Crossing the street in the Netherlands or “how transportation changes the manner we live the city”

By Richard Blais

Crossing the street in the Netherlands for the first time is a sort of adventure. You get closer to the road in a shy manner, you prepare to step and cross it, and a bicycle passes. Then a second one and a third and you lose track. You get patient, and when finally the right moment arrives another bicycle passes again, and a second and then a third. It is an endless cycle. Dutch people have the reputation of being born on wheels, and after a semester in Groningen I can testify that this assumption is below reality.

After a year in Bordeaux, a city where cycling became a very common practice, I assumed the situation in Groningen would be extremely similar. A terribly wrong and underestimating assumption, resulting probably of the famous French arrogance. It was when I first arrived in front of the Rijksuniversiteit, the University of Groningen, that I realised my mistake. If we talk of a park for bicycles, the Dutch style consists in long thickets made of bicycle, where gears, chains and handlebars replace the branches. A park found in all circumstances in front of the main building of the university, despite the (usual) rain and wind. A true anecdote: some days, I have spent more time looking for my bike than riding it to university.

Moving around in a Dutch city is to experience a specific setting seemingly designed for bicycles. With the omnipresence of cycling tracks and a – almost – disappearance of any ground elevation, it seems that the Netherlands has been constructed specifically for the two-wheelers. After I rented my bike in this city I noticed how much my daily life has changed for the better and I became an immediate lobbyist for this means of transportation around me arguing against the few unfortunate friends who had not been touched by the holy (dynamo) light. Indeed, there is always a cycling track for the cyclist, either on the side of the road, or on a separated portion. They have their own circulation-lights, and the notions of one-way streets do not apply to the person riding a bike. Reflecting on this, I asked myself the following question: are the cities built around a means of transportation? 

Thinking of it, means of transportation are part of the experience of a city. Modern (Northern) American cities have been conceived in a manner which makes the car essential to daily life. The capital city of Bolivia, La Paz has set a system of urban cable-cars, particularly relevant for a city standing 3,000 meters above sea-level [1]. Moving in a city is part of its experience. The German historian Hartmut Kaelbe, reflecting on common elements which were constituting this elusive European identity we try to grasp in this master have noticed that the scale of the European cities could be a possible element of it, as it is possible to just “walk” in them.

To study the favoured mode of transportation in a city is to study society itself. Looking at the 20th century, and consequently the boom of the urban growth in Western society helps at understanding the societal changes and how they are reflected in the conception of cities. At the beginning of the century, the most adapted manner to have public transportation in the mind of urban-planners is to have a tramway, or even better, an underground metro system for the largest cities in order to save some precious space. This is why by travelling to Portugal or Czech Republic, the tourist may find a tramway network of a certain age, with a charming feeling of authenticity.

And then, the Second World War occurred, and following this tragic event, the rise of car production in the 1950s and 1960s made the tramway an obsolete thing. The average person preferred to public transportation their own automobile which was, as Barthes commented, associated with positive values such as self-liberty. When the individual transportation was triumphing, the collective ones are transforming differently depending on the region of Europe. Mass transit is not in the mind of city-planners in the Mediterranean countries and remained focused on the automobile. On the other hand, countries of the Soviet Bloc kept pushing for this egalitarian common system of urban transport. That is why every student who had the chance to discover the wonderful city of Olomouc (my vision might be biased after a semester there), surely noticed the vintage tramways circulating around the city.

The ambition to keep urban policies primarily focused on the car-usage slowed down at the end of the century for a few reasons. The first one is a saturation of the road network and the disagreements it causes. The car, symbol of freedom, is soon perceived as a constraint, the one of pollution, traffic, and expensive road maintenance. And the oil crisis of the 1970s and the sharp increase of the price of fuel pushes for a new reflection on urban policies.

It is in this specific context that older means of transportation resurfaced in the mind of city-planners. The tramway shifts from its outdated image to a symbol of a modern urban asset. Modern tramways are tied to the goal of having a sustainable society and increase the value of the urban spaces located around their rails. In the Netherlands, the holy-land of the two-wheelers, bicycles only became a norm after the oil shock of 1973. Following the sharp increase of the price of black gold, cities are re-thought to adapt the bicycle to the daily experience of the city, by developing infrastructures to fit the usage of the cyclists through construction of bike parking, cycling tracks etc.

