• Toby Zwama

Haunted Silence: Tangible Suffering in Indo-Dutch Households

Traces of colonialism linger throughout the entirety of Europe, and hesitance to address the past has kept large issues unaddressed, ignored or forgotten. The Netherlands and its colonial connection to Indonesia is known to most Dutch people, however the knowledge is shallow and the complexities of the past are rarely fully addressed. As the Dutch sociologist and author Paul Scheffer wrote in his book: “...if we don’t reconsider our image of the past and if we don’t grant our colonial history a definite space in our collective memory, we violate the truth and distort the historical record” (Scheffer in Boehmer & Gouda 2009, p. 37).

One group that is currently one of the largest ethnic minorities of the Netherlands are the Indo-Dutch, whose past is based in the Dutch East Indies. They are of mixed Indonesian-Dutch descent, but due to the path of assimilation ventured by their (grand)parents, they often find it hard to recognize their cultural background and struggle with forming an identity in the face of opposing discourses about the Dutch East Indies (Pattynama, 2012; Lindo & Pang, 1999).

Historical background

During the 1950s-60s, groups of Indo-Dutch people were repatriated to the Netherlands because of the chaotic and dangerous situation known by the Dutch as the Bersiap-period. The proclamation of independence by Sukarno and the power vacuum caused by the Japanese capitulation set the stage for an explosive situation that saw the Indonesian natives attempt to rid themselves of any outside influence. This included people of mixed origins. First generation Indo-Dutch repatriates often experienced many types of trauma, as Doornbos summarises: “The daily realities of the first-generation Indo-Europeans often involved brutalities of the Japanese occupation and decolonization; loss of the home country; repatriation to the Netherlands in the 1950-60s, marginalization and discrimination.” While never having directly experienced these hardships, third-generation Indo-Dutch people are still strongly affected by the experiences of their parents and grandparents, showcasing how colonialism is still felt today.

Houses as haunted spaces

Dragojlovic (2015) used the haunted space of a family household as a framework, conceptualising ‘Indisch atmosphere’ to scrutinize intergenerational hauntings. Doornbos (2021) builds on this work together with Dragjlovic, writing of intergenerational haunting as a continuing effect of colonialism. Indo-Europeans’ memories of the past are often characterized by the longing for tempo doeloe, meaning ‘the good old days’ in Malay. Colonial life is remembered through a romantic lens that does not critically remember the war violence, racialized violence and displacement. The difficulty to remember critically and the longing for tempo doeloe causes the engagement with trauma to be shaped with secrecy and repression (Dragojlovic, 2014). For new generations of Indo-Dutch people, this secrecy and repression is felt almost physically - like a haunting.

Hirsch (2008) coined the term ‘postmemory’ to signify the pervasive effects of (family) trauma on later generations, in her case second-generation Jewish people who survived the Holocaust. The same intergenerational transmission is in effect in Indo-Dutch households, though Doornbos and Dragojlovic (2021) specify that “often, it is not the trauma itself but rather the secrecy and lack of knowledge that surround it that haunt descendants and invoke questions concerning ancestry and silences.” The ghosts of the past are so powerful especially because they become more tangible with repression and silence.

The findings of Doornbos and Dragojlovic show that Indo-Dutch participants of the study from all generations described a prevalent atmosphere of tension and grief, in which the family members felt the need to be vigilant, read the room and adapt to the (silent) suffering of their parents. They emphasized it was “typically Indisch to deal with trauma through silence and repression. Nicole, born in the 1970s recounts:

My father was very silent. I found him unpleasant. He determined the atmosphere. He always sat at the same spot. We did not grow up with communication. Always silence. My father said nothing. We always needed to check how he felt. Everything was about him. My mother completely adapted. (Doornbos & Dragojlovic, 2021, p 11)

On the other hand, the tempo doeloe could be recounted and this was sometimes done eagerly. Debbie, who was born in the 1960s, recalls: “Nothing was more fun than sitting around the kitchen table with my mum telling stories about the past, what things were like there. Anecdotes about ghosts, family and their adventures” (Doornbos & Dragojlovic, 2021).

The second-generation of Indo-Dutch still experience such struggles, while the trauma that originally caused it has not affected them personally. While articulating a desire to act differently than their parents, they find that they lack the necessary avenues to do so. Ivan describes this: “How can my father be a father to me? He cannot. Then, how can I be a father to my son? I cannot. Nobody taught me.” The topics that were treated as taboo by their parents remained as such: off-limits, and a source of pain or anger.

Silence makes trauma tangible

Intentions to ‘leave the past behind’ have not actually gotten rid of the past within the household. The ghosts of trauma remained in the house, causing tense atmosphere through an absence of openness - a ‘zone of unspeakability’ (Dragojlovic, 2011) - and the presence of certain behaviours relating to strictness, emotional numbness, unpredictability and anger of parents (Doornbos & Dragojlovic, 2021).

Works like those of Doornbos & Dragojlovic remind us of the importance of continuing to discuss such difficult topics; not only to guarantee the establishment of a balanced, well-informed historical (trans)national awareness, but also to destigmatize various forms of historical trauma and thereby make them “speakable” again.


Boehmer, E., & Gouda, F. (2009), Postcolonial studies in the context of the “diasporic” Netherlands. In M. Keown, D. Murphy & J. Procter (eds.), Comparing postcolonial diasporas (pp. 37-55). Palgrave Macmillan.

Crul, M., Lindo F., and Pang, C. L. (1999). Culture, Structure and Beyond, Changing identities and social positions of immigrants and their children. Het Spinhuis Publishers.

Dragojlovic, A. (2011). Did You Know My Father? The Zone of Unspeakability as Postcolonial Legacy. Australian Feminist Studies, 26(69), 319–334.

Dragojlovic, A. (2015). Affective Geographies: Intergenerational Hauntings, Bodily Affectivity and Multiracial Subjectivities. Subjectivity, 8(4), 315–334. https://doi/org/10.1057/sub.2015.15.

Dragojlovic, A. (2014). The Search for Sensuous Geographies of Absence: Indisch Mediation of Loss. Bijdragen Tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde / Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia, 170(4), 473–503.

Hirsch, M. (2008). The Generation of Postmemory. Poetics Today, 29(1), 103–128.

Doornbos, J. & Dragojlovic, A. (2021). “The past should not affect the children”: Intergenerational hauntings in the homes of Indo-European families. Gender, Place & Culture, 1-21.

Pattynama, P. (2012). Cultural memory and Indo-Dutch identity formations. In U. Bosma (Ed.), Post-colonial Immigrants and Identity Formations in the Netherlands (pp. 175–192). Amsterdam University Press.

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