In this forum, René Koekkoek, Anne-Isabelle Richard, and Arthur Weststeijn call for a new alignment between the historiography of the Dutch empire from the perspective of intellectual history and the international historiography of empire at large. They urge us to become more active in bringing these Dutch intellectual histories into the body of international scholarship. Although I really appreciate their initiative to rattle the existing historiographic order and I do acknowledge the scholarship with which they elaborate on the questions emerging from their approach, I disagree with their basic premise of a long-term perspective on ‘visions’ (that is, an intellectual history) of ‘Dutch Empire’. It is not my intention to quibble over details. However, I strongly recommend exploring other ways of strengthening international historiographic debate about the imperial past. We should approach the intellectual histories of empire as an intrinsically international intellectual history that is relevant not only to the histories of the separate nation states of contemporary Europe, but equally to the post-colonial states whose intellectual histories are entangled with European imperialism, and to the supranational organizations that in varying degrees and with different degrees of success were established in the wake of imperialism at the start of the postcolonial, post-Second World War world order. The ambition to construct a grand narrative on ‘Visions of Dutch Empire’ means forging a national history from a process that is inseparable from European history.1

History, Historiography, and Historical Debate

The imbalances in international scholarship identified by Koekkoek, Richard, and Weststeijn do, indeed, exist; however they cannot be countered with more historiography inspired by the same methodological nationalism that characterizes many of the works to which they refer.2 Moreover, whereas the authors refer to Ann Stolers’ discussion of ‘colonial aphasia’3 in the Netherlands, and historical ‘notions of Dutch imperial exceptionalism’, I start from the premise that Dutch imperial exceptionalism or colonial aphasia are not historical features of Dutch society that should be reversed by historians, but rather that we need to critically reflect on how historians have contributed to this. Starting in the nineteenth century, history books, history paintings, exhibitions, and architectural structures helped establish visions of Dutch empire that contributed to the Netherlands’ place within Europe’s nineteenth-century imperial balance of power acts; and after 1945, history books relegated the Dutch empire to the past while requiring that imperial immigrants now identify with a narrow national Dutch history.

We should acknowledge that imperial policies and views — which can be characterized as repertoires for ruling different people differently4 – have been crucial for the construction of citizenship both in Europe and in colonial society overseas. Within Europe’s vast imperial world, the ‘colonizers’ could for a long time easily circulate as ‘Europeans’ rather than as the citizens of separate European nation states. Their white skin was their passport.5 These policies and views also shaped colonial societies as empires collaborated in the large-scale relocation of people within the European imperial realm, as in the case of slave trade and indenture. Only since the beginning of the twentieth century have national distinctions among European colonial elites overseas become more meaningful. But nationality gained relevance in the colony because of developments within Europe.6 Meanwhile colonial society also saw the formation of anticolonial nationalism. ‘Europeanness’ was no longer a common feature and stronghold in the mix of ideas and practices connected to ruling pluralistic and increasingly diverse societies in unconnected regions. With respect to the Netherlands, after 1949 (the date of Dutch acknowledgement of Indonesian sovereignty), 1962 (departure from Netherlands New Guinea), and 1975 (Surinamese independence), such ideas and practices were increasingly relegated to ‘the past’. Dutch society now perceived itself as an historically homogeneous nation state with a colonial past that could be separated from its continental history; meanwhile, the Netherlands itself had become a strong building block for the new states order within Cold War Europe. As mentioned before, this ‘forgetting’ about the plurality of the imperial past should not in the first place be understood as ‘colonial aphasia’, but as a political practice of nation formation to which Dutch historiography has contributed.7

Koekkoek, Richard, and Weststeijn discuss ‘visions of (Dutch) empire’ in two ways: in terms of history (what happened until 2017), and in terms of historiography (how historians write about what happened). In terms of history, they examine Dutch imperial views, ideas, and prospects. What were the visions of the past, and future, of empire developed by Dutchmen like Hugo Grotius, Herman Willem Daendels, and Conrad Theodor van Deventer? In terms of historiography, they ask how imperialism has been studied, understood, and framed in the Netherlands, and what steps we need to take from there in order to improve the relevance of this historiography to international debates about the intellectual history of the imperial past.

