Insouciance, colonialism, and sustainability

August 10, 2023 by Joshua
in Nature, Stories

“Insouciance” sounds like a lovely word. Maybe erudite enough to sound like showing off. I find it’s come to define our time. I wish it meant we were care free. More like we don’t care.

I’m coming to loathe our insouciance. I see it when our only considerations for doing something, like polluting or manufacturing opiates, that hurts others is if we can afford it and if we have time. Want to go to a party a thousand miles away for a weekend? All that matters is if you can afford it and have time.

The word is rare enough that I can identify from where it recently reentered my vocabulary: from the book Krakatoa: the Day the World Exploded: August 27, 1883, by Simon Winchester, published 2005. It struck me because it used the word to describe a culture like ours. Europeans around Java were imperialists, colonizing the land and enslaving the people. The situation there was different than North American slavery, so I was curious how.

I’ll quote the relevant parts of the book:

  • The condition of slavery there
  • How the Europeans lived, living off the work of the people they enslaved: with insouciance.
  • How imperialism and slavery corrupt
  • The source of their imperialism: coveting spices

Insouciance in the face of others suffering strikes me as loathsome and tragic. I recommend not being insouciant like the Dutch slave owners, just enjoying life for material things without meaning.

The condition of slavery

And then there were the others, now nearly 16,000 of this counted population of 1673, the slaves. Their use (which remained legal until abolition in 1860) made life exquisitely comfortable for some. Since no one would risk having slaves from Java, they had to be brought in by ship from elsewhere—an efficient process, one slave-peddler complained, after noting that of a consignment of 250 slaves sent down to him from the Arakan hills of Burma, only 114 had been delivered. And some slaves did flee over the city wall, gathered into gangs that lived in the jungle and raided parties of wandering Dutch; one, a Balinese named Surapati, had a band of rogues so large and powerful he formed his own fiefdom in east Java, which was ruled as an independent state for more than a century.

The wealthier Europeans in seventeenth-century Batavia might own a hundred or more slaves, and the town’s main slave-market was from the beginning a bustling, crowded place. These Malays, Indians, Burmese and Balinese workers were trained to occupy the tiniest of niches in the household labour structure—advertisements spoke of a need for lamplighters, coachmen, pageboys, tea-makers, bakers, seamstresses and, most specialized of all, makers of a spicy side-dish known as sambal.

The ladies’ maid-slaves would be put to work as masseuses or hairdressers; these girls were skilled in fashioning hair into the bun-shaped style known as the conde, much favoured in the salons of the time. Since they were so plentiful and so cheap, slaves frequently had little to do and sat around gambling their days away. But if they ever tried to escape, or, worse, if they ran amok—the word is Malay for a state of frenzy and was used as a legal term in the VOC courts—punishment was severe: they could be whipped or imprisoned. A Dutchman who shot one of his slaves dead and injured three others was merely told to leave Batavia, and not to do any further business with the VOC for the rest of his days.

The insouciance of the slave owners

If you asked the slave owners, they’d probably say they felt insouciant in not having a problem in the world, but it’s more like they didn’t care. They didn’t care that their way of life came from other people suffering. Sadly, this not caring about benefiting from others’ suffering looks like us today.

Look at how insouciant their lifestyles were, not a care in the world:

There was a masked ball held at the Concordia on Saturday, 28 July, just before the arrival of the circus. Three hundred couples came, by horse-drawn carriage or in the back-to-back conveyance known as a dos-à-dos. The gardens were illuminated with Chinese lanterns, there were obelisks lit with piped gas, and a Turkish kiosk with a sky-blue cupola had been built for the outdoor band.

And inside—under the ornate ceiling and gas-chandeliers, within walls groaning with portraits and mirrors and statuary, beside rare plants, flowers and soft-coloured veils of gauze, upon a floor of polished teak squares dusted with French chalk—they danced—until the sun came up like thunder, as in the East it was wont to do. The women, the finest of al Batavian high society, were seen to be wearing dresses that, to the more matronly onlookers and chaperones, were positively outrageous. So short!

They chorused next day. So delightful! the men reminisced. ‘If you want to enjoy the sight of beautiful pink satin shoes with fine ankles moving on the dance floor—go to the masked ball at the Concordia!’

The masks and costumes were as various as could be. One lady came dressed as a swallow, with a headdress and wings made of feathers from Anjer songbirds—birds that had lately been flying, in other words, in the turbulent volcanic airs of the Sunda Strait. Another, Madame la Diable, had black wings and gilded horns and a silk dress in black and red adorned with images of Lucifer. There was a Carmen, a Louis Quinze escorting an Italian farm-girl, buxom in gingham and Genoa lace. There was a toreador, a consistory of monks and a group of British sailors from a passing Royal Navy warship whom everyone thought were in fancy-dress, though they were simply in full fig, officially.

