Harm Stevens, conservator Rijksmuseum

De blik van Nederlandse soldaten op den vreemde.
Fotos van Nederlandse soldaten tijdens de Atjeh-oorlog in 1904.

Lecture presented at the symposium for the opening of the exhibit Vreemden in het vizier/Strangers in focus, Legermuseum Delft, 26. April 2012


In this paper I will focus on the specific case of the expedition  by the Dutch Colonial Army in 1904 through Gayo and Alas, a remote an unknown area in the province of Aceh in Sumatra. Militairy actions during the expedition resulted in the killing of almost 3000 of the indigenous people by the colonial troops. A large part of the victims more than a thousand - were women and children.

But first we turn our attention towards the peacefull city of The Hague.

On a winterevening in 1930, general Frits van Daalen, the commander of the 1904-expedition, slided of his chair in a local club and died of a heart attack. The last years of life Van Daalen had spend in The Hague. In this stately town the war veteran was occupied with growing roses and orchids in the garden of his house at the  Laan van Meerdervoort. In the even more domesticated sphere the former colonial fire-eater commited himself to the peacefull leisure interest of collecting stamps and coins.

From this photograph of Van Daalens former The Hague house, now apparently the residence of a dentist for children called Tandenfeest, it is a rather inconvenient transfer to the following photograph.

This picture was was taken on 20 june 1904 in the Kampong Likat in Alas, a remote area in the province of Aceh on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. A few hours before Likat had been attacked and conquered by the marechaussee troops of the Dutch Colonial Army, the KNIL, under the command of Lieutenant-colonel Van Daalen. Van Daalen had been recommended by Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, at that time special advisor to the Colonial government, as the perfect officier to carry out the heavy-handed task of suppressing rebellious indigenous populations.  This photograph of a dead man locked with his ankle in a piece of wood can be seen as a trace of the practice in the field of this so called heavy-handed task .

Next to this image there is a written account of the situation we look at that reveals an essential element of the colonial ideology and practice on the frontline of the project of pacification. In his military report of the actions in Alas in 1904, Captain Kempees accounts: In the south west part of Likat an old man was found with his leg enclosed in a block. To our inquiry why this was the case, we were said, that it was a difficult madman, that was made harmless in this way. Kempees concludes his description with this remark: For this poor man it was a benefication that one of our bullets had ended his suffering.

With this subjective explanation in mind, the well-considered message of this photograph seems to be resonating a solid believe in the white mans burden: the colonial army is acting dutiful in this barbaric, inhuman area. In the end the violence committed by Van Daalen and his soldiers is beneficial.

With a picture like this Van Daalen as the commander of the military expedition shamelessly claimed his part in the grand colonial enterprise. A year after the expedition a book in commission of Van Daalen was published written by his aide-de-camp Captain Kempees. The objective of the book was to excite general interest in the achievements of our troops in Acehs interiors, Atjehs  binnenlanden.  The preface to the book also stated that an excellent collection of photographs made it possible to illuminate (toelichten) and decorate (versieren) the work.

Captain Hendrik Neeb took part in the expedition as a medical officer, officier van gezondheid. He was also responsible for taking the photographs.  At his disposal he had Photographic equipment with a take-out mobile darkroom.

Captain Neebs photographic exploration during the expedition resulted in a series of more than hundred photographs, of which 29 were published in the book by Kempees. The complete collection can be seen as pattern-card of colonial and military preoccupations.

The photographs can be divided into categories:

1. Landscapes.



2. Photographs concerning military equipment.



3. Officers in their camps in the field.



4. Ethnographic photographs.



An interesting fragment in the book by Kempees gives an impression on the intimidating setting in which some of these ethnographic photos were taken: [] The Lieutenant-Colonel made it known that he would very much like to attend the wedding party. Following permission from the respective parents and the bridegroom, our trusty photographer was on hand to capture this moment forever, despite strong resistance from the bride. [] the bride was heavily veiled, and when the veil was lifted, it revealed a sweet, embarrassed little girl of about 12 years of age.



