A process of co-creation

“Two years ago I wondered: How can we give voice to those historical actors who are long gone?” Initiator of the project, Historian Maartje Janse, reflects on the process of co-creation that followed her decision to introduce the story of Willem Bosch to a wider audience. Bosch was one of the first outspoken critics of the colonial regime in the Dutch East Indies (present day Indonesia) in the 19th century but has not received much attention. Maartje rewrote his life story in a comprehensive and digital format and invited Ernst Jansz (a musician), Anne-Lot Hoek (a journalist), and Sjoerd Sijsma (a filmmaker) to reflect on it. This resulted in a cross-disciplinary project that investigates the historical development of voices of protest against colonialism.

Featured image: Screenshot of the video by Sjoerd Sijsma in which Maartje Janse reflects on her research about willem Bosch and the collaboration with Ernst Jansz (see below).

Giving voice to an old story

Two years ago I wondered: how can we give voice to those historical actors who are long gone? It was anthropologist and Africanist Mirjam de Bruijn’s project Voice4Thought that prompted this question. V4T developed a web platform that experimented with new ways to engage with the data that was collected for the research project ‘Connecting in times of Duress.’1 Through a process of co-creation Mirjam had developed videos of the Chadian artist Croquemort’s political slam poetry that shed light on the broader context of socio-political changes in Chad. In this form, academic research comes to life in new ways.2 What options are there for historians of the nineteenth century, who are by definition studying dead people, to make audible the voices of the past? Could an artist perhaps give a new voice to an old story?

I decided to accept the challenge of experimenting with the Voice4Thought format that was later developed into this article. The case study of Willem Bosch, a nineteenth-century critic of the colonial regime that I had researched and published on at length, seemed a good choice: he, too, spoke out against perceived injustices, but he had been largely forgotten after his death. I had stumbled upon his organization the ‘Maatschappij tot Nut van den Javaan’ (Society for the Benefit of the Javanese) by accident, when I was a student in Utrecht, and had written my thesis on this organization. Years later, one of the chapters of my dissertation on pressure groups in the Netherlands was also devoted to this organization.3 My personal aim was to introduce Bosch to a wider audience. I started by making a short biographical text and published this online on the V4T website.4

“Willem Bosch was in his time someone who spoke out a lot. It seems that he spoke very emotionally, very enthousiastically. His lower lip would vibrate, and his hair would blow about. So you would like to offer someone who is that enthusiastic, another stage, to make his voice heard.”

Adding new dimensions through artistic contributions

I then approached Ernst Jansz, a legendary figure in Dutch cultural life. Not just because he is a talented musician and a founding member of Doe Maar, the most popular Dutch band of the 1980s, but also because his wonderful catalogue of projects, including albums and books, spans half a century.5 As his Indo roots are a recurring theme in Ernst’s work, I asked him whether he would want to compose and perform a song that would capture Willem Bosch’s perspective in ways academic writing could not.

I was very happy when Ernst agreed to do so. He came to the Leiden University Library to look at Willem Bosch’s publications. His song ‘De Ballade van van Sarina en Kromo premiered at the Voice4Thought festival in September 2016 (see the section The ballad of Sarina and Kromo). The performance was preceded by a screening of an interview (see section Willem Bosch) in which I introduced Willem Bosch and the collaboration with Ernst Jansz. I was delighted to hear that this song in a musical sense can be placed in the tradition of 1960s protest songs of Bob Dylan and Boudewijn de Groot. The text is primarily a criticism of colonial injustice and exploitation. But by choosing Sarina and Kromo’s perspective, it can also be read as criticism of centering this story of colonial rule around a white man who was part of the colonization project, and not fundamentally critical of the premise of colonialism either. By giving Sarina and Kromo a voice, by adding their perspective, Ernst added an important layer to my history of Willem Bosch.

