The Dutch East Indies in stereo

A wooden box with fifty glass stereoviews and descriptions provides an interesting insight into Dutch colonial history in the former colony of Dutch East Indies.

The Dutch East Indies (Dutch: Nederlands Indië) was a Dutch colony consisting of what is now Indonesia. The first Dutch expedition set sail for the East Indies in 1595 to access spices directly from Asia. Recognising the potential of the East Indies trade, the Dutch government amalgamated the different competing companies into the United East India Company (Dutch: Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC). The VOC was formally dissolved in 1800 and its colonial possessions in the Indonesian archipelago were nationalized under the Dutch Republic as the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch possessions reached their greatest territorial extent in the early 20th century.

During the Second World War, Allied forces were quickly overwhelmed by the Japanese army and on March 8, 1942 the Royal Dutch East Indies Army surrendered and the colony was occupied by Japan. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, nationalist leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta declared Indonesian independence. A four and a half-year struggle followed as the Dutch tried to re-establish their colony. In December 1949, The Netherlands formally recognized Indonesian sovereignty.

The collection

The wooden box contains a note with the text: Images from Gerrit to his mother, “the beginning of tobacco planting”, c. 1907

The Dutch East Indies in stereo
Stereoview number 30 – Image of Gerrit

The box contains fifty glass stereoviews in the 45x107mm format. Most are in black and white and some have a brown tone. The images are artistically and technically not of high quality. The small 45x107mm format was introduced by Jules Richard and led to a wide range of compact and affordable stereo cameras that made stereo photography available to amateurs, but this did not always result in good quality photography. Many stereoviews in the box contain somewhat dull landscape images with a minimal stereo effect. Gerrit apparently knew how to run a tobacco plantation, but he was not the best stereo photographer.

What makes it special is that each image is numbered and there are two sheets of paper with handwritten descriptions of each image by Gerrit. There are 52 descriptions, so two slides are missing from the box (numbers 7 and 51).

The Dutch East Indies in stereo
Handwritten description by Gerrit of image number 12

The images show a visual story of the construction and management of a tobacco plantation. First the trees are felled, the wood burned and land plowed by hand. It’s followed by planting of the tobacco plants and the washing and drying of the leaves.

The Dutch East Indies in stereo
Stereoview number 24 – Women washing the tobacco leaves

Gerrit calls the workers “Koelies” in his descriptions. It’s the Dutch name for unskilled workers from Asia who had to do heavy labor. In fact, these were wage slaves. The workers are Javanese and “Batakkers”, an ethnic group from North Sumatra. He describes their customs, but he is condescending about their primitive way of life. A number of photos are staged and the workers show no emotion. It shows that there is a clear hierarchy between the photographer and the workers.

The Dutch East Indies in stereo
The Dutch East Indies in stereo
Stereoview number 34 – Photo taken by Gerrit from his coach
The Dutch East Indies in stereo
The Dutch East Indies in stereo
Stereoview number 32 – Carpenter at work
The Dutch East Indies in stereo
The Dutch East Indies in stereo
Stereoview number 37 – Batakkers
The Dutch East Indies in stereo
Stereoview number 50 – Interior of Gerrit’s house