David Van Reybrouck, last week at the International Literature Festival in Berlin in the Haus der Berliner Festspiele
Image: Andreas Pein
The historian David Van Reybrouck has written a book on Indonesia’s colonial history. In an interview, he explains why it should concern us all and why we urgently need to think about the colonialism of today and tomorrow.
Mr. Van Reybrouck, back in 2010 you dealt with the history of colonialism in your highly acclaimed book “Congo”. You have a personal connection to this topic, you are Belgian and your father worked as a railway engineer in Congo. How did you come to Indonesia?
The idea originated in Congo. I found there a copy of a 19th century novel, Multatuli’s Max Havelaar, something like Moby Dick or Uncle Tom’s Cabin of Dutch literature. I read it while looking at the Congo River and found so many parallels between Dutch and Belgian colonialism, the principle of indirect rule for example or the use of local elites. I lived in the Netherlands for many years and did my PhD at Leiden University. I knew that the Dutch have a very strange, very tormented relationship with their colonial past, there is a great deal of silence. When “Congo” was published in 2010, the book also became quite successful in the Netherlands. And at the end of every lecture someone always said: “Why is nobody writing a book about the Dutch colonial past?” I said: That’s a very good idea, I will encourage my Dutch colleagues. But they all said: too controversial, too complex, too much work. After five years I said, guys, you’re not going to do it. And the last generation of witnesses is dying. So I booked a flight to Yogyakarta, took an Indonesian language course and started conducting my first interviews. And once you’ve done three interviews, you’re lost.