The ‘European’ was a central figure of colonial history, occupying a pivotal position in the social hierarchy. Colonial rulers tended to (self-)identify as ‘European’, rather than as ‘White’ or by a national denominator such as ‘Dutch’ or ‘British’. For his PhD research, Bart Luttikhuis studied various groups of colonial actors in the late colonial Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia)—administrators, non-governmental elites, lower class Europeans, as well as diverse Indonesian actors—in order to analyse what each of them associated with being ‘European’ in the colony. He argues that the historiography dealing with differentiating practices in colonial Indonesia has tended to overemphasize the importance of racial delineations. As a result, it has become a widely accepted truism that colonial societies were obsessed with defining a clear dichotomy between ‘ruler’ and ‘ruled’—‘European’ and ‘native’. But as Luttikhuis shows, colonial actors actually preferred to think in many shades of grey.
In this seminar, Luttikhuis explicates this argument by tracing the professional careers and social lives of a particular group of predominantly (but not exclusively) ‘Indo-Europeans’. His case study here is a community of lower-level white-collar workers in a conglomerate of private railway companies active on North-Java. Luttikhuis demonstrates that in this group, questions of race and miscegenation were not always central to issues of identity and hierarchy. What mattered more to the members of this group was that their colleagues lived up to similar ideals of modernity and professionalism. In fact, then, cultural and class affiliation were often equally important as race.
Bart Luttikhuis received his PhD at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, in 2014 for his dissertation entitled Negotiating modernity: Europeanness in late colonial Indonesia, 1910-1942. Currently, Luttikhuis is a researcher at KITLV working on the project ‘Dutch military operations in Indonesia, 1945-1950’.
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