Grappling with Indonesia’s Colonial Past

Museum Multatuli - New Naratif

There’s no shortage of museums in Indonesia, but the Museum Multatuli, opened in February 2018, is special. Adopting the pen name of former administrative officer and writer Eduard Douwes Dekker (a.k.a. Multatuli), author of the 1860 satirical novel Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, this new establishment is the country’s first anti-colonial museum.

Situated in Rangkasbitung in the Banten Province of Java—where Multatuli once lived and worked, providing him with fodder for his novel—the museum displays the author’s personal belongings, a first-edition copy of Max Havelaar written in French, and a collection of letters that Multatuli had sent to the Government of the Netherlands regarding the administration of Rangkasbitung and Lebak Regency during the time he spent there.

For the hundreds of people who attended the official launch, Museum Multatuli has been a long time coming. Indonesia has a long colonial history—the Dutch first established the Dutch East India Company in 1602, and only formally recognised Indonesian independence in 1949, four years after Sukarno declared Indonesia’s independence in August 1945—but Indonesians have had limited opportunities to carry out a holistic examination of their own past. In addition to the Dutch, Indonesia was also occupied wholly or in part by the Portuguese, the British, and the Japanese. The establishment of the museum is therefore intended as a powerful source of historical education.

Max Havelaar, “the book that killed colonialism”

It’s no accident that the museum so closely references Multatuli. Max Havelaar, his most well-known publication, was written to expose the abuses of the colonial administration in the Dutch East Indies. As part of their efforts to raise revenue, the Dutch exploited natural and human resources, requiring local farmers to cultivate commercially viable crops such as sugar and coffee rather than basic staples like rice. Harsh and often unrealistic quotas were imposed, leading to malnutrition and starvation among the local population, and vast inequality between the officials and farmers. Douwes Dekker chose the pen name “Multatuli”—which means “I have suffered much” in Latin—as a commentary on the injustices he witnessed.

The novel was highly controversial, but also extremely impactful. According to Bonnie Triyana, a curator of the museum speaking to the BBC in 2017 (link in Bahasa Indonesia), some people in the Dutch East Indies didn’t even consider themselves under colonial rule until they read the stark realities depicted in the book. Max Havelaar pointed to the exploitation at the heart of European colonialism and was used by reformers to shame the Dutch government into making changes. These changes eventually came in the form of the Dutch Ethical Policy, under which the Netherlands made more provision for infrastructural development and education for its colonial subjects. Examples include the establishment of higher education institutions like School tot Opleiding van Inlandsche Artsen—now known as Universitas Indonesia’s Faculty of Medicine—in 1913 and the Technische Hoogeschool te Bandoeng, or Institut Teknologi Bandung, in 1920. The Dutch Ethical Policy also allowed some Indonesians to study in the Netherlands; many returned and contributed to the movement for Indonesian independence. But the policy also had its limits: it largely only benefitted the elite, particularly the descendants of local noblemen.

Even 72 years after independence, it can be argued that vestiges of colonial power still linger in Indonesian society

Max Havelaar’s impact wasn’t just confined to Europe. The book was also read by many prominent Indonesians thinkers such as the female writer, Kartini, and Tirto Adhi Soerjo, sometimes described as the founding father of Indonesian journalism. These public intellectuals emphasised the importance of a push for Indonesian independence; Tirto Adhi Soerjo, for example, was known for his critiques of colonial government policies. As Triyana says, the book created a snowball effect: “Even though it didn’t change history on its own, Max Havelaar became a symbol of inspiration to the independence movement in colonised countries.”

Such was Max Havelaar’s significance that the late Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer described the novel in a 1999 piece for The New York Times Magazine as “the book that killed colonialism”.

Peter Carey, a historian specialising in the modern history of Indonesia at the University of Oxford and who attended the museum opening, points out that colonialism can have a significant impact on the mindset of a former colony: “The power that the colonialists used came from mastering the flow of information; a form of soft power. They wrote stories about the nations they colonised and made the natives believe that their nation was underdeveloped.”

This point was also powerfully made by Franz Fanon in his seminal work The Wretched of the Earth, who noted that colonialism has serious ramifications for the psyche of the colonised, who are stunted by a deeply implanted sense of degradation and inferiority. “The colonial power had brainwashed the nation of Indonesia,” says Carey. Even 72 years after independence, it can be argued that vestiges of colonial power still linger in Indonesian society.

