I was always interested in history, and as such read a lot about this topic - always stories from 'both sides'. This way I learned a lot the past 20 years and one of the most important facts is that nothing ever seems what it is (at first sight). Since both my grandfathers served in the KNIL I have always been interested in this topic, and again read a lot about it. Now since the past 10 years the KNIL is reported very negatively by the media. It really hurts me personally, I guess I feel the pain my grandfathers would have felt. Now, being objective, I started researching about the 'KNIL atrocities'. And I found the complete 'picture'. I read, researched, visited the NIMH, NIOD and National Archives. And what I found is complicated. The only thing I can say is I'm proud of my KNIL (veteran) grandfathers and all who served with them, or have served under the same circumstances. And about atrocities? - I disagree with the media: they should tell the entire story, not just one dark part out of many concerning the Dutch East Indies. I will try to tell the whole story. Objectively and true.
The Dutch East Indies – a short explanation
The Dutch East Indies finds its origins all the way back to the 17th century when European countries set sail to different parts of the world looking for valuable spices and other trading goods. The Netherlands had one of the best naval forces of the world and it was soon deployed for this cause. Compagnies sailing to the East, by passing South Africa’s ‘Kaap de Goede Hoop’ would eventually arrive in the Indies in the East – the East Indies. Compagnies sailing to the West would arrive in the Indies in the West – the West Indies.
Now the journey to the West was much faster than the Eastern journey. In the 17th century, besides spices and gold, the Western compagnies were also heavily endugled into slave trading. Slaves were transported from Africa to many regions in the Caribean and the Southern and Northern America’s. Ships would sail to Africa, pick up slaves, and sail to the West Indies - where the slaves were sold and the ship was filled again with spices and gold sailing back to Holland.
The East Indies were much farther from Europe but much richer with spices. Because of the distance slave trading back to Europe was out of the question. Slaves were used for the trading posts, harbors and European settlements in the East Indies themselves. The setting in the East Indies was much different though – there existed many befriended tribes which worked together with the Dutch trading compagnies. Wars were waged, with backup of the compagnies. Resulting in massacres and looting of the defeated tribes.
Both the West and East Indies compagnies of ships were lead by well known (wealthy) people. And these people eventually united themselves. The Eastern Indies compagnies became to be known as the VOC – Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (United Eastern Indies Compagny), and the Western as the WIC (Western Indies Compagnies). Because of the Dutch wars with Spain and Portugal the WIC did not exist that long. The VOC however existed all the way up to 1800.
In the 17th and 18th century many atrocities were committed by the WIC and VOC. Enslaving people, slave trading, both of which are unhuman. People (colored people) of ‘lower evolution’, still living in tribes, were regarded as inferior to evolved European people. And they were treated like that. Besides this the regions were depleted of many natural valuable resources which were sold for Dutch profit on the European market, leaving the country and its people of origin without any benefit. Native people were mistreated, murdered and tortured in brutal ways. This was the foundation on which the Dutch East Indies society was built.
Through the years and centuries brutallities became slightly less. Slavery was eventually abandoned. Tribes and races became mixed together. The region and people were still exploited and used. Colored people were still seen as inferior to European (white) people. Racism was a normal standard – and the word racism did not even exist for this purpose. The entire world lived by these standards, and it would take a very long time to change – nowadays, in the 21st century, racism is still a very big issue – as well as peoples and regions still being exploited by wealthy nations; this time not (officialy) as colonies. But it can not be denied, compared to a century ago, that colored people have a far better and equal position.
Everything has an origin
Now back to my family. And this is a very important part. My family name is ‘de Wit’ – which means in English ‘the White’. A common and native Dutch name. My family heritage leads back all the way to the 17th century to the city of Rotterdam in Holland. In the 19th century the only family male heir decided to immigrate to the Dutch East Indies where he was to found a manufacturing hall. After doing so successfully, he founded more industrial buildings and a tea plantation. He married a native woman and started a branch of the ‘de Wit’ family in the Dutch East Indies. This family became successful and wealthy. This is were my ‘de Wit’ family roots lay.
It will definitely be a fact that native people worked on his plantation and in his manufacturing halls. I can’t say if he treated his people bad or good. But one can say that a white Dutch male starting a (financial) empire in one of the colonies (Dutch East Indies) was part of the normal standards of those times - i.e. taking advantage of the people and trading goods of the colony, the Dutch East Indies.
Now what I can say is this: family ‘de Wit’ got mixed with the native people. The immigrated male heir choose a woman of mixed Dutch/ Indonesian origin as wife. And so did his only male son. One of the children of this second generation de Wit in the Dutch East Indies became my great-grandfather. He was already half Dutch/ half Indonesian (Javaans) – a mulat. Of course he was not the only one, a very large number of Dutch (as well as other European) people mixed with the Indonesian people. Their children became to be known as Indo-Europeans, also named ‘Indo’s’ or in Dutch: ‘Indisch’. These names meant their blood was part European and part Indonesian. In the case of the ‘de Wit’ family Dutch and ‘Javaans’.
