Speech by Prof. Dr Leonard Blussé, Leiden University, the Netherlands


Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for being present here this afternoon.
In many respects this is an exceptional gathering of diplomats, scholars, officials of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign affairs, the Ministry of Culture, Education and Research and representatives from various research oriented institutes of higher education such as NWO, WOTRO, NUFFIC, the Royal Academy and Leiden University. While entering this hall you will also have met several young scholars of the TANAP research program.

As there will be four speakers this afternoon, including three from Asia, I shall limit myself to a brief outline of the background to this meeting and its aims and purposes. Hopefully this exchange of ideas will lead to the joint opinion that in close cooperation with universities in Asia a concerted effort should be made to set up an academic training program in Holland, which will enable Asian historians to study their own history with the help of Dutch archival resources.

The Netherlands has a long history in Asia, first as a trading nation, later also as a colonial power. During the 400 years of Dutch presence in Asia, first in the settlements of the Dutch East India Company scattered all over Asia and after 1800 as a colonial empire in Southeast Asia, which came to an end at the start of the Pacific War, an enormous amount of original records and printed sources have been produced.

From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, in no other European language, apart from the English language, has so much been written on all aspects of Asian society as in the Dutch language. In the past fifty years, for various reasons which I shall not go into here, the Dutch government never made any determined effort to promote the study of the Dutch language and the Dutch archival deposits by Asian historians, in spite of all its positive attempts to further international cooperation in the field of the sciences and, more specifically, development oriented applied research in the social sciences. This shy cultural attitude starkly contrasts with the forceful cultural policies carried out by such other European nations as England, France, Portugal and Spain. Yet there seems to be some change in the air. Over the past few years modest initiatives have been taken to remedy this situation. It is too early to say whether the Dutch government is willing to develop and pursue a cultural policy in this direction. One of the reasons why we are here today is that we would like to hear from the Asian participants, diplomatic representatives and scholars alike, what your views are and whether you also believe that there actually is a need and a desire in your country that the Dutch government should pursue this course. We should be very careful, after all, that any bold attempt to bolster the historical study of Dutch documents on Asia on an international level should not be interpreted as some kind of neo-colonial cultural enterprise.

This is how it started. As many of you will remember, two years ago the founding of the former Dutch East India Company was commemorated in various harbour cities of the Netherlands, where this early modern multinational had acted as the motor of the local economy during its two hundred years of existence. Inevitably this commemoration drew many responses, both positive and negative. Positive, because the VOC brought great wealth to the Netherlands, negative, because of the role that the VOC played in the development of Dutch colonialism in Southeast Asia.

But the most positive result was that on the occasion of this commemoration the Ministries of Education and Foreign Affairs decided to join hands and enable the National Archives and Leiden University to set up a short term joint program, the TANAP program, with two connected goals: the inventorization of the VOC archival records on seventeenth and eighteenth century Asia, from Arabia in the West to China and Japan in the East, and the training of some thirty young university teachers from Asian universities, who would be given a crash course, a so-called Advanced Masters Program of one year, to learn the difficult language and handwriting of Dutch archival documents. In short preservation of the sources and improved access to them were combined with the training of people who could use them and take care of them.

The impetus that set the ball rolling was the following: One of the largest banks in the Netherlands, which at the time still had many offices spread all over Asia, asked us informally through the good offices of a high official of the Ministry of Culture and Education whether it would be possible to ask specialists in the field to write short monographs about the historical relations of the VOC with every Asian country where it had branch offices. Although the answer was that it indeed would be possible to find such authors here in Holland, I remarked that this would be a golden opportunity to invite Asian historians to write such books. I pointed out, however, that unfortunately, except for a few countries, no such writers would be available because all local know-how of the precious Dutch sources had been lost. I therefore suggested that it might be better to provide scholarships for a training programme than to spend a lot of money on producing these monographs on the occasion of the commemoration of the Dutch East India Company. The morale of the story being of course the famous saying by the late Prince Claus, that if you want to provide someone with fish to eat, you had better give him a fishing rod and teach him to angle.
In this case the lucky outcome of the story was that the bank shelved its plans and gave a large subsidy to the VOC exhibition in the Rijksmuseum and the NWO and WOTRO of the Ministry of Education saw to it that the scholarships were provided.

In the framework of TANAP an impressive amount of work has been carried out by the National Archives at The Hague, represented today by its director, Dr Maarten van Boven, and the project coordinator, Dr Pieter Koenders. Close cooperation between The Hague and the archives of Cape Town, Chennai in India, Colombo, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, which together hold about five kilometres of archival documents concerning maritime and continental Asia in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, has now resulted in a total survey of the archival deposits that have been preserved under often very problematic tropical conditions. Last year UNESCO placed the VOC archives on the world cultural heritage list.
Concurrently, Leiden University has been teaching thirty young Asian university lecturers. Thanks to graduate scholarships from NWO, WOTRO, IIAS, CNWS, the board of Leiden University and several foundations in Japan, seventeen of these students are presently working towards a doctorate. We shall soon witness the defence of the first dissertation and within three years all of these graduate students should be back at their home university to resume their teaching obligations.

