Preserving Our Identity: The Former Dutch East Indies and Indisch

Published on 6 October 2023 at 13:04

Recently a special committee lead by former Dutch Education minister Jet Bussemaker, stated that we should consider no longer using the terms Indisch and ‘former Dutch East Indies’. This statement prompted Indo-Dutch Stephen Goedhart, who lives in Taiwan, to write the following argument against the committees findings.  


By Stephen Goedhart 


‘The term “former Dutch East Indies” is actually a colonial term,’ says Jet Bussemaker, a former Dutch cabinet minister who led a committee on Strengthening Knowledge of the History of the Former Dutch East Indies, in an interview with De Volksrant, a Dutch newspaper. ‘And when you say “Indisch”,  you refer to Dutch people with at least one European parent. By using these terms, we overlook the history of the Moluccans, the Chinese, the Papuans, and the Indonesians. There are stories to be told about this history from many different angles.’ 

This conversation implies that the terms 'Dutch East Indies' and 'Indisch' are not suitable. However, it is important to acknowledge that these terms are part of world history. Vast empires, such as the British Raj, the French Indo-Chinese Union, and the Spanish Empire, have existed, exerting their influence across the globe. Looking further back, we have the Majapahit Empire, which was centered on Java from the 13th to the 15th century and established colonies and vassal states in parts of modern-day Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. The Srivijaya Empire, based on the island of Sumatra from the 7th to the 13th century, was a powerful maritime empire that controlled trade routes and established colonies and settlements in neighboring regions, including parts of the Malay Peninsula and Java. Even the Roman Empire aimed to Romanize its conquered territories by spreading Roman culture, language, and customs. 

Throughout history and across global regions, conquests and racist beliefs have been pervasive. Unfortunately, slavery has been practiced by every civilization. Julius Caesar, who led the initial Roman expeditions to Britain in 55 and 54 BCE, portrayed Britons as barbarians in comparison to Roman civilization, emphasizing their differences in language, customs, and social organizations. 

Preserving the original regional names helps maintain accuracy. For example, if someone was born in Jakarta (formerly Batavia) in 1930, they were born in Batavia, Dutch East Indies. Indonesia did not come into existence until 1949, the same year as the renaming of the city. Similarly, if one was born in Vietnam before 1954, they were born in the French Indo-Chinese Union. In 1954, after the Geneva Accords, Vietnam was temporarily divided into two separate entities: the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the north, commonly known as North Vietnam, and the State of Vietnam in the south, also referred to as South Vietnam. Changes to passports are driven by policy decisions, not influenced by personal emotions. 

Ethnogenesis, the process through which distinct ethnic groups or identities emerge, has played a significant role in shaping cultures throughout history. The Métis people, for instance, emerged during France's colonization of Canada. They are a distinct cultural group resulting from the intermixing of Indigenous peoples, particularly the Cree and Ojibwe, with European settlers, primarily of French and Scottish descent. Métis culture has developed its own unique language (Michif), traditions, and artistic expressions and is protected and recognized in Canada. 

Similarly, the Macanese people emerged during Portugal's colonization of Macau. They are of mixed Portuguese and Chinese ancestry, resulting from intermarriage between Portuguese settlers and local Chinese populations. The Macanese have developed a unique cultural identity that blends aspects of Portuguese and Chinese traditions, cuisine, and language. Macanese culture is recognized and celebrated in Macau. 

Another example is the Anglo-Indian community, which emerged during Britain's colonization of India. Anglo-Indians are of mixed British and Indian heritage, typically resulting from intermarriage between British colonizers and local Indian populations. They have formed a distinct community with their own cultural practices, language (a creole known as Anglo-Indian), and social identity. Anglo-Indian culture is celebrated and recognized in various parts of the world where Anglo-Indian communities have a significant presence, such as the UK, Australia, Canada, and the US. 

Looking further back at the Mongol Empire's rule, which lasted from the 13th to the 14th century, several cultures emerged and were influenced by Mongol dominion. One such culture is the Ilkhanate Culture, which emerged as a blend of Mongol, Persian, and Islamic traditions in the region encompassing present-day Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Ilkhanate culture combined elements of Central Asian nomadic heritage with local customs and practices, leaving a lasting cultural legacy in art, architecture, and historical heritage in the region. 

Preserving the term Indisch (Indo) authenticates our cultural identity. It encompasses our literature, cuisine, etiquette, music, nuances, and history. Besides the Dutch language, the Indo community also has its own unique language, Petjoh, which is a mixed language combining elements of Dutch, Portuguese, Malay, Javanese, and other local languages spoken in the former Dutch East Indies. 

Using other terms instead of Indisch and the former Dutch East Indies would create ambiguity and confusion within our community and the general public. It would be inaccurate to describe my parents, relatives, or fellow Indos as Dutch, Indonesian, Chinese, Spanish, French, Belgian, or German from Indonesia. They are specifically Indisch. As reflected in their official documents, they are from the former Dutch East Indies, not from Indonesia nor the Majapahit Empire. Our dishes that are Indisch (Indo) are called Indisch dishes to distinguish them from Dutch or Indonesian dishes. Indo rock music is called Indo rock because the musicians are Indisch. To suggest anything else would be inaccurate and false. 

In Canada, one would not refer to a Métis individual as French, Cree, Ojibwe, or Scottish. They are recognized as Métis, acknowledging their distinct identity. Similarly, an Anglo-Indian should not be referred to as English Indian, as this term could be ambiguous and may refer to individuals of Indian descent who have migrated or settled in England. English Indians may identify as British Indians, British Asians, or with their specific regional or cultural backgrounds. 

While we should certainly be proud of our Indonesian ancestry, it is crucial to celebrate our Indo culture by preserving it. If the terms fade into obscurity, so too will our Indo community, our Indo identity, our Indo culture, and our authenticity. The term 'Indisch' holds significant importance in our cultural identity, representing our unique heritage that originated in the former Dutch East Indies. 



'Preserving the term Indisch authenticates our cultural identity' 


Add comment


Vera Passage
7 months ago

'Preserving the term Indisch authenticates our cultural identity' : I agree

Andrea Matthies
7 months ago

On my recent trip back to the Netherlands, I became aware of this issue, as well as other issues that are currently on the table in regards to the decolonization movement. This issue was specifically troubling to me. An issue that I can even say disturbed my sleep! I think your article is spot on, and you couldn’t have nailed feelings that I share on the head any better. Thank you for opening this conversation to the English speaking Indische world. I especially enjoyed learning about the other cultures around the world that I was formerly unaware of. Keep up the good work as a standout contributor to Indo specific content for us native English speakers! Terima Kasih my Indische broer!