Jan Pieterszoon Coen-school: Debate about Acts of Commemoration concerning the Dutch Colonial Era

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



The Banda Islands Anthology

A short article featuring some of my photo’s and research ideas have been published in “The Banda Islands: Hidden Histories & Miracles of Nature”. This book also includes work and excerpts of artists and writers that have likewise been enchanted with the Banda Islands, including: Giles Milton, Beatrice Glow, Phillip Winn, Hanafi, Des Alwi and many more.


VIP visits and adat

The festival is a busy time, with poetry readings on fort Belgica, many adat performances, community workshops and activities. I selecred a few and will again try to limit my words by showing plenty of visual teasers of some of these activities.
During the past week it was my birthday, so I treated myself on 1 day to Hatta island to see if I could swim with wild dolphins; my childhood dream. As guess what, first we encountered a large group of melonhead whales/dolphins and then we found the group of smaller dolphins, with whom I actually swam! ♡

As I mentioned in my last post, the aim of the event is to attract attention to Banda by inviting VIPs. Because transportation is rather unreliable, these people were taken onboard Indonesia’s finest ship: the Silolona. Guests include the US Ambassador and his wife, the vice governor of Maluku, BBC team and several CEOs and artists.


Other major visitor was Ibu Susi, the minister of Fisheries and Marine Affairs. She closed sasi ( which forbids people to fish for certain marine life) on Banda Besar and opened sasi on Hatta island. She is the best public speaker I heard in Indonesia, very passionate and easy to understand. I hope her message about plastic pollution hit home.

Besides these adat traditions, I witnessed several “opening of the village” events, after the necessary offerings all the sacred objects are exhibited and the traditional dances are allowed to be performed. One of these villages is Lonthor, which is the only adat village in this archipelago that identifies as Orsia, people of 9, as the rest are Orlima, people of 5. Lonthor therefore has a lot more people involved. Another interesting detail is amongst the sacred object of Kamung Baru, the younger sibling of Lonthor, who own a handwritten Quran from the 12th.

The BBC were also present to capture the story of Banda, and I was so lucky to see them work. Besides them, we tagged along with the US Ambassador Donovan and his wife, and the Consul General of Surabaya and their teams. It was an honor to lead them around and tell the story of Banda.




Opening of the Banda Festival

During the past week or so, the cultural festival has started in full swing. The men are training to row the kora kora and the youth organization got together to create trashbags that are hung all over Banda to keep the waste to a minimum.

The opening of the festival took place at Istana mini, the former residence of the Governor when Banda was still an important trade hub. And guess who opened the festival? The current Governor of Maluku, whose mother is from Banda. He was welcomed by a performence of the Cakalele dance. After the speech he initiated the tobelo, a widely known Moluccan dance, which was an impressive sight when all the Bandanese joined. He remembered me from the summer, so that was pretty neat.

This was not the only performance of the Cakalele by the adat village Namasawar, as they also performed two dances on top of Fort Belgica. Besides this traditional artform, Banda has been adorned by the works of Muhammad Fadli, a contemporary photographer working on a project called The Banda Journal, and the artist Nookie Alwi, whose family has a long history with Banda.

The festival is also an opportunity for a wide variety of workshops, from cooking classes with local products, to sketching, photography and writing. Of course I had to pop in the cooking workshop to sample some of the goodies before going back to work.

And yes, work is also being done. By now I almost finishedmy sketches of the surrounding buildings at Fort Nassau, and I have talked to the people who live there. There are mixed feelings,as they appreciate the restoration but are sad that a whole block of residents will be displaced in oder to reconstruct the waterway.

Last but not least, I accompanied the senator for Maluku yesterday on her visit to the communities on Hatta island and Lonthor on Banda Besar. It was interesting to sit in and listen to the programs that are in place to help the fisherman and nutmeg farmers, and to see a highplaced official like herself go down to the communities to explain how they can apply for these subsidies.


As pictures say more than a thousand words, I hope you enjoyed this visual update. All pictures are made by me, if you want to use them please contact me first.

Back in Banda!

I am very lucky to be back on this beautiful island. This time to attend the cultural festival, do a final survey of Fort Nassau and gather the last impressions of the reinterpretations of the heritage by various stakeholders.

As soon as I arrived I was welcomed by Opy, my oldest friend on Banda, who prepared a room for me to stay this month. Besides her, many friends on Banda are asking me to join for meals, which are delicious and always eaten in good company. It is great to be back!

After an interview at the Nutneg tree hotel (see lunch above and beautiful reading room below) I joined to see the preparations at the Chinese temple. It is a significant historical site in Banda that is in a dreadful state. The Chinese community in Banda either left or became Catholic, making this site a relic of the past.

However, it is an important remnant that reminds us of the multi cultural and poly religious trading community that still us present in the mixed etnic Bandanese society. People from all around came here for the nutmeg, but as I was reminded today in tbe interview, the beauty of Banda is that people adopted the Bandanese culture as their own.

The hope is that this cultural festival, which will bring many VIPs to Banda, can be used to raise awareness for preservation projects such as this Chinese temple.

Re-organization of the local museum

As I mentioned in one of my very first posts, when I arrived in Banda Neira I had the idea to organize a workshop with the local history students to revamp the local museum, the Rumah Budaya. This museum houses the private collection of Des Alwi, who was born in Banda and was adopted by the nationalist Mohammad Hatta during his exile in Banda Neira. Des Alwi became an important diplomat for Indonesia, but never forget his place of origin. He used his extensive network to rescue Banda from decay, and he turned the house in which he was born into a museum. It is owned by his children and grandchildren, one of which, Mita Alwi, helped with the reorganization.

