Working Title: Why We Are Here
(Image: Multatuli (Eduard Douwes Dekker) Max Havelaar : Or the coffee auctions of the Dutch Trading Companies )
No fixed title, just thinking about about my next project. I was thinking about the Dutch equivalent of John Ruskin and thought about Eduard Douwes Decker (Multatuli) and then fired off a quick facebook message to one of my oldest and closest friends, Nicole Sante who I met at school when I was 15 and who is now a journalist who lives in Amsterdam.
quick question in English because otherwise (in Dutch) my spell checker slows me down. I'm thinking of my next project and wanted to see if I could get anywhere with the Dutch Society, part of the University of Sheffield. Looking into the background of Eduard Douwes Dekker (Multatuli). I would love to work with a journalist who has an interest in the period of Western Colonisation and the legacy of this, in particular focusing on mass migration as a side effect. This is only a start and I have no idea how this could progress but .... would you be interested in having a chat about it and see if we could work together?
what a great idea! I am totally interested in colonisation as you can understand! This summer I want to spend some time working on a cook book with recipes and stories from my mother. Also, I want to do a crash course on European funds, this could be useful in finding money!
Fantastic I need to find out a few things but the University has funds and seem to like to invest in cultural stuff with some depth to it. I know you have been thinking about this topic for a long time! I will do some investigative work. European funds are another option but my experience with that is that it's paperwork heavy and they expect a lot for their bucks. But if you find out otherwise, do let me know. And what a brilliant idea of making a cook book. I think we can work that in somewhere! All part of the very positive legacy of immigration that so many pizza and curry loving UKIP supporters completely and conveniently forget.
I'm already so excited! I would love to work with you!
It's about time xxxxx
I know! So when are we having the chat?
You free on Friday morning around 11am? SKYPE?
I am at the office but I can find a quiet place. It shouldn't be a problem. 11 your time?
Ha. Yes please. My time. Your lunch time.
The Skype chat happened and we started talking about Indonesian food - Nicole's mother, Lotte, is a superb cook. I have memories of visiting her house and staying for the best dinners I have ever had, consisting of numerous carefully prepared dishes with fresh ingredients and exquisite flavours. Nicole has been thinking about publishing her recipe book.
Nicole also told me about a project that she proposed 5 years ago that involved Lotte's parents and 8 sisters' move to Dutch New Guinea after the independence of Indonesia in 1949. New Guinea was considered a 'safe haven' for refugees from Indonesia who identified themselves as Dutch and as such, would have been prosecuted under the new regime lead by General Soekarno. She told me how her grand-dad single-handed built a house from 'Ironwood' and that this took him 3 years. One of her mum's sisters has been to Dutch New Guinea quite recently and had seen the house. Nicole is curious about the lives lived by her grand-parents with their 9 daughters, the country they fled, the journey they made to Dutch New Guinea, the house they built in the expectation that they would stay there forever but after 11 years had to abandon.
My father was in the royal navy and was stationed in Dutch New Guinea for 2 years as part of a 'peace keeping' force between 1961 and 1963. In 1963 the Dutch, mainly because of political pressure from USA President J.F. Kennedy, handed Dutch New Guinea over to Indonesia. The vast majority of the Dutch Indonesian population in New Guinea then emigrated to The Netherlands.
Little is known about this period of Dutch colonisation and the lives lived during these 14 years. Nicole questioned the 'peace keeping' mission - she suggested it might have been a way for the Dutch to keep a significant number of potential Indonesian immigrants out of The Netherlands.
I told Nicole my father had been a keen photographer and that we still had lots of slides and photographs that he had taken during his time in Dutch New Guinea. The faces of some of the men my father served with are the same faces that I witnessed coming to our house duirng the final weeks of my father's life. These men are all nearing the end of their lives - it would be interesting to hear their stories.
I'm reading Max Havelaar. It's a book that I must have started reading at least 10 times over the last 35 years but never finished. I'm not sure why because it is fascinating, funny, clever and still feels very contemporary even though it was written in 1956. Eduard Douwes Dekker was a contemporary of John Ruskin and equally fond of writing long passionate sentences about the inhumanity suffered by workers. For Douwes Dekker this concerned the working population on Java who were mainly employed to grow rice and coffee, but more often than not were exploited and mistreated. Many dying of hunger during the time of Dutch colonisation of Indonesia. Max Havelaar is based on Douwes Dekker's own experience as an assistant-resident in Indonesia. It was his book that dramatically changed the governance of Dutch Indonesia. It is now a must-read for every Dutch person.
Like Ruskin, Douwes Dekker was not anti-colonisation. Both were not particularly progressive - not in the sense that they believed in equal rights or social mobility - yet both changed the lives of many working people without a doubt. And their legacy of wanting our world to be a better and fairer place lives on.