End fossil-fuel era to address colonial injustices, urges prominent historian | Colonialism

End fossil-fuel era to address colonial injustices, urges prominent historian | Colonialism

Cities in the global north that curb their carbon emissions are doing more to address colonial injustices than those who focus their efforts on taking down statues and changing street names, one of Europe’s leading historians has said.

David Van Reybrouck, the Belgian author of a bestselling history of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a new book on Indonesia’s independence from Dutch rule, has become one of the key drivers of a nascent and often fraught debate about Europe’s colonial legacies. Those who have lauded his work include the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the former UN secretary general Kofi Annan.

But in an interview with the Guardian, Van Reybrouck criticised the movement of historical reckoning for being too focused on the past, calling instead for more awareness of the “colonisation of the present and the future”.

“There is more to colonialism than historical colonialism,” Van Reybrouck said. “Today’s climate change is deeply colonial: it has been largely caused by the temperate zones from the northern hemisphere and it is most deeply felt in the tropics and the Arctic. You cannot decolonise without decarbonising and vice versa.”

The dominance of identity politics in US, British and Dutch societies, he said, meant that a vital conversation about enduring colonial structures risked being relegated to mainly marginal debates around symbolic gestures rather than radical solutions.

David Van Reybrouck’s writing has been lauded by European leaders. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo

“A mayor who makes her city fossil-free by 2040 has done more against colonialism, racism and discrimination than another mayor who decolonises all the street names, statues and schoolbooks while keeping the city running on fossil fuels,” he said.

Former colonial powers, said Van Reybrouck, should jointly contribute to funds to fight the impact of the climate crisis in the global south rather than just engaging in state-to-state negotiations about reparations.

In his book Revolusi: Indonesia and the Birth of the Modern World, published in David Colmer and David McKay’s English translation last week, Van Reybrouck makes a broader pitch for rethinking the unravelling of Europe’s colonies in the global south. Not only should they be seen as a tug-of-war between coloniser and colonised, he argues, but as a series of dynamic processes in which independence movements across Asia and Africa nourished each other.

“These horizontal dynamics are often forgotten, because we’re entirely focused on the local resistance against the colonised,” Van Reybrouck said.

Dutch troops in Java in 1949. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images

The book presents Indonesia’s independence as a historical moment of global significance equivalent to the French or Russian revolutions. Declared just two days after Japan’s surrender in August 1945 and completed after four years of armed conflict, the archipelagic state’s turn to self-rule had to be “fast, full and total”, Van Reybrouck said – thus providing a powerful template for other states in Asia and Africa seeking self-rule.

“Decolonisation had to be done as quickly as possible, for the entire territory of the former colony, with the full transfer of political powers,” said the author, who conducted formal interviews with 185 witnesses for his study. “This was entirely different from the way the British saw it, for example. In India the territory had first been partitioned at the eve of independence, much to the regret of Gandhi.”

The lessons of the revolusi were spread at the 1955 Bandung conference on the island of Java, the world’s first international diplomatic conference without the involvement of the west, which the book shows to have made an impact on other independence leaders such as Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Patrice Lumumba, South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, who described the conference as “one of the two most important events of modern history”, the other being the discovery of atomic energy.

Participants climb greased poles during a greased pole-race locally known as Panjat Pinangâ to mark the 78th anniversary of Indonesia’s independence day at Ancol Beach in Jakarta, Photograph: Mast Irham/EPA

Recognising the importance of Bandung was also key to understanding the function of the UN, Van Reybrouck said. “Until 1955, the UN had been largely dominated by the west; after Bandung this changed fundamentally,” he said. While in 1945 fewer than a quarter of UN members came from Asia and Africa, by 1961 they accounted for more than half of the member states. “One can even argue that the main historical role of the UN has been that of accompanying the decolonisation movement.”

Studying the decolonisation of territories controlled by smaller European states such as Belgium and the Netherlands had also thrown up lessons for Europe, he said.

The Dutch rule of the Netherlands East Indies – the 1816-founded colony that encompassed the islands that make up modern-day Indonesia – had been exploitative and repressive, with the European state in the 1930s turning its overseas territories into what Van Reybrouck describes as “basically a police state with a strong fascist influence”.

But the Netherlands’ control of the territory was wound back relatively speedily and thoroughly, meaning for example that Dutch is no longer an official language and is spoken by few younger Indonesians. “Many young Indonesians today are quite unburdened in terms of their colonial past. For them, it’s a very, very long time ago”, Van Reybrouck said.

In 2022, the then Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, for the first time apologised for his country’s extrajudicial killings and use of torture during the Indonesian independence wars, and in recent years there have been similar requests for forgiveness from Belgium to the DRC, from Britain to Kenya, and from Germany to Namibia.

But Van Reybrouck said the timehad come for a more coordinated approach. “Everything on the continent is Europeanising, apart from our historical awareness of the colonial past: it’s the last remnant of staunchly national thinking. But how can we in the 21st century reflect on 20th-century colonialism through the prism of 19th-century nation states?”

Understanding the dynamics of European colonialism, he said, could involve joining the dots between exploitation of territories in Asia, Africa and South America, but also Denmark’s colonisation of Greenland, and Sweden and Finland’s colonisation of the Sami in the countries’ north.

“At the moment, there is no such thing as a European museum of colonialism,” Van Reybrouck said. “Maybe that would be a start.”

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