It’s a photograph taken a lifetime ago: two little white girls in flowery dresses in a tropical country called Netherlands East Indies. One of the girls, Alice Duif, liked the picture so much that she thought, “I must keep this a long time.” So she wrote an accompanying caption, in Dutch, in her best child’s handwriting: “Noor Hajema, 13 years old. Lies Duif, 12 years old. Bandoeng, 1938.” She then stuck it in her first-ever photograph album.
But soon after that picture, the album ends abruptly. The remaining pages were never used. That’s because in 1942 Japanese troops invaded the Indies and put Duif and other Dutch residents into camps. Duif recalls, “We had to hand in our albums. I thought, ‘Well, I’ll never get that back again.’ That was 70 years ago.”
In 1948 the Indies became independent Indonesia. Last year, aged 86 and living in South Africa, Duif heard that the Dutch Tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum) in Amsterdam had her album. “I called at once,” she told me over the phone from Johannesburg. “I said, ‘I am that girl.’”
Pictures from the Tropenmuseum’s albums, some reprinted on these pages, beautifully retell a familiar story: the colonial era as lost white paradise. White-clad children lounge beside native nannies on sunny lawns. Men ride or shoot elephants. Leafing through the albums one morning at the Amsterdam museum, I was unwillingly seized by colonial nostalgia. That “warm, sepia-tinted glow” (as the British historian of Africa, David Anderson, calls it) suffuses many British, Dutch and French memories of empire. However, colonial nostalgia may finally be receding. Stories of colonial atrocities, long familiar to academic historians, are now reaching the general European public. The western emotional memory of colonialism is changing.
In 1948, Dutch soldiers in Indonesia clearing houses that had been abandoned by Europeans sent 30 crates of personal photographs back to the Netherlands. Over the following decades, hundreds of albums were returned to their owners. Now the Tropenmuseum has digitised the last 335 unclaimed albums, and is putting them online at www.fotozoektfamilie.nl. It’s doubtful how many people will still come forward to claim their lost albums: many who never did so before presumably died in the camps, or as prisoners in the Japanese sea transports that were often torpedoed in the Pacific by American ships.
Duif recalls, “When I was 16, 17 I had to go into the camp. My mother was half-Indonesian, and had straight hair, but I had blond hair and blue eyes. My mother said, ‘Can I go with her into the camp? Because what will I do alone, outside?’”
Duif says female prisoners were treated less brutally than her two brothers in the men’s camp. “We lived eight women to a room. I was the youngest, I’d fall asleep in the evenings listening to these people’s stories. I never really suffered so much under the Japs. We didn’t see them much. Sometimes they’d drive through the camp, and you had to bow or they would hit you. The only bad thing was that we were hungry. We had a funny Japanese guarding us. After the bomb fell on Nagasaki, we felt very sorry for him when he came crying into the kitchen.” When Japan surrendered, Indonesia’s future president Sukarno immediately declared independence. Duif remembers Indonesians with bamboo spears threatening the camp inmates – “and the Japanese had to protect us!”
The brutal Dutch fighting to keep Indonesia (a war known euphemistically in the Netherlands as “police actions”) ended in 1948 when the United Nations forced the Dutch to leave. Most Dutch colonials left too, even those like Duif who had been born in the Indies and had never lived anywhere else. Often, they sailed away with nothing but the clothes they were wearing and their memories of tempo doeloe – the Indonesian term for “days gone by”. Tempo doeloe and its equivalents also mark many British memories of India and Kenya, and French memories of Algeria and Vietnam.
The Tropenmuseum’s lost albums perfectly express tempo doeloe. In reality, of course, white colonial life wasn’t all tea on the lawn. Some colonials lived in poverty. Duif’s father died of tuberculosis before the war. Her mother started a hotel business mid-Depression, lost everything, and ended up in a sort of squatter camp. Unable to support her children, she put her seven-year-old daughter in an orphanage. Duif spent two years there before her mother could afford to take her back.
However, you don’t see much poverty in the museum’s photo albums. Most people with cameras were trying to record colonial happiness. Janneke van Dijk, a Dutch photographic researcher, writes: “For those back home in Holland these photographs were proof that they were prospering in the tropics.” Misfortune, she adds, “is only really seen in photographs as a gravestone.” *
The many pictures of opulent tropical nature and dainty colonial homes were inspired by the painting genre “Mooi-Indië” (“Beautiful Indies”). In Duif’s words: “I always say, ‘Indonesia is the most beautiful country in the world.’”
