Download Was he a national hero – or a butcher?
Jan Pieterszoon Coen is one of Holland’s most famous historical figures.
He headed the Dutch East India Company in the early 17th century, when it controlled the so-called spice islands – in Indonesia today.
When the Banda Islands refused to sell their spices at a cheap price, Coen massacred them – and got his nickname ‘the Butcher of Banda’.
It’s 400 years since he first left Holland – and now his home town Hoorn has an exhibition about him.
But his legacy is on trial.
At the exhibition, visitors can join a playful lawsuit, to judge whether Coen is worthy of the town’s honour or not.
Esther de Jong travelled to the town and stood eye to eye with ‘The Butcher’.
This is where a colonial empire started. Beginning centuries ago, hundreds of ships left the harbour on a long and dangerous journey to the East.
25-year-old Jan Pieterszoon Coen was one of these adventurers.
He left Holland 400 years ago this month, and that marked the beginning of the Dutch empire, says historian Gerrit Knaap.
”Most importantly he knew how to organise business. One of his principles was: outlay precedes returns. If you wanted to establish viable trade, you needed to control the local trade conditions. In order to do that it was, according to Coen, necessary to use political and military violence. And based on that the colonial state was created.”
One of the main trades of the time was nutmeg, which in those days could only be obtained from the Banda Islands.
As valuable as gold at the time, the spice gave the Dutch colonisers incredible wealth.
Under Coen’s command in 1621, Dutch troops killed thousands of people in the Banda Islands to take control of the trade.
Some sources say over ten thousand people were killed – leaving only around one thousand survivors.
Gerrit Knaap says this can be called genocide.
”That’s what happened during Coen‘s rule, but you need to realise that in those days we had a different approach to those values. At one point Coen’s opponents surrendered, but after the peace agreement they started fighting again. They described that as a ‘rebellion’ in those days and responded very differently from how people would react now.”
Hoorn’s town square is far removed from the century old atrocities.
A black bronze statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen looks out over the harbour town.
The statue was always surrounded by controversy, says Eric van de Beek founder of a group of statue opponents called Citizen’s Initiative.
“Ever since the statue was inaugurated there have been protests and demonstrations against it. The statue has been defaced many times. It reminds me of a black page in Dutch history, maybe even the darkest: the genocide of the people of the Banda Islands.”
Last August, the statue fell from its podium when it was accidently hit by a crane – a perfect opportunity for the government to put it in a museum, says Van de Beek.
He collected signatures and pushed hard for its removal. But many people of Hoorn did not want to hear about their campaign.
Piet Keizer is one of them.
”The statue has always been here, it has always been this way. It is true he did hurt a lot of people, but he also did good things for Holland. It can stay here for another century; it doesn’t bother me a bit.”
After almost a year of discussion, last month the local government of Hoorn decided to change the information on the statue.
The original words said: “Jan Pieterszoon Coen, born in Hoorn, the Governor General of the Dutch East Indies Company and the founder of Batavia, now Jakarta.”
The additional lines will say that Coen used violence to achieve his success, and that the statue was always controversial.
But it will not mention genocide, as the council said they wanted to avoid a ‘moral judgement’ on Coen.
Van de Beek is not satisfied with this.
“The statue was established in his honour, and with this change the local government still doesn’t reject that honour. It only says there are critics and supporters, take your pick. And they don’t say the Banda Islands were depopulated, that it was genocide. They don’t dare say that. Because if they do that people would really ask themselves: why is the statue still here?”
He points to another atrocity during the Dutch colonial rule of Indonesia.
In 1947 Dutch soldiers killed hundreds of people in the village of Rawagede – seen as one of the worst massacres of Indonesia’s fight for independence.
Just last September, a court in The Hague ordered the Netherlands government to pay damages to relatives of victims of the massacre.
This might finally point out the way to removing the statue, says Van de Beek.
“With Rawagede the Dutch government never wanted to apologise or pay compensation. That happened only after a court case. I can imagine the same happening with the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. If we can’t solve this through politics, maybe we can do it in the courts.”
The same lawyer who won the Rawagede case is now researching whether the law can get the statue removed.
But historian Gerrit Knaap thinks that would be ridiculous.
“The statue should stay where it is. It is part of the town of Hoorn, it is part of its history. The controversy is a very clear example of how The Netherlands still struggles with its colonial past. It is the tension between Holland as a country that values human rights and prides itself in doing so on one hand; and on the other hand, it is a country with strong nationalist feelings. The controversy is real and one of the key questions is: did we really do something fantastic in the colonies? And some people think we did and others think we didn’t.”
For now, the statue will stand where it has been for over a century - and with it stands the controversy, tension, and the weight of Holland’s colonial past.