Teaching Silenced History in The Netherlands

Report of a special meeting of the Dutch History Teachers Association World History Committee

The UN has put forward a global agenda which includes ‘global citizenship education’ as one of the markers of quality education under sustainable development goal 4 (SDG4). As a large global undertaking, possibly also somewhat invisible and slow, it relates to many existing motives of teachers to support their pupils’ ability to make sense of the world around them.

One such nice cluster of activity is the Dutch History Teachers Association “World History Committee”, which seeks to share educational practices which shed new global and/or non-national/non-western perspectives, and strengthen the group’s joint position on Dutch curriculum debates.

I had the pleasure of attending the committee’s meeting yesterday (6th February) which was organised around the theme ‘silenced history’. From my work at EUROCLIO – European Association of History Educators, there has always been this view that liberal democratic countries like The Netherlands offer sound and critical history education. Yesterday’s topics showed the extent to which work is still to be done to develop knowledge of difficult and sensitive topics. Hereby a short report.

History educators Marjan Heessen and Pim Renou chaired the meeting and introduced the work of the committee, which strives to promote world-historical perspectives in Dutch history education by hosting regular meetings to introduce new content, deliver policy/curriculum recommendations and sharing best practices.

1 – The Moluccan People in the Shadows of the Dutch Colonial Project

The first speaker was Professor Fridus Steijlen who uncovered the longer and more complex history of the relationship between The Netherlands and the inhabitants of the Moluccan islands (situated in the Eastern part of Indonesia).

Moluccan history is relatively unknown amongst history teachers. The speaker took the perspective, which allows comparison to other post-colonial groups in European societies, of the (myth of the) ‘ethnic soldier’, essentially the idea that a group/a people is especially useful for combat – the ‘martial race’ doctrine. Moluccans were recruited by the Dutch colonial armies from the very start of their interactions in 1655, but most significantly they were perceived by the Dutch rulers to be the most loyal and most effective fighters in the so-called pacification campaign, essentially wars of conquest on states like Aceh in the western part of the archipelago. This group however equally has shared in rebelling against the Dutch rule, as one of the participating teachers pointed out, as well as campaigning for independence from the Indonesian nationalists after World War 2.

What makes the Dutch-Moluccan history more entangled is the particular way in which Moluccan colonial army soldiers were repatriated to The Netherlands following that countries defeat in the decolonisation war in 1949/1950. Some 3,500 soldiers, with the addition of their families adding up to 12,500 people, were brought to basic living camps, but also immediately released from their army duty. Their original colonial army (KNIL) right to be brought to their actual homes, was hereby discontinued. The struggle to claim these rights from the Dutch state went on, without much success. Early 80s this conflict, negotiations lead to a joint declaration of Moluccan community leaders and the Dutch government in 1986 – which essentially meant funding for housing, culture and jobs – and a show of gratitude to the 1st generation of colonial soldiers. In the eyes of the Dutch government this was the finalisation of the conflict. Still however the questions remain about embedding this in a wider national culture of remembrance.

Comparing to the Gurkha’s (British Colonial recruits from Nepal), which were also ascribed to a fierce some people but also to the Harki’s, soldiers in the Algerian-French war – not an ethnic group, but are organised by French rulers in the wider Algerian territory – we can see a particular silenced history of our European counties’ citizens whose stories are directly linked to colonial rule and warfare – yet rarely told in a central manner.

Teachers found this presentation illuminating and providing them with further context. They also received additional references to both publications and knowledge centres (such as the Moluccan historical museum, national support-point education and the Moluccan canon).

2 – The Black Archives to Uncover Untold Dutch Histories

Amidst highly emotional public clashes in Dutch society around nominally racist heritage (e.g. Black Pete) practices, there is a lot of progress in actually fostering knowledge sharing, research and constructive discussion. One such excellent example is The Black Archives (TBA) initiative. Co-founder Miguel Heilbron shares his personal and professional ambitions and experiences and challenged teachers to seek how they could practically work with new sources to help their students appreciate the histories and heritage of Black-Dutch people.

Miguel detailed that TBA is a relatively new young initiative (est. 2016) which works from the vision to show dominant (white/European/western) perspectives, and open new/other perspectives – black history and heritage in particular to be further illuminated. It brings together personal histories of Black civil, student and migrant activism, which mainly does a great job in showing the historical dimension of the efforts to decolonise Dutch culture and society. One such very rich resource is, for example, offered by the oldest migrant group society in The Netherlands; Ons Suriname.

