Writing rights in colonial Indonesia

Photo: “I learned three things from the Europeans. Love, pity, and the concept of right—I want to live according to them.”
Kartini. Letter to R. M. Abendanon-Mandri. 20 November 1901. Special Collections, University Library, Leiden.

Scholarly work on legal history in colonial Indonesia (1816–1942) has focused on the various legal projects – European, indigenous, and Islamic – in this Dutch colony and on individual rights struggles by Europeans. Through an analysis of novels, letters, pamphlets and other texts written by Indonesians in the period 1900-1945, this project starts to answer a different question, namely, how Indonesians living with the Dutch colonial project have themselves written about their legal positioning, and specifically about individual rights. Recent literature in the field of human rights studies has emphasized that the discourse on human rights as we know it today emerged only after World War II in the late 1940s, “breaking through” in the 1960s or even the 1970s. However, before this particular discourse on human rights took the historical stage, Indonesian subjects living in the Dutch empire had already concluded that within the Dutch colonial project rights were unequally distributed and started asking tough questions about, precisely, humanity, citizenship, and rights.

In the decades before human rights as we know them today, and before they became citizens of a nation-state, Indonesian colonial subjects co-shaped global conversations on rights, engendering and appropriating concepts of legal subjectivity, citizenship, and humanity. Kartini, for instance, in her letters fashioned a self that was “ready” for the kind of rights already had by citizens in imperial Europe. Inspired by the European feminist movement and indigenous writers from colonial Egypt and India, her endeavor was to write a self that made her part of what was deemed humanity. In Sjahrir’s writings from the Dutch colonial prison camp Boven-Digoel, where he was held prisoner in the 1930s, and other places of incarceration, reflections on humanity, and particularly on humanism, are also prominent. Sjahrir, moreover, not only believed in the importance of individual rights but was also a nationalist struggling for national liberation and sovereignty. This combination problematizes Samuel Moyn’s argument in The Last Utopia captured in his chapter title ‘Why anticolonialism wasn’t a human rights movement’.

Period: 2015-2019.

This project is awarded with a Veni grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) for the period 2015-2019.


Bijl, Paul, ‘Legal self-fashioning in colonial Indonesia; Human rights in the letters of Kartini’, Indonesia, forthcoming (2017).
Bijl, Paul, ‘Human rights and anticolonial nationalism in Sjahrir’s Indonesian contemplations’, Law & Literature, forthcoming (2017).


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