These cheery albums aren’t entirely misleading. In fact, most white colonials had it pretty good. Many British colonials lived the lives that are still fondly remembered: sundowners on the veranda, hunting with hounds, Yorkshire pudding at the club, after days spent under the fan at the office building railways and making laws. (The concomitant tedium of most colonial life is now almost forgotten.) Most colonials enjoyed nice weather, partly because they tended to settle in livable climates such as Indonesia and northern or southern Africa, rather than regions such as muggy west Africa, where they tended to die off fast. I experienced a late version of sunny colonialism myself, on visits to my grandparents in white South Africa in the 1970s: swimming in the pool in the back garden, while my grandmother tended her roses and the maid made the beds. Flowers were central to British colonialism. I saw perhaps the last flurry of this in Harare in 1999, just as Zimbabwe began its long collapse: two old white ladies taking afternoon tea in the city’s Botanical Gardens.
No wonder old colonials felt nostalgia. After empire ended, they realised they would never live such a good life again. A draughty two-bedroom apartment in south London didn’t appeal. The historian of Africa Michael Twaddle says many former British settlers, rather than coming home, made for the wide open spaces of the US, South Africa or Australia. Duif after the war lived a year in a poor neighbourhood in The Hague. “Dearie me, that was not fun,” she recalls. After marrying a Dutchman, she persuaded him to move to South Africa.
Colonial nostalgia was fed by popular culture, notes David Anderson, a tradition that in Britain goes back to Rudyard Kipling and beyond. Even in the 1920s, the now-forgotten trashy novelist Nora Strange was churning out tales of white Kenya, some of them serialised in the mighty Daily Mail. Thirty years ago The Jewel in the Crown TV series was a hit, and now Pamela Hicks’s book Daughter of Empire: Life as a Mountbatten is retreading the same nostalgic turf. In these renderings of colonial life, black and brown people tend to figure as features of the landscape, like elephants or mango groves. Hotels such as Raffles in Singapore, and the Mount Nelson in Cape Town, sell a similar line of colonial nostalgia. (“That elegant British colonial overtone never fades,” applauds Cape Town Magazine.)
Most Europeans today hardly think of empire at all. The topic is barely taught in British schools, for instance. But for those who do think about it, the accumulated legends add up to a nostalgic popular memory of empire. No wonder the historian Niall Ferguson has won such a following in the UK for his thesis, plugged in books and on TV, that, on balance, the empire “was a Good Thing”. And in France in 2005, a law was passed ordering secondary schools to teach “the positive values” of colonialism (the clause was repealed within a year). Such sepia-tinted views of empire have global influence because most books and TV series are still produced in western countries, not former colonies.
In short, Europeans struggle to absorb an honest view of colonial history partly because their own memories of colonialism tend to be good. Germans could accept that Nazism had been bad because it had mostly been bloody awful for them too. But when the French, British or Dutch think of empire, cognitive dissonance intrudes. How can something that felt so good have been bad?
Of course, the empire was both railways and atrocities. For a long time, the colonials didn’t even bother to deny it. This is from Hilaire Belloc’s poem “The Modern Traveller” (1898), featuring the British buccaneer Captain William Blood:
A Mutiny resulted.
I never shall forget the way
That Blood upon this awful day
Preserved us all from death.
He stood upon a little mound,
Cast his lethargic eyes around,
And said beneath his breath:
“Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.”
We shot and hanged a few, and then
The rest became devoted men.
That was the 19th-century way of dealing with upstart natives – still practised in the Netherlands East Indies in 1904, when Dutch soldiers posed for a group photograph beside the slaughtered inhabitants of Kuta Reh. A child who survived the massacre sits in the centre of the carnage. Van Dijk and her colleague Rob Jongmans write: “This photograph provoked a great deal of discussion immediately after its publication … Since then, it has disappeared from the Dutch collective memory from time to time but it always resurfaces.”
But by 1904, simple gunning down of hordes of people was going out of fashion. The Hague Convention of 1899 had begun regulating cruelty in war, a new mass media was monitoring warfare, and during the Boer war in South Africa, the British felt less free to shoot and hang white Afrikaners than they had black Zulus. And so, says Laleh Khalili, political sociologist at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, the British locked the Boers up instead. Afrikaner women and children were put in “concentration camps”. Other people swept up in the war ended up in faraway British prisons. Two of my South African great-grandfathers, both Jews from Lithuania, were arrested as suspected Boer spies; one was imprisoned in a British camp in Ceylon, the other in St Helena.
