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  • Nurturing Indonesia: Medicine and Decolonisation in the Dutch East Indies by Hans Pols
  • Maurits Bastiaan Meerwijk

Colonial and Postcolonial History, Nationalism, Indonesia, Psychiatry

Hans Pols, Nurturing Indonesia: Medicine and Decolonisation in the Dutch East Indies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. 302 pp.

What was the role of medicine in the development of nationalist movements and the processes of decolonization in the Dutch East Indies? This is the question that historian Hans Pols seeks to answer in Nurturing Indonesia. Tracing the growing opportunities for local populations to study medicine in the colony and in Europe, Pols demonstrates how Indies physicians came to espouse and subsequently reject the ideals of the so-called Ethical Policy. Resentment at their ambivalent position in colonial society and dissatisfaction with the colonial project as a whole translated into the creation of both professional and political organizations: fostering shared professional identities as well as a multiplicity of visions of an independent Indonesia. If medicine was a "tool of empire," Pols argues, it was also an instrument of decolonization.

The opening chapters examine how a first generation of Indies physicians with Dutch medical degrees adopted European ideals of "modernity" and "progress" – viewing them as means through which to eliminate the social and medical challenges faced by the archipelago. Meanwhile, young Indies elites attending the new medical schools of Batavia and Surabaya advanced through rigorous curricula to emerge with "hybrid" identities. They were equipped with "a physiological and pathological gaze … they would later turn upon the colonial social body" (p. 58) and given access to the powerful medical metaphors with which to describe it (pp. 231–232). Contrary to their expectations, the efforts of Indies physicians to make European modernism their own received a lukewarm welcome. Their "ambiguous, even paradoxical" (p. 44) social position upon graduation constituted "a rude awakening."

Disappointed and disgruntled, Indies physicians began to rethink colonial society, European modernity, and adat. As Chapters 3 and 4 explore, they became involved in the various youth organizations and professional medical associations that sprang up over the 1910s. Chapter 4 is the lynchpin in the overall argument of Nurturing Indonesia, in fact, as Pols turns towards the "absurd" (p. 93) position Indies physicians occupied in colonial society. While their familiarity with local customs made them "indispensable" to Dutch governance, the Western-style educated physician had become alienated from his kin while being rejected by European colonials. Dutch officials and physicians argued that Indies physicians forgot their proper place. Pols's analysis of the latter's response to such abuse exposes both the ambiguities of Dutch colonial rule and the self-interest that drove much of this early political activity (pp. 107–114).

In Chapter 5, Pols turns towards a facet of colonial medicine that is often overlooked. Assessing Dutch theories of "the native mind," he describes how Indies physicians were acutely aware of the political implications of colonial psychiatry and [End Page 225] vehemently opposed them. Their critiques, he argues, constituted the "earliest sustained analyses of the role of psychological and psychiatric theories in colonial society as well as the psychological consequences of colonisations" (pp. 130–131). Through the 1920s, physicians became more ardent opponents of colonial governance and pursued strategies of non-cooperation. At the same time, they pursued new research agendas and created new publishing venues for Indies medical research. Political and professional organizations thus advanced concurrently. The following chapter, meanwhile, demonstrates how Rockefeller activities in the archipelago provided "a viable alternative" (p. 146) to Dutch colonial medicine: demonstrating a preventative public health strategy that appealed to a grassroots "medical nationalism" (pp. 153–159).

The final chapters of Nurturing Indonesia take the reader through the activities of Indies physicians during Japanese occupation, the Indonesian revolution, and independent Indonesia. During the war, "Indonesia's medical elite was in charge of medical education and medical care" for the first time (p. 165). An off-hand remark that students at the suspended law school "tended to be more radical than the medical students" (p. 172) prompted a question of Pols's otherwise compelling arguments. How did the political and professional activities of Indies physicians described in preceding chapters compare to nationalist sentiments and activities in other professions...


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