5. Meetings with the local chiefs.

During these meeting political matters were settled, that is to say that local authorities had to promise to submit to the colonial government. These ceremonies were of course the product of staging directed by the colonial officials. The objective of the ceremony in itself was to make an impression and to intimidate the local chiefs. But on top of that: to capture the important moment on a photograph staging directed by the cameraman was also necessary. The bamboo chairs were taken out of the officers camp and placed in such an arrangement that the commander of the colonial force Van Daalen was clearly the central figure surrounded by his officers. In front of them on a lower level, sitting cross-legged on the ground is the anonymous group of Hoofden, chiefs of Gajo-Leoes.


In this way Van Daalen - clearly positioned on a higher level than his audience - wanted to create an image of politieke aanraking a term that was used in the colonial bureaucracy: in English it translated in political contact. This photograph was apparently considered by Van Daalen, as the editor of his own military and political achievements, to be an essential image of the political success of the expedition. It was the opening illustration in the book by Kempees.

But if we have a closer look, the photo simply does not seem to capture the act of the so called politieke aanraking, the political contact with the local chiefs in a proper way. What it does capture is the European officers at the self-conscience act of observing the camera. By doing so they are shifting the attention towards the presence of this mechanical eye-witness. The officers catch the photographer in the act of taking a picture instead of the other way around.

The last category of photographs made by Captain Neeb can be seen as a topography of the terrain were the actual fighting during the expedition took place. Looking at some of these photographs is a disconcerting experience. But these photographs should challenge the researcher of today to also look at the images in a clinical way. This clinical point-of -view, in my opinion, corresponds best with the professional eye with which captain Neeb looked through the lens of his camera in 1904. As a medical doctor captain Neeb was trained and experienced in being exposed to physical atrocities. He was trained to look at the pain and suffering of others in a medical, non-sentimental and distant way. On top of that Neeb was of course part of the armed forces whose modus operandi was based on the use of violence against the enemy. 

The laborious handling of the heavy camera with its fragile glass plates that had to be installed on a standard was time consuming. The mechanic occupation of camera-handling also probably created an element of distraction. Captain Neeb seems to have been working in the tradition of the military surveyor,  landmeter in Dutch. It appears as if he was commanded to use his camera to map the terrain. The original captions under the photographs are using the technical and mathematical language of the fortification engineer. In that sense they seem to underline the military and strategic intention of the photographs.


Koetö Reh. Gezicht langs de zuider borstwering.

But next to this topographical qualification, it is also can be qualified as a picture of a mass grave. With the soldiers and officers in a pose, all of them very much aware of the fact that they are being photographed.


Koetö Reh, gezicht langs de West Face

Again a topographical title for a photograph that is fact an image of a mass grave. And if we look close it is also a shocking image of female survivor with her back turned against the camera in the nearby presence of the colonial soldiers who are again all looking at the camera. 


Likat, een bendetje aan de N.O. saillant

The author of the caption marks the scene on this photograph as a bendetje, a small mess of maybe a should be translated as small gang. An interesting aspect of this photograph is that it reveals clearly a few traces of staging, probably done by the photographer and his assistants. The way the firearms are placed in this scene makes it clear that there has been an intervention before the picture was taken. The guns are positioned in a horizontal way, as a visible evidence that the enemy used them against the colonial army.

Plaat 87. Likat. Schuilhoek waaruit Watrin gewond werd

This ominous description Lieutenant Watrin was one of the marechaussee officers (his sword of honour is on show in the Legermuseum) - in combination with the scene captured in the photograph reveals that our cameraman on the spot and the editors of the images and captions seem to be having a blind spot for the horrific impact of what was depicted in the photograph.

Last example: Volkshoop aan de de Noord face In English: Heap of people on the north face.

Again the caption makes it clear that the photographer is not looking at individuals, or human beings that were killed. Or the young children that that survived the massive violence with which the kampong was conquered. Instead the volkshoop is being depicted as an element of the terrain, just as lifeless as the bamboo sticks that lay shattered on the ground.