Images of the Indonesian War of Independence 1945-1949

On 17 August 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed the Republic of Indonesia. On 27 December 1949, the Netherlands handed over sovereignty. These two events were separated by more than four years of extremely difficult negotiations and bitter warfare. In Indonesia, this period is known as the Indonesian Revolution, a time in which the country’s independence was defended against the former colonial power and a new state was created. In the Netherlands, the former colonial power in question, the whole period was for a long time referred to using the euphemism ‘police actions’. In recent years, it has been termed a ‘war’: the Dutch government spoke in 2005 of a “war on the wrong side of history”. There is no question that it was a war, with a huge disparity in the numbers of victims on the two sides. The Indonesians suffered more than 100,000 fatalities, both combatants and civilians, while the Dutch army lost about 5,000, roughly one third of whom were Indonesian troops.


Not only were there big differences in casualty numbers, but there was also a sharp contrast in opinions on the legitimacy of the Proclamation (Proklamasi) on that day in August and the return of the Dutch after the Japanese occupation of more than three years. Fundamentally opposing views were accompanied by conflicting images of ‘the enemy’ and its intentions, reliability and methods, whether in battle or at the negotiating table. Of course there were also instances of mutual understanding and regret and gestures of reconciliation, both during the war and, even more so, after it ended. But much of the framing during the war (which in turn built on a long history of colonialism) still lives on today.



One reason for this is the nature of the sources that were produced during the war. Sources are never neutral. They are the product of people’s actions and therefore reflect what the people who created those sources thought was important, what they said and left unsaid, what they did or did not feel and understand, and how they judged matters. The challenge for us today in understanding those sources from the period 1945 to 1949 is to study a sufficiently broad range of sources and take nothing in them for granted. This exercise can help make the war less incomprehensible. It can also create the space to appreciate how different people’s views were, even back then, on what was happening and who was responsible.


Archives and libraries have formed the traditional habitat of the historian, but modern historical research also encompasses sources in other kinds of collections and environments. Moreover, new sources are being created with oral history. The Special Collections department of Leiden University Library has an extensive collection of unique sources dealing with Dutch colonialism, collected in part by the KITLV. This exhibition shows a selection of that material covering the war years in Indonesia, 1945-1949. The material not only gives an impression of the war but also shows how divergent people’s perspectives were at the time. This modest exhibition is therefore also an invitation to everyone to reflect on the limitations of their own frame.


Gert Oostindie



This image is a representation of a jinn (genie) from the story in A Thousand and One Nights in which Aladdin obtains a lamp containing a genie who fulfils all the wishes of the Arab prince. In the poster, the genie is represented as a means to achieve Dutch imperial domination, as indicated by the Dutch flag. The person in green clothes who rides the genie represents the Dutch capitalists who benefited from Indonesian plantations. At first sight, the hat the Dutch planter is wearing seems like a military helmet, but a closer look shows that it can be identified as a topi mandor, an overseer’s hat. This headgear was usually worn by native foremen who supervised native workers on European plantations, and who could punish them at will. The green colour of the hat is intended to signal the desire of the Dutch capitalists and the Dutch army to jointly regain control of Indonesia, if necessary by the use of violence and terror.



‘Flying Dutchman’. One of a set of 13 sheets of original Indonesian drawings used as designs for propaganda posters. C.1947. Watercolour on stiff paper. Or. 27.649.



Muhammad Yuanda Zara