Once among Europe's major colonial powers, the Netherlands today is a postcolonial nation with over a million citizens with colonial roots. All major colonies were either lost to European competitors long ago, or attained independence in the twentieth century. Today, only six tiny islands in the Caribbean are part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands – not because the Dutch is unwilling to let them go but because these Antilles do not want to part with the metropolis.
A paradox defines Dutch colonial history and its aftermath. For the Netherlands, colonial expansion in Asia, particularly in the Indonesian archipelago, was of great importance, economically, geopolitically, and culturally. The lasting Dutch legacy in Asia, however, is very limited beyond the fact that colonialism created the geographic contours of the contemporary Republic of Indonesia. The reverse applies to trans-Atlantic expansion, which ultimately proved to be of lesser importance and interest to the Dutch, but left a deep impact on their former colonies.
This chapter will discuss Dutch colonialism, specifically in Indonesia and the Caribbean, decolonization and its effects on contemporary bilateral relations, and the postcolonial migrations and their impact on Dutch society.
A Bifurcated Colonial History
A very short history of Dutch colonialism runs as follows. While Dutch ships were engaged in incidental explorations and commercial pursuits all over the tropics by the late sixteenth century, the scale and organization of overseas expansion was greatly enhanced with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (VOC, 1602-1799) and the Dutch West India Company (WIC, 1621-1792). This resulted in a series of trading posts alongside a number of colonies mainly administrated by these companies.
A glance at the digital Atlas of Mutual Heritage illustrates the enormous expanse of area once covered by the VOC and the vast number of former settlements, fortifications, trading posts and so on that reflect this history. This string of historical settlements stretched from the Cape Colony in South Africa through Eastern Africa, the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia, to China and Japan. Most of these settlements only housed a very limited number of Europeans; and many were short-lived. In a few other places, such as Cochin in present-day India, the Dutch presence lasted longer but nonetheless left few traces.