On 11 September 1984, the Amsterdam police force received a bomb threat: explosives were said to have been placed at the Van Heutsz monument in Amsterdam-Zuid. The attack on the monument failed, because the explosives did not blow up. Despite several telephone warnings, the police could not find any bombs. The next day, a teenager playing in the monument’s pond found the explosives; some of them went off and he was slightly injured. The attack was claimed by Koetoh Reh, an anti-imperialist collective named after an Indonesian village in which 460 men, women and children were murdered by the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL) led by Van Daalen and under the command of Van Heutsz. Koetoh Reh was a forerunner of the better-known RARA (Revolutionary Anti-Racist Action), an anonymous collective that fought against racism, oppression and exploitation in the 1980s and 1990s – the continuing legacy of Dutch colonial history.
The Van Heutsz monument had been controversial and an object of discussion even before it was unveiled by Queen Wilhelmina on 15 June 1935. There was significant resistance in Amsterdam’s municipal executive, but ultimately it did not stand its ground. The competition that was organized was won by a proposal of sculptor Frits van Hall and architect Gijsbert Friedhoff. The memorial is remarkable, because Van Heutsz himself is present in a supporting role only; the leading lady is a proud female figure on a pedestal, clad in a sarong and holding a legal scroll: the personification of Dutch authority in the Dutch East Indies. Two lions stand beside her, one with its paw resting on Amsterdam’s coat of arms, the other bearing a shield and sword. Reliefs on either side of the pedestal refer to East Indian culture and flora and fauna, including an anthropoid flanked by two anchors, women standing by a cocoa tree, women standing beneath a rubber tree, tropical plants and flowers, a dove, a snake, birds of prey, bamboo trees, a banana tree and a crouching tiger. The general himself is modestly portrayed on a round plaque on the pedestal. The imposing ensemble, with its extensive water feature, was the subject of various protest actions: graffiti, a (previous) bomb attack, the removal of the plaque and several official letters of protest addressed to the municipal executive.
The monument was financed using the surplus of the funds that were raised following the death of Johannes Benedict van Heutsz (1851-1924) to pay for his grave at the Nieuwe Ooster Begraafplaats. Van Heutsz’s nickname was ‘The Butcher of Aceh’ and he was known for ‘pacifying’ the persistent anti-colonial struggle in the province of Aceh. His activities paved the way for the exploitation of mineral resources. Various companies that had profited from the violent regime in the Dutch East Indies under Van Heutsz gave so generously that once the funeral monument had been completed, there was enough money left to erect a grand memorial on the Apollolaan.
Sculptor Van Hall had already remarked: ‘Replace it [the portrait of Van Heutsz] with the words Freedom, Merdeka or Indonesia and, voila, it’s a liberation monument.’ On 31 January 2004, the memorial was renamed ‘a memorial in remembrance of the relationship between the Netherlands and the East Indies during the colonial period’. This makes it an excellent example of the way a monument can change its name and content without erasing its previous meaning and associated history.
– Vincent van Velsen