Carving up the Girdle of Emerald: colonialism’s violent cleavages

'The Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro to General De Kock' by Nicolaas Pieneman is a good example of Dutch portrayals of the Indies.
The 1830 painting ‘The Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro to General De Kock’ by Nicolaas Pieneman is a good example of Dutch portrayals of the Indies.

The evil of colonialism is not expressed in a sum of its benefits and downsides. These debates over British railways in India and economic development miss the point of colonialism entirely. Colonialism is violence. It is not just that it entails violence as an inevitable product of its system, colonialism itself is an act of epistemic violence. Colonies require colonial subjects, which needs a cleavage to separate the humans from the lesser creatures.

In my Dutch primary school our teacher would illustrate history class with the school’s antique school prints. They piqued my interest in East Asia, but in hindsight they were rather orientalist. Invariably, you would see a pittoresque landscape, a mise-en-scène of stern Dutch overlooking interchangeable inlanders going about their daily business, or unwavering Dutch ships of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). For a little bookish boy longing for a more exciting world these heroic tales of ‘discovery’ were enthralling.

Our classes put less emphasis on the unfortunate collateral damage of these exciting adventures. The prints perpetuated the unaddressed colonial gaze, as the teacher left out the fundamentals of the story: the dependency of colonialism on violence. First, metal violence, in the mind of the colonist. After that, physical. Then, after armed resistance has been eliminated and the people’s bodies are subjugated, the work of mental domination begins. The tools: dichotomies. A community is taken and carved up into slices. Those slices are carved up again: superior versus inferior, salvageable versus beyond civilisation, useful versus useless, rational versus irrational, etc.

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Ironies of history captured in photo

Bijeenkomst presidentieel paleis

The above picture shows the delegation of the Dutch prime minister, who is currently on a trade mission in Indonesia, meeting with their Indonesia hosts inside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. The irony here is that Merdeka Palace—named after the slogan of the Indonesia struggle for independence, ‘freedom’—was built as Paleis Koningsplein, the residence of the governor-general of the Dutch East Indies.

Where now hang portraits of former presidents, once were the solemn gazes of Dutch kings caught in paint. The very red and blue flag standing proudly in this room stands for everything that was prosecuted from here.

The Delftware in the back and the Dutch colonial architecture show there is a historical link that cannot be forgotten. But it is clear that the tables are turned. Where the power of The Hague was once on display, the Dutch prime minister is now a humble guest, hoping to be noticed amongst other possible trade partners. This is the irony of history.