The symbolic end of the Great Dutch colonial dream

The year is 1931. The Netherlands participates extensively in the International Colonial Exhibition (IKT) in Paris from May-November 1931. This was the opportunity to show off the "progress of Western civilization in the colonies and mandate areas" *. However, it does not end well for the Netherlands.

The Dutch showpiece by the IKT was “the idyllic unity of the Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies”. This was visible in the disgusting architectural fusion of the Indonesian and Dutch architectural styles of the enormous Dutch pavilion, according to Indonesian experts. Somewhere in a corner were the entries from the West, including Surinamese fruits, which, according to the Nieuwe Tilburgsche Courant, were very popular with the approximately 5 million visitors.

The cost of the pavilion, taking inflation into account, was between USD 20-25. Remarkable since the world was in a deep economic crisis. Apparently money wasn't an issue. Neither the tensions within the colonial relationship nor the actions against the IKT of the International League against Imperialism prevented The Hague from staging this theatrical grand Dutch colonial spectacle.

On the night of June 28, 1931, the Dutch pavilion burned to the ground. The next day, all that remained of the colonial unity dream was a smoking roast and blackened wood. But worse was the fact that irreplaceable art treasures belonging to the Dutch colonies were reduced to ashes.

Was the fire started by anti-imperialists or was it an accident? This question has remained unanswered. One day after the fire, the Netherlands decided to build a simplified version of the pavilion with money from insurance and donors, including Queen Wilhelmina. According to The Hague, the rebuilding was a true success story of “the Dutch perseverance”.

Others see the tragic fate of the Dutch pavilion as the symbolic end of “Dutch civilization” in Indonesia and in exposing how the Netherlands dealt with the proceeds of the thefts and murders committed against the Indonesian people on display in Paris.

Willemstad, Curaçao

* Possessions in Africa and Asia belonging to the defeated World War I powers, placed under the mandate of several victors by the League of Nations.

Alex David Rosaria (53) is a freelance consultant active in Asia & Pacific. He is a former Member of Parliament, Minister of Economic Affairs, State Secretary of Finance and UN Implementation Officer in Africa and Central America. He’s from Curaçao and has a MBA from the University of Iowa. (USA).

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