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Reviewed by:
  • Subversive Seas: Anticolonial Networks across the Twentieth-Century Dutch Empire by Kris Alexanderson
  • Nicholas J. White
Subversive Seas: Anticolonial Networks across the Twentieth-Century Dutch Empire. By Kris Alexanderson (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2019) 300 pp. $99.99

Through a focus on the leading Dutch imperial shipping lines operating during the inter-war era, Subversive Seas stresses that European imperialism “did not merely exist within the spaces of metropole and colony but rather was a transoceanic and transnational project spanning the globe,” and that maritime imperial systems “both supported and subverted terrestrial empire” (255–256). Indeed, Alexanderson shows that threats to the rust en orde of the Dutch colonial realm emanated from a wider oceanic milieu than merely the Indonesian archipelago—for example, from the Middle East, China, and Japan. Much of Dutch policing and intelligence gathering focused on these wider maritime networks of potential subversion. Dutch shipping companies were intimately involved in these counter-subversion efforts, which also extended to thwart Japanese economic “penetration” of the Netherlands East Indies (nei), especially in the 1930s.

By the interwar period, Dutch shipping lines were in a paradoxical position. They were not only a central plank in the projection of European imperial power but also highly vulnerable and exposed to challenges to the colonial system, in which they were major participants and which extended to a transoceanic network linking Asia, the Middle East, and Europe. Thus, “Colonial subjects who used the maritime world for their own purposes exposed the vulnerabilities and limitations of Dutch imperial authority, which often ‘leaked like an old rowing boat’” (5).

Alexanderson’s re-examination of the transoceanic dimension to Dutch imperialism is made possible by an exceptionally strong use of both government and business archive material in the Netherlands, much of which she reads “against the grain” to reveal “how transoceanic and imperial connections shaped the evolving personal identities and political aspirations of individual passengers and crewmembers” (25).

In line with the new maritime history, which has shifted academics away from the “big ships” and the “big men” behind the global shipping enterprises, the book sets the history of international shipping lines with- in their sociocultural and intellectual contexts. Particularly innovative is the way in which Alexanderson demonstrates how colonial cultures influenced business mindsets and actions. Dutch ship owners “shared in a Dutch imperial epistemology about power, entitlement, and hierarchy” (22). A fascinating and highly original contribution is the discussion of passenger liners as “classrooms.” The voyage “East” served as a means of preparing expat managers and civil servants for life in the nei, justifying the racial hierarchies of the colonial order in what today seem shocking examples of “[o]bjectifying the ‘other’” (103).

In a similar vein, Alexanderson describes Java-China-Japan Lijn ships on the east-southeast Asia routes as “floating ambassadors of [End Page 155] empire, serving as the public face and floating advertisements for Dutch imperialism across Asia” (81). The observation that the 1926/7 communist uprisings in Indonesia had a big influence on Dutch paranoia and the subsequent escalation of maritime surveillance activities (for example, of pilgrims to Mecca or of Chinese coolies) is equally profound. So is the discussion of Indonesian anti-colonialism being fueled by critiques of Dutch business practices (notably on the Hajj ships).

Elegantly written, a joy to read, and aided by plentiful footnotes, Alexanderson’s study is all the stronger for its concluding discussion of the decolonization of Indonesia in the post-1945 era and the subsequent historiographical “decolonization of the Dutch colonial past” (255), to which her book ably contributes. The only regret of this reviewer is that Alexanderson did not consult the Liverpool-based archive of the Ocean Steam Ship Company, the parent of the Nederlansche Stoomvart Maatschappij Ocean. The substantial intellectual contribution of Subversive Seas might be more intrarather than interdisciplinary given the book’s impressive fusion of imperial, maritime, and business history methodologies. But readers of this journal will find much of interest, particularly Alexanderson’s integration of literature from the social sciences (human geography especially) in the introductory chapter. Alexanderson thus revives the study of seaborne transportation and emphasizes its “specialness” in terms of identity construction, transnational and transcultural...


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pp. 155-156
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