Een Indische Liefde. P.J. Veth (1814-1895) en de inburgering van Nederlands-Indië

Pieter Johannes Veth, who was born in 1814, had bourgeois roots in the Protestant entrepreneurial, liberal middle class of Dordrecht. His father was a scrap iron merchant who sent his son to what we would nowadays call a business school, founded on the principles of the Enlightenment, where such practical subjects as arithmetic, bookkeeping, geography, and modern languages were taught. It was not long before it became apparent that Pieter was a prodigy who could make the transition to the elite grammar school or gymnasium, where the curriculum was based on Greek and Latin, with ease. This unique educational background, combining vocational and theoretical training, made Veth an ideal candidate for the universal training offered at universities at the beginning of the nineteenth century. When Veth enrolled as theology student at Leiden University in 1832, a study which was supposed to prepare him for the pulpit, the Netherlands was plunged in a national identity crisis, one of the results of the secession of Belgium, the effects of which lingered on until the beginning of the seventies. The gloomy economic outlook did little to dampen the lively cultural atmosphere which prevailed in Leiden, then called the city of light. During the first two years of his study, in which he had to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree as a prerequisite for beginning his theological studies, Veth was exposed to European Romanticism embodied in such writers as Scott, Byron, and Hugo. His literary patron was Professor J. Geel, head of the university library and a typical exponent of the progressive tenets of the Enlightenment. Geel’s evocative and ironic literary style made him a refreshing phenomenon in the dull Dutch cultural landscape. Veth would prove an assiduous student because not only did he emulate Geel’s literary style in his later writings, he also internalized Geel’s precept that it was the task of the intellectual to express controversial opinions about social problems. Veth also had a firm grip of the products of French, German, and English literatures.

Veth’s innate linguistic talent also embraced oriental languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac which were compulsory for theology students. His language professors, H.A. Hamaker and H.E. Weijers, advocated a thorough appraisal of textual criticism which they applied to the Holy Scriptures. This approach was regarded with copious suspicion by the followers of the prevailing supranaturalist theology who considered every attack on the historical truth of the Holy Scriptures to be heterodoxy, or even worse heresy. From his masters he inherited this critical scientific attitude along with a commitment to accuracy. Already more enthralled by language than theology, Veth showed himself extremely receptive to modern German theology encapsulated in the epoch-making book by D.F. Strauss, The Life of Christ (Das Leben Jesu) in which big question marks were placed after the historicity of the Bible, completely in line with the text-critical method to which Veth adhered. Faced with a dilemma Veth, who was nearing the completion of his theological studies, decided not to take ecclesiacal exams or to enter the ministry. Needless to say this decision was not really welcomed by his next of kin and as such constituted a grave breach with the social code. This left Veth undaunted. Supported by the intercession of Geel in 1838 Veth received the offer of becoming tutor in English and Malay at the prestigious Royal Military Academy in Breda where officers for the Netherlands Indies received their training and education.

Veth became the assistant to Professor P.P. Roorda van Eysinga, head of the colonial section and the godfather of the study of Malay and Javanese in the Netherlands. In contrast to the rest of the country an optimist, progressive, and religiously tolerant atmosphere prevailed at the Academy and this influenced Veth. Although Veth never looked back on his semi-military existence with much pleasure, it was at the same Academy that for the first time he ventured into a field of study in which he would later reign sovereign: the geography and ethnography of the Netherlands Indies. But still the focus of his study was languages. He completed an anthology of English literature and mastered Javanese and Malay. He received a doctorate honoris causa from his alma mater for a treatise on an Arabic manuscript. Subsequently he was appointed professor of Oriental languages at the Atheneum in Franeker. In Franeker he befriended the first Dutch modern theologian, J.H. Scholten. Building on Straus’s ideas, Scholten no longer adhered to the revelatory aspect of Christianity but preferred to emphasize the ethical and civilizing values which it represented. This view would profoundly influence Veth’s ideas on the relationship between the motherland and the colony. In 1842, just before the abolition of the Atheneum, Veth was appointed professor of Oriental languages at the Athenaeum Illustre in Amsterdam, as successor to T. Roorda who became professor of Oriental languages at the newly established Academy for the training of colonial officals in Delft.

