Colonial monuments – Johny A. Khusyairi

Monuments of Coen, Daendels and Van Heutsz

Climates of meaning: No different from mirrors, monuments reflect diverse interpretations for as long as they stand. Monuments are not only bearers of memory, but become sites of struggle over meanings for their foundations.

Author: Johny A. Khusyairi, Published by Airlangga University Surabaya & Elmatera Publishing Yogyakarta (2013)

[Note: this text is only a selection (2046 words) for full text download PDF below]


As a mirror alike, monuments reflect diverse interpretations throughout the time of their presence. A monument is not only a memory bearer, but become struggle over the meaning of its foundation. Monuments are also often the points of convergence between the official and alternative views of the past. In some cases however contrary to the official names and meanings allocated to monuments, people have their own interpretations of monuments which might derive from either their appearance, location or any other disparate factors to the extent that the original meaning or purpose of the statue/monument may go unnoticed. The nineteenth century Indies for instance witnessed two cases of mistaken identities. The statue of J.P. Coen in Batavia was often mistaken for the Swedish king, Gustavus Adolphus. Similarly, the monument of General A.V. Michiels, erected in Padang in 1855, was mistaken as commemorating the successes of Admiral Michiel de Ruyter. While General A.V Michiels, for whom the monument was originally intended was responsible for the Dutch annexation of West Sumatra in Padang, Admiral Michiel de Ruyter was one of Dutch admirals who played roles during the Anglo-Dutch wars in the 17th century. Nevertheless, both monuments still showed the symbolical power of Dutch colonialism.

Monuments, particularly those of political figures, convey historical and political information. The monuments of the Governor-Generals in the Netherlands Indiës have strong political and historical meaning in relation to colonial history of the Netherlands. Erecting monuments, statues, busts etc similarly displayed Dutch power over the Netherlands Indies. On the façade of the Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappij, NHM, building (currently, the municipal archive of Amsterdam) on Vijzelstraat 32-34 Amsterdam, several meters above the main gate, stand the life-size statues of Coen, Daendels and Van Heutsz. Beneath each of these statues is a plaque with their names inscribed on them. This building was the head office of the NHM. Each of them contributed to the institution or extension of colonial rule in the Dutch East Indies. Coen made an impact during the VOC period, Daendels in the transitional period, and Van Heutsz in the colonial period.

Some articles emphasize Coen’s basic contribution to the prosperity of the Netherlands. His idea to institute a settlement on the island of Java as the governing centre of the company trade in the East Indies is seen as a prudent step with positive consequences for the company. He was responsible for building a fortification in Jacatra that was then called Batavia. He also succeeded eliminating the British presence on the Moluccan or spice islands therefore establishing a company monopoly over the East Indian spice trade.

Daendels on the other hand is well-known as the builder of the great post-road (de Grote Postweg) which runs 1.000 km along the north of Java. Although some writers suggest that he did not institute the road per se but worked on a pre-existing route, his notion of renovation itself can be considered exceptional. The idea to build the road was excellent, because this road was to enable the economic exploitation of Java by subsequent governments. Daendels also played an important role in setting up the basic colonial administration and legal framework.

Van Heutsz, a figure of 20th century colonial history, is famous for his leadership in the annexation of Aceh, therefore completing the conquest of that geographical territory that constitutes Indonesia today. He was responsible for the enthusiastic implementation of the Ethical Policy in collaboration with his colleague, the then Minister of Colonies, Idenburg. Nevertheless, Van Heutsz’s name is not well-known to the average Indonesian who only learns history at elementary school and high school. Rather, Snouck Hurgronje is a better known name than Van Heutsz.

Representations of the three governors-general in statues, busts and reliefs were quite common in the Netherlands and the Netherlands Indies. In the Netherlands Indies, the statue of Coen stood at Waterlooplein, in Batavia. In the Netherlands, his statue stands in his hometown, Hoorn. Apart from this, there is yet another statue of his at the NHM building in Amsterdam. The last of his representations in the Netherlands is a portrait at the entrance of the Koninklijk Instituut voor de Tropen (KIT).

Speaking of Daendels, there seems to have been no justice done to his fame in terms of representation because there is no more than one statue of him in the Netherlands. This statue can be seen at the NHM building. Also, he is only commemorated with a plaque in his hometown, Hattem, which contains the words “de Tinne” on his previous house. In Indonesia, there still exists a statue of him with a Sundanese prince. The statue shows them shaking hands. Daendels extends his right hand and the prince his left. The right hand of the prince carries a traditional dagger called the keris, and the left hand of Daendels holds his sword.

In contrast to Daendels, Van Heutsz’s representation with monuments, busts or reliefs is very conspicuous. Monuments of Van Heutsz were built both in the Indies (Batavia) and the Netherlands (Amsterdam). There were also busts of him in Aceh, his hometown, Coevorden and at the KNIL museum at Bronbeek.

The presence, the removal as well as the changing of names or functions of the monuments are interesting to examine, for instance, the changing of the Van Heutsz monument in Amsterdam. There must have been a long debate behind the changing of this monument’s name. The prime question of this research then is to examine how the Dutch and the Indonesians are dealing with the past as reflected in those three monuments. How important are the monuments to both the Netherlands and Indonesia regarding the colonial past? How do the relevance and significance of the meanings of a monument change?