Intellectual history is closely linked to historiography, since legal, economic, ethical, and aesthetic visions that are part of intellectual history almost always use historical references and temporal arguments that refer to the past, present, and future. Koekkoek, Richard, and Weststeijn connect the intended ‘long-term perspective’ on such an intellectual history to a chronology: the concept of ‘Dutch Empire’ was shaped, transformed and rendered uncertain as an idea that can be traced over more than four hundred years and that is available for periodization. The authors distinguish three overlapping periods: the republican empire (1550-1800); the transformation of and resistance to empire (c. 1750-1850); and, finally, ‘from colonial to postcolonial empire?’ (with question mark; 1850-2017). At the same time, the position paper as an intervention in the status quaestionis also suggests that this phenomenon of the Dutch Empire is explored only now; that we as historians working on changing visions of imperialism in Dutch history from the early modern period to the present try to understand and intervene in the colonial aphasia, the denial of the colonial past and sense of imperial exceptionalism in contemporary society. I am very sympathetic to that ambition, because I agree that we have work to do. At the same time, however, I am disappointed about their focus and references in the debate, directed almost exclusively towards a specific Netherlands-centric body of historical work. We know that the legacies of ‘ruling different people differently’ still work in the intricate interplay of hierarchies omnipresent in the arena of intellectual history. Historians in this field should take these legacies seriously and actively search out opportunities to extend their own professional networks.

Against an ‘Add-On Approach’

Koekkoek, Richard, and Weststeijn state that historians in current international historiography ‘share a disregard for one of the most significant imperial powers in (early) modern global history: the Dutch empire’. The aim of their road map is to offset this imbalance. However, why does Dutch imperial history, or the voices of Dutch historians, lag behind those of other imperial histories and historical debates? Indeed, historiography of empire is dominated by studies of British imperialism, and to a lesser extent of French imperialism, and maybe, although I doubt this, Spanish and Portuguese, or, in a different register, Russian imperialism. But what does this observation actually mean: should the Dutch just catch up? In British historiography, the authors often do not even specify that the imperialism they discuss is about the British empire – for instance, MacKenzie’s Museums and Empire is not about museums and empire but about museums in capital cities of the former British Empire.8 That empire in this context equals British Empire is not even an issue for the subtitle of the book. I do not believe in a so-called ‘add-on’ approach: that (Dutch) historians should bring Visions of Dutch Empire to the Visions of Empire in British history and other imperial histories.

Registration book of indentured labourers ready for restoration and conservation. Documents on the recruitment, travel and settlement of indentured labourers from China, British India and the Netherlands Indies to Suriname offer just one of the many traces of imperialism as a joint European effort. In this case they indicate how shared views on labour and discipline as well as common identification techniques substantiated the many large-scale migration movements within the imperial world.

Collection National Archives of Suriname (NAS), Paramaribo. Photo: Photograph taken by the author during a guided tour in October 2012.

One major concern with such an approach is that it does not challenge, but rather reinforces the historiographic biases in national imperial histories in the context of British or French imperialism. Examples of these biases can be found in the disturbing imbalances of and blank spots and taboos in historiography concerning, for example, different parts of the British or French empires, with respect to both their colonial past as such and to their decolonization history; or the insufficient understanding of processes of state formation in Latin America in the context of imperial histories. It does not solve either the bias in national historiographies according to which some nations are supposed to have not been involved in imperialism at all (as is the case, for instance, in Norway or Switzerland).9 Instead of regarding separate national (or certain ‘transnational’) histories as a cradle or an old-age home for imperial visions, we need to understand the deep entanglement of the processes of nation-state formation in Europe with imperialism as a fundamentally European endeavour. For the sake of the discussion, to put it even more strongly: I would take here the position that with all its border rhetoric and crisis in normative border politics10, the current European Union of (still) 28 countries is connected with the 1885 Berlin Africa conference, as well as with Versailles 1919, Sèvres 1920, and Lausanne 1923. Europe inverted the terra nullius concept of Berlin 1885, designed for its use overseas11, and this still is reflected in the stitched patchwork of borders of the European (nation-)states of today, borders that provide a historical suggestion of who belongs where – former colonial subjects included.12

My second concern with an add-on approach is that the focus in the position paper on the long-term development of ‘Visions of Dutch Empire’ seems to boil down to an intervention in a discussion taking place predominantly among a community of (Dutch) historians only. No reference is made to other social scientists such as anthropologists13, museum professionals14, scholars of literature and cultural studies15, artists16, or activists knocking at the door of academia17 and who have published about and still work on visions of empire, just as historians do. Edward Said did not include Dutch orientalists in his paradigm-changing book Orientalism, with the exception of a brief mention of Snouck Hurgronje.18 Neither the heated international debate that followed this publication, nor the studies that took up or challenged Said’s analysis, included Dutch philological and scientific traditions of Indology and oriental studies. One of the explanations for this absence in international historiography is the dominant use of the Dutch language in the relevant publications of the time (which were not easily accessible for those who did not read Dutch). But that is not the only reason. Within the Netherlands we also saw (and at times still see) a straightforward debunking of a postcolonial approach to colonial histories: it is not our cup of tea.19