However, sustainable development and the price of fuel are not the only arguments which push for greener means of transportation. A broader range of reasons pushes the inhabitants of city to prefer a certain means of transportation than another. It depends as well on local culture, the attitude of consumers (their own experience, lifestyles), physical constraints, or the manner in which the city is constructed. 

Each city or country has a dedicated manner to move around which is the most adapted to its own context. Movement is part of its local culture and is a reflection of its society. In a similar fashion with museums, landscapes, streets, houses, means of transportation are part of the local city culture. To experience bike-riding in the Netherlands is to take an interest in Dutch culture. The experience of a similar manner to move around locally creates a group of individuals sharing an experience. Codes, habits, conditions – either terrible or excellent – are all elements shared by those who experience daily the city. It is extremely easy to know if someone is a tourist or not in public transportation. Online, Facebook groups and Twitter accounts exist to jokingly criticise means of transportation in some cities. These groups rely on a shared experience of users who posses keys to understand  humour creating an informal community of users. Moving in a city seems to be one of the elements of local urban culture.

However, considering all these information will not prevent you to curse at this continuous flow of Dutch people people on bikes, until you master the delicate art of crossing a street in Netherlands.

Featured picture: David King, Flickr

References

Bolivia: El Teleférico Que Unió Dos Mundos – BBC Mundo. Accessed September 15, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnc6W_6xGT0.

Carré, Jean-René. “Le vélo dans la ville : un révélateur social.” Les cahiers de médiologie 5, no. 1 (1998): 151. https://doi.org/10.3917/cdm.005.0151.

“« Il nous faut nous désintoxiquer de la voiture ».” Le Monde.fr, August 5, 2019. https://www.lemonde.fr/festival/article/2019/08/05/il-nous-faut-bon-gre-mal-gre-nous-desintoxiquer-de-la-voiture_5496579_4415198.html.

“La Nouvelle Citroën, Extrait de ‘Mythologies’ de Roland Barthes.” Accessed September 15, 2019. https://www.desordre.net/textes/bibliotheque/barthes_citroen.htm.

Lois González, Rubén C., Miguel Pazos Otón, and Jean-Pierre Wolff. “Le tramway entre politique de transport et outil de réhabilitation urbanistique dans quelques pays européens : Allemagne, Espagne, France et Suisse.” Annales de géographie 694, no. 6 (2013): 619. https://doi.org/10.3917/ag.694.0619.

VERS UN SOCIETE EUROPEENNE. Une histoire sociale de l’europe 1880-1980 – Hartmut Kaelble. 

Report: The Maastricht Debate Aftermath

By Maeva Chargros

On Monday, April 29th, the first official debate of the European elections took place in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Organised by Politico with their usual partners, it featured five out of the six main groups running for the upcoming European Parliament elections, which are set to happen from May 23rd to 26th.

This debate was meant in every way to target young voters, for a number of good reasons. One of them being that young people are currently getting more and more involved in politics worldwide, be it through the Fridays for Future demonstrations or other “channels”. Therefore, the three main themes of this debate were picked accordingly: Digital Europe, Sustainable Europe, and the Future of Europe. Here are some observations pertaining to the content – but also the general atmosphere impression.

Stable Leader: Frans Timmermans (S&D)

Very honestly, Frans Timmermans was the most well-prepared candidate for this debate. He knew all the topics thoroughly, he was able to articulate specific proposal for each main question, and he did not wasted time on any unnecessary argument. However, it is easy to be in this position for someone who is currently dealing with all these topics as Vice-President of the European Commission. Slight advantage that he definitely seized. Showing leadership at every level, he called for Europeans to “vote Green”, reminding everyone that “there is no competition”. Indeed, the Dutch politician chose to be transparent about his intentions in case he was to become the next President of the European Commission: alliance with the Greens, the Left, and an open-door to negotiations with ALDE. Timmermans did not forget to build on the momentum created by the Spanish general elections on Sunday (28.04) evening – including regarding gender equality, which seems to be among the top priorities of all five candidates.

