The Dutch Are Uncomfortable With Being History’s Villains, Not Victims

A refusal to confront colonial atrocities persists in the Netherlands.

Police stands guard around the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen in Hoorn, the Netherlands, on June 19.
Police stands guard around the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen in Hoorn, the Netherlands, on June 19. Robin Utrecht/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Anti-racist protestors in both the United States and Europe have scored significant symbolic victories this year, as the statues of slave traders, Confederates, and colonialists have been removed from public spaces. One of the most intriguing historical battles has been taking place in the Netherlands, a country often seen as a liberal bulwark, but whose political establishment largely continues to defend its colonial record.

In the 1600s, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) began colonizing parts of Indonesia. After the abolition of the VOC in 1796, the Dutch government gained control over Indonesia, which was then referred to as the Netherlands East Indies. The colonization of Indonesia, which was motivated by Dutch economic interests, was portrayed as a “civilizing mission,” that is, the notion that Indonesians were primitive and backwards and that the Dutch, as Europeans, would civilize and modernise them.

Rulers who had promised to bring so-called civilization actually brought cruelty on a vast scale. During colonial rule, Dutch forces regularly committed atrocities and Indonesian civilians were tortured, raped, and executed. Even in the last years of colonialism, thousands of supporters of independence were jailed.

The men who led these atrocities have often been lionized in the Netherlands. For instance, in 1621 during the Dutch conquest of the Banda Islands in Indonesia, led by VOC officer Jan Pieterszoon Coen, almost the entire population was killed by Dutch forces. Some Indonesians were also deported to the then-capital, Batavia, to serve as slaves. Throughout the 1800s, Coen was viewed as a national hero in the Netherlands due to his expansion of Dutch empire. As a result, a statue of him was erected in his hometown, Hoorn, in 1893 and unveiled in the presence of the Dutch minister of the colonies, Baron van Dedem.

In June 2020, more than 200 people protested in Hoorn calling for Coen’s statue to be taken down. A small group of hypernationalist individuals carrying Dutch flags also protested in defence of Coen at the statue.

This is not the first time that demands have been made for Coen’s statue to be toppled. In 2011, residents of Hoorn signed a petition calling for Coen’s statue to be removed on the grounds that actions committed under Coen’s direction in the Banda Islands were genocidal—an assertion supported by some historians. In response, in 2012, the local city council placed a plaque at the bottom of the statue which stated that Coen “led a punitive expedition against one of the Banda Islands” and “thousands of Bandanese lost their lives during the assault.” But the plaque also included the problematic assertion that “Coen was praised as a vigorous and visionary administrator”—thus partly glorifying him.

Another flashpoint has been in Amsterdam, where graffiti was sprayed onto a monument erected in 1935 to memorialize J.B. van Heutsz, the Dutch former governor of the Indonesian province of Aceh and governor of the Netherlands East Indies. From 1899 until 1909, during Van Heutsz’s governorships, approximately 22,000 Indonesians were killed.

Opposition to the Van Heutsz monument is also not new. In 1962, in a reference to Van Heutsz’s colonial rule over Indonesia, the Indonesian word merdeka (meaning freedom or independence) was painted on the monument. In addition, following protests against the monument, in 2007, the name and image of Van Heutsz were removed from it and the monument was renamed Monument Indië-Nederland (Dutch East Indies-Netherlands Monument).

Despite such protests, many politicians still continue to glorify or excuse the colonial era. In 2018, Dutch prime minister and head of the right-wing People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy, Mark Rutte, stated that people should “be careful to judge … Coen with our current day conceptions”, and argued that Coen needed to be seen “in that time and in that context.” In response to recent protests against Coen’s statue, Rutte publicly recognized Coen’s involvement in actions in the Banda Islands which led to the death of “thousands of people,” but, lamentably, also referred to him as “a visionary.”

Such attitudes reflect widely held views in the Netherlands. For example, according to a 2019 survey, 50 percent of Dutch citizens viewed Dutch colonialism as a source of pride. By contrast, only 6 percent of individuals polled viewed Dutch colonialism as shameful, compared to 23 percent of Belgian citizens polled about Belgium’s colonial rule. Furthermore, alarmingly, over half of the individuals surveyed viewed Dutch colonisation as beneficial or benign for those in Dutch colonies.

Many Dutch have long preferred to see themselves as simply victims, rather than perpetrators, of historical violence. The education system focuses on Germany’s occupation of the Netherlands during WWII, not the Dutch occupation of Indonesia and other colonial possessions for centuries.

There have been a few apologies. Dutch King Willem-Alexander apologized for “excessive violence” perpetrated by Dutch forces during the 1945-49 Indonesian war of independence. This war, which was an unsuccessful attempt by the Dutch to regain control of Indonesia following its proclamation of independence in 1945, resulted in 5,000 Dutch deaths, 150,000 Indonesian deaths and involved Dutch forces raping, torturing, and executing thousands of Indonesian civilians. In 2011 and 2013, the Dutch government apologised for two massacres of Indonesian civilians perpetrated by Dutch troops in 1946 and 1947 known as the Rawagede tragedy and Westerling massacres and, only following court orders, provided compensation to victims’ families.

Despite these apologies, no Dutch government has ever apologized for violence perpetrated by Coen, Heutsz, and their forces, or any cases of colonial violence committed in Indonesia prior to 1945. Similarly, no Dutch government has apologized for the colonization of Indonesia.

By contrast, in Belgium, protestors have succeeded in toppling colonial-era statues.

The efficacy of Belgian protestors is arguably unsurprising as according to a 2019 survey, fewer than one in four Belgians view the country’s colonial era as a source of pride—a sharp change from the past

Recently, protestors set a statue of Belgian King Leopold II on fire in Antwerp. Belgium colonized the Democratic Republic of Congo, then referred to as the Congo Free State, and Belgian King, Leopold II, ran it as his private colony. During his rule, Congolese served as forced labourers on rubber plantations and locals who failed to meet the assigned rubber quotas were mutilated or killed. At least 6 million Congolese were killed during Leopold’s rule. In response to Leopold’s statue being set on fire, local authorities removed it. Similarly, authorities in the Belgian city of Ghent recently removed a bust of Leopold in response to it being sprayed with graffiti multiple times.

According to a recent survey, more than 80 percent of Dutch citizens are opposed to the removal of colonial-era statues. Rutte’s recent statement, that “pulling down statues is not the answer,” is very much the mainstream. Van Heutsz, Coen, and other past imperialists are unlikely to meet Leopold’s fate any time soon.

Olivia Tasevski is an international relations tutor at the University of Melbourne in Australia, where she teaches on nuclear weapons and disarmament. She specializes in American foreign relations and American politics and history.

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