‘Revolusi’ by David Van Reybrouck review

Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World by David Van Reybrouck brings Southeast Asia’s ‘invisible revolution’ into the light.

Sukarno addresses a rally in Makassar, 1940. Bettmann/Getty Images.

‘The apologies for the history of slavery and the police actions, as made by the king, will be withdrawn.’ So promised the Netherlands’ right-wing firebrand lawmaker Geert Wilders ahead of the country’s 2023 election. On this subject, Wilders is no far-right outlier. Early in Revolusi, David Van Reybrouck quotes a YouGov poll from 2019 which found that 50 per cent of Dutch respondents were proud of the country’s colonial past – vastly more than the British at 32 per cent or the French at 26 per cent. Van Reybrouck, a Belgian historian who explored his own country’s colonial legacy in 2010’s Congo, notes that 23 per cent of respondents from Belgium were proud of that history. The horrors that the Netherlands unleashed on Indonesia are hardly unique in Europe’s history of imperialism. Why are the Dutch so much prouder than their European cousins?

Call it the ‘VOC mentality’ says Van Reybrouck. The Dutch East Indies were not initially conquered by the Dutch Crown. Rather it was the Dutch East India Company (known by its Dutch initials) that first sailed to the archipelago in the early 1600s on the hunt for the natural resources such as spices and (later) rubber that would make it a corporate giant. For three centuries the VOC – and then the Netherlands itself – fed off Indonesia.

It’s often been said that Indonesia is the world’s largest ‘invisible country’. If that’s true, the revolution beginning in 1945 must surely be the most consequential ‘invisible revolution’ of the last hundred years. Where and when it began, exactly, is difficult to pin down. Nationalism in Indonesia has deep and varied roots, but most scholars – and Indonesians – point to the Sumpah Pemuda, or Youth Pledge, announced at the Second Youth Congress of October 1928 as a decisive moment. Through the pledge, still commemorated annually, attendees committed to ‘one motherland’, ‘one nation’ and ‘one language’. It would take nearly 20 years and a Japanese occupation before an independent state was declared by founding president Sukarno in 1945. The Netherlands, however, had little interest in giving up its Asian colony. In jungle battles and UN meeting rooms it fought for years to keep a grip on Indonesia. How it came to have that grip is a story centuries in the making.

Van Reybrouck explains the complicated social strata of the Dutch East Indies in the prewar era by drawing an analogy with a (then) famous steamship tragedy. In 1936 the Van der Wijck steamboat, a shuttle service running between Batavia (now Jakarta) and Makassar in Sulawesi, was sunk off the north coast of Java. The boat, says Van Reybrouck, was a lively microcosm of colonial society. Europeans enjoyed the top deck, non-white foreigners and Indos (mixed-race Indonesian-Europeans) jostled for space on the second, while native Indonesians suffered in cramped conditions on the third. The Van der Wijck tragedy suggests why so many stories remain missing from Indonesia’s history: the names of those on the lowest deck were simply never recorded.

The deck motif is revisited repeatedly throughout the book as Van Reybrouck traces the changing fortunes of colonial society as war erupts first in Europe and then in the Pacific. Imperial Japan won, comprehensively, across Asia, earning a reputation for brutality and depravity in the process. Japan’s occupation of Indonesia is always considered a major turning point in Indonesia’s march towards independence but, unlike previous works, Van Reybrouck considers it alongside the Netherland’s own wartime experience.

If Indonesian nationalists had hoped the Netherlands’ own terrible foreign occupation might change its attitude towards its foreign possessions, they were mistaken. As Van Reybrouck writes: ‘What seemed inevitable in Jakarta remained incomprehensible in the Hague.’ That road only reached its end proper last year. For nearly 80 years, Indonesia celebrated its independence as coming on 17 August 1945, the day Sukarno proclaimed a free Indonesia for Indonesians. Until last June – when then-prime minister Mark Rutte declared ‘we see the proclamation as a historical fact’ – the Netherlands had officially marked it instead as coming on 27 December 1949, the date the Dutch abandoned sovereignty claims. It’s on those intervening four years – in which the Netherlands waged an increasingly hopeless war across the archipelago – that Revolusi is at its most compelling.

To write the book Van Reybrouck spent more than five years touring nursing homes across Indonesia and the Netherlands, recording memories of the revolutionary era. Relying on word of mouth, he found many otherwise anonymous Indonesians whose participation in key revolutionary events both in Indonesia and in the Netherlands has not led to their names being added to those that adorn roads and airports across the country. One of them, Raden Mas Djajeng Pratomo, was born into local royalty in Sumatra in 1914 and became (by his reckoning) the only Indonesian interned at Dachau concentration camp. Van Reybrouck meets him as a 102-year-old in a nursing home in Callantsoog, north Holland, where he describes the revolution succinctly: ‘Such a confusing mess!’

As for Indonesia’s relationship with its former coloniser, we might detect something akin to ‘colonial schadenfreude’. Compared with the English in Malaysia, or the French in Cambodia, the Dutch seem to have vanished. Indonesia cast off its colonial shackles quickly, spending much of the remaining 20th century veering between political and economic crises, culminating in the 1998 removal of Suharto. You could say the world’s fourth largest country has been too busy to be preoccupied with the legacy of its occupation beyond, perhaps, the odd reflection that while it is now a major player in an increasingly important region, the Netherlands is anything but.

  • Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World
    David Van Reybrouck, translated by David Colmer and David McKay
    Bodley Head, 656pp, £30
    Buy from bookshop.org (affiliate link)


Erin Cook is a journalist based in Jakarta. She writes about Southeast Asia at Dari Mulut ke Mulut and The Diplomat.