He is the clear winner of this debate, if we dare to forget his neighbour standing at the centre of the stage. Continue reading “Report: The Maastricht Debate Aftermath”

My Third Semester: Research Track at Osaka University, Japan (2017-2019)

Interviews conducted by Ivana Putri

Elisabeth Stursberg (DE, Strasbourg-Groningen), or also known by her classmates as Lizzie,  studied Cultural History and Theory & Economics during her Bachelor’s. After she took interest in the selection of partner universities and cities Euroculture offers, she started her Euroculture life with the intention to learn more about European history, culture, and politics and the EU in particular, and find out if she could see herself working for the EU or another IO afterwards.
Inès Roy (FR/MA, Udine-Strasbourg) has a background in Languages and International Business. Her decision to study Euroculture stems from her desire to travel and study at the same time. She has always been interested in the concept of cultures and how they are perceived from different standpoints.
Both have returned from their research semester at Osaka University, Japan, and are their final semester at Université de Strasbourg. Thanks Inès and Lizzie, for taking the time to share your experiences!

1. How did you come to the decision of doing a research track at Osaka?

Elisabeth Stursberg (ES): The choice between internship and research track was not too easy, since both sounded like a great option. What influenced my choice most though was the possibility to spend a semester in Japan, a country I had not visited before but was so curious about! I actually don’t think I would have done the research track if I hadn’t been accepted for Osaka. Another reason was that I had already done several internships during my Bachelor’s (it’s pretty common in Germany and often even implicitly, or explicitly, required by employers) and will probably do at least one more after finishing this MA. Time flew by so quickly already in the first semester, and I just liked the idea of studying for another semester as long as I had the chance. Japan as the destination was also a major factor, since I was going to take the research seminar on Integration Processes in East Asia and in Europe during the second semester – so it just seemed like a perfect fit.
Inès Roy (IR): As far as I can remember, I always wanted to go to Japan to see the beautiful landscapes, as well as to see how the ultra-modern and the traditional interact. However, traveling to and living in a country for a few months are two very different experiences. So the possibility to go there was actually another reason for me to apply for Euroculture! As I don’t speak Japanese and wouldn’t be able to find an internship there, I believed this research semester was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

2. What was the research semester like? Continue reading “My Third Semester: Research Track at Osaka University, Japan (2017-2019)”

Student Profiles: Nienke Schrover (NL, Groningen-Krakow)

Interview conducted by Ivana Putri

Nienke Schrover (2017-2019) is from the Netherlands. She has a Bachelor degree in Human Geography at Utrecht University and a minor in International Relations at the University of Amsterdam. She decided to apply for the Euroculture programme because she absolutely loved the experience of studying abroad with other international students, and after participating in an exchange semester at Newcastle University, England, for her Bachelor’s,  she wanted to experience it again.
For her, the Euroculture programme meets her broader interests as it focuses not only on European politics, but also culture/identity, international relations, and so on. Nienke’s Euroculture life started at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, and continued at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland. She is currently doing an internship at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels, Belgium.
Thank you Nienke, for taking the time to answer these questions!

1. What was the most difficult thing that you had to adjust to when you started the programme?

Oddly enough, the thing I found most difficult to adjust to after starting the program was the fact that people come from such diverse backgrounds. It was quite new for me to see that people had such different levels of knowledge and different perspectives. Since I had lived in the same house for the first 20 years of my life, it was also very new to me to learn about identity and how many of my classmates have family from so many different places. I definitely learned a lot about identities and how to be more open and sensitive to different perspectives. Continue reading “Student Profiles: Nienke Schrover (NL, Groningen-Krakow)”

Student Profiles: Samuel Yosef (IT/ER, Strasbourg-Groningen)

Interview conducted by Ivana Putri

Samuel Yosef (2017-2019) is half-Italian and half-Eritrean. Before Euroculture, he studied Law at Sapienza – University of Rome. After his Bachelor’s, Sam wanted to do a Master programme in European Studies that combined travel and an opportunity to experience new things outside his hometown Rome. He heard about an Erasmus Mundus Master from a friend who was doing one on Space Studies. After a look at the universities and cities comprising the Euroculture Consortium as well as the possibility to study outside Europe, he decided that Euroculture was a perfect combination of his ideal MA programme.
He studied in the University of Strasbourg, France in the first semester and spent the second semester in the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. He just returned to Rome after a research semester abroad in Osaka, Japan, and is getting ready to move again to Strasbourg for the last semester of his studies.
Thank you Sam, for taking the time to answer these questions!

