Morwell, 20 March 1998
Ladies and Gentlemen,
When the curator of this exhibition, Mr Kevin Murray, wrote to me
about "Turn the Soil'' in January, I was a little bit puzzled as I did not see
precisely for what reason The Netherlands would be involved in this project; not any name
of Dutch origin could be found in the catalogue. But then my attention was drawn to the
following passage in his letter; "speculation about what Australia might have been
like if it were the Dutch rather than the English who had colonised this country".
Being a historian by education I immediately started to consider this question more
thoroughly. However, a colleague in the consulate had a much more simple reaction:
"In that case those bloody Australians would drive on the right side of the road as
normal people do".
Whether that answer is correct or not we will discuss later. But
first I would like to underline that in the study of history the great 'Ifs' are
mistrusted by professional historians to a large extent. IF Hitler had not started a war
against the Soviet Union and IF the United States had abstained from participation in WWII
would then Europe (including the UK) be still wider German occupation today? The
assumptions are wrong (Hitler had to attack the Soviet Union before that country became
too strong and the USA could not afford to leave Europe to the Nazi's) and so are the
Having said that I would like to turn now to The Republic, as The
Netherlands used to be called in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and the
'Unknown South land' which is now named Australia. I do not need to tell you we discovered
Australia and charted a large put of this 'Terra Australis Incognita', Of striking
importance however was what the Dutch explorers did not see the fertile coast of East and
South East Australia.
The Republic and in particular the Dutch East India Company,
established in 1602, were not at all interested in creating a colonial empire like Spain,
Portugal, England, France and others. We were not a monarchy with the related need for
status, we felt not the desire to conquer vast territories to convert the natives to our
Calvinist religion, there was no necessity for permanent immigration; on the contrary, we
were attracting people from the whole of Europe to work in our energy industry and to
serve in our armies and on our fleets. So actually like Australia the Netherlands is an
immigration country! A final element to prevent largescale emigration and as a consequence
colonisation, was the high level of prosperity in the Republic (and not only for the
aristocracy!) and the religious tolerance which attracted dissidents instead of driving
them to emigration.
Therefore the only objective of the Dutch Republic and the East
India Company was to amass riches in an easy way and without colonising the countries
involved. As the early Dutch explorers of Australia had not any prospect of profits to be
made in the foreseeable future. they turned their attention to more promising projects.
Australia continued to be 'Terra Australis Incognita' for a long time to come.
Although the Netherlands did not want to be a colonial power, in the
end we became one of the greatest. Involuntarily, not for moral or ethical reasons but for
practical and financial reasons only. To get the optimal results we had to organise
production of those commodities which were looked after on European markets. So we had to
involve ourselves in the internal affairs of for instance the present Indonesia. And every
new involvement led to new commitments and obligations, Finally we had to keep potential
competitors out of our sphere of influence which was only possible by establishing
If we look at the results of our colonisation of Indonesia can we
answer Mr Kevin Murray's question I cited at the beginning of my speech? As a historian I
say no. As a normal and interested person I will try to give an answer. We did not put our
stamp so much upon our former colonies, including Indonesia. IF Australia bad been a Dutch
colony the situation would not have been much different. Even the enormous amount of
immigrants from after WWII is nearly invisible, certainly when you look to a community
like that of the Greeks.
In view of what I said earlier, I could summarise most of this
speech by providing a little piece of information: in Indonesia they are driving on the
left side of the road too, despite a Dutch presence during three centuries!
I hope I have not disappointed Mr Murray and others by formulating a
conclusion, which is perhaps a kind of anti-climax to them.
I have now the honour and pleasure to open the exhibition "Turn
the Soil" and express the hope it will be a great success.
Aldert Jan van Galen Last
Consul General of the Netherlands