At the beginning of the forties Amsterdam was predominantly conservative in its political outlook. It was the city that profited most from the trade with the Netherlands Indies, riding the crest of the Cultivation System of forced crop cultivation imposed on the Indonesians, instigated in 1830, which made the colony increasingly profitable. The liberals were still an insignificant minority but it was in this latter milieu that Veth would come to play an influential role. It was a role which he could assume thanks to his standing in Amsterdam society, the fruit of his professorship at the Athenaeum Illustre, which was regarded by the citizens as the temple of Enlightened thought. In 1843 Veth, qualitate qua, became member of the board the Dutch Bible Society in which capacity, over a period of twenty years, he stimulated translations of the Bible into the languages of the Archipelago and the proto-anthropological work done by the Bible translators like H. Neubronner van der Tuuk. Such efforts clearly fitted into the civilizing concept of Christianity and gave Veth the opportunity to deepen his linguistic study of the languages of Indonesia. Although his interest in Indonesia was primarily of a linguistic nature, it would soon expand to cover all aspects of Indonesian society and civilization.

Apart from his obvious interest in Indonesia, the main reason for this shift was that he found out that the study of the Oriental languages as such was not his forte. He considered himself to be but a mere dilettante after R.P.A. Dozy a bright young scholar of Leiden University, had severely criticized his Franeker inaugural lecture in De Gids at the beginning of 1844. At that time Veth had just become one of the editors of this critical cultural periodical. It was a sign of Veth’s open-mindedness that he did not stifle this criticism and it is a sign of the openness in all aspects of life for which he strove. He was also the first of a new liberal generation of editors who would turn the journal into the semi-official herald of the liberals. The backward-looking romantic nationalism of the editor-in-chief, E.J. Potgieter, who glorified the Golden Age and the Dutch East India Company, was replaced by a progressive liberal outlook. Veth did not react to Dozy’s criticism in De Gids itself, choosing to reply in a personal letter in which he denounced Dozy’s inconsiderate criticism but also defended his scientific working method in which the comparison of existing sources and the adding of new data were key. All of Veth’s later scientific contributions were imbued with this enlightened, encyclopaedic way of practising science.

It is important to realize that science at that time was struggling to free itself of the fetters of theology. Together with his more liberal colleagues at the Athenaeum Illustre, he fended off an attack by the Reformed synods to obtain a tighter grip on theological education. In its development science should not be hindered by theological concepts. Notwithstanding this problem in the relationship between Christianity and science, the former was heavily indebted to the latter because science could only flourish in fields which Christianity had fertilized. Veth hoped for an alliance between science and Christianity for the intellectual and moral improvement of all people. This drive should be seen within the context of the Western movement of civilization then gaining momentum. In this Veth was indicating the land to the study of which he would devote the rest of his life, the Netherlands Indies where millions had remained on what was considered to be a low rung of civilization.

The superiority of Western civilization and its potential to influence other less developed societies for the better lay unequivocally at the basis of Veths concept of Indonesia. In 1846, W.R. van Hoëvell, in his capacity as the director of the Indies Bible Society, who had striven indefatigably to expand the knowledge of the Archipelago since his arrival in the Indies, contacted Veth whom he already knew to be one of the very few learned people in the Netherlands with a genuine interest in the Indies. Van Hoëvell was the founder of the Journal of the Netherlands Indies (Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch Indië) and president of the Batavian Society for Arts and Sciences (Bataviaasch Genootschap voor Kunsten en Wetenschappen). He shared an enlightened liberal background with Veth. On several occasions he had clashed with the colonial government, in particular with its censors. There was a strict censorship imposed on all information pertaining to the Netherlands Indies, which was reminiscent of the complete ban on information which the Dutch East India Company had upheld for two centuries. Needless to say that this censorship stood in the way of the free circulation of knowledge about Indonesia, which consequently was meagre and scant to say the least. This was not going to change without a major political revolution. Both Veth and Van Hoëvell were completely aware of this, but Veth was not as much restrained in undertaking political action as Van Hoëvell.