In the last year, his team worked hard to improve the structure and organisation of the archives and highlight special stories (e.g. correspondence with the black panthers and the amazing life-stories of Hermina and Otto Huiswoud. As a location, TBA offers its space in Amsterdam for events and projects exploring Black Dutch History, including lectures, exhibits, etc. thus acting as an effective hub for a range of initiatives, such as the Black Heritage Tour of the city.

At schools TBA promotes primary sources which dive in to various issues, including the history of racism and stereotypes in The Netherlands, or activism and the efforts done to document decades of police racism.

It’s most impactful public programme has been the partnership with the quality online news media The Correspondent, with whom TBA collaborated on a collection of articles entitled Verzwegen Geschiedenis (silenced history).

A short activity was done with the history teachers to engage in a discussion how this history might fit in the current system. The teacher sitting next to me, for example, was enthousiastic about working with sources of the Black-Communist activists to give another perspective on the Cold War history, civil movements and activism. Another teacher applauded TBA’s potential to deepen students’ historical understanding of current controversies and racism.

Following the session, several teachers sat down with Miguel and planned ahead how to work more closely together. Certainly a promising partnership of education and civil society!

One after-thought stuck with me though. If we are to promote black (and female (e.g. the new Dutch initiative F-site)) voices and stories in Dutch history education, what does this mean in relation to other silenced/repressed White and maybe also Male histories? It goes without saying that the history curriculum has for a very, very long time been dominated by white male actors, but also within that category, it is not all simple. At times, it seems to me, that the diversification of national history curricula and content, how valuable it is, might face further backlash as there are also untold/silenced histories of that same population group (e.g. the miners in Limburg, or, broadly speaking, other labour/exploitation histories).

3 –West Papua: A forgotten story of Dutch decolonization and Indonesian brutality

The third contribution of the evening was highly anticipated, as the efforts of Mr Raki Ap were also documented by a film crew. Mr Ap introduced himself as an activist, a political refugee at the age of 1 and a very concerned Dutch citizen. After sharing some of his personal background, which included Dutch army service, he dove straight into the matter at hand, his leadership in a global awareness-raising campaign called Free West-Papua to draw attention to the historical and current atrocities committed against the people of West Papua.

The historical context was presented briefly and reminded the teachers of the Dutch initial policies to support West Papua to be decolinsed and establish an independent state, as well as the global/Cold War pressures which lead to a sham referendum being held in 1969 upon which the West-Papuan population was annexed to Indonesia. He illustrated what this has meant all those years for the inhabitants, including lack of basic human rights, exploitation of natural resources (including mining of one of the world’s largest Gold deposits and deforestation of the jungle for the production of Palm oil) and mass murder, malnutrition and so on.

A deeply disturbing situation which fails to generate mass attention, in a way, offers Dutch history teachers who seek to advance the global citizenship of their pupils an opportunity to become aware of current abuse of human rights and trace back the historical context to the Dutch/UN decolonisation process.

Mr Ap illustrated what efforts he and his peers undertake and how they orient themselves now more to also raise awareness amongst pacific countries to generate a wider platform of support at the UN, as well as story-telling in The Netherlands, which, as he pointed out, has a particular responsibility to address. Most history teachers in the room expressed their interest to seek to support this awareness raising, but also signalled that they would need more access to sources and educational materials. One fresh idea was raised at the end of the meeting, which was to co-develop this together.

I felt this presentation was a prime example of how human rights can, and should, enter the history education classroom, and I was glad to see the direction which the discussion took afterwards.

Doing World History, or Doing Dutch History Better?

It pleases me deeply that the Dutch History Teachers Association has a World History Committee. Indeed the world today is getting smaller, or flatter, or more dependent, and it makes a lot of sense for young people to be more aware of how the world around them came to be.

Yesterday’s meeting, however, brought another dimension. It is not simply doing more history of the world, and looking beyond one countries’ border, but it is looking better at the historical experiences, consequences and legacies which colonial history of this country has left both here and there. Moreover, putting forward source materials that shows the people-dimension of this history can go a long way to actually, simply, making Dutch history education.