John Oliver’s recent “last week tonight” episode reminded me of a blog idea that has been in the back of my mind for a long time now. Let’s start with the clip that triggered this:
At the 7:07 mark, a man steps up to defend confederate statues by speaking about his family heritage at a community meeting in North Carolina. He says he always felt proud of his great grandfather’s involvement in the American civil war. His ancestor had stood up for his rights and was willing to fight and die for them. The man says it reminds him that he has “a little rebel” in him. You can tell he feels he is being robbed of this feeling now that the confederate statues are being shown in a different light.
As much as this makes me giggle, roll my eyes and shake my head, I do get it. Profoundly more so than I may care to admit, at first glance.
My own heritage is filled with adventurous globetrotters, standing for what they believed was right in the context of their time.
My great grandfather, for example, was a preacher from the rural North of the Netherlands who travelled to the Dutch colonies (in current day Indonesia) at the beginning of the twentieth century for what I imagine would’ve been missionary work. I know very little about him or what he did there exactly, but as a colonizing power, you can imagine we Dutchies do not have clean hands in every aspect.
I hope to be able to find out more about him and what he did, some day. I am proud to be a descendant of a man willing to venture into the unknown. I can only hope he did more good than bad for the people of Magelang.
The preacher had a son, my grandfather, who was born in Palembang, Indonesia in 1915. All though I’m not sure about when exactly they returned to the Netherlands, I do know my grandfather was attending University in the Dutch city of Delft, when the Second World War was at its peak.
I can imagine his international upbringing made him more conscious of global issues and the miles he must have made at sea as a child traveling from Indonesia to the Netherlands, would have tempered his fear of open water. So, when faced with a possible Nazi labor deployment, he decided to flee the country by boat with two companions and his Belarussian wife, who refused to leave his side. Across the North Sea, in England, they joined our queen and the allied forces to fight fascism across the globe.
As I wrote a few years ago after my own tribute to their voyage, the so called “Engelandvaarders“, or England sailers, are an important part of Dutch WWII history and even have their own museum in the seaside town of Noordwijk to commemorate them. So yes, I am proud to be able to call myself a descendant of theirs.
At the same time, I know my grandparents chose to join the KNIL, or Royal Netherlands East Indies Army, a military division that is not without controversy. As with my great grandfather’s deeds and position, I do not know the details of my grandparents’ role here (yet). What I do know is that following World War II, “the KNIL was used in two large military campaigns in 1947 and 1948 to re-establish Dutch control of Indonesia. The KNIL and its Ambonese auxiliaries have been accused of committing war crimes during this “police action”.”
So yes, still proud… but very conscious of the fact that the reality they were facing and that facts they were presented with at the time, must have made them feel the cause they were fighting for was a just one. If this is still the case today, now that we can zoom out and look at the end results, remains to be seen.
Next in line is my father, who was born in Indonesia in 1947 himself and has travelled the world during much of his life, doing development work in South America and the Middle East. How many people’s lives has he actually improved? How many people learnt how to fish themselves thanks to the projects he led and how many “merely” received a charity fish? How much money was wasted on corruption and how much was actually spent effectively? How many projects brought people what they really needed on the long term and how many were merely set up as short term tools in the Dutch political agenda?
So… I guess my point is, I am proud to say that I come from a lineage of adventurers and people wanting to make a difference in the world. If their cause or methods were always good, is up to debate. A debate I am willing to engage in.