Equally important in this context was that his marriage to Clara Büchler in 1845. This not only brought him into contact with colonial circles in Amsterdam but also brought him into close contact with the growing liberal faction intimately related to the circles of the Society for the Genral Welfare (Maatschappij tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen), of which his brother-in-law, P.M.G. van Hees, was secretary. At the beginning of 1846, the liberal Amstel Society (Amstelsociëteit) was founded and Veth delivered the inaugural lecture which can be regarded as a quite revolutionary pamphlet in which the members’ main plea was for openness in administration and government. The society was in close contact with J.R. Thorbecke the author of the new constitution which was proclaimed at the end of 1848. The news about the liberal revolution reached the Indies in May 1848 and Van Hoëvell was very enthusiastic, too enthusiastic because as a consequence of his alleged subversive activities he was banished from the Indies and had to take the boat home.

By then in their correspondence he and Veth had developed the main tenets of a liberal colonial policy: openness in colonial affairs, freedom of the press and of speech, and the abolition of the Cultivation System. This policy was certainly a step forward, a distancing from that of the conservatives who saw Indonesia primarily in terms of profit. Veth’s paternalistic vision of Indonesia intimations of both the association and ethical policy, introduced at the end of the nineteenth century, can be discerned. Veth, and in the long run many others, who did not think highly of the role of the Netherlands in Europe, came to regard Indonesia as the fulfillment of Dutch destiny and identity because its possessions in the East made the Netherlands more important than other European nations with the same number of inhabitants. With the liberals in power, a liberal revolution in Indonesia seemed to be imminent but affairs took another turn. It was another twenty years before the ties between the motherland and colony were liberalized. Veth would work towards that goal as a savant, critic, and publicist but he never became a politician. He described the job of a politician as a curs work.

By 1848 Veth had a clear vision of what the Dutch should do for Indonesia. They should repay with moral benefits the enormous debt incurred from all the material goods which had flowed so abundantly over the past two hundred years from Indonesia. In order to familiarize the population of those territories with the benefits of pure religion and Christian civilization, a thorough knowledge of that population and its institutions and customs was the first and indispensable must. Only in this manner Veth thought that the Dutch would be able to bring about a moral revolution. One of the ways to achieve this goal was to improve education in the Indies. As president of the afore-mentioned Society for the General Welfare in 1850 he pleaded for the foundation of departments of that Society in the Indies which could commence their task of civilizing by founding schools. These plans came to naught, thwarted by conservative obstruction in the Indies. Since Veth never believed in the effectiveness of outright prosetylization, his thoughts turned more and more to the expansion of Dutch rule in the Archipelago as the only means by which to achieve the goal.

Veth also pleaded for better education about Indonesia in the Netherlands convinced that this knowledge would not be a goal in itself but would serve higher purposes. He was absolutely sure that the knowledge of the Indian possessions should be disseminated throughout all strata of society so that the Indies would be made the main arena of the development of the national forces. In this period, more than at any time before, a surge of interest in the collecting of information about Indonesia took place. The lack of educational material was abysmal, but what was even worse was the absence of institutional frameworks which would act as gateways to the knowledge essential to research. Veth was co-founder of the Indies Society (Indisch Genootschap, 1854), a political debating club, and founding member of the Royal Institute for Linguistics and Anthropology (Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1851). The first fruits of these efforts to expand knowledge about Indonesia saw the light of day in 1854. This was Veth’s the Western Division of Borneo (Borneo’s Wester-Afdeeling) in which he brought together everything then known about that part of the island.

