Traces of Dutch colonialism: reflections before a holiday

Next week, I am going on holiday to Indonesia – a long-cherished dream coming true. Of course I am excited about the prospect of exotic markets, vibrant cities, meeting new people, stunning landscapes and drinking cocktails on a palm-rimmed beach. But I am also very curious about what remains to be seen of the Dutch colonial period, as I have read that most of what remains in terms of colonial architecture and archives is ‘crumbling.’ The upcoming trip reminded me of a number of publications on Dutch trade and scientific activities in the colonial era in what was called ‘Oost-Indië’ (East India) or ‘de gordel van smaragd’ (the emerald girdle).

Between 1602 and 1795, the Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie (United East India Company, VOC) imported great amounts of a variety of goods from what is now Indonesia, such as tea, coffee, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and tin. Many of these goods had some kind of medicinal purpose. Nutmeg for example, was not just appreciated as a spice, but also for its hallucinogenic properties, which were used to keep slaves calm during the long, arduous sea journeys. Although excessive use could cause deliria and even death, nutmeg was a sought-after commodity among medical men and even appeared in preparations of human anatomy sometimes.[1] Yet the Dutch stationed in Batavia (now Jakarta) also wanted to have traditional European cures at hand, and many pills, potions, salves, and herbal plasters had to be made afresh as they could not be kept for long.

"The Castle and the Laboratory at Batavia" From: Batavia de hoofdstad van Neêrlands O. Indien, Amsterdam, 1782. Courtesy of the Nationaal Archief.

“The Castle and the Laboratory at Batavia” From: Batavia de
hoofdstad van
Neêrlands O. Indien, Amsterdam, 1782. Courtesy of the Nationaal Archief.

In a fascinating article on VOC laboratories that I read in a Dutch popular history magazine last year, Jeroen Bos shows that for these purposes, the VOC maintained at least two medical laboratories in Batavia. One was an independent ‘medicinal shop,’ a sort of apothecary shop; the other was the city hospital laboratory. A third laboratory was linked to the artillery and only produced gunpowder. Unlike the contemporary chemical laboratories at the universities of Utrecht and Leiden , the laboratories in Batavia were not aimed at chemistry research, but primarily at the production of drugs and quality control of the products the VOC acquired in the region, such as cinnamon and quicksilver. Unfortunately, hardly any detailed information about the lay out of the laboratories and exactly what was made and tested in them remains.

Andreas Weber's dissertation

Andreas Weber’s dissertation

The VOC ceased to exist on December 31st, 1799, as it had run into financial trouble. Yet the Dutch would continue to occupy parts of Indonesia until it became independent in 1945. (Actually, the Dutch occupied parts of Indonesia even longer, until 1949 – a particular painful and unflattering period in our history) Between 1800 and 1945, East India continued to be a source of fascination for researchers working for the Dutch government. German Caspar G.C. Reinwardt (1773-1854) for example, spend about seven years collecting data on the administration, nature and economy of Java, initiated reforms of its public health services and the education system, and established a botanical garden at Buitenzorg, just outside Batavia, where rare and potentially economically interesting plants were cultivated. As my colleague Andreas Weber has vividly described in his book on Reinwardt, the king obliged him to collect rare specimens for the Dutch Cabinet of Natural History on his field trips, and Reinwardt also employed other to amass natural history collections.[2]

Another colleague, Fenneke Sysling, in her 2013 thesis on physical anthropology in the Dutch East Indies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, argues that ideas about race were both made and broken in the colonies.[3] Even today, some Dutch museums have uncomfortably large collections of skulls, skeletons, measurements and photographs of indigenous people, collected to answer the great anthropological questions of the time. How many different races were there in the archipelago, how were they divided over the islands? Questions that could never really be answered of course, but nonetheless the research was done for decades, and could only be done because of the often-violent Dutch colonial presence in the archipelago.

With this knowledge, I will walk around the remains of Batavia. I am not exactly proud of Dutch colonial history, but I am grateful that my colleagues and I have the opportunity to research it. Indonesia has had a huge influence on Dutch trade and science over the centuries (not to mention on Dutch society, but that is another story), one that we should not forget, even if the physical remains of Dutch colonialism slowly disappear from the country.


[1] Also see Marieke M.A. Hendriksen, Aesthesis in Anatomy, PhD Thesis, Leiden University 2012, p. 154-6.

[2] Andreas Weber, Hybrid Ambitions. Science, Governance, and Empire in the Career of Caspar G.C. Reinwardt (1773-1845), Leiden: Leiden University Press, 2012.

[3] Fenneke Sysling, The archipelago of difference. Physical anthropology in the Netherlands East Indies, ca. 1890-1960’, PhD thesis, Amsterdam: Vrije Universiteit, 2013.

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About mariekehendriksen

I am a historian of science and art, specialized in the material culture of eighteenth-century medicine and chemistry. I received my PhD from Leiden University in 2012, worked at the University of Groningen as a postdoc, and am now based at Utrecht University. I have been awarded fellowships by the National Maritime Museum in London, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the Wood Institute at the College of Physicians, the Chemical Heritage Foundation (both in Philadelphia), and a Wellcome Trust Grant at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh Library and Archives. The topics of my publications range from historical anatomical collections and medicine chests to anatomical preparation methods and the production of coloured glass. At Utrecht University I work as a postdoctoral researcher within the ERC-funded project Artechne. The project studies how technique was taught and learned in art and science between 1500 and 1950. Although the term ‘technical’ is readily used today, presently a history of the shifting meanings of the term ‘technique’ in arts and science is sorely lacking. My research is aimed at closing this gap in intellectual history, a.o. through the development of an interactive semantic-geographical map of ‘technique’ and related terms.
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3 Responses to Traces of Dutch colonialism: reflections before a holiday

  1. David Harley says:

    On the Dutch, I would add Harold Cook’s book, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age.

    More generally, I would note that there has been interesting work to reverse the traditional view, that knowledge flowed to the colonies and medicinal substances, removed from local contexts, flowed to the metropolis.

    English and Indian scholars have been noticeably active in this area, demonstrating the extent to which colonial knowledge was acquired but tended to be erased from subsequent accounts. They too have engaged in productive cooperation, but with a more egalitarian and public exchange of knowledge and resources.

    Mark Harrison, of the Oxford Wellcome Unit, is one of the scholars actively promoting Anglo-Indian cooperation. Sanjoy Bhattacharya, of the University of York and co-editor of Medical History, is another.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comment David! The work of Harold Cook and Mark Harrison is indeed incredibly important. My aim here was to highlight recent work by (young) Dutch scholars, but there is a vast and growing body of literature on the circulation of knowledge in the early modern and modern world. Another of my personal favourites for example is Londa Schiebinger’s “Plants and Empire: Colonial Bioprospecting in the Atlantic World” (Harvard University Press, 2004), and one of our graduate students has done fascinating work on the reception of Chinese acupuncture in seventeenth-century Europe, so I’m sure there is much more interesting research that will be published in the next few years!

  2. Pingback: The jamu women: herbal medicine in colonial Indonesia | The Medicine Chest

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