Saving History

Documents


By Ida Indawati Khouw, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta.History may be the most boring subject at school. But how many students here realize that a building in South Jakarta preserves an abundance of archives, totalling about 2.5 km in length, detailing the activities of Dutch trading company VOC?

The building, officially called The National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia (Arsip National Republik Indonesia or ANRI), is located on Jl.Ampera, South Jakarta. Its collections are part of 25 million pages ofVOC records worldwide. VOC stands for Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, a trading company that ruled Indonesia from 1619 until 1799. The records were scattered in Batavia (old Jakarta, which was the VOC’s headquarters), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Chennai (India), Cape Town (South Africa) and The Hague (the Netherlands).

After the VOC were bankrupted in 1799, control of what is now Indonesia was passed to the Dutch colonial government till Independence was declared in 1945. ANRI’s collections include records of the VOC’s journal of daily activities in Batavia (dagregister), resolutions and correspondence, including its trading activities following ship arrivals, ship loading, reports on military expeditions and career promotions of the company’s officials.

Unfortunately, the secret treasures are threatened by the ravages of time and climate, and are also endangered by inappropriate storage conditions. Some have become discoloured or been subject to fungal attack, and are vulnerable even when simply touched. This situation is made worse by the fact that very few people know about the VOC.

“The problem is we have no experts on the VOC so far. Even in the Netherlands itself the number of specialists is less than 10 people,” said Mona Lohanda, ANRI’s researcher and archivist.

“Researchers must not only master palaeography but also have knowledge of countries where VOC conducted business. It was a multinational company with an extensive business network,” said the woman, who is also historian of the University of Indonesia.

Reading the handwriting is another problem. The journal writers often used expressions or loaned words from other languages. It caused inconsistencies and

MARCH 2004

bastardisation as they mixed it with Dutch. As an example, they wrote Siri instead of Sri (honorific royal title) or put Zepoh instead of Sepuh when referring to the sultan of Cirebon (in West Java).

“Such a state of affairs can easily trap scholars into being misled,” said Mona, who is now working on the dagregister.

“The journal could be a priceless source for those studying the VOC era. And, apart from difficulties in reading documents, there is also a lack of funding aid,” she said.
The efforts of salvaging the heritage are in progress, such as human resource training and the transliteration process.
“It’s a gigantic project; maybe it won’t have been completed by the time I die,” Mona said.
But one day in June, Dutch historian Hendrik E. Niemeijer told The Jakarta Post about his hope that young VOC experts would appear after joining a Leiden- based UNESCO-mandated program on cooperative training and research, focusing on the archives of the trading company.

“After participating in the training, I really hope scholars will dig out the great collections of the archives, of which Indonesia has the greatest part. As of now only a few experts can read the handwriting. Thus, most of the heritage remains untouched,” said Niemeijer, the historian from Leiden University, The Netherlands. Now there are two visiting archival counsellors from the Algemeen Rijksarchief (the National Archives of the Netherlands) in The Hague, Louisa Balk and Frans van Dijk. They are identifying, categorizing and digital- database-processing the archives. They are also training 13 ANRI archivists. Still, their efforts have been challenged, as some parties oppose such preservation, said ANRI’s deputy for archive conservation Djoko Utomo.

They have referred to the Dutch colonization as a dark era; therefore there was no need to maintain all the archives.

But Djoko disagreed. “Archives show everything that occurred in society. VOC archives also say something about us. That is therefore our common heritage,” he said. Hopefully, in the long run all the data scattered at many countries will be saved in a digital database. “So far we have completed 3,600 items,” said Balk, who together with van Dijk and ANRI’s employees, started the work last May. 

Official Newsletter of the VOC HIstorical Society Inc.


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