The Netherlands: New biography of Van Heutsz
J. B. van Heutsz (1851 – 1924), a military official who served as governor general of the former Dutch East Indies (present-day Indonesia) is often seen as a controversial figure in Dutch history, for his role in supressing the Aceh resistance through use of military force. But how does the controversy relate to the man himself? Vilan van de Loo’s new book, ‘Uit naam van de majesteit’ (‘In the name of her Majesty’), sheds new light on Van Heutsz’s career and his time, drawing on a variety of sources.
Opinions about the colonial past often hide interesting parts of history. Everyone Vilan van de Loo spoke to during her research had an opinion about Van Heutsz, but these were not always based on knowledge. For that reason, she decided to research original sources in the archives, such as letters, military reports and colonial annual reports. This research allowed her to write his biography as a soldier, as an administrator, and as a person.
Hysteria and colonial politics
What surprised the author during her investigation was the extent to which, in the beginning of the twentieth century, Dutch society put pressure on him to be a hero, as the alleged winner of the Aceh war. In 1904 in particular, this resulted in a folk hysteria, aimed at paying homage to Van Heutsz. He knew the war could not be won, yet it had to be honoured according to the colonial politics of the time, to which he agreed. It was this hysteria that showed Vilan van de Loo how little this violent event was understood in the Netherlands and how far its perception in the Netherlands was from the reality of the then Dutch East Indies.
Changing interpretations of history
The recent Black Lives Matter protests have also left their mark on the Monument Indië-Nederland in Amsterdam, which was originally built as the Van Heutsz monument (see photo). According to Van de Loo, the recent messages that have been daubed on this monument, have more to do with contemporary perspectives than with the man himself. In the last chapter of her book Van de Loo shows how, especially after his death, he was made into a symbol, first of colonial imperialist politics, and later of anti-colonial and anti-authoritarian activism.
This project was supported by DutchCulture’s Shared Cultural Heritage Matching Fund.
This article was written by Vilan van de Loo and translated by Sofia Lovegrove.