And as if this display were not enough—in the centre of the ballroom was a fountain gushing not water but pure eau de Cologne. This was by way of an experiment: a flower-vase was used as the centrepiece, and from deep in the lush enfoldments of its blooms gushed fountains of perfumed water that, when mingled with the scents of the assembled dancers, the cigar-smoke and the rich aromas of spices from the rijsttafel, made for a symphony of olfactory delights that. . . the newspapers, gushing too, found simply too overwhelmingly wonderful for words.

Then came August, and with it, at last, the circus. The company had come clear across the Pacific—one of their earlier performances had been in a small town outside San Francisco—and were in the East determined to make the best impression. And so every imaginable act was on hand: tightrope-walkers, fire-eaters, a pigeon-charmer, an American who could somersault over eight horses, the Nelson Family of Acrobats, Hector and Faue the Lords of the Trapeze, Fräulein Jeanette and Her Amazing Bareback Riders, William Gregory the Gymnast King, the Well-Known Sweetheart from Earlier Years, Miss Selma Troost—with Troost being the Dutch word for consolation‘, a commodity that many lonely bachelors thousands of miles from home would no doubt readily welcome.

There were a hundred acts in all, and twenty Arabian horses on which the performers might show their paces. There were dozens of clowns; and on 22 August the Batavia Cricket Club staged a match against the Clowns’

Some clarification about imperialist behavior

Relations between colonizers and colonized in the East Indies were less than perfect—indeed much less than perfect, for the Dutch were not very kindly in the ways they wielded their imperial powers, and they are consequently remembered with much less affection today than are most of those other Europeans who ruled far-flung territories around the globe.

Imperialism corrupts. They could see it happening to themselves.

After uncovering tales not just of mismanagement and inadvertent cruelty, but of murder and corruption on a far greater scale than he had imagined, he resigned, returned to Holland and eventually wrote the book that was to become one of the great landmarks of recent Dutch literature.

It was published in 1860, to the shock, astonishment and dismay of an entire country, which learned for the first time the details of the manner in which their officials were running their most distant and wealthiest possession. The book was a savage indictment of the colonial attitudes of the Dutch—and in particular of that astonishingly exploitative Dutch invention known as the Kultuurstelsel, the Cultivation System, which was introduced in 1830 and which compelled al vil ages to set aside one fifth of their crops for the government in order to pay the cripplingly high land taxes. Al villagers were held collectively responsible for the tax payment, and to ensure that responsibility was met no one could travel beyond his or her village without official permission—which was seldom given.

The system made the Dutch rulers fabulously rich; but upon its exposure in Max Havelaar one critic wrote that he had now seen demonstrated ‘that almost nothing of the great revenues from the island was devoted to the education or benefit of the natives; that no mission or evangelical work was undertaken, or even al owed, by this foremost Protestant people of Europe; and that next to nothing in the way of public works or permanent improvements resulted to the advantage of those who toiled for the alien, absentee landlord, the country being drained of its wealth for the benefits of a distant monarch’.

The Dutch—government and planter alike, for Max Havelaar focused much of its attention on corruption within the coffee plantations—were condemned as ‘synonyms for al of rapacity, tyranny, extortion and cruelty’.

Dekker cheekily dedicated his book to King Willem II—‘as Emperor of the glorious realm… that coils yonder round the Equator like a girdle of emerald, and where mil ions of subjects are being maltreated and exploited in your name’. For doing so, and for daring to write so intemperate an exposé and to lay it before a smug, insouciant Dutch public, he was vilified, attacked and forced into the same kind of exile (he died in Germany) that was suffered by the similarly evangelizing Dutchman, Vincent van Gogh.

The source of their imperialism: coveting natural wealth

Though we think first of Java as an eponym for coffee (or, to some today, a computer language), it is in fact the trading of aromatic tropical spices on which the fortunes of the great island’s colonizers and Western discoverers were first founded. And initially supreme among those spices was the one rather ordinary variety that remains the most widely used today: pepper.

Piper nigrum, Syzygium aromaticum and Myristica fragrans—pepper, clove and nutmeg—were the original holy trinity of the Asian spice trade.

[. . .]

The Western appetite for the trinity of flavourings increased almost exponentially during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries—the trade being dominated, at least after the Papal Donation of 1493, by the only serious maritime power of the day in the Orient, the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama, who opened up the East and made it as far as Calicut, was said to be exultant at finding out that the pepper he knew would sell for eighty ducats a hundredweight back in Venice (which was the European centre for the trade) could be bought in India for only three.

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2 responses on “Insouciance, colonialism, and sustainability

  1. Pingback: Colonialism disguised as travel » Joshua Spodek

  2. Pingback: Selected New Experiences, September 3, 2023 » Joshua Spodek

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