Comparatively Exceptional: The Paradoxes of Twentieth-Century Dutch Imperialism and Decolonization
This chapter reflects on a number of recent historiographical interventions in the field of modern Dutch imperialism and decolonization as well as the challenges of studying these subjects. It posits that such challenges stem from persistent, reflexive claims concerning the ‘exceptional’ nature of Dutch imperialism and decolonization, and demonstrates how such claims of uniqueness and exceptionality continue to shape academic and popular understandings. Foray devotes particular attention to simple and commonly used linguistic devices, such as the ‘yes, but…’ phraseology, which positions the Netherlands as somehow different from other empires and therefore outside the realm of meaningful comparison. This chapter is offered in support of a comparative 'New Imperial History' undertaken by a global community of scholars examining the history and legacies of the Dutch empire.
This essay is based on the author’s paper and talk delivered at the ‘Visions of Empire in Dutch History’ conference, held in Leiden, the Netherlands, on September 29–30, 2016. I have also incorporated into this piece other participants’ papers, audience commentary and questions, and topical discussions that occurred over the course of this two-day international conference focusing on both early modern and modern Dutch imperialism. I would like to thank conference organizers (and this volume’s editors) Anne-Isabelle Richard, René Koekkoek, and Arthur Weststeijn for their thoughtful commentary as well as Martijn Eickhoff and Jeroen Kemperman for their insightful responses to some of the claims I have raised in this piece.