Welcome to the Hotel der Nederlanden: Cultural Contact in Anna Forbes’ “Insulinde”

A “contact zone” refers to a space where historically and geographically separated people engage with each other and establish new relationships and identities.1 In the Dutch colonial city of Batavia, a “contact zone” of particular note was the Hotel der Nederlanden, one of the most prominent hotels in the city and often the first port of call for any visiting European. By analysing the representation of the Hotel der Nederlanden in Anna Forbes’ 1887 “Insulinde: Experiences of a Naturalist’s Wife in the Eastern Archipelago “, we can learn about Dutch colonial culture and how its unique hybridity supported discourses of colonial modernisation. By conspicuously adopting certain features of native culture, and placing them in service of western comfort and convenience, colonial Batavian society could claim to be elevating and improving native society.

Co-option of some native ways of life within the Hotel der Nederlanden is apparent in Forbes’ description of guest attire. She is shocked to learn that Dutch ladies wore the native sarong for nearly all of the day besides dinner, rather than a “respectable skirt”.2 Despite her initial reaction, she eventually sees rationality behind these clothes which are “natural in the climate”, even saying the sarong is “really becoming” once you become accustomed to it.3 Given their ready adoption of native dress by the residents of the Hotel der Nederlanden, Batavian society did not seem to outwardly harbour anxieties about “going native”. However, the sarongs worn by European ladies are seen by Forbes to be separate and improved from their native versions, being elevated by costly materials, dainty “lace or embroidery”, or a European dressing jacket.4 Thus, aspects of native culture were appropriated by Europeans who were seen to bring greater aesthetic sophistication to them, impressing the merit of Dutch colonial society upon visitors.

Beyond merely providing a backdrop for this phenomenon, the hotel perpetuated it through its dining experience. Forbes states that, after a fairly standard breakfast of eggs, coffee, and sausages, lunch at the Hotel der Nederlanden presented a fusion of Indonesian and western cuisines. The process of this meal, called the “rijsttafel” or “rice table” by the Dutch, involved guests helping themselves to rice served on an immense platter, spooning curry over it, adding various meats, fritters, vegetables, and condiments (pickles, chutneys, chili), and then mixing it all together.5 Not only did the “rice table” confront the uninitiated with new foods, it was also an unfamiliar ritual. Forbes notes how a family unused to the custom nearly missed out on all the food before her husband intervened.6 What is most clearly demonstrated here is the clear intention of the Hotel der Nederlanden to not imitate the colonial metropole. Rather than relying solely on familiar European dishes and practices, the hotel encouraged visitors to engage heavily with “native” cuisine. Yet, given a Dutch name, prepared by European chefs,7  and served alongside “beefsteaks and fried potatoes”,5 the “rijsttafel” was separated from whatever native roots it might have had. Like the sarongs of the ladies at the Hotel der Nederlanden, it was only a superficial adoption of Indonesian customs, redesigned for European consumption.

Thus, despite these visible areas of cultural hybridity, the Hotel der Nederlanden was still firmly entrenched in colonial hierarchies. One clear example of this is presented in Forbes’ description of the staff, as she notes the amount of male servants, waiters, and valets rushing about the hotel.8 All are said to be referred to as “boy”. Indeed, contemporary travel guides would often include sections on useful vocabulary for hotel life, which are predominantly addressed to the native “boy”.9 This imperious language made clear the implied hierarchy between Europeans and the Javanese. As such, though Javanese concepts, aesthetics, and culture are incorporated into the experience of the hotel, colonial prejudices were still present. Adoption of native attire or cuisine merely served to conceal this, suggesting instead that the Dutch were actively improving upon and modernising Indonesian society.

By analysing the Hotel der Nederlanden as a “contact zone”, we can learn about how Dutch colonial society constructed their identities as modernisers and cultural stewards. The aspects of culture chosen for appropriation and the methods by which they were adapted show that interest in truly accepting native culture was superficial. However, for Anna Forbes and visitors like her, the Hotel der Nederlanden and the wider Dutch East Indies came to embody the proof of the European capacity to advance native cultures.10 Thus, the Hotel der Nederlanden can be seen as a site where cultural contact was leveraged to highlight the beneficial effects Dutch rule had on Indonesian culture.

  1. Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturization (London, 1992), p. 4. []
  2. Anna Forbes, Insulinde: Experiences of a Naturalist’s Wife in the Eastern Archipelago (London, 1887), p. 8. []
  3. Ibid. []
  4. Anna Forbes, Insulinde: Experiences of a Naturalist’s Wife in the Eastern Archipelago (London, 1887), pp. 8-9. []
  5. Ibid, p. 11. [] []
  6. Ibid, p. 12. []
  7. Scott Merrillees, Greetings from Jakarta (Toledo, 2012), p. 80. []
  8. Ibid, p. 7. []
  9. For example: The Official Tourist Bureau, Java, The Wonderland (Batavia, 1900), pp. 4-6. []
  10. Susan Morgan, Place Matters: Gendered Geography in Victorian Women’s Travel Books About Southeast Asia (New Jersey, 1996), p. 71. []