Stolwijk’s Problem on Discursive Coloniality


Book Review: Anton Stolwijk, 2021. Aceh: Kisah Datang dan Terusirnya Belanda dan Jejak Yang Ditinggalkan, Jakarta: Yayasan Pustaka Obor.

Anton Stolwijk’s book received dynamic responses in the world of the academics and common readers. First published in Dutch in 2016 titled Atjeh: het verhaal van de bloedigste strijd uit de nederlandse koloniale geschiedenis (Atjeh: the Story of the bloodiest struggle in Dutch colonial history) and in Indonesian 5 years later, the book continues to attract significant number of audiences and critics.

The reactions from Indonesian academic and common readers are predictably similar, except the extent of the critics has gone wild to the level of the word ‘trash’ has been used to characterize the book. The critics variedly come from Acehnese independent non-profit civil organizations to the social media influencer.

The book consists of 26 chapters, elaborated within 233 pages, exclusive of references and images appendices. Periodical narratives span between the 1873 to the final colonial withdrawal in 1942.

The author travelled to Sabang, Greater Aceh, West and Middle Aceh within 7 years. Multidisciplinary approach where oral memories, archival materials, ethnographic observation, and popular investigative journalism are the methodology that consistently drawn throughout the book.

Since the post independent era, this is perhaps the first kind of work that dive into the connection between the living memory of generational colonial victims and archival resources of colonial war in Indonesia. Reading this book felt like watching a noir movie played in a flashback that flip between the story and settings, back and forth, throughout the times.

Despite such an impressive effort, this book contains several points that worth further attention and debate.

The Return of Historical Pseudo-science?

Bonnie Triyana, a director of describes in his foreword that the work is ‘like a live report from the past’. I couldn’t agree more with that statement. It is true that the 7 years effort to tailor narratives has looked like a return of 19th century pseudo-scientific travelogues where commonality surrounded native bashing found a fit with author’s high sense of culture and intellects. In the essence, one of pseudo-scientific characters in social sciences discipline has often included prejudices and selective amnesia as its departing ground, especially when dealing with certain race and religion. This book has done a similar way.

Before going into fitting the archival narratives, the author takes the readers into the current development and the ironic reality of the Acehnese. It followed with the author’s ‘honest’ perception comparing it between the past and the present. Prejudices, fallacy arguments, premature investigations, race and religious bias, Marxist centric, and double standards illuminate the flow of the analysis.

Prejudice, fallacy, and premature investigations are seen for instance, when the author inserted that the triggers of Dutch aggression are the decline of power and the absurdities of the Sultanate (p.12). This statement includes a quote that raise doubt on the gender of the 17th century ruling queen who was highlighted as a man imposter (p. 5).

Other example is throwing irresponsible suspicion of thievery to the late prominent noble Harun Keuchik Leumik with whom he was granted interviews at his home. The former who has been known as savior of tangible heritage, including the coin heritage (p.10) is a suspect in the eye of the author. Furthermore, in chapter 20, the writer accused the genealogical construction of the latest leader of the rebels, the Tiro, as a lie. Significant deliveries on what backed up his accusation have not been provided.

The other problem is race and religious bias such as reflected in chapter 2 and 8.  The narrative on a habib al Zahir in chapter 2 shows right wing orientalist bias towards the Arab. The history of the habib has been the consumption of lovers and haters based on his surrender. But smearing him as merely being a womanizer, money maker, and fame-obsessed are the arabophobe characteristic of colonial orientalist thoughts. There are a pack of scholars who are keen in repeating the eyes of Snouck Hurgronje, if the encounter is the rival subject of the former Dutch East Indies.

Habib’s marriages are bound to the maritime family system that tended to happen to any long voyage traveler. The marriage as a status and commitment was what differed the social legitimacy. There are no sources mentioning the abuse, abandonment, or divorce of wives. No evidence clarifies that he cheated for money or exposed strategy for fame indulgent.

In Chapter 8, on topic of poets and jihad, the narratives trace through the journey in finding a meaning of Dayah Tanoh Abee during the period of anti-colonialism. Again, it was not a surprise to find a typical right wing orientalist inheritable knowledge on the holy spirit of war and sacred places. In addition, it was not only problematic on the psychological analysis of a poet of hikayat prang sabi and the evolution of people’s innovation towards the dayah, but also the inherited obsession on the fetish ideas of fairies for the martyrs.

Applauder of the good side of colonialism 

The highlights from Chapter 12 to chapter 21 emphasized on the good side of colonialism. Peace and betrayal of Teuku Umar and Cut Nyak Dhien are linked to the debt of honor, that the Dutch has given enormous material pleasure and security while ended up betrayed.  Newspapers were the major sources used to retrieve information on how the Dutch in the capital perceived the issue. On the other hand, the author skipped to learn that Teuku Umar’s letter signified systematic islamophobia-racial problem of belonging that lead to his betrayal decision.

Moreover, the focus on Cut Nyak Dhien was on Dutch noble charity for giving eye surgery, elaborating that her pitiful sacrifice of struggle was paid with the death of husbands and the loss of property. Narratives on the infamous erratic Dutch governance policy that may impact the situation is significantly ignored.

The similar tone is in chapter 17 on the surrender of the last Sultan. Highlight on what the Dutch gave to the Sultan including houses, monthly pension and a well treatment are the keys. An implicit comparison was made between Acehnese who now has forgotten the contribution and legacy of the last Sultan with the Dutch treatment on the latter when he was alive, which is improper to conduct due to the nature of huge gap of time span between the past and the present.

In Chapter 16 the reflection of debt of honor through the increasing progress on industrial establishment in Aceh is highlighted. In this chapter, the flow of narratives surrounds the natural resources in Aceh.  The author contrasted it with the Dutch imperial policy that sucked dry Sumatra’s oil which was in great demand in Europe.

Only in this chapter the Acehnese was not described as problematic but a peace welcoming people in non-warring newly ‘discovered’ area. However, the author neglects to comment on the Dutch exploitation of oil and systematically excluded the local from the development. This is the reason why the local population that originally possessed the oil were left with poverty and famine.

From Chapter 18 to 26, the narrative highlights the policy of “One Bullet One Cow”, as the author relied on the testimony of Let. J. Kempees, is a rule imposed on the village whose local launched shot at the convoy. It means one died soldier must be repaid with one cow. The sanction for inability to provide was the killing of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children and the detailed number of burnt villages, tampered with the colonial-constructive mental policy and image making through the experimental hospital in Sabang and the Psychic Acehnese killings as revealed in chapter 22. The tone in this section seems like an awakening but is not enough to frame the approach to the overall position.

Due to the approach of the book is popular historical journalism, clearly, there is a little effort being given for a more balance dynamic extensive scrutiny of the limited sources used. This has become additional reason to believe the increasing critics against Eurocentric historical narratives of Southeast Asia, such as delivered by Farish A Noor (2018:16) who believes that eurocentrism aims at raising power influence of colonial legacy, not at the goal of tackling colonialities. So, right here, is the Stolwijk’s problem of coloniality in discourse that must be admitted and transformed.


 References: Noor. A. Farish, 2018. America’s Encounters with Southeast Asia, 1800-1900: Before the Pivot, Australia: Amsterdam University Press.


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