Literature serves as witness itself

Literature may deal with historical events, and in dealing with them, relate these to a present, which is not only the present of the moment of publishing but any moment of reading. In this respect literature can not only present us with witnesses but also serve as a witness itself.

One story that was published in 1956 may prove the point, "The jewelled hair-comb"[1] In the story, Dutch author Maria Dermôut dealt with an uprising that took place in colonial times in the Dutch Indies. In the Napoleonic era the Dutch had temporarily lost control of the Indies to the advantage of the English. Of course, the balance of power shifted again after Napoleon’s defeat. English rule, under Raffles, had been less harsh than Dutch rule, however, and had provided several Indonesian peoples with forms of autonomy. When the Dutch returned they wanted to make clear that they were in charge again and did so with little respect for what had changed meanwhile. As a result there was an uprising under the leadership of an Ambon born leader, called Thomas Matoelesía, or Matulessey, who was better known under his resistance name of Pattimura. After a successful start on his part, and after severe battles, he was caught and executed as a sure sign of the restoration of Dutch rule. His corps was left rotting in a cage. The battles and execution were important news at the time, but the execution more or less concluded the story and decided the consequent irrelevance of Pattimura to the Dutch audience.

My question is twofold: why did Dermôut decide to take up the history again in the fifties of the twentieth century; and how can the story still function in terms of witnessing for us, today? As for Dermoût, one reason may have been that, in the light of Indonesia’s uprising and newly won freedom, Pattimura had become one of the great figures in Indonesian history (and has remained so until this day, becoming an icon on the 1000 rupiah banknote billet of the newly designed national paper money). More directly, within the Dutch context, there were reasons to consider this historical figure from the Moluccas in particular. A substantial number of military men who had served in the Dutch colonial army had been recruited from the Moluccas. With their families they were forced to come to the Netherlands after Indonesia’s independence. They had not received a hearty welcome, however. The families were mostly hosted in fenced enclosures, sometimes even former concentration camps left by the Germans after the Second World War. Within this set of historical complexities, Dermôut’s story has a witness to Pattimura’s execution as its main character. Moreover, the theme of witnessing, and of rhetorically turning away, structures the story in its entirety. In this respect it has lost little of its relevance and its effects are not restricted to the fifties of the twentieth century. The story speaks and acts rhetorically, aesthetically and politically now, for anybody caring to be addressed by it, when reading it.

Note 1: Original title: De juwelen haarkam. I will use the version that was taken up in Dermoût’s Verzameld werk (Collected Works).

Frans-Willem Korsten