Sunday, March 4, 2012
The Craft of the Historian: Revolution, Reaction & Reform from a Javanese Perspective, 1785-1855
National History Day. Wednesday 29th February 2012 at The British International School Jakarta.
Key note speech by Dr. Peter Carey
Born of parents who had made their lives in Asia, the Far East has always been a part of my life. My first seven years (1948-55) were spent in Burma and these early years marked me.
In my very traditional British boarding school – Winchester - I retained a fascination for SE Asia. But studying Southeast Asian history for A level was sadly not an option. It was the same at Oxford. Even though my Oxford tutors quickened my love of history through insisting that I use primary sources, it was not until I graduated in 1969 that I was able to pursue my Asian interests.
Snowshill Lavender farm. Peter Carey, July 2010
Like all the best things in life, the unexpected had a hand in determining my decision to take up SE Asian history. On finishing my written exams, I was placed on the borderline between a First and a Second-Class Honours degree. This necessitated an oral examination – then called a ‘viva’ (viva voce). I contacted my French Revolution Special Subject tutor in Balliol, Richard Cobb (1917-96), who had inspired me with his idea that a successful historian has to have a ‘second identity’ in the country and epoch she is studying: for Richard it was late eighteenth-century France. I asked him to prepare me for the viva. His idea of preparation was to invite me to take a pint of beer with him on Balliol lawn.
Balliol College Lawn
This was a bombshell and it did indeed get me thinking. I had an English Speaking Union (ESU) scholarship to do graduate studies at Cornell University in the USA. Why not use that opportunity to take up Jack Gallagher’s challenge? I arrived and announced to my Cornell professors that Daendels and his French Revolutionary inspired colonial administration in Java was my research topic. ‘Great! But that’s not what we do here!’ they said. ‘First, learn the local languages (Indonesian and Javanese) along with the language of the colonial administration – Dutch – and then tell us what you want to do!’ Starting with Dutch, I headed for Cornell’s famed Olin Library, taking out HJ de Graaf’s Geschiedenis van Indonesie (History of Indonesia) (1949) in its Dutch original which I read from cover to cover. When I came to his chapter on the Java War (1825-30), my eye fell on an etching of the Javanese prince, Diponegoro (1785-1855), who had led the five-year struggle against the Dutch. I then had what the Javanese would call a ‘kontak batin’ (a communication from the heart). It was a Eureka moment. Who was this mysterious figure on horseback at the head of his troops entering the prepared encampment from whence he would be captured by treachery and exiled to the Celebes (Sulawesi) for the rest of his life (1830-55). Maybe instead of the very European Daendels, I would look at the impact of the French Revolution in its colonial setting by studying the life and thoughts of someone at the receiving end, the quintessential Javanese prince, Diponegoro, now one of Indonesia’s foremost national heroes.
Fighting Java war
Remember the National History Day gives you a rare opportunity to learn the value of rigorous academic research and how such research can shape popular perceptions and events. Cathy Gorn, the Executive Director of the NHD who has just been awarded the prestigious National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama, in her acceptance speech cited how three students along with their History teacher from Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, helped to change history in the famous ‘Mississipi Burning’ case. The students selected the 1964 murders of civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi, for their National History Day Project, creating a documentary that presented important new evidence and helped convince the state of Mississippi to investigate, reopen the case and convict Edgar Ray Killen for the murders. Just think of that - a documentary based on painstaking research which helps to change the course of justice. Just amazing!
Here in Indonesia, Batara Hutagalung (Surabaya, 1944- ), an historian from North Sumatra who has written numerous books on colonial history (including the British military campaign in Surabaya in November 1945 which left thousands dead), also won a significant victory for the cause of justice. His persistence in securing evidence regarding the Rawagede massacre of 9 December 1947 during the Indonesian War of Independence against the Dutch (1945-49) won a ruling from a Dutch court on 14 September 2011. The court ordered that €20.000 compensation be paid by the Dutch Government to each of the eight remaining widows of the 431 young men massacred by Dutch troops in a village between Karawang and Bekasi. Long immortalised in Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar’s 1948 poem ‘Karawang-Bekasi’ whose opening lines read: ‘We who lie sprawled between Karawang and Bekasi cannot cry ‘Freedom’ or raise our weapons any more!’ Batara Hutagalung’s research symbolically raised the bodies of those massacred young men and brought them to the court room, thus ensuring their eventual valediction.
The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step!
Dr. Peter Carey
Fellow Emeritus of Trinity College, Oxford
18 February 2012
------------------Published with permission from Dr. Peter Carey
Dr. Peter Carey, author of the book:
‘The Power of Prophecy: Prince Dipanagara and the End of an Old Order in Java, 1785-1855’,