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Collection Scope and Content Note


The Niels Alexander Douwes Dekker Papers, in the Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cornell University Library, is a unique photographic and textual resource for investigating peoples and events in the Netherlands East Indies during the final decades of colonial rule. It comprises over eight thousand photographic positives, many with negatives, together with unpublished manuscripts, copies of Government Information Service (RVD) bulletins and news releases, and related materials including police reports, troop commands, and miscellaneous correspondence. The photographs and documents of indigenous folkways and rituals provide a cultural setting for the tumultuous political events of the era. The collection affords a rare glimpse into diverse aspects of life throughout the archipelago, as well as into the political milieu and events during a critical period in modern Indonesian history.

The Cornell University Library acquired the collection from Niels Alexander Douwes Dekker in 1973. Dekker, a great-grandnephew of Multatuli (Edward Douwes Dekker - author of the classic novel of life in the colonial Netherlands East Indies, Max Havelaar), was born in Batavia on May 26, 1911. He began his education in Bandung and later studied architecture in Delft and in the Hague. As a professional photographer, artist, filmmaker, essayist, and public relations specialist, Douwes Dekker at one time served as head of the Netherlands East Indies Visual Information Service. A portion of the photographs taken by Douwes Dekker and members of his staff appear in his book Tanah Air Kita (1951. The Hague: J W. Van Hoeve, Ltd.).

That volume, with modifications in the accompanying illustrations and commentary, was published in Dutch, Indonesian, and English. Tanah Air Kita depicted the lives and cultures of the peoples of the new nation of Indonesia, and conveyed Douwes Dekker's vision of that country's heterogeneity through a wide array of photographs. Yet the volume features a fraction of the photographs in the collection. Absent, for example, are photographs of Indonesia's revolution, which had ended only a few years before the book's publication. Douwes Dekker's decision to exclude these images was undoubtedly due to his political sensitivity which later led him to select Cornell as the repository for his collection. In the Cornell University Library it could not be monopolized by a single faction. As part of the premier American research unit on Southeast Asia, the John M. Echols Collection, a large number of researchers' access to the materials could be assured. The Echols Collection annually draws Indonesia specialists who use the facilities associated with the Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, an internationally recognized center for modern language and area studies.

The themes suggested by the content of the Douwes Dekker collection reflect the complex cultures of the Netherlands East Indies and major events in modern Indonesian history, as well as the predilections of the photographer and his contemporaries. The 9.8 cu. ft. of photographs and documents include the strikingly diverse photographic material, positives and negatives, both film and glass, of outstanding quality, privately-printed reports in the political situation and on various aspects of local culture, and newspaper and journal clippings. This variety will make the collection especially attractive to scholars whose research interests focus upon the lesser known peoples and cultures of the eastern islands. In addition to a wide array of images from Bali, Java, and Sumatra, nearly 10% of the photographs are diverse scenes of daily life, including house and boat building, subsistence agricultural techniques, and indigenous arts and dances in islands which include Ambon, Buru, Flores, Halmaheira, Lomblen, Rote (Roti), Sumba, Sumbawa, Ternate, Tidore, Timor, as well as from various parts of Borneo, New Guinea, and Sulawesi.

Douwes Dekker had a special interest in documenting the religious life of Netherlands East Indies peoples in connection with his photographic essay on death rituals. Nearly 260 photographs in the collection are about mortuary practices of the peoples of Borneo, Sulawesi, Bali and other islands. While some were taken by Douwes Dekker himself, many were produced under his direction by staff members of the Visual Information Service and by others who shared his interest in local cultures. These images constitute an anthropologically valuable record of indigenous religious celebrations as they were performed in the 1940's, and thereby provide a rich source of data to investigate changes in ritual forms.

A case in point are the photographs of tiwah, a sumptuous celebration which constitutes the climax of the ritual for the dead among Ngaju Dayaks, a tribal people of southern Borneo (now the Province of Central Kalimantan). These elaborate and complex mortuary observances of the Ngaju have long been of interest to anthropologists, colonial administrators, and missionaries. F. Grabowsky's 1899 article on "Der Tod, das Begräbnis, das Tiwah oder Totenfest bei den Djaken (The Death, the Burial, the Tiwah or Death Festival Among the Dyaks)" ( Internationales Archiv fur Ethnographie 2:177-204), features detailed pencil sketches of death edifices and of particular moments in the mortuary celebrations. This was the major ethnographic source utilized by R. Hertz in his classic essay on secondary burial entitled Contribution à une Etude sur la Representation Collective de la Mort (R. Hertz, 1960 [orig. 1907], Death and The Right Hand, translated by C. and R. Heedham, Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press). The rituals received even more extensive treatment in Hans Scharer's renowned study Die Gottesidee der Ngaju-Dajak in Süd-Borneo, based upon data gathered during Scharer's lengthy service as a missionary in Borneo prior to independence. Despite the centrality of death rituals to his analysis of the Ngaju concept of God and the inclusion of closely related images, the illustrations in Scharer's volume do not depict actual performances of tiwah. The photographs in Douwes Dekker's collection provide nearly complete documentation of the climatic moments of tiwah as it was enacted during a period roughly contemporaneous with Scharer's research.

