In 1900, when The Hidden Force was first published, Holland was at the height of its power in the Dutch East Indies, today’s Indonesia. In 1899, the sultans of Acheh had been defeated and the whole island of Sumatra brought under Dutch rule. The smaller islands, such as Lombok, the Moluccas, and the Lesser Sunda Islands, were subjugated in the 1880s and 1890s. And Java already had been colonized for some time before that.
As it turned out, complete Dutch control over its Asian colony was only to last for about fifty years. But of course nobody could have known that in 1900. To the Dutch governors, planters, businessmen, administrators, police officers, scholars, geographers, soldiers, bankers, travelers, railway engineers, schoolteachers, and their wives, 1900 must have felt like the best of times.
It was also just then, at the very peak of Dutch power, that an idea of nationhood began to emerge among native intellectuals. A Javanese feminist, Radeng Adjeng Kartini, advocated education for women. And in 1908, her friend Dr. Sudara founded the Budi Utomo, the first nationalist association, inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi. National independence was not their immediate aim. They wanted a bigger say in the way they were governed. And there was growing sympathy for this view in Holland. The “liberal” policy, which meant the liberty of Dutch planters to exploit the colonies as they saw fit, was replaced by the “ethical” policy, which took a fuller account of native interests. But full independence would only come after World War II, during which the Javanese shook the foundations of European rule by showing the white imperialist, so to speak, without clothes.
In fact, the Europeans always were vulnerable. Colonial rule, in Indonesia as well as, say, India, had to be based to some extent on bluff; the idea of European supremacy had to seem natural, and for it to appear that way the Europeans themselves, as much as the native populations under their control, had to believe it to be so. As soon as the colonialists lost faith in their natural right to rule—a loss which Nirad C. Chaudhuri, speaking of the British in India, once memorably characterized as “funk”—the colonial edifice, built over time, often haphazardly, would begin to rot, slowly, at first imperceptibly, but relentlessly, until the whole thing came toppling down. Perhaps it is so with all authoritarian systems. Loss of nerve was certainly a factor in the collapse of the Soviet empire. So perhaps Mountbatten and Gorbachev had something in common.
But in the Dutch East Indies in 1900, I suspect, only a sensitive novelist, passing through, would have been able to pick up the smell of decay, or, at any rate, to put that smell into words. Louis Couperus was such a novelist. And The Hidden Force, written during a year-long stay in the East Indies, is one of the masterpieces to come from the colonial experience. It is still regarded as a great book in …