1. What was the most difficult thing that you had to adjust to when you started the programme?

Bureaucracy and housing. When I first moved to Strasbourg, I didn’t have a place to live–just an Airbnb–and my mother came with me to find a house. I arrived in Strasbourg a week before classes started. I didn’t know how to look for a house because I’ve never had to do it before. With everything being in French it was hard for me to communicate, let alone find something. On top of that, there are a lot of French “regulations” with the housing search that I didn’t know about. For example, most of the housing offers for students require a French guarantor.
In the end, the housing search turned out to be very hard. It was also partly my fault because it was already too late when I started looking, and anywhere, September is a very busy month for students in search of a place to live. Eventually, everything worked out, but at the time, it felt like my major source of “threat” was finding a house. I learned from this, of course–for my fourth semester, I started looking in September to find a place to live from January.

2. What were your expectations of the curriculum and how does it match with the reality at the moment? Continue reading “Student Profiles: Samuel Yosef (IT/ER, Strasbourg-Groningen)”

Euroculture: The Not-So-Cold North!

By Anne-Roos Renkema

The Euroculture universities are full of surprises, as was demonstrated in the last edition of the consortium universities, that govered the hidden gems Olomouc, Krakow and Udine. All of the universities in the consortium have their own beauty, and this time we are travelling a little further north: to Groningen, Göttingen and Uppsala. The more northern universities, especially one particular very northern one, have a very obvious con: the rain, the snow, the ever-present cold. Or, in the Swedish case, the darkness. But do not be fooled by this particular con of the north of Europe, because these cities and universities have their own charm.

There’s nothing beyond Groningen

The Groningen city slogan is the following: “Er gaat niets boven Groningen“, or: “there nothing above and beyond Groningen”. It is a pun, due to its northern, and some might say peripheral, location in The Netherlands. There’s literately very little above and beyond Groningen. However, due to the small size of the Netherlands, you are only an hour and a half away from the West of The Netherlands, with cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague. Not that you would need to go, though, because Groningen is a beautiful and cozy city, filled with students and activities. Continue reading “Euroculture: The Not-So-Cold North!”

The Elections that will shape Europe #1: The Netherlands

Geert_Wilders_tijdens_een_politieke_campagne_in_Spijkenisse
Geert Wilders. Photo by Peter van der Sluijs

Arne Van Lienden

This is the first in a series where The Euroculturer dives into the upcoming elections in The Netherlands, France, and Germany. In this first article, Arne van Lienden explains the stakes in the Dutch elections.

It is safe to say that 2017 will be a decisive year for the future of the European Union. Not only will the EU have to negotiate the exit of the UK from the Union, following the Brexit referendum, but it will also have to contend with uncertain elections in three founding Member States. Among these three are Germany and France, who, especially after the UK’s departure, are the most financially and politically powerful members of the Union. With populism on the rise and anti-EU sentiment becoming more widespread, it is needless to say that these elections will be vital for the survival of the EU, at least in its current form. With the French elections in April and the German elections in September, it might be easy to overlook the Dutch elections this month. Although The Netherlands is significantly smaller and less powerful in the European arena than France and Germany, the elections on the 15th of March will serve as a lipid test for how the electorates of the so-called ‘core’ countries of the EU will respond to the Brexit referendum, austerity measures and budget cuts, as well as the influx of refugees. It is the first round in a series of fights that will decide Europe’s future.

The surge and decline of Geert Wilders

In order to form an executive government in the Netherlands, a party needs a majority of the seats in the Tweede Kamer (Parliament). This comes down to 76 seats out of the 150 available. In contrast to, for instance, the UK, a Dutch party has never managed to win 76 seats outright. Therefore, the Dutch government is always a coalition of different parties, often with strikingly different political ideologies. Especially in today’s fragmented political climate, polls show that the biggest party will probably get no more than 25 seats in this election. This will mean that there is most likely going to be a broad coalition government, which sometimes can consist of four or five parties. The coalition system ensures that governmental policies are always the result of a consensus between different, often opposing, parties, making it impossible for radical policies to get passed. However, a common criticism is that practically nothing ever gets done due to this balancing act.

