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TEDxRotterdam – Frances Gouda – How the colonial past influences the way we see the world today

TEDxRotterdam – Frances Gouda – How the colonial past influences the way we see the world today


Translator: Katarina Ericson
Reviewer: Denise RQ Good morning.
In the great dark beyond. I know there are lots of people there,
but they’re hard to see. Anyway, what I want to think about today,
in a different manner, is how the colonial past, the past in general,
but also in particular the colonial past, influences the way we see the world today
in the post-colonial present. This seems especially relevant at this moment
of overheated political discourse, in anticipation
of the elections next week. Because lots of politicians
talk about immigration, the immigration of people
who come from other places, who may have another religion,
who may have another skin color, and nonetheless,
in this overheated debate, all the politicians who participate
are male and white. There’s one woman. And it makes us wonder. It makes me wonder why we think it’s completely natural
that all these politicians, who are vying for a place
in the next government, that we think it’s normal and natural
that they’re white and male. This has a history. There is a long history that doesn’t only
go back to our colonial past, but goes back even further, even though I would like to focus
on our particular colonial history in the Dutch East Indies. For many of you,
this picture may be familiar. It’s one of these iconic photographs
of the Dutch colonial past, with, on the left-hand side,
a Dutch colonial civil servant, and on the right-hand side,
the Sultan of Surakarta, what is now Solo. Historical memory.
How do we remember the past? Don’t worry, I will not bore you
with ghoulish stories about graveyards. There are processes whereby most of us
individually recognize, if we’re honest, and we’re not always honest,
but if we’re honest, we acknowledge that we tend to
change the narrative we tell about our own lives. We tend to gloss over,
sometimes even consciously omit stories about events
that are embarrassing. On the other hand, we tend to magnify
moments in our own personal past that we’re proud of. It’s a natural process, and we change these stories
depending on the social circumstances, or depending on the stage
in the life cycle. At a collective level,
such processes of omission, or glossing over, and remembering,
occur in a very similar fashion. A French historian, about 60 years ago, mentioned, and used
as a metaphor, cemeteries, because he said historical memory
is like a cemetery with limited space. At certain moments in time,
old graves need to be removed in order to make place
for the shiny marble of new tombstones. What we see here on the left
is the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, and on the right the World War II cemetery
in Coleville in Normandy. And so cemetery, and the changes
that take place over time in graveyards, is a nice metaphor for the way in which we remember the past in general
and especially the Dutch colonial past. The ‘Happy Marriage’
between the Dutch civil service, between Dutch colonial rule
and indigenous elites. It’s one of the cornerstones
of the way in which we remember Dutch colonial history in Southeast Asia. Association instead of assimilation. As Dutch colonial culture,
we didn’t somehow presume that Western culture, Western values, ought to be imposed
on indigenous local cultures. We collaborated with indigenous elites. We represented this ‘Happy Marriage’
in a series of photographs that circulated not only
in the Dutch East Indies itself but were also sent back
to the European mother country in order to justify,
to create a sense of normalcy that a small country, with, in 1900, about 4 million people, ruled an enormous archipelago, with, in 1900, about 50 to 55 million, it’s uncertain how large
the Indonesian population was around 1900. So these photographs with this invocation
of the ‘Happy Marriage’ between the Dutch colonial government
and native indigenous authority structures is what circulated both in southeast Asia
and in the Dutch East Indies. So we see the difference between on the one hand,
beefy, sober Dutchmen, who convey a sense of self-discipline,
convey a sense of rationality, standing next to indigenous leaders
who were bejeweled, who wore necklaces, earrings, who had an aura of weakness, or vanity, and therefore also, perhaps,
an aura of femininity. This way of representing oriental leaders
has a very, very long history. It’s a history that goes back
to ancient Greece; in the 5th century B.C., at the time of the Athenian City-State, chroniclers in Athens already described
Persian leaders in Asia Minor of the Near East, with all sorts of terms
that invoked femininity, that invoked oriental despotism, that emphasized
ostentatious display of power, and therefore, suggested unmanly conduct, unmanly virtue or lack of manly virtue. Ancient Greece was followed,
of course, by the Roman Empire. This is an Emperor in the 3rd century A.C. he came from Syria,
he ruled for only four years. He was a teenager when he arrived in Rome, and he was described
by contemporaries already, as being unconventional, to say it mildly, in both his religious beliefs
and his sexual practices. The decline and fall of the Roman Empire, by contemporaries
but also by later historians, was often described as having been caused by the nefarious influences of oriental leadership and despotism. The quote here is from Edward Gibbon,
a major historian in the 18th century, who wrote a monumental work called The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He said it very succinctly, he said,
“Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury
of oriental despotism.” Other historians have used
somewhat more harsh language, such as an historian
in the early 19th century, who said that this emperor lived
an unspeakably disgusting life, and that’s the reason why the decline
of the Roman empire was accelerated. So, here we’re back to these images, these images of the ‘Happy Marriage’
between West and East, the images of Dutch civil servants
walking arm in arm with, on the left, the Sultan of Jokdakarta,
and again here on the right, Sultan Pakubuwono of Surakarta,
what is Solo now. And it was this ritual, whereby the alleged equality between Dutch civil servants
and native rulers was portrayed through photography, even at the same time
the Dutch colonial government felt itself superior
in discipline and rationality, in technological know-how, and anticipated,
such as the Governor General in 1933, who said that that it would last
for another 300 years. I have to hurry. There’s a tradition of wedding photographs so whether consciously or unconsciously, these pictures of ‘Happy Marriage’ between Dutch colonial rulers
and native elites appeal to a general bourgeois tradition