It is not a good idea to remember colonialism as it was. Both the Netherlands and Indonesia have their own memories of colonialism. The Netherlands deeply regret and are ashamed of what their ancestors did in the Dutch East Indies while Indonesians always remember the struggle and misery of their ancestors under Dutch colonialism. Their treatments of the monuments to the three governor-generals reflect how both nations comprehend past coloniality.

Indonesian nationalism was born as response to Dutch colonialism. For Indonesians, the presence of a monument as a symbol of colonialism started to emerge when the Dutch colonial government unveiled the Van Heutsz monument in Gondangdia, Batavia. Student protests were directed at the plan during the unveiling of the monument in 1935. The protests took place in the context of the 1930s struggle for self-sovereignty in the Netherlands Indies. The struggle for self-sovereignty in the 1930s was limited because of the colonial government’s repressive measures towards nationalist activists. They could be exiled or sent to jail without trial.

The spirit of nationalism became stronger during the Japanese occupation period. Unlike the Dutch colonial period, during the Japanese occupation nationalist leaders were involved in many important Japanese institutions. Those nationalists who were co-operative with the Japanese used their involvement in Japanese institutions to build nationalism into a wider Indonesian nation. They urged people to help the Japanese win the Pacific war, but more importantly the nationalist leaders asserted that by helping the Japanese they were helping their own country. They helped the Japanese because they were eager to defend Indonesia.

One of the ways to build nationalism was by removing all colonial symbols. Many monuments and statues related to Dutch colonialism were removed especially to celebrate the Japanese arrival in Indonesia. The statue of Coen at the Lapangan Banteng was also a target for removal. Statues like Coen’s were a symbol of Dutch prosperity, but also a symbol of slavery for Indonesians. The presence of colonial statues according to the Japanese would only decrease the spirit to revive the people from the misery of the colonial period. Therefore those statues with regard to colonialism had to be removed.

During independence, vestiges of colonialism are still useful to commemorate. The Kompas cycling expedition along the great post road, from Anyer to Panarukan, is a prominent example. The celebration and commemoration were directed to the indigenous people who worked hard to build the road, instead of commemorating Daendels who gave the order to build the road.

For the Dutch, their past colonialism is a dark page of their national history. Most of the monuments with regard to colonialism were targets of criticism. The communists and the social democrats even criticized the monuments when colonialism was still taking place. Anger and shame of their colonial past were demonstrated by destroying Van Heutsz’s monument in Amsterdam. The protest attacks were also aimed at Coen’s statue in Hoorn. Although strictly speaking Coen is not a figure of the colonial period, he was also considered as a bad figure of the past. The Dutch want to know what Coen had done in the Indies, not only what he gave to the Netherlands. While Daendels, who is little appreciated in the Netherlands because of his allegiance to the French, still has his monument intact.

Vestiges of coloniality are treated quite differently in Indonesia and the Netherlands. While for instance, Van Heutsz’s bust and monument were targets of protests in the Netherlands, a medallion or plaque was ‘imported’ to Aceh in 1993. Van Heutsz’s figure as a successful military officer who defeated the Acehnese during the Atjeh war, presumably inspired Indonesian military officers who were on duty in Aceh at that time. A statue of Daendels, with a Sundanese prince, stands safely in Sumedang. The gravestone of Coen is still in the courtyard of the Museum Wayang Jakarta. A wayang golèk of him is also part of the collection in the museum. In the Netherlands, the Van Heutsz monument was neutralized by changing its name. In 2004, the monument’s name was changed to the Monument Indië-Nederland, 1596-1949.

Besides protests, another way to purge national history of its dark past is by creating a new pride. Hoorn is the most fortunate city among the three governor-generals’ hometowns. A novel which takes the setting of life of three boys from Hoorn enables the town to create a new source of pride, at least locally. They have chosen the cabin boys of Bontekoe, rather than Willem I. Bontekoe, as the new pride of Hoorn ‘removes’ the memory of Coen. It is an elegant damnatio memoriae, because they do not destroy or remove the statue of Coen to have a new memory. The boys are fictional figures who are not as controversial as Coen is. They are also a good reference to children to be kind to their parents. The presence of the boys in statues, the website of the local archive, the first display of the ANWB tourist information as well as the recognition of the people of Hoorn to them provide at least a hyper-image of Hoorn. At least, the people of Hoorn are now in the process of creating a hyper-Hoorn as de Scheepsjongens van Bontekoe.

In sum, there are different appreciations of the presence of the three governor-generals’ monuments. To the Dutch, there have been pro and contra to the presence of the monuments, particularly to Van Heutsz’s and Coen’s. The solution was to detach meaning to the monuments or to create other figures as monuments. In Indonesia, the ‘strikes’ desecration to the monuments happened only during the Japanese occupation period and early independence. In the current Indonesia, the monuments get a different appreciation. Coens’ is still ‘alive’ at the Museum Wayang in Jakarta. He becomes one of exhibit of interest in the Museum Wayang. Daendels’ monumental work on Java was negated by a commemoration and celebration of Indonesian independence. Instead of appreciating Daendels’ work, the expedition was to commemorate and appreciate the indigenous people who worked for Daendels. And Van Heutsz’s was an inspiring figure, especially to Indonesian military officers who were sent to Aceh, therefore the Aceh governor requested to have a copy of the Van Heutsz’s bust in Bronbeek in the form of a plaque to keep in Aceh.

[Johny A. Khusyairi obtained a master in history at Leiden University in 2009 and is currently a PhD researcher at Universitas Gajah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, focussing on the social mobility of Reformed-Christian Javanese in urban Yogyakarta between 1905-1950.]
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