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Dutch East India-Netherlands Monument in Amsterdam

Joannes Benedictus van Heutsz was one bad dude.

monument in amsterdam
Joannes Benedictus van Heutsz. 1904

As Military Governor of the Aceh Province in what was then known as the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), van Heutsz set out to crush the twenty-five year old rebellion against the brutal Dutch rule.  He was wildly successful.  Of course it is estimated that some 70,000 Indonesians were killed by the expeditionary army he commanded on the route to being so successful.  In the Aceh province he ordered the razing of numerous villages resulting in the deaths of some 3,000 Acehnese alone – most being women and children.  For his efforts…things we would consider war crimes… van Heutsz was rewarded with the Governor-Generalship of all of the Dutch East Indies in 1904.

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Amsterdam is a city of monuments and museums, protected historic structures, canals, churches and neighborhoods that date to the Middle Ages. In fact, Amsterdam sports more museums per capita than any other city in Europe. Amsterdam’s history also extends to its street names and the little plaques and memorials that seem to be everywhere.

Most of that history is of the uplifting variety but some of it reflects some very dark moments in Dutch history – moments that tend to be forgotten or covered up or denied. It shouldn’t be.  One of those monuments is the former Van Heutsz Monument, now known as the “Monument Dutch East India-Netherlands” which itself has a fascinating recent history that reflects the struggle Dutch society has with its past.

As Holland’s view of its history has evolved, so has the monument.

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Head to the Valeriusplein in the southern part of the city, past the famed Grammar School to the monument that rises above a small pond and the Olympiaplein park next to it.

monument in amsterdamVan Heutsz passed in 1924. At the time Holland was a declining power and found itself increasingly insignificant on the world stage. As an effort to grasp onto a history that was rapidly fading away, the Dutch government in 1930 agreed with a proposal to build a monument to van Heutsz using a proposal from the architect Gijsbert Friedhoff and the sculptor Fritz van Hall.  The monument was controversial even before it went up.  Nonetheless, it was unveiled by the Queen in 1935.

The monument itself was designed to show both the hundreds-year long relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia but also the domination of Indonesia by the tiny European country.

Van Heutsz dominated the center of the monument. The pond symbolized the seas between the nations and the scroll of law reflected Dutch authority over the islands of the Indonesian archipelago. Sculptures represented the Indonesian culture.

monument in amsterdam
Photo Courtesy: Arch

Almost immediately, the monument fell under attack.  It was defaced numerous times in the decades after it was unveiled.  In 1967 it even suffered a bomb attack.  Another bomb attack in 1984 resulted in the removal of the van Heutsz portrait.  It was subsequently stolen.  Controversy again erupted in 1997 when the city government proposed a cleaning of the monument. Finally in 2007, the city renamed it het monument Indië-Nederland or the “Monument Dutch East India-Netherlands” and all reference to van Heutsz was erased.

In his place appeared an abstract female symbol whose purpose is rather confusing. She is flanked by lions that symbolize both Amsterdam and Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies – now known as Jakarta. Indonesian arts, landscape depictions and even an inter-racial couple are now part of the memorial.  A new plaque only mentions colonialism once and the whole vision is one of peaceful utopia.

The idea behind the renovations seems to express the ‘tight bond’ between the two nations, almost as if the historical relationship was one of equals in partnership and not the reality of the harsh domination of the Dutch over the Indonesians.  You get the feeling that the slavery and massacres of Dutch rule are rather beside the point.

The controversy surrounding the “Monument Dutch East India-Netherlands” and its ever-changing face reflects the fascinating internal struggle the Dutch nation has had with its past, making it one of the more interesting and thought-provoking points in the city of Amsterdam



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