Why We Are Where We Are (or why some stories still need to be heard)
Eduard Douwes Dekker took sides with the Javanese people of colonial Dutch Indonesia in his groundbreaking novel ‘Max Havelaar’, as they had been exploited in the most appalling manner. Thousands and thousands had died of hunger during 19th Century, and the ruling Dutch ‘residents’ together with the Indonesion local ‘regents’ had turned a blind eye. Douwes Dekker’s book eventually changed the way of how the Indonesian population was governed.
This is not the only story we had to endure about the fate of both inhabitants and occupiers. It is now nearly 200 years ago that Eduard Douwes Dekker was born and it is time we listen to the words of the last survivors who can remember the final days of Dutch colonialism and Indonesian independence. There are still stories that have not been heard.
Just like tens of thousands of other Dutch Indonesians just after WW2, Leendert Lodewijk Mollet had to make the important choice: Leaving Indonesia as a Dutchman or becoming Indonesian and face up to fact that he would be treated as a second rate civilian, likely to suffer at the hands of the new Indonesian ruling class.
Yet he, as well as some 15,000 fellow countrymen chose an alternative, taking a boat with his wife and his (then) 7 daughters and travelled to Dutch New Guinea. They left most of their belongings behind and arrived in Manokwari, a small settlement on a beach in New Guinea where 1400 Indonesian people settled. There was no housing, nor were there any other services that made life easy – everything still needed to be built. The families lived together in large warehouses and the Mollet family were one of those.
It took three years before Leendert Lodewijk, who used to work as a government administrator for the Dutch in Indonesia, had built his own house with his own hands. A house of ‘iron wood’ for all his women – he and his wife now had 9 daughters. A house that would stand the test of time
The Mollet family lived in Manokwari for 11 years – happy memories of childhood and puberty for the girls, even if life was tough and the living conditions semi-primitive.
Sadly this ‘good life’ came to an end very suddenly when Indonesian soldiers were sent to Dutch New Guinea to claim ownership of this island, supported first by Russia, and not long thereafter by the entire world. The Dutch had to hand New Guinea over to Indonesia and father Mollet had to take the most heartwrenching decision of his life: sell up and take a plane to The Netherlands – a country where none of his family had ever set foot.
They left their house behind in Manokwari.
My father had been working as a sailor in the engine rooms of the Dutch Royal Navy ships since 1954. He was stationed in New Guinea between 1961 and 1963. He always told me he was part of a ‘peace keeping force’. Hendrikus Jacobus Otto Jansen was his name.
He loved the Royal Navy and the men he served with. They had become his second family, his band of brothers. During his childhood in German occupied Haarlem he had witnessed the execution of one of his school teachers alongside ten innocent men. The teacher had been found with the gun that had killed a member of the Gestapo and this was an act of revenge, a lesson to all the young men in Haarlem.
Aged 9 at the time, this experience had marked him and he always told me that this had been the moment he had decided to join the army as soon as he could. He also often said that joining the Royal Navy would give him the opportunity to see the world. And he did.
Dutch New Guinea had become a safe haven for many of the Dutch Indonesian population who had left Indonesia after its independence in 1949. They had fled out of fear: they would not have been treated kindly by the new government led by General Soukarno because they had worked for the Dutch colonial government.
The Dutch had promised the population of New Guinea, the Papua tribal communities, their own independence. The Dutch interim administration and tribal population, as well as the influx of new Indonesian inhabitants seem to get on well. However, once Indonesia considered New Guinea to belong to them, eventually with support from the entire world and in particular through the pressure put on the Dutch by president JF Kennedy, the Dutch had to admit defeat and in 1963 they signed the agreement to hand New Guinea over to their formed colony. In the eyes of many who served in the peace keeping force, this was a terrible betrayal to the Papua communities.
