Discovering Our Roots: Studying Indonesian History at Universiteit Leiden

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“Embracing Your Roots Beyond Borders.” This year’s Indonesia Mengglobal anniversary theme rings true to one of our contributors, Satrio “Ody” Dwicahyo. Driven by his passion to study Indonesian history, he is currently pursuing his second master’s degree in Leiden, the Netherlands, majoring in colonial and global history with specialization in 17th-century Indonesian history. In this article, he shares his journey to Leiden and his struggle to master the rare skill of deciphering colonial archives.

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“Did you live in that period? How do you figure out these stories?” These are the two questions that almost every history student and historian encounter when they fluently narrate a story from any period in the past. Historical traces, including archives, is the key answer to these questions. My opportunity to pursue graduate study in the Netherlands, a small and lowland country that colonized Indonesia for a long time, is meant to dig archives and reconstruct a small episode of Indonesian history.

As a millennial, I am aware that my generation is driven to expand our knowledge about the unpredictable future. Anything 4.0, 5.0, and the internet-of-things have occupied study options for my generation. However, I believe that everyone is born to answer a particular call. In my case, since the second year of senior high school, I have always known that my calling is to contribute to the advancement of the study of Indonesian history. That is why currently I am undergoing a rigorous training to research the 17th and 18th century Indonesia by reading (and in most cases, deciphering) archives of the Dutch East India Company or widely-known as VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie).

My “Voyage” to Leiden

Studying VOC has allowed me to encounter numerous stories about the inter-oceanic and inter-continental mobilizations of the company’s officials as well as the local rulers they dealt with. I find that my journey to the Netherlands bears resemblance with these stories. I started my academic career with an undergraduate study in Indonesian history at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM). Upon graduation, I continued to pursue a master’s degree from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a graduate school in Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. There, I studied strategic studies, or in simpler words, a study about warfare – quite an odd discipline for a civilian. It was quite a tough time as I did a part-time job in conjunction to the courses. Yet, all the trouble and pressure that I experienced in Singapore didn’t deter me from sitting in another graduate school.  In fact, pursuing two master’s degrees had always been my dream since my senior year in UGM.

Following my graduation from NTU, my almamater in UGM offered me a temporary position to administer a multi-year research project. Working within an academic community not only ensured my proximity to information regarding opportunities to study abroad and scholarships, but also maintained my eagerness to carry on with my dream. Thanks to one of my professors and academic tutor since I pursued my bachelor’s degree, I was encouraged to apply for a scholarship that paved my way to the Netherlands.

The selection process of my scholarship went quite straightforward. I submitted the required documents, which was followed by interviews by a program coordinator and senior-alumni of the program. After presenting my planned research, the examiners were satisfied. Yet, they posed one major question to me: “If the program requires you to conduct research about an earlier period, which in this situation, oblige you to work with VOC archives, would you do it?” The opportunity knocks, but answering it won’t be a summer holiday. It is my life’s next stair-step that I must climb with perseverance.

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Beautiful Leiden

Communicating with the 17th-century Dutch clerks

Leiden is a tiny city. Once, I bid farewell to a friend who was about to leave the city only to meet her again in a supermarket, twice. Leiden might fit your expectation for a typical Dutch city: old buildings, canal, and a few old windmills all around the city. In between those buildings, we can find Universiteit Leiden, the oldest university in the Netherlands that was built as a trophy from the Netherlands’ founding father, William of Orange, for the Leidenaars for their fearless struggle against the Spanish back in 1575. It is undoubtedly a historical city that may delight history students and everyone who loves to learn history.

But once again, my journey is not a holiday. The raison d’etre behind my chance to stroll around this classic city is the scholarship that requires me to stay close to books and archives. Even though I studied Indonesian history, never in my life I worked with Indonesian history before the 19th century. By accepting the terms of the selection committee, I must work with archives that were produced by the VOC. I can describe this archive in three words: complex, ancient, and difficult to read. However, this set of documents is believed to be uncontested by any archives in the world. It contains information that spans between the Netherlands to Nagasaki with millions of portfolios kept in the Hague, Cape Town, Tamil Nadu, Jakarta, and London.

The archive does not only narrate Europeans but also about “us.” It can tell you about the most valuable commodities before the international society started to rely heavily on oil, about fierce wars, ships that successfully lower their anchors in Asian ports, and those that never made it. It can tell you about diplomacy between kingdoms in Asia, up to lists of tributes and gifts that Asian rulers expected from their European counterparts. However, most VOC archives present its information like a love letter between two persons. It beats around the bush, it might tell you about everything except what you are looking for.

VOC archive, a collection of the National Archives of the Netherlands in the Hague
One of the VOC archive books, a collection of the National Archives of the Netherlands in the Hague

Doing research on this period feels like communicating with Dutch clerks from the 17th century. My proposed research deals with an area that I used to think as an unknown territory: Cirebon. I would study Cirebon sultans and their polemical relations with VOC. Unlike other sultanates in the Nusantara archipelago, Sultans of Cirebon requested protection from VOC in order to protect themselves from two mighty empires: Sultanate of Banten and Sultanate of Mataram. Although it once was an unknown territory, while I collected archives to support my research, I discovered that my mother-line ancestors originated from Cirebon. According to my grandmother, my great-great-grandfather was an elang (Cirebonese for a prince) who left the royal family to marry a commoner. What a fairy tale!

In one of my courses in Leiden, I learned that the National Archive of Republic Indonesia (ANRI) keeps more VOC archives than the archive in the Hague. The Hague only preserves 6,350,000 portfolios of VOC archives, whereas Jakarta has not less than 10,000,000 portfolios. The amount, unfortunately, tells less about the extent of the usage. One reason that pushed me to take this program is an assessment that only small amounts of Indonesian historians have the capacity to work with this archive. Owning this unique skill will definitely allow me to access more opportunities in the future.

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Photos provided by the author

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Satrio Dwicahyo
Satrio Dwicahyo or Ody Dwicahyo is an awardee of Cosmopolis Advance, a university-to-university scholarship program between Universiteit Leiden and Universitas Gadjah Mada, majoring in Colonial and Global History with specialization in 17th-century Indonesian history. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Indonesian History from Universitas Gadjah Mada, Yogyakarta. In the same city that he adores to death, he also pursued a single year intensive French course at Institut Français d’Indonésie. Following his bachelor’s degree, he finished M.Sc in Strategic Studies from S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, NTU, Singapore, where he also worked as a part-time researcher under the Indonesia Programme.