At the moment this is the only place in Banda Islands archipelago were there is an attempt to tell the entire rich history of Banda to tourists. It is therefore regrettable that the exhibition did not show any chronological or thematic organization. In return for all the kindness that the Bandanese people have shown me during the last few months, I wanted to help and reorganize the collection into a story that will be a little more easier to understand for visitors who are not guided by a tour guide.

Together with the history teacher, we already made a thematic sketch at the start of June, but due to all the festivities and my visa problems we had not been able to execute our ideas. As I will be leaving Banda Neira in a month, I asked the students when they would have time during this month to help and move all the objects in the museum. The answer was: this weekend, because there will be a lot of other activities that will prevent them during any other week. So, in two days, I drew maps of the rooms, categorized the objects per theme, and then drew a plan for a new exhibit.


The first day, 24 (!) students came to the museum to help. With the help of colored post-its and the floor plans, all the furniture and objects were moved within a day. The next day a smaller group of 10 selected students returned to help; cleaning the museum, hanging the last paintings and moving the last pieces. I am super excited about the result, however, I was a little anxious whether the efforts of the last week would be appreciated. As it is, several people have approached me to say that they really like the new set-up, as it makes it easier to tell the story of Banda when they tour tourists through the museum. Therefore, mission accomplished!

However, there is still plenty of work to be done. The building is in a pretty bad condition, with parts of the ceiling already collapsing. Besides that, there is a severe lack of lighting, it needs a few fans in order for tourists not to roast during their visit, and all the labels should be renewed. One remaining task is to work with the local students to write a short paragraph to introduce the theme of the room, which will be translated in English and Dutch. Besides that, I will keep my ears peeled for any funds that might be able to rescue this important information center on Banda Neira.

While writing this, I have moved from Banda Neira to Banda Besar, the largest island of the archipelago. So next week more about this island and its rich history!

PS: due to a bad internet connection on Banda Besar, this blog is a few days later than planned.

Fruitful week for research in Banda Neira

Despite a lingering skin infection due to the many insect bites, Ayu and I managed to meet many people this week and gathering some interesting stories. Banda Neira has several administrative villages, which combined form several adat villages, meaning they belong to the same traditional group. As this is not complicated enough, the administrative villages are divided into neighborhoods, and one of these is called Varhouvent. This name originates from one of the main Dutch characters in the story of Banda, as it was Admiraal Verhoeven who ordered his soldiers to construct Fort Nassau despite the objections of the local people.

Ayu and I set out to discover why this village still carries the name of one of the first colonizers of Banda. The bumped into a gathering that was playing bingo, and this seemed like the easiest way to mingle in the local neighborhood and ask them informally who would know the history behind the name of their kampong. Playing bingo was harder than you think, because not only the numbers are called in Indonesian, but it is done in a melodic way. So I had to listen very carefully, and luckily I got a little help from my neighbor. I did not win though.. 😉 After the bingo, we were pointed to the house of an elderly man who holds the wisdom. He told us that next to this village, another part was called Coen (after Jan Pieterszoon Coen) but that name was changed. There is no clear reason why they did not change the name Verhoeven after independence, and now they keep it for history’s sake.

The next day I accompanied Prof. Tim Kaartinen and his wife on their tour. First we stopped by the office of Ekoran. Together with Okalatar they are the only two Bandanese from Banda Ely on the Kei Islands, and with Timo they are probably the only three people at that moment in the Banda archipelago that could speak Bahasa Banda. Afterwards, Okalatar took us to visit several sacred ancestral places, one which is in an old nutmeg drying house and another was located besides the road. These sites are regarded as people, you have to ask permission to approach them and the Bandanese mark them with flowers and empty bottles of medicinal oil. These bottles of oil were previously used on sick people, and then left at the keramat to connect the medicinal powers of the sacred place with the body of the sick person.

After we said goodbye to the professor and his wife, and all the other tourists that left the island by plane. Chris (the Canadian tourist) and I were again the only bule (white people) in town. Ayu and I proceeded with our quest for knowledge, and had an amazing interview with the gatekeeper of the house were Hatta and Sjahrir first lived during their exile. In the back of their house they thought Indonesian history to the local children, something that was not taught at the Dutch schools at the moment. The next day we were able to locate a pacar tree, which leaves are used for the adornment of the bride before the wedding (see my previous blog about malam pacar). Besides this, we learned that the leaves can be used to treat coughs and a concoction is drank by women after they just gave birth. The function of the drink it to release the bad blood and increase healing process of the woman.

Then, last but not least, today it has children’s day! Activities were organized at Istana Mini, the small palace where the Dutch Governor used to live. I was asked to be the jury for the drawing competition, and it was very interesting to see the similarities and differences of what children chose to draw here. Hardly any animals were drawn, the recurring subjects were: house and flowers (similar), mountain and sea, and most interestingly very detailed drawings of boats. The winning drawing is below, made by an 7 (?) year old and it is amazing to see the detail of the korakora boat, the speedboat, the fact that he draw depth (to indicate land and sea) and the detailed drawing of the coconut tree. Absolutely amazing, I could not have done a better job! Besides the competition there were games like zaklopen (racing in a bag), dancing while holding a balloon between two kids and many more fun games.

Next week Ayu and I will stay a few days on Banda Besar, so keep tuned!