Mark_Rutte_Torentje_2012
Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Photo by Minister-president

It is important to understand the coalition system to understand why, in the last months before the election, far-right Eurosceptic Geert Wilders is dropping several points in the polls per week. Of all the 28 (!) parties that are participating in the elections, only a few have not ruled out Geert Wilders’ PVV as a coalition partner. PVV’s stance on Islam and immigration were a deal breaker for parties on both the left and right. For current Prime Minister and leader of the right-leaning VVD Mark Rutte, there is also a personal factor that rules Wilders out as a coalition partner. Rutte’s first government fell after Wilders withdrew his support, something that Rutte has never forgiven. The slim chances of actually ending up in government made the PVV lose many voters – voters who rather strategically support a party that will be able to form a coalition. Nonetheless, recent polls still show that the PVV will end up as one of the biggest parties – if not the biggest – in the Netherlands, and for that reason it will be an important voice in the opposition of the future government. Some people also fear that promises of moderates to not work with the PVV will be forgotten once the votes are cast. Mark Rutte’s VVD in particular is seen as a party that could pragmatically change its tune after the elections.

Puzzling for a coalition

With new polls coming out every other day, Dutch politicians and citizens are puzzling to find a workable coalition that has 76 or more seats in Parliament. The VVD and PVV seem to be leading in the polls, but few other parties want to work in a coalition with these two parties. A more likely option is a center-left government, including Christian-Democrats, socialists, environmentalists, and classical liberals. A loud proponent of a possible center-left coalition is the young Jesse Klaver, leader of GroenLinks (GreenLeft). Often compared to Justin Trudeau for his appearance and political style, Klaver’s GroenLinks is expected to go from four seats to 18 or more. Klaver’s political star is rising and this is frightening the VVD and PVV, who both chose to resign from a televised debate after they heard that Klaver was invited behind their backs. Right-wing tabloid De Telegraaf started the offensive against Klaver and was surprisingly joined by other leftist parties that were aiming to win back voters that have been lured over to GroenLinks. Lodewijk Asscher, the new leader of PvdA (Labor), attacked Klaver for allowing prices to rise due to higher taxes on driving cars and more subsidies for green energy.

JesseKlaver
Jesse Klaver. Photo by BuelensLeon

Nothing is settled yet, and the coalition negotiations after the coming elections will be fierce and difficult. Although Klaver has repeatedly reached out to the Christian-Democrats as a possible coalition partner, these parties might very well choose to join Mark Rutte’s VVD. The VVD is still rising in the polls, but with a strikingly smaller margin than in 2012. Austerity measures and integrity scandals have made trust in Rutte and the VVD decline significantly, and the campaign by the VVD revolves completely around regaining lost trust, combined with a more right-wing tone to siphon votes from the PVV.

The Netherlands in Europe

What does the current political climate say about the role of the Netherlands in Europe? It is clear that the Netherlands is heavily divided over issues of integration, finance, and Europe. Like many European countries where populism is on the rise, the political debate has become more complicated. With Wilders trying to delegitimize the media and Rutte refusing televised debates, it seems that democracy has already become a clear loser in the upcoming elections. The role of the Dutch in Europe is contested, but except for the PVV and some marginal right-wing parties, it is a political consensus that the Netherlands needs the EU more than that it suffers from the EU.

However, even though the PVV is unlikely to form a part of the government, it has succeeded in hardening the tone of the Dutch political debate and making anti-EU rhetoric more acceptable. To be pro-European is often frowned upon, and needs more explaining than to say one is against the European project. Although the Dutch elections precede the French and German ones, government policy will, for a great part, rely on how the new German and French governments will deal with the EU. The Netherlands is too small to unilaterally turn its back on Europe or to single-handedly speed up the integration processes. It relies on the policies set in the European powerhouses. The normalization of anti-EU rhetoric in the political arena of a founding EU Member State is a frightening development that promises nothing good for the future of Europe. On the other hand, a pro-European center-left coalition  could serve as an example to other European countries that, even in a time of populism and the alt-right, progressive policies still stand a chance.

Click here for more National Politics on The Euroculturer.

