Published on 15 December 2022 at 12:12

Ever since the word Indo has existed, it raises questions and sparks discussion. 

Also among Indo people themselves. What does Indo actually mean and when are you considered one? A refresher course through time. 


By Ricci Scheldwacht 


At the beginning of this year, we received a letter from Ms. H. van den Brink, who has been a subscriber to Moesson for years. In our January 2022 issue, which was dedicated to poetry,  she had read an article that referred to the poetry collection Bersama. Together by Madeleine Gabeler, with the subtitle: Poems by Moluccan and Indies/Indo poets. 
It was clear to her what poems by Moluccan and Indies poets are, but she did not quite understand what Indo poets are, wrote Ms. Van den Brink (1947), 'who grew up in one house with her parents, her grandmother (1901) and great-grandmother. (1874). All came to Holland from the Dutch East Indies in 1955'. She never heard any of them mention the word Indo. 
That is why she sent us the question: Where and when did the word Indo originate? With the request to place it in Moesson and to present it to our readers. ‘In my opinion, only people who are very old can respond to this question.’ 

Naturally, we wanted to do that. Ms. Van Den Brink is not the first and certainly not the last to ask this question. Old editions of Tong Tong and Moesson show that the word Indo carries a long tradition of questions and discussions. Hence this refresher or introductory course. Intended for all ages. Because we do not believe that only very old people can answer this question ... we are not that old!’ 


Indo, Indo-European 


Indo is an abbreviation of the word Indo-European. The term originated in colonial times and was used for the descendants of European men and Asian women. Tom van der Geugten gives a good explanation, which was also previously published in Moesson (March 1992), in 'De Indische wegwijzer', a guideline for the many books that appeared in the 1990s about the Indo-Dutch. 

It reads: ‘Indo- short for Indo European. In the Dutch East Indies the term was used for lower class Indo-European groups. It had a derogatory tone and emphasized the relationship of these people with the Indonesian culture. Starting in 1980, the word Indo is used by Indo-Dutch people as a nickname, for example on stickers. ‘Ik ben en ik blijf Indo’ – I am and I will always be Indo. Nowadays the words Indo and Indo-European are both used.’ 



After the Second World War, it became more common to use the term Indo-Dutch rather than Indo-European. ‘On the one hand, this had to do with the disappearance of the official colonial distinction between “Europeans” and “Natives”; on the other hand, this emphasized the Dutch nationality,' writes Tom van der Geugten in 'De Indische wegwijzer'. 
In addition, the term Indo had been under discussion in the colony itself since the beginning of the 20th century. The word Indo was perceived as derogatory because it increasingly referred to the small – impoverished – Indo, who lived in the kampong because of his poor social position. In Delpher, the digital archive of the Dutch Royal Library, you can find newspaper articles protesting against the use of the word Indo, such as this article from 1918 in the Indo News- and advertising paper De Nieuwe Vorstenlanden. A quote from that article: ‘I want you to realize that the word Indo is a swear name, just like sinjo.’ 



Indian, Indo, Indonesian 

Many Indo people get furious when they are referred to as Indian. Understandable. After all, since the existence of India (1949), the word Indian has been used for the people of India. They are Indian. Indo-Dutch people are not Indians. 
Yet for many Dutch people – including those working in the media – it is still difficult to grasp that the word Indo refers to Indo-Dutch. Too often they use the adjective Indonesian when they mean Indo. But the Indo-Dutch are not Indonesians either. That's what we call the inhabitants of Indonesia. 

However, the confusion is somewhat understandable. In the 19th and 20th centuries, people from the Dutch East Indies were indeed called Indians, as is also apparent from the previous article in De Nieuwe Vorstenlanden, although this mainly concerned the people we now call Indonesian. We used to call India the British Raj (and before that Dutch India), which is why the sea near India is still called the Indian Ocean. And to make it even more complicated: if you say in Belgium that you want to eat Indo, you end up in an Indian restaurant, because there, Indo does refer to India. 




Indo-Dutch, totoks, and Indo's 

Initially, the term Indo-Dutch was only used for Indo-Europeans, people of mixed descent, and therefore usually people of color. That changed when totoks (Dutch people who lived in the Dutch East Indies and did not mingle with Asians and Indo-Europeans) also started calling themselves Indo-Dutch. Well-known totoks such as writers Hella Haasse and Rudy Kousbroek were important advocates of this in the Netherlands. And it gets even more confusing. In 'De Indische wegwijzer', you can read that the statutes of the Indo-European Alliance (IEV) that fought for equality of races and political control included that totoks could also call themselves Indo-Europeans. 


Curse name or badge of honor 

For many Indo-Dutch of the older generations, Indo was a word to be ashamed of or to look down on. That's why they didn't use it. At least not to refer to themselves. It could well be that Ms. Van De Brink never heard her family mention the word. 

In the 1980s, the word Indo became popular among the youth. The first mugs, buttons, stickers, and T-shirts bearing the word Indo date from that time. When the tattoo emerged, the Indo tattoo was inevitable. One of the most famous tattoo-bearers is Dennis van Leeuwen, guitarist with the pop band Kane, who based his tattoo on Paatje Phefferkorn's Indo coat of arms. 

Again, there are voices calling for the word Indo to be banned, because it dates back to colonial times. In the Words Matter/Woorden doen ertoe guide, which provides advice for a responsible choice of words within the cultural sector, the words Indo, Indo-Dutch, and Indo-European also appear in the list of sensitive words. But unlike the words 'white', 'Eskimo', and 'slave', according to the suggestions of the makers at the bottom of the page, they are still acceptable. Although that can still change as the guide is a work in progress. 
In the Netherlands because of Circumstances (In Nederland Door Omstandigheden) is an explanation that we have also heard. Not by choice, but because that's the way it was. Or, as the third generation increasingly proudly proclaims: because of Opa and Oma. 


It is actually as Tjalie Robinson wrote in 1958: ‘He who is aware of being unworthy as an Indo, erases the word. He who is aware of being the holder of special and good characteristics, keeps it.’ 



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