The photographs of Ngaju death ritual were taken by W. van Boggelen, a member of Douwes Dekker's staff, in collaboration with C. Pompe, a film reporter employed by Multifilm Batavia. The celebration documented was a tiwah enacted in a Kapuas River village in 1947. The examination of these images invites comparisons of former ritual practices with contemporary celebrations. Such comparisons raise provocative questions concerning the similarities and differences between ritual observances past and present and the dynamics of change that occasion the evolution of ritual forms. In the Ngaju case the broad outlines of modern death rituals and those depicted in van Boggelin's work are similar. Nevertheless, inspection of the photographs reveals what may be significant departures from contemporary practices. Apparently in many parts of Central Kalimantan today, ritual specialists are exclusively male. Yet the photographs in the Douwes Dekker collection feature both male and female ritual specialists. Whereas the photographs from the 1940's depict only men engaged in mortuary dances and ritual sacrifice, present-day male and female mourners participate side by side in most aspects of ritual celebrations. These apparent modifications in ritual practices open avenues of inquiry that may lead to a better understanding of the social contexts in which Ngaju mortuary celebrations were and are enacted. It is certain that the photographs of the rituals of other ethnic groups represented in the collection will be found useful by scholars interested in these cultures.

Another 34% percent of the collection, comprising almost 3,000 photographs from Bali, Java, Madura, and Sumatra, depict subsistence techniques, home industry, mining and other industries, oil palm plantations, and dance and ritual. There is a small subcollection of 170 rare photographs of Batavia, capital of the Netherlands East Indies, dating from around 1900.

Of particular note are photographs depicting the social and political situation on Java and Sumatra during the 1940's. These comprise about 37% percent of the volume of the collection. With the close of that decade Douwes Dekker and his colleagues found themselves in the midst of a war of independence, the events and climate of which they tried to document. These arresting images document demonstrations and parades, the banners and slogans of political parties (particularly the now-banned Indonesian Communist Party), court-martials, public executions, troop drills, and military operations. Atrocities committed during the struggle, particularly those inflicted upon the Chinese population, are depicted, as are conditions in internment camps for Europeans and the living conditions of Indonesian evacutees. Many photographic reproductions of propaganda distributed during the Japanese occupation are included in the collection. There are also portraits of key figures in modern Indonesian history and photographs of wartime conferences. Interspersed with the photographs are reports and manuscripts, many of which were confidential or intended for restricted access when they were written. These describe the underground operations of the independence movement, colonial intelligence, smuggling operations, and the creation of Indonesian regional states. Probably the majority of these items have not appeared in print.

In a recent letter to Anne Schiller concerning the history of his photograph collection (June 12, 1988), Douwes Dekker described the atmosphere when the Visual Information Service Office closed at the end of the war, and the fate which awaited the bulk of the photographs; "I took thousands of pictures and made the arrangements for the taking of tens of thousands more. The Pacific war blew away ninety percent and the chaos of the revolution blew away the remnants of official and private collections. The end of 1949 was characterized by a nervousness rising to panic due to a fear that the nationalists would persecute fellow Indonesians who had been cooperative with the Dutch. This led to a general action to wipe out all possible traces that could be considered as compromising. My Indonesian and Indo-Chinese personnel informed me that they wanted to get rid of the pictorial material by burning. I was compelled to accept boxes of unsorted and mostly uncaptioned materials as personal belongings." Douwes Dekker's method of salvaging as many images as possible accounts for the disordered state of the collection when it reached Cornell.

In an effort to enhance researchers' access, basic arrangement of the collection was carried out by members of the Manuscripts and University Archives staff during the 1987-88 academic year. The items were systematically organized by a geographical and topical arrangement based upon the one used by Douwes Dekker in Tanah Air Kita. Major categories of photographs were established. Some images were identified by captions written in Dutch or Indonesian, and translations were provided where appropriate. Other images were identified by comparison with similar photographs in the collection. Some were identified as a result of references contained in the manuscripts and printed materials. The remaining photographs, to the extent possible, were identified by their subject content, by their historical context, or by specific individuals or places. The assistance of Indonesian and American scholars both within and outside Cornell was extremely helpful. There are also related categories of textual material. The arrangement of the items is intended to provide general access. Researchers are encouraged to inspect as many as many as possible of the photographs pertaining to their area of interest.

--by Anne L. Schiller. Excerpted from documentation newsletter (Department of Manuscripts and University Archives, Cornell University Libraries), Vol. XIV, No. 2 (Fall 1988)

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