This two-volume work has footnotes and a literature list, neither of which was very common in those days. Veth was convinced that verifiability was one of the basic traits of a work of modern science. He also accounts for the use of his sources because he was of the opinion that the majority of the sources which he used for his study were flawed because the native sources were based on unverifiable stories, and the stories of European visitors were rife with misconceptions and marred by carelessness and ignorance. Borneo’s Western Division was widely acclaimed and had an exemplary effect on other authors who, like Veth, devoted themselves to the dissemination of knowledge about the Netherlands Indies. In his descriptions of the most important crops of Indonesia in a series of the Society for the General Welfare something of Veth’s vocational training shimmers through. In great detail he describes cotton, coffee, and sago with their potential areas of cultivation, expected yields and such like. The works of the beginning of the sixties are already pointing more in the direction of the economic possibilities Indonesia offered. Veth’s liking for working with others is attested to by a collaborative research project which lasted ten years from 1859 tot 1869. The outcome of the project was the Geographical and Statistical Dictionary of the Netherlands Indies (Aardrijkskundig en Statistisch Woordenboek van Nederlandsch Indië) to which Veth contributed the parts on Timor and Sumatra. Works like these contributed in part to enabling the Dutch Parliament to take effective control of affairs in Indonesia in 1865, before which time it had always been the province of the colonial ministry. It was only then that a policy of openness in colonial affairs could be consummated.

In this respect the publication of the Max Havelaar of Multatuli in 1860 was an epoch-making event. It triggered off a political debate in the Netherlands on the redefinition of the relationship with the Netherlands Indies. Veth who had to review the book in De Gids must have realized its potential, especially as fuel for the liberal opposition immediately. Veth found the book a powerful protest against the suppression of the Javanese by petty local rulers, whose behaviour was condoned by the colonial government. Multatuli, who is generally regarded as being opposed to colonial government was in fact an advocate of the expansion of Dutch rule at the expense of local rule. This was exactly what Veth had in mind as well, only to be thwarted by the conservatives in the Indies and also confounded because the number of civil servants who were available could accomplish the civilizing mission was too small to have impact.

When the liberals came back to power in 1862, they immediately addressed two major political problems: educational reform in the Netherlands and the redefinition of the relationship with the Netherlands Indies. Veth was appointed secretary of the commission for the reform of the training of civil servants in the colonial service. Its endeavours resulted in the foundation of the Government Institute for Indies Civil Servants (Rijksinstelling van Onderwijs in Indische Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde) in Leiden. In view of the prevailing liberal climate, it is not surprising that Veth, who had acquired a reputation as an expert on Indies matters, was appointed professor at the institute. In his inaugural lecture he summarized what in his view the nature and aims of education in linguistics and ethnology of the Netherlands Indies should be. He saw linguistics and ethnology as being synonymous with (anthro)geography, which was supposed to be an encyclopaedia of all that was known about this subject. He also foresaw that this encyclopaedia would quickly become outdated under the growing pressure of scientific specialization. However, a new encyclopaedia could be compiled on the basis of the new specialist knowledge, and the possibilities were manifold. The aim of the training was to produce competent and humane civil servants, whose duty it was, armoured with their knowledge of the native languages and cultures and their own superior Western culture, to lead the natives towards a better future inspired by ideology from the West.

Veth trained a considerable number of civil servants who were being appointed to high administrative positions from which they could implement the ethical policy at the end of the nineteenth century. But the institute did not prosper as it turned out to be too theoretical to achieve a successful pass rate in the state examinations and Veth could not change that. This set-back left him ample time to devote to writing and to devising ways to bring about a change in the colonial relationship. Veth was often consulted on colonial problems by politicians like I.D. Fransen van de Putte who was secretary of colonial affairs from 1865-1866. When the latter’s Cultivation Law (Cultuurwet) was defeated in parliament, Veth lashed out at the opponents of the Cultivation Law, a law which would have meant the end of the Cultivation System by allowing private land rights. The main tenor of his article in De Gids, which is permeated with the universal claims of Enlightened thought, was that whatever was valid for Europe was equally so for the Netherlands Indies. Communist (id est conservative) concepts, which were avoided in the Netherlands like the plague, should not be hailed in Java as the highest wisdom.

