Negotiating Modernity: Europeanness in Late Colonial Indonesia, 1910-1942


Bart Luttikhuis

PhD defended at: 

European University Institute



The ‘European’ was a central figure of colonial history, occupying a pivotal position in the social hierarchy. Colonial rulers tended to (self-)identify as ‘European’, rather than as ‘White’ or by national denominators such as ‘Dutch’ or ‘British’. This thesis examines various groups of colonial actors in the late colonial Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia)—administrators, non-governmental elites, lower class Europeans, as well as diverse Indonesian actors—in order to analyse what each of them associated with being ‘European’ in the colony.

It is argued that the historiography dealing with differentiating practices in colonial Indonesia has tended to overstate the importance of racial delineations. As a result, it has become a widely accepted truism that colonial societies were obsessed with defining a clear dichotomy between ‘ruler and ‘ruled’, or ‘European’ and ‘Native’. In fact, as this thesis demonstrates, colonial actors actually preferred to think in many shades of grey. The inclusivity of the ‘European’ group was frequently adjusted and re-imagined, stressing either its exclusivity or inclusivity depending on the context. The consequence of this was what this thesis calls the ‘Indisch dream’: a powerful promise, however elusive in practice, of a shot at social mobility. This is not to say that colonialism was an open system offering opportunity to all alike. Hierarchization was rigid and often highly oppressive. Nevertheless, those on the lower rungs of society actually came to see themselves as stakeholders in the very system that kept them in line. The Indisch dream is thus an important factor in explaining the surprising stability and longevity of the late colonial state in its final decades.

In making the Indisch dream an attractive prospect to colonial ‘subalterns’, the discursive link between ‘Europeanness’ and ‘modernity’ was crucial. In the late colonial period, colonial actors from all walks of life became preoccupied with ‘being modern’. While a small minority of Indonesians advocated an autonomous Indonesian modernity (independent of ‘Europe’ and its colonial representatives), the ‘colonial European’ model held greater promise for the majority. Striving to become a ‘European’ in late colonial Indonesia was therefore ultimately an exercise in living a form of modern life that was at once rigidly hierarchical and oppressive, but also self-consciously ‘multi-cultural’. To present-day eyes, such a model of ‘modernity’ may well be viewed as highly suspect. Nonetheless, it is vital to appreciate that it has played an integral role in shaping twentieth-century notions of both ‘modernity’ and ‘Europeanness’.