Indifference to Gratitude
As Rob Dückers, our tour guide for the day at the Amsterdam Museum, explained the Dutch’s practical mindset of making money, I couldn’t help but feel nauseous and irritated. From the early 1600s, the Dutch had colonised Indonesia for its spices, mostly for cloves, mace, and nutmegs, thereby monopolising the spice trade, as well as exploiting many of Indonesia’s natural resources. Despite the centuries of shared history, the Dutch have chosen not to interfere and change the culture and welfare of the Indonesians. Unlike many others whose countries have been colonised by imperialists, the people of Indonesia do not have a broiling hatred against the Dutch, and neither have I. I have never given the Dutch a second thought; they were simply other characters in the course of my country’s history. In fact, the only time I’ve heard anything negative against the Dutch was when my parents said, “It would have been better if we were colonised by the British; they help countries grow and develop. The Dutch never helped us learn how to make money off the many resources we have.” Standing at the Amsterdam Museum, however, staring at walls lined with priceless artworks, architecture that screams luxury, and a history marked with prosperity, I couldn’t help but think that Indonesians—my people—took the fall for the Netherlands’ monetary success.
I walked through room after room filled with paintings depicting the extravagant lifestyle in which the rich Dutch nobility indulged. Faces stared down at me, their expressions smug and filled with pride; their clothes, made of silk and lace, cover half of the canvas, each opulent detail painted with minute accuracy; and in one painting, stacks of money were piled on the table as well-off women posed with superiority.
Rob explained that the Dutch were very practical, especially when it came to money making: they would not let anything get in their way of a business venture: not time, distance, nor religion. “During the 1600s, the Dutch were the only people who were allowed to trade with Japan,” Rob said. The Dutch were mainly Protestant, but unlike the Spaniards and Portuguese, their first objective was trade, not religious conversion. This appealed to the Japanese ruler, who had campaigned against Christianity at the time, and the Dutch were able to make a lot of money as they were one of only two countries with trading relationships with Japan. Although I admired the Dutch ingenuity in making the most of every opportunity to make money, I couldn’t help but think, “Did they ever think twice about the people whose land they were exploiting?”
While I enjoyed Rob’s explanation and tour of the Amsterdam Museum (as I learned about the city’s complicated history with the sea and the building of canals) I couldn’t help but feel a burning sense of Indonesian nationalism rising within me. While Rob’s own pride in his country grew throughout the tour of the museum, so did mine. I fought against letting down my smile and cheerful fascination, but my eyes and ears were hungry for any mention of Indonesia as a Dutch colony. The Dutch colonised Indonesia for 300 hundred years. I would have thought that my country of a thousand islands would come up more frequently in this museum tour. Instead, Rob only briefly mentioned Indonesia when talking about the amount of money the Dutch made through its success in the spice trade; nothing in the museum paid tribute to its former colony. Although no one would have guessed, behind my smile, I was angry. Granted, it was a museum about Amsterdam’s history, not the Netherlands’ relationship with its colonies, but after 300 years of hard labour and helping the Dutch monopolise the spice trade, maybe, just maybe, a minor section in the museum honouring Indonesia’s role would suffice.
Towards the end of our tour, Rob said, “Today, Indonesia (and all of Dutch’s previous colonies) is an independent country, and I feel that it is better that way. It’s good that both countries continue to have good relations with each other.” In response, I nodded vigorously, finally hearing some sort of justifiable mention of my country. Although it was a short mention—insignificant to others, maybe—it gave me a sense of respect towards Rob. He was here to explain Amsterdam’s history to us, not to approve and advocate for all that the Dutch had done to its colonies in the past. I couldn’t blame Rob and the citizens of the Netherlands for what had happened hundreds of years ago, and as much as I wanted to lash out at the fact that there was nothing about Indonesia in the Amsterdam Museum, I had to realise that it was, in fact, a museum about Amsterdam, not Indonesia. I left the museum ashamed of my defiant thoughts and annoyance, but I also gained a surprising sense of Indonesian pride—one that I haven’t felt before.
Indonesia’s road to independence wasn’t easy: it took almost five years after Indonesia’s first president Sukarno declared independence for the Dutch to finally and formally admit Indonesia as an independent country. In 1942, the Dutch momentarily lost its Southeast Asian colony to the Japanese during the struggles of World War II, however, when the Japanese surrendered and Indonesia declared its independence in 1945, the Dutch had its last chance to take back Indonesia as a colony. Unwilling to lose its colony of 300 years and spurred by the idea of economic gain, they continued to fight against Indonesia’s self-proclaimed independence until the late 1950s. It was only on December 27th, after the Dutch–Indonesian Round Table Conference was held in the Hague, that the Dutch formally transferred its sovereignty completely to Indonesia. Despite their rocky history with each other, the Indonesians and the Dutch had an intermingled culture that traced all the way back to its colonial period. So much so that a new rule was established: each citizen must choose to stay in Indonesia or go back to the Netherlands—their loyalty must only be devoted to one country. It was a difficult choice for many Indonesians who had intermarried with the Dutch, but that is why Dutch influences and communities are prevalent in Indonesia today, and vice versa.