It was clear that something should be done to counteract the influence of the conservatives. Van Hoëvell contacted Veth to ask him if he did not want to become editor-in-chief of Van Hoëvell’s brainchild, the ‘Journal of the Netherlands Indies’ Veth helped to form an editorial staff which consisted of influential liberal politicians, captains of industry, and academicians. Veth co-ordinated the attacks on the Cultivation System with a fruitful conclusion because this system was dismantled and in 1870 the Agrarian Law made private ownership of land possible in the Indies. Veth saw his long struggle rewarded, but this liberalization was largely confined to Java. Another formidable obstacle in the way of liberalization – one often overlooked – was the Abstention Policy (Onthoudingspolitiek); a policy opposing the expansion of direct colonial rule to the so-called Outer Territories. This policy was condoned by the British scientist A.R. Wallace. On the threshold of a new era in the relationship with Indonesia, Veth started to translate Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago in Dutch almost immediately after it was first published in 1869.

Wallace, who had been travelling trough the Archipelago for more than ten years, wrote a very vivid account about his scientific explorations. The appeal of this book, whose popularity has never waned, was recognized by Veth for whom it must have been a source of inspiration for his own magnum opus Java on which he started working in 1872. In a review of Veth’s article on Javanese landscapes that same year, the reviewer praised the scientific standard and Veth’s captivating style of writing. He agreed with Veth that Indonesia was not only economically, politically, and scientifically speaking of vital importance to the Netherlands, Dutch art and literature also stood to gain in the Netherlands behind the horizon.

Although there were more persons who started to build bridges at the same time as Veth did, they were far less successful. Veth was regarded as the authority. The proof would seem to be that he was never challenged during his lifetime and, in fact, there seemed to be nobody capable of following in his footsteps. His successors were specialist demi-gods whose authority was much more narrowly confined. However, in 1872 he had not yet reached the pinnacle of his scientific expertise and social fame. It was only in 1877 that he would be appointed professor of the ethnology of the Netherlands Indies at Leiden University. He would use the enormous network he had been building up since his Amsterdam days to attack the Abstention Policy with unremitting vigour. This should be seen in the wider framework of the emergence of modern imperialism. Only after Dutch authority had been established over the Outer Territories would the economic exploitation of these areas be feasible. For this reason, Veth argued that Dutch control should be extended, especially in those regions (Borneo, Sumatra, New Guinea) in which he saw the Dutch position threatened by other colonial powers. He thought that the Netherlands was powerful enough to maintain itself in the competitive Darwinian world. In Darwinism he recognized precisely the instrument he needed to strengthen his arguments for the extension of Western civilization by every possible means.

While the abolition of the Cultivation System produced an upsurge in economic relations between the Netherlands and the Netherlands Indies, the outbreak of the Aceh War in 1873 ushered in an intensification in political relations. The failure of the first Aceh expedition was seized upon by Veth as an opportunity to argue for the extension of colonial authority to the Outer Territories and for the consequent economic exploitation of these areas. In a pamphlet-like book on Aceh he concluded that the Dutch were the defenders of civilization and humanity against barbarism and cruelty and that there could be no doubt about the fact that the war should continued. The success of the second expedition at the end of 1873 drew forth a surge of nationalism in the Netherlands, the first time in Dutch history such an outburst was caused by an event in Indonesia. Veth believed the failure of the first expedition was caused by a lack of knowledge about Aceh which could be repaired by launching scientific expeditions.