These prisons were forerunners of today’s Guantánamo. Khalili says the first handbook of colonial and later American “counterinsurgency” was literally written in the Boer war. The British Major General C.E. Callwell updated his manual Small Wars: Their Principle and Practice (first edition, 1896) to include lessons from South Africa. Those lessons were later applied by British colonial forces in Ireland, in Palestine and Malaya. The Americans so admired British actions in Malaya that they tried to copy them in Vietnam. More recently, the counterinsurgency tradition was revived by the American general David Petraeus in Iraq and Afghanistan. In her groundbreaking new book Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies, Khalili says counterinsurgencies typically start with talk of “protecting” local people and end up imprisoning, torturing and often killing them. Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq stands in a continuum that began in the South African veld.
Atrocities – like roads, cricket and black children in school uniforms – are part of the colonial experience. You see it in another photo album that surfaced in a rubbish bin in the Netherlands last year: it belonged to a Dutch soldier who served in Indonesia after 1945, and contains pictures of executions and a mass grave.
The images shocked the Dutch public. However, historians were entirely unsurprised. It’s just as Khalili found at seminars at UK military institutions: “The British military in particular are aware of the way these kind of colonial wars play out: the atrocities, and the ways in which for example the British ‘New Villages’ in Malay are actually just concentration camps.”
That awareness is now spreading to the general public. In 2011, a Dutch court ordered the Netherlands to pay compensation to seven Indonesian women widowed by a Dutch mass execution in the village Rawagede (now Balongsari) in 1947. The Dutch state has admitted a war crime. Almost simultaneously, a British court ruled that three elderly Kenyans tortured by the British during the “Mau Mau” uprising of the 1950s (two were allegedly castrated) could proceed with their case for compensation against the British government. It also emerged in court that the British Foreign Office had hidden a “secret archive” of 9,500 files from 36 other former colonies for more than 50 years. In one of the secret documents now released, the UK’s solicitor-general in 1953 described British abuses during the clampdown on the Mau Mau as “distressingly reminiscent of conditions in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia”. This rather spoils the traditional picture of Britons having fun under the Kenyan sun. As stories like these come out, it becomes harder to cling to colonial nostalgia.
With the British archive opening, and the Kenyan precedent set, Twaddle expects more claims for compensation for atrocities to emerge. Last year the High Court in London heard that in 1970, former Scots Guards had admitted to British detectives that they had unlawfully shot 24 Malaysian villagers during counterinsurgency operations in 1948, and then covered up the massacre. Twaddle says that “there possibly were other atrocities” perpetrated by Britons in Cyprus and Aden.
More court cases against the UK are likely. As David Cameron noted in 2011: “Britannia didn’t rule the waves with armbands on.” Visiting India in February, the prime minister called the colonial Amritsar massacre of 1919 “a deeply shameful event in British history”. He stopped short of apologising. The former colonial powers know that once they start saying sorry, they could be at it a long time. It would only encourage potential plaintiffs.
But already, says Anderson, the graphic evidence of British torture and killing presented in the recent Kenyan court case “is making it very difficult even for the most committed deniers”. Having advised the Kenyan claimants, Anderson is a hate figure for the nostalgic pro-colonial right. “I get a regular postbag from such people, some of it threatening and actionable,” he says. Lately, though, the nature of his postbag has changed. Former colonials write things such as, “What you’ve revealed is chilling. I’m terribly sorry.” Anderson says: “I now get about four of five of those letters a week. Five years ago, I didn’t get any.” So much new evidence is emerging that, he says, “Certainly the story of decolonisation from 1945 may have to be rewritten.” The British government says that it wants children to learn more British history. Michael Gove, the education secretary, aims to put the colonial military officer “Clive of India” on the syllabus. Will castration and “New Villages” be taught too?
Empire was happy white girls in flowery dresses on a sunny day. But popular European perception is now catching up with the fact that it was other things as well.
* Van Dijk’s essay is in the book ”Photographs of the Netherlands East Indies at the Tropenmuseum”, published by the Tropenmuseum, €34.50 euros.