My collaboration with Ernst Jansz was the first successful collaboration on this project. With help of the V4T platform, I was interviewed on video (see the video above). And this material was combined with the performance of Ernst Jansz and historical film footage, in the form of a pamphlet by filmmaker Sjoerd Sijsma. This added a visual dimension to the co-creation process that allowed a new form of expression. Sjoerd’s short analysis of the search for the visual material gives us more insight into how the colonial context was perceived. (see section Pamphlet)

Facebook post of Maartje Janse about the collaboration with Ernst Jansz, with a picture of them at the library of Leiden University, where they looked at archival material about Willem Bosch. Maartje quotes what Ernst Jansz wrote about the project: “Last year I was contacted by Maartje Janse, who works at Leiden University and was at the time working on a research project on people who wanted to make the world a better place in the 19thcentury. Amongst them were people protesting slavery and the culture system in the Dutch Indies. The main focus of her research was Willem Bosch (1798-1877), one of the most prominent critics of the culture system. She asked me if I wanted to think about ways to convey the message of Willem Bosch to a contemporary audience, by writing a song about it. Because the story of Willem Bosch showed strong similarities with the story of my great-grandfather, who also protested the oppression of people in the Dutch Indies, I immediately said yes. I also feel very strongly that people here in the West still do not realize that a large part of our wealth comes from the blood of slaves and the exploitation of the former colonies. Sooner or later, we will have to pay the price for that. And that is how a new song was born.”

The wider context of criticism

In the same month ‘De ballade van Sarina en Kromo’ premiered, I started a year-long fellowship at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Studies (NIAS) to work on a new book about the invention of the pressure group in Europe and the United States, between 1820-1840. At the NIAS I met Anne-Lot Hoek, a journalist and historian, who was working on a book (later to become a dissertation) on the Indonesian independence struggle on the island of Bali. It turned out that she had researched and published about a twentieth-century critic of the colonial regime during the independence war on Bali (Siebe Lijftogt). This story showed remarkable resemblances to that of Willem Bosch. We realized that, by placing their stories within an even wider context of several critics of the (post-)colonial regime, we could offer an often ignored perspective on colonial history.

Anne-Lot’s contribution was substantial and we needed to reimagine this project as an equal collaboration and as such the process co-creation continued. Most of Anne-Lot’s contributions to this article had already been published in Dutch as journalistic writings.6 We decided to add the revised versions to this project because put together in a new context they shed light on the history of criticism of (post)colonial rule. We wrote a new introduction that reflected on this often ignored tradition of criticism and protest. One of the most attractive aspects of our collaboration was that Anne-Lot’s involvement in the public debate as a research journalist linked the story of Willem Bosch to the current debate on the way we deal with our colonial past. Furthermore, her position also allowed for critical reflection on the position of research journalists and scholars in this debate (see the section Research journalism).

It may be clear by now that this project is one of experiment and improvisation. I could not have envisioned this outcome when I started my experiment. Initially I was weary of too much reflection on the process of creating this publication, not only as I do now, but also when V4T interviewed me for the video. Why talk about yourself and your perspective and motives when writing history? The wider social and academic debate about the context within which knowledge is produced has changed my ideas about this. We can no longer hide behind an obsolete notion that academic history is an objective process. We all need to think about and reflect on what stories we are telling, and what stories we leave out. Whose voices are we amplifying, and whose voices do we deem less relevant? In that sense this article also reflects on the challenges historians face to not simply reproduce dominant narratives and the power structures that they uphold, but also – if necessary and if possible – to challenge them.

 

In these videos Maartje Janse speaks about the process of co-creation (with Ernst Jansz) during the launch meeting of the Bridging Humanities platform Decolonising Knowledge in the digital age, June 2018.  Anne-Lot Hoek added her reflection on the cooperation with Maartje Janse during the interview.

References

  1. ‘The Voice4Thought Foundation and the Bridging Humanities platform developed from the research project Connecting in Times of Duress: Understanding communication and conflict in Middle Africa’s mobile margins’ (2012-2017). The project experimented with new media and alternative forms of academic publications.
  2. See for example the ‘Pamphlet of Croquemort‘. The video is part of the Bridging Humanities publication Mirjam de Bruijn, Croquemort: a biographical journey in the context of Chad. Bridging Humanities, 1 (2017). DOI: 10.1163/25425099-00101001.
  3. Maartje Janse, De Afschaffers. Publieke opinie, organisatie en politiek in Nederland 1840-1880 [The Abolitionists. Public opinion, organization and politics in the Netherlands 1840-1880] (Amsterdam: Wereldbibliotheek, 2007).
  4. The original publication about Willem Bosch on the Voice4Thougth website was published in Dutch.
  5. For an overview of the works of Ernst Jansz, see his website.
  6. The articles of Anne-Lot can be found on her website.