The government of the Netherlands has agreed to return hundreds of cultural objects that were taken from Indonesia during its 350-year colonial rule over the archipelago, the latest step that it has made to address the legacies of the Dutch colonial era.
In a statement yesterday, the Dutch government announced that it would be returning 478 objects of cultural significance to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Among the objects that will be officially returned is the “Lombok treasure,” a collection of 335 gold and silver items plundered by Dutch troops from the Indonesian island of Lombok in 1894. Also included are four statues from Singasari, a Javanese Hindu kingdom located in east Java in the thirteenth century, a sacred dagger (keris) from Klungkung in Bali, and 132 objects of modern art from the island, known as the Pita Maha collection.
The seizure of these items, whose return was requested by the Indonesian government last year, was directly connected with the violent extension of Dutch rule over the archipelago. The Lombok treasures were looted after colonial troops put down a rebellion on the island that involved the destruction of the royal palace on the island and the massacre of hundreds of troops.
“The objects were wrongfully brought to the Netherlands during the colonial period, acquired under duress or by looting,” the Dutch government said in its statement.
The decision to return the items was made by Secretary of State for Culture and Media Gunay Uslu on the recommendation of the Dutch government’s Advisory Committee on the Return of Cultural Objects from Colonial Context, which “is now considering further requests from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Nigeria.”
The Dutch government said that it will also return a handful of items that were plundered from Sri Lanka, including a lavishly adorned cannon that was once used by the king of Kandy. The cannon is believed to have fallen into Dutch hands in 1765, when Dutch troops attacked and conquered the kingdom in the Sri Lankan highlands.
The artifacts, which will be transferred to Indonesian ownership in Leiden on July 10, are currently in the collections of the National Museum of World Cultures and the Rijksmuseum.
In the statement, Uslu described the announcement as a “historic moment” for the Netherlands. “It’s the first time we’re following recommendations of the Committee to give back objects that should never have been brought to the Netherlands,” he said. “But more than anything, it’s a moment to look to the future. We’re not only returning objects; we’re also embarking on a period of closer cooperation with Indonesia and Sri Lanka in areas like collection research, presentation, and exchanges between museums.”
The announcement is the latest in a series of moves that the Netherlands has made in recent years to atone for the colonial dictatorship that it established over the Dutch East Indies. In May, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the Netherlands “recognizes fully and without reservation” that Indonesia gained independence on August 17, 1945, when Indonesian revolutionaries declared their independence from colonial rule. Until then, the Netherlands had recognized Indonesia’s independence as taking place on December 27, 1949, when the official transfer of sovereignty took place.
The shift, while symbolic, acknowledges the legitimacy of the four-year war that Indonesian revolutionaries waged against the Dutch after World War II, which killed an estimated 100,000 Indonesians, compared with only about 5,300 on the Dutch side.
The Netherlands first issued a general apology for the mass killings carried out by its troops in Indonesia in 2013, and subsequently commissioned a report into the independence war, which found that the Dutch state condoned the systematic use of extrajudicial executions and torture. The publication of the report in January of last year prompted Rutte to apologize to Indonesia for the “excessive violence” employed by the Dutch.
“I make a deep apology to the people of Indonesia today for the systematic and widespread extreme violence by the Dutch side in those years and the consistent looking away by previous cabinets,” Rutte said at the time. In a number of rulings, Dutch courts have also ordered the Netherlands to pay compensation to the relatives of the victims of Dutch wartime violence.
There is probably nothing that the Netherlands, and other European colonial powers, can do fully to atone for decades of exploitative and predatory rule. But the repatriation of precious and culturally significant objects seized under duress would appear to be a good start.