The failure of the first Aceh expedition prompted the foundation of the Royal Dutch Geographical Society (Koninklijk Nederlands Aardrijkskundig Genootschap) in July 1873, of which Veth would remain president until 1884. This foundation should be seen within the framework of a broader European geographical movement. This can in fact be interpreted as the scientific forerunner of modern imperialism. Under Veth’s inspired leadership the society grew into a very influential colonial lobby consisting of approximately a thousand members. New discoveries in the field of geography were reported in the periodical published by the Society. The press also gave the activities of the Society a wide coverage, certainly when famous explorers were the speakers at the meetings of the society. By ensuring that explorers were invited as speakers, Veth tried to link the Indies with the romantic cult which had evolved around discovery and explorers. In 1875 he became chairman of the prepatory committee for a scientific expedition to Sumatra and a nation-wide fundraising drive was initiated.

The expedition which lasted three years from 1877 to 1879 was paid for by the government and by private funds. Veth was primarily concerned with the organization of and the publicity surrounding the expedition. He edited the letters written by the expedition members which were published in the main newspapers. The expedition was also covered in French, German, and English geographical periodicals and Dutch popular magazines. The expedition held the Netherlands in its grip for two years and when the leader of the expedition, J. Schouw Santvoort, died he was instantaneously elevated to the status of a martyr for the march of civilization. Under the guise of a scientific expedition Veth tried to torpedo the Abstention Policy because the expedition inevitably led to political incidents in the independent states which it tried to penetrate. The colonial government remained deaf to Veth’s call for a military intervention to clear the way for the expedition members.

If it did not achieve anything else the expedition succeeded in increasing the awareness of the Dutch population of a Netherlands at the other end of the world, of which the destiny was intertwined with that of the Netherlands. The nine-volume work edited and supervised by Veth still remains a major source of knowledge for anyone studying Sumatra. It is a multidisciplinary work in which we find contributions of specialists on geography, ethnography, anthropology, geology, and botany. Four years later in 1883 an international colonial exhibition was organized in Amsterdam which brought the colonies to life for the general public. It attracted two million visitors, an unheard number in those days. The visitors were confronted with all aspects of Netherlands Indies society. The show piece was a Sumatran village with villagers and all. The three-volume catalogue was edited by Veth and gives a clear idea of the degree of the political, economic, and cultural intertwining of the Netherlands and Indonesia.

One year earlier, in 1882, Veth finished his three-volume magnum opus ‘Java, Geographical, Ethnographical and Historical’ (Java, Geographisch, Ethnographisch, Historisch) consisting of approximately three thousand pages. It can be viewed as an encyclopaedia of all the knowledge then existing about Indonesia. In the introduction he expressly stated that it was a clear disadvantage that he had not been in Indonesia and that his description of Java in the third volume is an example of an imaginary journey. Nevertheless, both as a source of knowledge and as a travel guide the book has been praised. Veth had already anticipated that other specialists would come forward to criticize his work. A second edition of his Java in four volumes was completed in 1912, seventeen years after the project had been initiated. All the then known Indies specialists, practically all of whom had been there, contributed. Although their contributions were of a more up-to-date scientific standard, they by no means appealed to the cultivated audience for whom Veth had successfully written. These were articles for specialists by specialists and lacked the compelling vision of the master.

Veth’s Java also engendered a dialogue with the ruler of Brebes, who had especially praised Veth for the second volume of Java because for the first time Indonesian history was treated from an Indonesian perspective instead of from the perspective of the colonial ruler. Veth saw to it that the more than a hundred pages of criticism were printed as a supplement to the Geographical Journal. For him it was a sign of an incipient dialogue between the Dutch and Indonesians which Veth hoped would ultimately lead to the assimilation of the populations of both parts of the empire. This would bring into being a greater Dutch identity. Veth died in 1895, aged 80, but his dream did not come true.