Over the past two years there have been several new developments which have led us to consider whether this particular short term programme, which was purely aimed at young university lecturers and at �the VOC period� in history, that is the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, should not be extended to a broader and younger group of university students and to cover the entire period of four hundred years. Specifically in the case of Southeast Asia, a further 10 kilometres of handwritten and printed documents are waiting to be examined by Asian historians and social scientists who would like to study their own societies with the aid of Dutch eyewitness accounts.

This is a point that should be made crystal clear. Our aim is not to engage in the study or teaching of Dutch colonial history but in the training of Asian researchers to study their own history with the help of Dutch sources. Because we should give a name to this kind of research, which inevitably will also involve the study of Asian-European relations, we have decided to label it �Mutual Heritage history�. This also includes the study of material remains such as buildings, infra-structure and irrigation systems and so on in Asia.

Specifically with this last theme in mind, the preservation and upkeep of historical objects of mutual heritage in Asia, our very active cultural ambassador, Jan Hoekema, has recently organized several sessions with specialists in the field to assess the needs and the problems that demand special attention. Over and over the outcome of these meetings has been that there is a shortage of historical expertise on the side of the Asian counterparts, who are charged with the preservation work by their own governments and who often are are financially assisted in their tasks by the Dutch HAGIS funds. Many of these well-intentioned projects are therefore doomed from the beginning, because there has not been enough basic training of the personnel involved. Because it often is not possible for the various Asian partners engaged in this work to return to the sources, there is a lack of understanding of the context. The communis opinio is that something has to be done about this.

Another new development that enables us to re-examine the training of Asian students is the introduction of a BA and MA system in the Netherlands. Leiden University, with its strong emphasis on Asia, in fact the only university in Holland which offers a full coverage of Asian languages and cultural studies, has now designed an already certified set of curricula. In the field of Mutual Heritage studies this would enable us to offer specially tailored courses to young Asian students with a BA degree in history and anthropology. This program, named Encompass, Encountering a Common Past, starts out with a special connecting year, the so-called BA in Mutual Heritage studies, in which the primary task will be to teach the students Dutch and English. The MA, MPhil and PhD programme as indicated in the brochure, which we have sent you, can follow this course.

The special attention which will have to be devoted to this special programme and the financial stimulus in the form of scholarships for participants demand a sizeable investment that cannot and should not be borne by Leiden University alone but should be borne by all Dutch parties involved. Unfortunately, at present the Dutch government has not developed any kind of policy to allocate funds for starting an educational programme for Asian students to sustain its Mutual Heritage programme. And it certainly will not, unless the Asian partners strongly urge it to do so. One of the primary reasons for organizing this meeting today is to invite opinions from our foreign guests.

What makes the Encompass programme very attractive is that it does not necessarily have to lead towards a PhD degree for every student, but it will enable us to train some sixty young people over a period of 5 years, who can be employed in such diverse trades as mutual heritage projects, the various archives that are preserving Dutch documents abroad or would like to acquire copies of them, universities and other institutions of learning, journalism and so on.

This brings me to the last point: institution and capacity building at Asian institutions of higher learning. There is a tremendous difference in quality and the level of organization between the different countries that have participated in the TANAP programme so far. Japan, for instance, has traditionally always nurtured such studies as rangaku or yogaku, centuries-old studies of Western and specifically Dutch cultural influences at highly respected institutions such as the Historiographical Institute of Tokyo University. Nonetheless, over the past few decades I have been closely involved on a personal basis in the primary training of Japanese students of these institutions. In other countries the direct needs are to further develop the historical study of the nation�s history with the help of Dutch sources, as already happens though our TANAP connection in Iran, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and China. You will soon hear more from my Indonesian and Indian colleagues about this.

This inevitably means that the Dutch side should be willing to promote a special academic historic education programme in the years to come to enable these institutions of higher learning to develop, expand and institutionalize this kind of research. The Encompass Project is meant to offer such a kick-start in its BA, MA programme and the ensuing PhD education. It will provide not only Asian government agencies with well trained people in the fields of archival science, mutual heritage projects and so on, but in the near future it will also provide the PhD educated university teachers of the TANAP programme present here upon their return home with a steady flow of Dutch-trained graduate students and possibly staff to engage in a more balanced writing of their national history with the use of foreign sources.
And, who knows, the day might come that 10 Asian historians will be glad to write the monographs that the bank wanted to commission five years ago.

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