Hence, I came into Amsterdam thinking that maybe I would understand a bit of Dutch because of how long and how powerfully the Dutch influenced the Indonesian way of life. But that wasn’t the case; instead, I was lost and confused. Everything was so different, but what was I expecting? The Netherlands is certainly not Indonesia. But I finally got a taste of home, literally, when I arrived at an Indonesian restaurant for dinner. I noticed how fancy the restaurant was: the white walls with decorative gold accents, long tables, cutlery, and wine glasses were in stark contrast to the traditional Indonesian restaurants I knew at home. Indonesian food is meant to be messy; it is a gathering of sorts, a celebration where hands dig into the various dishes and mouths chew and talk endlessly for hours. In Amsterdam, however, Indonesian food is a calm culinary experience. Despite it missing the signature fragrance and rich tang of Indonesian spices, the food was still surprisingly delicious in its own Dutch way. The gado gado tasted fresh and sweet with its peanut sauce, the rendang was a nice blend of spicy and savoury, and the tempeh was cooked the way I would have eaten it back at home. As surprising as it was for me to admit that the food tasted quite good, it still didn’t taste like home. I thought it was simply because they were missing the key elements to Indonesian “fine dining”: sambal, kecap manis, and my personal favourite, Teh Botol. It was disappointing to see such ingredients missing in my Indonesian dinner, but it was also understandable that Indonesian food in the Netherlands had been “Dutched-up,” calling the cuisine an Indonesian Rijsttafel and adapting the food to the Dutch palette (much like how Chinese food in America has been “Americanized”).
What really took me aback was how much the Dutch enjoyed Indonesian food. All around me, I saw Dutch locals happily eating the Indonesian dishes in front of them. On a previous trip to Amsterdam with my family, I noticed much of the same: maybe only one or two Indonesian-speaking families at the restaurant. I was shocked to see that foreigners and Dutch citizens lined up to eat at these Indonesian restaurants, so much so that reservations had to be made. Selfishly, I mentioned to my brother on my previous trip to Amsterdam, “They should prioritise real Indonesian citizens. Why should we line up to eat our own food?” But silently I thought to myself, “Wow, they actually like our food—our food that is messy and wild and so different from fine Western cuisine.”
But it was the next day at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum that really opened my eyes to how the Dutch saw Indonesia: not only as a colony and a place with good food, but as a fellow independent country and respected culture. The first floor of the Rijksmuseum boasted religious paintings and sculptures, and a section of it was dedicated to Rembrandt’s inspiring artwork. On the second floor, tucked in a small corner between maritime artefacts and Van Gogh paintings, were portraits of Javanese men in their batik and a miniature of a Javanese marketplace complete with small clay figures, fruits and vegetables, chickens, and market booths. It was so small, so easily overlooked, but I was stunned; I was frozen in place taking it all in. The four portraits loomed over me and everyone else in the room: the men wore simple batik, elaborate designs of nature in colours of brown, white, and gold, topped with a black peci (a simple hat shaped like an upside-down bowl) on their heads. They stood tall, shoulders back, and their expressions were indignant, brave, and defiant. I felt tears coming into my eyes as a wave of appreciation came over me: my people were portrayed as confident soldiers, not cowering and lowly villagers. The miniature marketplace displayed near the portraits brought me back home to what we call a pasar, a busy and loud local marketplace. Small chickens were strewn across the miniature, baskets were tipped over, rows upon rows of booths were selling everything from fish to fruits, and the men and women were carrying their goods on their shoulders and heads. I could hear the loud chattering of Indonesians bargaining the prices and quality of the food, could feel the humid tropical heat burning through the spice-scented air, and could see the number of chickens roaming around disrupting a peace that only the locals would call order. Despite the portraits and the miniature dating from colonial times, the Dutch captured the essence of a typical Javanese morning and culture.
That small corner in the Rijksmuseum dedicated to Indonesia as a Dutch colony may not have been much, but it was enough; it was everything I was so hungrily looking for at the Amsterdam Museum. It was a sweet relief to know that the Dutch had moved beyond their regret of not gaining back all of Indonesia’s 18,000 islands as a colony. Today, the Dutch are able to represent the country with respect and honour in their museums. Yes, the colonial past was not always happy and bright—it was violent and horrifying, for sure—but just as Rob said, Indonesia and the Netherlands have maintained good trading relations. In fact, the Netherlands is one of Indonesia’s most important trade partners in Europe. These close and special ties between the two countries are ironically embedded in a shared colonial history that has lasted for centuries. Perhaps this ongoing friendship between the Netherlands and Indonesia is the reason why I have personally never felt anger towards the Dutch. That sense of irritation against our former coloniser has not been a prominent aspect of Indonesian culture and lifestyle. That speaks for the appreciation both countries have for the sharing of two cultures. Indonesia still draws from Dutch architecture throughout its cities; croquettes, a Dutch staple of fried dough filled with meat or mashed potatoes, are also a popular snack in Indonesia; and even the Indonesian birthday song has the same tune as that of the Dutch. In the Netherlands, Indonesian communities thrive, evident through the many Indonesian restaurants and shops. The city of Den Haag, in fact, hosts the largest Indonesian community in the Netherlands, and even boasts Indonesian islands and provinces as street names such as Atjehstraat named after the province of Aceh, Riouwstraat after the province of Riau, and Lombokstraat after the island of Lombok.
I don’t know how long I was standing there, looking up at those four figures, but I was entranced. If I wasn’t surrounded by strangers in a museum, I would have let my tears fall, and I would have stood there in awe until the guards chased me out. As I finally walked away from the four portraits of Javanese men, I felt the anger and frustration from the day before vanishing into a cloud of appreciation. The Amsterdam Museum gifted me with a defiant nationalism, but the Rijksmuseum taught me to respect a former enemy—ironically, a country that I was frustrated with during this trip. Despite the fact that the Dutch had colonised Indonesia for hundreds of years, I have never truly given them a second of my thoughts back at home. It’s funny how it took 19 years and travelling halfway across the world to find pride in my own country, to stand up and say that we were more than a colony that provided spices for the world. In just a span of three days, I went from feeling indifferent to angry, and finally to feeling grateful. I left Amsterdam with nothing but respect and gratitude for a country that greatly shaped mine.
Tivara Tanudjaja is a Contributor at Panorama.