. Take the painting above by Dutch painter Jacob Jansz. Coeman. The slaves are in the shadows to your right, offering oranges to the family.

Then there was this painting:

More oranges, more slaves in the shadows. I really liked the notes the museum had to this painting:

The merchant and his wife are dressed in the sober Dutch style. Behind them a slave is holding a parasol, known as a ‘pajong’. In Asia this was a symbol of status and power. The Dutch adopted this Asian custom with the same ease as they adopted the ownership of slaves. With his cane, the merchant is pointing to the VOC fleet of ships ready to sail home for Europe. In the background lies the partially walled city of Batavia, the hub of the VOC’s operation in Asia.

Some estimates put half the population of Batavia in slavery. The background notes to the paintings in the Rijkesmuseum suggest slave ownership in Batavia was a matter of social status- i.e: the more slaves you had, the better you were. There’s a couple of pages from this book in Google docs that goes into in, if you’re interested.

Then there’s the whole question of apologising for it all. And compensation. Some think the Dutch should say sorry, as Australia did in 2008.

It was just five years ago that the Dutch accepted the date of Indonesia’s independence- August 17. And some  are still fighting for compensation over alleged war crimes in the 20th century, as the Dutch lost control of the archipelago.

Some think the Dutch should say sorry, as Australia did in 2008.

In all my scouring of the web for slavery documents after my museum visit, I was struck how often those countries that had been occupied by others in Europe for centuries went on to be some of the worst colonizers of all- i.e the Dutch and the Portuguese.  

Makes you wonder if history is just cyclic, huh?


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3 Responses to “And now for a bit of revisionism”

  1. bilangela Says:

    Interesting post Belle. It’s hard to believe the Dutch only accepted the Indonesian independence date five years ago. Do you think these painting were commissioned by the VOC? Or do you think the artists were just tryng to document Batavia?

  2. bellesbits Says:

    I think the paintings were commissioned and paid for by the head of these families (i.e the men in these photos). The economics of art- makes for what gets painted, and how.

  3. Ashlee Says:

    Very interesting Bel.

    How did you find the presentation of the history of Dutch colonialism in the museum? Do you think it was balanced, apologetic to any degree or not? I always find the presentation of history in different countries really fascinating… I spent ages in Singapore’s National Museum searching for the gaps and whitewashing. Always a journo… :p

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