Colonial hangovers

Max Havelaar has faded into obscurity, but critical scrutiny of Indonesia’s colonial past is just as necessary as ever.

Writing in the Indonesian newspaper Kompas in March this year, writer Ignas Kleden argued that a discriminative attitude during the Dutch East Indies era has shaped how society perceives race and class today. Ideas of white superiority, for example, continue to exist in Indonesia, as it does in many other former colonies within the region.

Unpacking lingering notions of white superiority, “West versus East” and “coloniser versus the colonised” is no easy feat. “The colonial hangover is a topic with a very wide range. It suggests that we should criticise the white supremacy left behind by the discriminative policies of the Dutch East Indies era, but it’s not just about that,” says Indonesian researcher Eunike G Setiadarma, adding that racial discrimination between various local ethnicities in Indonesia can also be traced back to policies and mindsets inculcated during the colonial era.

Decolonising minds

It’s been argued that a nation declaring its independence from its former colonial masters is only half of decolonisation—the other half comes from decolonising the minds of former subjects. It’s this second half that can prove far more challenging than the struggle that came before.

“Decolonisation is not just the sentiment of rejecting the colonial narration, but how we react and position ourselves in the narrative,” says Perdana Roswaldy, a researcher in the sociology department at Northwestern University. Without this ability to reflect upon and discuss one’s past in context, it would be difficult for a population to engage with its colonial history and the many issues that need to be addressed in the process of decolonising minds.

Museum Multatuli - New Naratif
The Museum Multatuli seeks to provide a more humanistic perspective of Indonesia’s past.

In his essay African Philosophy and the Post-Colonial: Some Misleading Abstractions about ‘Identity’, the Kenyan philosopher D. A. Masolo asserts that after emerging from colonial rule, many newly independent societies seek to establish a sense of historical and national identity that tends to obscure the colonial period. In this new national narrative, it’s as if they had never been colonised at all. Such logic, he argues, limits national discourse, as the recognition of one’s colonial past is crucial to long-term transformation.

Decisions about decolonising the mind also have significant impact on more than just culture. For example, Indonesia’s choice of Malay (codified as Bahasa Indonesia) as its national language has gone far towards building a national identity out of a country with over 700 languages. Malay is a widespread second language that spread through regional trade. Choosing Malay, rather than Dutch (the former colonial tongue) or Javanese (the native language of the largest proportion of Indonesians) as its lingua franca sent a clear message about the inclusive nature of the Indonesian republic and its position in the world. Kenyan novelist and post-colonial theorist Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, in his seminal Decolonising the Mind: the Politics of Language in African Literature, argued that language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature, the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. He advocated for linguistic decolonisation: the rejection of colonial languages, to rid ourselves of the colonising values and assumptions, in favour of the development of indigenous language and literature, and through it liberating indigenous culture from colonial influence. Today, Indonesia appears a more self-confident nation, especially when compared with its neighbours of Singapore, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste, all of whom remain dominated by their colonial language.

Decolonising one’s mind requires the ability to understand the history of power structures and relationships as well as their ongoing impact on modern society

But languages like English and Portuguese have unquestionable utility as global languages, enhancing international communication and easing trade, commerce, and collaboration. A colonial language can be utilised to improve the condition of formerly colonised people. It is perhaps no coincidence that Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines produce a higher proportion of their GDP through trade than Indonesia does. Being fluent in a colonial language is not a solution to development, but it certainly makes it easier to do business and engage in trade.

Decolonising one’s mind requires the ability to understand the history of power structures and relationships as well as their ongoing impact on modern society, and to make difficult long-term choices about the physical and spiritual well-being of the nation. This is where the Museum Multatuli comes in. Instead of glorifying the existence of colonialism, the museum seeks to provide a more humanistic perspective of Indonesia’s past. Unlike many museums in Indonesia that mainly focus on local heroism, this museum presents the perspective of someone, like Multatuli himself, who worked for the colonial government. Such an establishment aims to improve the historical awareness of young Indonesians, and change conversations about not just the past, but the future, too.

The writer thanks Madito Mahardika for his involvement in the writing process, and Petrik Matanasi for the resource recommendations.

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