Colonial Imprints: English, French, and Dutch Compared

I woke up this morning to see this interesting question on Twitter:

This is the type of idle question that has no simple answer, but someone thought I might have some ideas, and so here they are.

I’ll preface this with two caveats. First: I, too, have only visited one of these three countries, so my answers are based entirely on impressionistic secondary evidence and arguments made at a distance. Second: this question is ethically and politically fraught, and might be read as presupposing that we evaluate colonized countries by their relationship to their main colonial power. That is not my intention, but the question is nevertheless a valid and thought-provoking one.

With that aside, here is my brief answer. It is probably not true that the “imprint” of Dutch colonialism on Indonesia is “lighter” than the French in Algeria or the English in India. But it seems that way to many Western and former colonial observers because the place of the Netherlands and the role of the Dutch is comparatively minor in contemporary discourses about colonialism and post-colonialism more generally.

In one specific sense, it is possible to argue that Dutch rule left a lighter imprint on Indonesia than the others. That is the linguistic sense: only a tiny number of very elderly Indonesians retain Dutch even as a second language.* Indonesians learn Bahasa Indonesia. Contrast this with the continuing contemporary importance of English in India and French in Algeria.

But this argument is nevertheless still tenuous. Dutch left its imprint all over Bahasa Indonesia. And many Indonesians did speak Dutch during the colonial period. The difference was that another lingua franca, Malay, was already in use to facilitate communication throughout the archipelago when the Dutch arrived (this “trade Malay,” in fact, is what is today Bahasa Indonesia). Dutch administrators would learn a bit of Malay and this would allow them to work throughout much of the archipelago. It is interesting to think about the role of Dutch colonialism and economic and social change in the spread and eventual standardization of Malay into Indonesian.**

If we are to look beyond this linguistic contrast, the differences in the “depth” of colonial imprint are harder to discern. The territory that is today Indonesia corresponds roughly to a couple of old pre-colonial empires, most notably to Mahapahit. But it corresponds exactly to the territory formally colonized by the Netherlands by the beginning of the 20th century. Indonesia is the part of maritime Southeast Asia colonized by the Dutch. No more, and no less. That is certainly an imprint of some import.

The social and economic legacies of Dutch colonialism are no less consequential today. They can be seen throughout Indonesian society, for example, in the ways that ethnic groups relate to one another; in the production of commodities like sugar and coffee and tea and rubber; and in the nature of the Indonesian state itself (see e.g. McVey on “The Beamtenstaat in Indonesia” [PDF]).

None of this should be read to say that Indonesia has no autonomous history. Of course it does. Indonesia must not be reduced to Dutch colonialism. But the imprints are clear; so clear that we often fail to remark upon them, like the fish who does not think about water.

So circling back: I suspect that the reason why we often have the impression the Dutch influence on Indonesia is light is because to the extent that any non-Indonesian/non-Dutch person knows anything about that relationship, what they know is that Indonesians don’t speak Dutch. But this is a matter of attention. Most people do not dive seriously into the history of the Netherlands, or think about Indonesia’s colonial past much at all. By contrast, the English language discourse about colonialism and its legacies is dominated by discussions of the British Empire and its legacies, and secondarily by discussions of the French empire and its legacies.***

Learning about modern French social thought (for example), or about modern British history (for example), means learning about colonialism and its legacies both on the colony and the metropole. If anyone outside of the Netherlands were to read, say, Max Havelaar as part of their introduction to colonialism and its legacies, as a part of a course on modern European history, we would be encouraged to do the same. Or if we stopped to ask why every Dutch restaurant in the Netherlands offers kip sate or soto. But since it is the British and the French experiences that have long dominated the global discourse on what Europe is and what colonialism meant, that is why we just don’t think about the deep legacies of Dutch (and Portuguese, and German, etc…****) colonialism.


* I only know one Indonesian who grew up speaking Dutch at home: Thee Kian Wie.

** Observe the role of “one language” in the Youth Pledge of the late 1920s nationalist movement.

*** When’s the last time you heard any serious discussion about the nature, practices, and consequences of Portuguese colonialism, in Africa or anywhere else?

**** I’ve not even mentioned Spanish colonial legacies, which are quite apparent, but largely discussed with reference to the Western Hemisphere.