Koekkoek, Richard, and Weststeijn contribute to getting beyond this former splendid isolation in language and approach. Nevertheless, they seem to continue the equally important disciplinary trend of the ‘nationalization’ of colonial history after decolonization. Colonial history became a special topic in Dutch history, while failing to maintain an appropriate interaction between Netherlandic, Indonesian, Surinamese, South African, and other historiographies. The references in the position paper show that this is the case here again. We find established names in Dutch historiography, but there is no mention of a single Indonesian, Surinamese, South African, Ghanaian, or other historian, anthropologist, nor of any other scholar or artist working on empire from a different national or global perspective that might turn the Netherlands into a province in Europe.20 The paper acknowledges that it would be interesting to look at Dutch colonialism from the perspective of Javanese political elites; however, that is an under-theorized remark. Why Javanese political elites, and why should we do that? I would guess that it is because we have written sources ready for reinterpretation. But why, then, are there, in addition to Peter Carey’s work21, no references to critical approaches to the canon of Indology that, not unlike orientalism as discussed after Said, provides a primary and very essential layer of interpretation for these texts?22 Rather, I would argue that we need to get out of the hierarchies set by the inherent power relations at stake in the historiography of empire and that resonate in the footnotes of the position paper both with respect to the contextual framework for the knowledge of the authors referred to and the one-sided emphasis on historians while excluding other disciplines. Why strengthen ‘Visions of Dutch empire’ in international historiography rather than join in the debate on global perspectives as a global debate?23

In short, I believe that we should refrain from further developing Dutch imperial history or discussing what is Dutch about visions of empire, and deliberately get away from the implicit post-1945 and post-decolonization framing of imperial history as national European historiographies in which Dutch historiography needs to be put forward more strongly. Instead, we need to explore how imperialism shaped nations including the Netherlands and how it correspondingly shaped our understanding of an intellectual history that does not necessarily take the nation, or even Europe, as its frame of reference.

Longue Durée, Periodization, and Intellectual Histories

My last response concerns the call for a long-term perspective as such. I fully agree with the urgency of strengthening this perspective, but again only if longue durée – interpreted as the long term – does not imply a projection of contemporary state formation into a distant past. Rather than the vague periodization with overlapping periods proposed in the position paper, I would argue that in terms of (empire-) state formation, any periodization has to take the 1814-15 Congress of Vienna as a major turning point in imperial history. The position paper mentions Daendels, whose appointment ‘heralded a new era of colonial state-building’ (wording that stresses the European situatedness of the authors, who would face many problems in explaining this trumpet metaphor in Indonesia). The authors suggest that in 1818, Johannes van den Bosch subsequently provided this turn toward empire with its intellectual foundations. Implicitly, they thus suggest a longue durée intellectual history from Grotius to Van den Bosch (and on to Van Deventer). This line-up is not convincing. The periodization suggests a long-term project in which Dutchmen over 400 years more or less consistently worked on empire as a project (and heralded new phases in it).24 However, colonialism is a distributed, fragmented object, whereas the longue durée is about structures – visions and structures are not easily brought into a single frame of interpretation.

Replying to Stephen Howe in 1993, Martin Shipway discusses this value of the notion of longue durée as well, in the context of a political history of (the end of) empire that also addresses the Dutch and Indonesian decolonisation history.25 I agree with his conclusion that, if we follow Braudel’s distinction of different layers of time related to structure, conjuncture, and event, imperialism and the end of empire did not bring structural changes in the longue durée, no shifts in the world system. Rather, it was a conjuncture, in the most literal sense – both temporal and entangled – a development with no clear beginning or ending, whereas decolonization belongs to the histoire évenementielle. This approach – colonialism as conjunctures, decolonisation as a series of events – is indeed in line with how scholars in postcolonial, new nations often frame their (political and intellectual) history of nation-building.

If we acknowledge that imperial history is not a linear development but relates to different notions and concepts of ‘times’26, with different entanglements and conjunctures, we can move on with the inspiring ideas presented at the 2016 Leiden ‘Visions of Empire’ conference, for instance with respect to sources and disciplines (think of economic social sources, of language as a source, of objects, places, intuition, and art). So, in addition to my proposal to skip ‘Dutch’ and not broaden the (psychological/medical) notion of aphasia in order to diagnose and cure ourselves, I propose that the periodization of 400 years of Dutch intellectual history as suggested in the position paper and the corollary suggestion of a connection to a constructed longue durée be critically reconsidered.