by Susan Haveman
I have to admit I didn’t have the faintest image of Malaysia when my husband asked me whether I would consider moving our family there. Still, I like a new challenge and when the company my husband works for gave us a choice between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, my vote was for Kuala Lumpur – because it sounded more exotic, more foreign, more unknown. And it is. There’s nothing here to remind you of Holland… or so I thought, until I came to Muzium Negara. On my very first guided tour through the museum, our guide brought us to gallery C, to the Porta di Santiago – and surprised me with the VOC emblem. The VOC? In Malaysia? Why? And when? It might sound ridiculous, but I had never heard of the Dutch being in Malaysia. It is not something you learn about in school in Holland.
Batavia (Jakarta), of course, served as the VOC headquarters in Asia, I knew that much. I’d heard of Jan Pieterszoon Coen and about the Spice Trade. But I never knew that the Dutch only founded Batavia as an alternative to Melaka. I didn’t know that the first plans to capture that strategically and commercially important port were made 13 years before Coen’s founding of Batavia. I never knew that between 1606-1641 there were two large-scale and numerous smaller attacks on Melaka, before captain Minne Willemszoon Kaartekoe finally managed to capture the town. Or that, after having conquered Melaka, the Dutch stayed in Malaysia longer than any of the other European powers. I just didn’t know!
Now – and this might sound a bit strange from a Dutch volunteer guide in a Malaysian museum – I thought it was very embarrassing hearing new things about my country’s history from the mouth of a non-Dutch person. So since then, I’ve tried to get my hands on as many books on the subject as I possibly can. In Dennis De Witt’s ‘History of the Dutch in Malaysia’ I came across many names that sound familiar – but only because the local governments back home had decided to name streets after them: De Houtman, Van Riebeeck and Van Heemskerk, to name a few. Here in Malaysia I came to know the story behind the street signs, 10 000 kilometres away from the towns where they are erected.
On our home trip, I dragged my husband and children with me to the National Maritime Museum in the old Naval Entrepôt in Amsterdam. The building, designed in 1655 by Daniel Stalpaert, shed a light on all aspects of Holland’s maritime history. In the museum shop I found ‘In pursuit of pepper and tea – The Story of the Dutch East India Company’ by Els M. Jacobs, a beautifully illustrated book on the VOC. We also visited the replica of the Amsterdam, one of the four first Dutch ships to set sail to South East Asia in order to break the Portuguese monopoly of the spice trade, and imagined travelling back to KL in that ship, taking 15 months to reach our destination instead of 13 hours.
My latest quest is to discover what exactly happened before 1824, when the British ‘temporarily’ took care of Dutch overseas possessions. That wasn’t just a Dutch-British affair. It had to do with everything else that was going on in Europe at that time. This time the Internet brought me the solution: Yale University offers free online courses on a wide variety of subjects, history among them. So now I listen to Professor John Merriman, explaining ‘European History from 1648 until 1945’.
See what a Museum Volunteer training course can bring about? Well, at least I will have interesting tales to tell when (if ever) we go home- not just about about nasi lemak and mani/pedis, but also about Parameswara and Cornelius Mattelief De Jonge, amongst others! Most of all, however, is the recognition that everything in the world is inter-connected with everything else – no matter how far apart we may seem.