Much has been written about this period in recent Dutch history but little is knows about the fate of those 15000 who had fled Indonesia in 1949, and then had to do so again in 1963. To begin a new life yet again, but this time in the pitifully small, cold and wet Netherlands
What is the story behind the house made of ‘iron wood’, built by Leendert Lodewijk Mollet for his family, with the conviction that he would stay there for the rest of his life. A man who adored his wife and dearly loved his 9 daughters, even though his love was often tough.
From the stories that his surviving daughters tell about how the house was built and lived in, we can picture the house and its builder, a man and father who died just before he reached pension age.
The women describe what they lived through – they remember chosing the location for the house, they can recall how they collected the wood for the house, they can reminisce about helping out. The slow progress made day on day on day. The changing moods of their dad during the build. The final touches and completion. The decorating and moving in process.
And eventually they begin to tell how it was when they had to leave, the last few days of being in the house when they received the news of the inevitable take-over by Indonesia. How they just managed to sell up before they had to leave New Guinea. The last glances of their home and the unbearable sadness of their father.
I want to let these women speak. I want to hear these women describe their house. Eight of them are still alive and all will have different memories. Three of the sisters have visited New Guinea in the last ten/fifteen years and have seen it, still standing, still strong. Their stories will be heard right at the end just to see how older memories compare and contrast with the more recent sightings.
But I want to see the house. I am a daughter of one of the daughters and I want to see with my eyes what it looks like in Manokwari because, you know, this story is not just the story of the Mollet family. It is a little bit of Dutch colonial history that has been silenced. Not many Dutch people know that some 15000 Dutch Indonesian people fled to New Guinea to build a new life in what can only be described as a ‘wilderness’. They did so with little support and they managed to form close relationships with one another without realising that this life would be shortlived.
From early on the Dutch should have known it could never hold on to New Guinea. Pressure from the international community, together with the total conviction and determination from Indonesia to make New Guinea theirs meant that the Dutch government had to do what it was told to do. Hand it over, betray a population and enable 15000 Indonesian people to permanently settle in The Netherlands.
Hendrikus (beter known as Henk bij his royal navy colleagues, and as Otto by his family) was an enthusiastic documentary makers, mostly capturing images in black and white photographs and colour slides.
Many of the men he served with are now at a venerable age or, sadly, have died. My dad died at the age of 68 after a prolonged illness. In the final stages of his life he was visited by his old friends who came to say their farewells: Herman, Niek, Rinus, Theo and men I recognised but whose names I can’t recall. They don’t have long to tell their stories of thier time on New Guinea.
Did they genuinely believe they were the peace keepers? Perhaps they now think there were other reasons to keep those 15000 refugees out of the Netherlands?
At this very moment in time we are witnessing another mass migration by people fleeing to find a safe place to build a new life, for themselves and their children.
This is a proposal to give a voice to those who still can tell the stories that ought to be heard. To undo the twisted histories and link the stories of then to the situation of now. But mainly also, to show that good can come from mass migration. We have to listen to the tales of those who have lived through those times. It will help us to discover another truth, so that our children will know a different history and can begin to imagine that the so called ‘threat’ of the current situation is perhaps not something that should be feared as much as it is.
Mir wants to make the journey her father once made, from The Netherlands to New Guinea. But she also wants to visit the men that are still alive and who remember their time on New Guinea. She wants to hear if they agree with what has been written about this time, or if they now, nearly 50 years later, will acknowledge a different truth. She wants to know how they felt when The Netherlands were forced to hand New Guinea over to Indonesia and General Soekarno. But also what their relationship was with the Papua population – how did they conduct themselves? And what they felt when they returned to The Netherlands, what they thought about the 15000 Indonesian people joining them there.
Nicole wants to make the journey her mother made from Indonesia to New Guinea. She wants to visit the house her grandfather built with his own hands and that still stands proud in Manokwari. And of course, she wants to hear the stories his remaining daughters still remember. What did they leave behind and how did they experience the emigration to The Netherlands where they weren’t exactly welcomed with open arms.