During the past weeks a fierce debate in the Netherlands has arisen which has been dubbed the “Nieuwe Beeldenstorm”, literally the new statue storm, referring to the history of Dutch iconoclasm in the 16th century. The debate was triggered by the removal of a replica bust of Maurits van Nassau at the Mauritshuis in The Hague and the initiative to rename an elementary school, now called Jan Pieterszoon Coen-school, in the “Indonesian” neighborhood of Amsterdam. In this blog post I will zoom in on the second case study and describe a few arguments that are used in favor of, and against, these re-interpretative actions related to the Dutch colonial past.
First, if we do have to make the comparison to the Dutch Iconoclastic Fury (Dutch: beeldenstorm), let’s make it a clear one. The Dutch iconoclasm was a violent revolt against the religious narrative that the Catholic church imposed on the people, and it exhibited itself by groups of protestants entering Catholic churches and destroying all the depictions of holy man and women. If we do have to make the comparison, we could say that the dominant narrative by the Catholic church was being attacked by the people, in recognition of new ideas. This might be a good comparison as it is true that the dominant narrative, informed by a nostalgic nationalism, is being attacked by those whose narratives have been repressed. However, I hope that the current debate remains a verbal debate and will not take such violent forms, which is the first important distinction to make. The advocates for a more inclusive history want acknowledgement for the negative history that has contributed to the wealth we have today. So far, they have not taken up sledgehammers and ropes to disfigure and tear down statues of personages that are related to these histories. Rather, the effect which is seen nowadays is that institutions are reflecting on the narrative they are producing and a willingness to include more perspectives on the history.
Now, a let’s take a closer look to the figure of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, after whom the elementary school is named. In the debate everyone seems to agree that he did gruesome acts in order to establish a Dutch foothold in Indonesia, and he has been referred to as the “Slaughterer of Banda”. As I am currently working on my dissertation chapter which concerns the history of the Banda Islands, I am actively going through several historical accounts that deal with his legacy. In fact, many of the older sources speak rather unfavorably about his misconduct in the Banda Islands, where the native population was decreased with an estimated 94% through killings and deportation resulting in enslavement at the newly established colony Batavia.
One of the arguments about keeping his memory alive through commemoration the name of the school in the Amsterdam neighborhood, or for that matter his statue in Hoorn or the Coen-tunnel, is that his conduct needs to be put in the light of the age in which it occurred. But even in his time, Coen’s approach was judged negatively despite the fact that the result (establishing a monopoly on the trade of nutmeg and founding Batavia as a trade hub) was celebrated. In his account from 1886, van der Chijs literally stated: “If the statue had not yet been erected for Jan Pieterszoon Coen, I doubt it would ever have been. His name is tainted with blood”. Whether this statue was to remain in place was heavily debated in 2011, when after a public outcry and petition it was decided to leave the statue on his pedestal on the central plaza of Hoorn, but to mention his misconduct on the explanatory plaque.
A second argument against removing references to his name from the public sphere, is that such an act would be re-writing history. This leads us to the question; whose history is it that is being commemorated? As the famous saying goes, history is written by the victors, so therefore it is logical to conclude that these acts of memorialization and honoring refers to the commemorable episodes of our national history. However, by highlighting the positive effects that this history had for the formation of the Netherlands, which is referred to as the Dutch Golden Age, neglects the acts that were conducted in the shadows. And it is exactly these histories, such as the violent actions of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, that need to be revisited, re-read and reinterpreted. And yes, if you will, our history of the Dutch Golden Age could use some re-writing, to represent a past that includes both the positive and negative effects of colonization.
Lastly, I want to briefly refer to an argument that is used by the advocates for this change. A popular argument is to compare Dutch colonialism and its atrocities to that of the Nazi regime. This argument was right-out debunked by journalist Weird Duk in his radio interview by stating that it would be impossible nowadays to have a school named after Hitler in a Jewish neighborhood. Within this counter-argument he actually undermines his own statement, as yes, this scene would be unimaginable as Germany deals very consciously with its negative history. The fact that the Coen-school is still named so, is an indication that the Netherlands can do a better job in revisiting our own dark histories, which would hopefully lead to more empathy to the minorities that live within our borders and inclusion of their histories in the general national narrative.
For further reading about this debate, here are some recent articles (in Dutch):
https://www.nporadio1.nl/dit-is-de-dag/uitzendingen/594127-2018-01-17?# (radio interview)
Tags: #janpieterszooncoen #nieuwebeeldenstorm #Coen #coen2021 #colonialpast #negativeheritage #bandaislands #bandamassacre