I want to share an important family photograph. This depicts my great-grandfather (the oldest with the glasses, raising a glass and holding a beer bottle) together with friends and employees celebrating an occasion – KNIL soldiers are among these (Dutch officers and Indonesian soldiers side by side). On this photograph you can see Dutch, Indonesian and Indo-European people all together, all with the same equality: all are raising glasses of ‘Jenever’ or beer bottles and all stand or sit mixed among each other without any differences, all smiling faces... Anyone claiming Dutch and Indonesian native people were all opposing each other during the Indonesian War for Independence is totally wrong. A very large number of Indonesian people stood beside the Dutch.
I can say for sure my family was not among those that felt superior to the native people. They lived and shared meals with each other, my family was mixed with the country and its people. They were real Dutch East Indies natives. Not the ones who started the colony (Dutch) and not the ones who originally inherited the land (the Indonesians). They were the product of the Dutch East Indies. This was their home as much as it was for the earlier native people.
My family had the Dutch flag and royalty as their patrons, even though they had never been to Holland. They were used to the tropical sun, its rain forests and its animals. The birds. The insects. They ate the Indonesian food, rice, vegetables, fruits and its many dishes. They were used to many tropical comforts – and discomforts and how to oppose these. They spoke Dutch as well as native tongues together with a mixture of both. Their skin color was not white – but not entirely dark; again a mixture of both. This was also visible in the outlines and characteristics of their faces. As all people they loved their homes and the country they were born in. Hold this thought(1).
An entire book in a nutshell:
My grandfather and three brothers became professional soldiers. Then the 2nd World War erupted; the KNIL bravely fought the much stronger Japanese invaders in vein. All four brothers got captured and were interned into POW camps, where they were tortured and subjugated to forced labor for the next 3½ years. One of the brothers was beheaded after a failed escape. All wealth and most possessions were taken from the ‘de Wit’ family by the Japanese, for supporting the Dutch. The second world war came to an end. The entire family including the remaining three brothers, were indulged into the nowadays so-called Indonesian War for Independence. Or, in their words, the Indonesian Revolt/ Rebellion. An era once again filled with years of fighting, combat, insecurity, fear and pain.
Like I mentioned: about this part entire books can be written. The reason why I skipped this in a very fast forward manner is to keep the ‘feeling’ and understanding of my family, my KNIL grandfathers and his brothers (and as a matter of fact all other KNIL veterans) which I explained in the first part (1). The Dutch East Indies was their homeland. This generation literally gave their lives for the Dutch East Indies. Many died or never recovered mentally.
So a ‘War for Independence’ was not how it was called when that generation was still alive. The reason was because it was their homeland – which was given away to the ‘Indonesian Revolutionists’ (rebels in their eyes) for Dutch political reasons. Something the Dutch government always had done in the past and will keep doing so in the future. It would have caused unimaginable pain for the KNIL veterans. They were forced to move to Holland and leave their country. A ‘War for Independence’ would be completely misinterpreted when a generation which was born in that same country, but was forced to leave, was still alive.
Many people with no understanding of the parts I have explained so far often see KNIL soldiers as ‘beasts committing atrocities’ – as claimed by the mainstream media. It makes me angry, and sad. Because opinions are given/ shared/ spoken without any profound knowledge - dragging even more people into these short-sighted beliefs. They should know the entire story, the problem is many of these people have a reason for being short-sighted. Namely they are not really interested into reasons and causes. This group will not be reached by anyone like me explaining.
Unfortunately this is the only possibility to enlighten people about the KNIL soldiers and the linked ‘atrocities’ – which is only a real social subject since the start of the 21st century. The era in which the last living KNIL veterans passed. This is the reason why this subject is brought into the media. There will be no opposing answers of living witnesses or people who are supposed to have taken part in these ‘crimes’. Which makes it even more easier for people to blame those who can’t give any reactions.
First of all, atrocities should always be condemned. Second of all, some KNIL soldiers are likely to have committed atrocities. Here comes the part people judge as being told to debunk the ‘KNIL atrocities’: Some of the TNI and Indonesian Revolutionists have committed atrocities. Many of the Japanese committed atrocities during the second world war. Being said, does this really eviscerate the accused KNIL atrocities? What this in truth does, is sadly explaining the common way of life during the 1940-1950’s. War, pain, suffering. War never comes without atrocities. Talking about KNIL soldiers committing atrocities is like accusing a group of people drinking beer in a bar. I can assure you more groups and people in that same bar are drinking beer. Then why accusing a select group of committing something everyone else does? That’s a completely different question for which I personally do not seek an answer – although this could be a very interesting and relevant one.
What I seek is that people should not judge KNIL soldiers or anyone else for their actions during those years – at least not without knowing their prerequisite. Even the Indonesian people and Japanese soldiers have reasons for their actions. Not without condemning their committed atrocities, but with understanding why they did so. Judging and blaming people is easy. Understanding them is more difficult – but it can lead to much more. How can we avoid history repeating itself? Only by knowing the cause for actions. And this is something people tend to forget over and over.