beginning at the end of the 19th century when the technology of photography
became available to ordinary citizens. Of course, one thing that was remembered
in the life cycle were weddings. So, there is a tradition that,
to some extent, the circulation of these
formal photographs tie into. Here we see, on the left,
the Sultan of Jokdakarta in the early 30s, and on the right, the Maharadja of Patiala
in Northwest India. In order to indicate
that it wasn’t uniquely Dutch, I mean, this also happened
in the British Empire, we also have pictures like this, of this deliberate representation
of native kings or leaders, of indigenous rajahs
or maharajahs as effeminate, which also occurred in both
the British and the French Empires. This is a picture from 1922, and the necklace he is wearing
was designed by Cartier in Paris. What does it mean
that a lot of these photographs tend to emphasize the femininity of these indigenous sultans
or maharajahs? What is the significance
of being like a woman? In general, both in the public imagination
as well as in scholarly discourses, womanhood or femininity is often seen
as being closer to nature. Women in general,
and that may still prevail today, are viewed as being more bound
by both sexuality and reproduction, and therefore, women are seen
as more emotional, as more unpredictable, as less rational,
as less self-disciplined. And as a result, the deliberate or unwitting strategy
of these photographs, to represent indigenous leaders as feminine in appearance, as vain, also creates the impression
they’re close to nature, primitive, they’re less predictable, and therefore, not capable of ruling
their own independent country, as a result of which, European colonial rule
was both inevitable and justified. When the Indonesian Nationalist Movement
emerged in the 20th century, Indonesian men began to appropriate
western political theory in order to establish
an independence movement, which they fought for
in the period after World War II. It’s very important to appear
western, to discard sarongs. Sukarno at some point even said that any Javanese man who was
wearing a sarong looks like a woman, and therefore,
cannot be a good nationalist. So being western,
adopting western sartorial styles, became important
in the Indonesian Nationalist Movement. And now I come back to the beginning, – I’m going to make it – back to the beginning: why do we think
that it’s normal that politicians, who have legitimacy,
who vie for political success, look like the people on the left? We have progressed, I think, in the last 10, 15, 20, maybe 30 years, to see more female politicians
on the Dutch political horizon, but it’s still rare. Why don’t we think it’s normal
to have politicians who look like this? Especially after the performance
of the Mayor of Rotterdam this morning, it makes me realize all the more
that we should have more politicians who look like this and who participate
in the political discussion, especially when it focuses on immigration, and especially when ugly rhetoric
is used, in some cases, about the role of immigrants
in our country, and nonetheless, all the politicians
who discuss these issues are white. Now I want to make a slight detour
to the United States, I have an American passport, I voted with great pleasure
for Barack Obama in 2008, and he is now in the White House. Here is a somewhat
propaganda-like picture. He has only been in office
for a year and a half, the protests have been tremendous,
really from the very beginning. The Tea Party protests here on the right, ostensibly focused on issues
such as state rights, the right to carry guns, anti-abortion, against the intrusion
of the Federal Government in daily life, at the local level and at the state level, these alleged political complaints
against the Obama administration. I think, however, they are more about race and racism than they are about political issues. In America, there is still
a tendency to think that politicians have to be white. As here in the Netherlands; I mean, they can be female,
but they have to be white. I think this violent opposition
from the right wing in the United States is really grounded in a lack of comfort with a President who is not white. What we see here are representations of Obama
on right-wing websites that hark back
to this long history of Orientalism, this long history
of representing Asian leaders, sultans, maharajahs, local chiefs, as effeminate or close to nature. So I hope that we can think differently
in the next decade, maybe already in the next five years, about the assumptions we make about
the legitimacy of political leadership, and the way in which
political leadership is embodied, and why we think it’s normal that we have
so many white male politicians, and why we have so few politicians
who don’t conform to the model that we carry with us. Thank you. (Applause) Host: Frances, stay here
for a moment, if you will. I agree on your theories, but the US does have a black President, and does have 500 black mayors. How do you explain
that in Holland we don’t have, aside from the Mayor of Rotterdam, anyone from another ethnicity
in a prominent political position? FG: Well, on the one hand,
you have this tradition of Orientalism which continues to play a role
here in Europe, and I’m not only talking
about the Netherlands but also France and England, of course, whereas in America you have
the history of slavery. The transatlantic slave trade and slavery. And slavery I guess, induces forms of guilt
and retroactive ‘wieder gudmachung’ that may not live as much
in this post-colonial country, such as the Netherlands. I think the Indies community
in this country has had a hard time, establishing its presence, and I think in America
the rhetoric about slavery creates different
social and political conditions. on the left, not on the right,
and in the South, of course. OS: OK. So that may change here one day? FG: I hope so. Next decade… OS: Thank you very much. (Applause)

Author Since: Mar 11, 2019

  1. According to her lecture, the situation in Europe nowadays should look exactly the opposite of what she assumes in her answer to the host's question. Oh my, these academicians…

  2. We don't live in a post-colonial world. We live in a neo-colonial world, or as I like to call it, Colonialism 2.0.

  3. I love how grievance studies has improved academia. Dr. Boghosian really clarified the importance of the GS contribution to critical thinking.

  4. As Indonesia, I must straighten-up when she brought up "Dutch Colonial happily married with Indigenous local". The fact that dutch through their VOC colonised for 3.5 centuries and it involves genocides in Banda and not to mention, it affecting this country slow-growth is nothing but wrong in the name of humanity. I think even in Netherland they dont include their savage action in their history book. But fact is fact.

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