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The Americorner: EU launches new campaign to retain its 28 member structure

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The EU has always had an upward trend in terms of membership…. until recently. Graphic by Kolja21.

Ryan Minett

With the United Kingdom bound to leave in the near future, the European Union is working on a daring plan to keep 28 member states. With Brexit approaching and no suitable candidates for accession to the European Union, the European Parliament has decided to split off a part of one of the remaining 27 members in order to keep 28 member states. Federica Mogherini remarks, “We have had an upward trend in regards to membership in the European Community, and we will not allow one referendum to get in the way of that.”

In regards to how this would play out in reality, the Parliament has offered a few suggestions. Among the more obvious options we have Cyprus, who would require the least effort to split up, and Germany, who already has plenty of precedent when it comes to dividing their country. Other suggestions include splitting Holland from the rest of the Netherlands “because then everyone would finally have to get the names right”, Wallonia from the rest of Belgium “because now everyone knows that Wallonia actually exists anyway”, and Paris from the rest of France. One of the earliest suggestions from German MEP Frauke Petry was to split Czechoslovakia in half before she was informed that this had already been achieved. As for the obvious choices like Catalonia, the Parliament shot this idea down immediately. President Martin Schulz said, “If we give Catalonia their independence, next thing you know the Bavarians will want independence and maybe even the Basque. We are committed to 28 Member States, 29 is just a nasty number.”

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Yugoslavia is a good example of the ease with which the EU’s new plan could be implemented. Here is a graphic of just some of the divisions it has made since 1989. Image by Hoshie.

Mogherini sounded upbeat about this radical plan despite the lack of specifics or tangible details. “Europeans arbitrarily creating new borders has a long history of success. Just look at the old colonies- look how successful that has been.” This is expected to be a top priority of the European Union in 2017 and they have asked the European public for their opinion. The EU has set up a hotline for suggestions at, +32(0)X XX XXXXX, for anyone wishing to have their voice heard.

Featured picture: construction of the Berlin Wall.

Click here for more of The Americorner with Ryan Minett!

The Euroculturer Recommends:

 “The Hybrid War: Russia’s disinformation campaign and the New Cold War” by Lianne Arentsen

“Trumped in America: Undercover Europeans at Trump’s Cincinnati rally” by Sabine Volk and Elisa Abrantes

“What is an Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree?” by Virginia Stuart-Taylor

 

What is an Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree?

This week The Euroculturer is delighted to share this post from travel blogger and Euroculture student Virginia Stuart-Taylor. Virginia’s blog, The Well-Travelled Postcard, is a popular travel blog, aimed at inspiring people to get out and see the world.

Recently I moved to Groningen in the Netherlands to begin the Erasmus programme, Euroculture: Society, Politics and Culture in a Global Context. This degree programme has a slightly unusual structure where students move to 3 or more different countries in 2 years and I’ve had a lot of questions asked about the programme by others who are tempted by that idea! My Master’s degree follows a relatively unknown structure that not many people have heard about, but it’s such a great idea that I thought I’d explain it in a bit more detail. First off the name: it’s called an Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree.

Is it like Erasmus?

You’ve hopefully already heard of Erasmus… If not, then you’re missing out! Erasmus is an incredible student exchange programme run by the European Commission (an EU institution) that allows Bachelor’s students across Europe to spend a semester or a full year of their degree studying at another university in Europe. It encourages and allows students to live abroad, meet other people from all over Europe, understand another culture and broaden their horizons. Not only that, but the EU gives students an Erasmus grant to help them afford it, which varies from uni to uni, but when I did my Erasmus semester in Córdoba back in 2010-11 it was roughly €350 per month. It usually also includes a free course in the language of that country. You can also do Erasmus work placements, such as the 6-month internship I did at Armani in Italy as part of my Third Year Abroad, and you still receive the Erasmus grant. I adored my whole Bachelor’s degree, but I have to admit that my Erasmus year was by far the best year! You can do an Erasmus both at Bachelor’s and Master’s level, although only if your Master’s course is long enough and allows it (which is normally not the case in the UK as they’re only 9-12 months long). Continue reading “What is an Erasmus Mundus Master’s Degree?”

Little Europe in Bengal: The politics and ‘desire’ of heritage

 

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The Hooghly (Chinsurah)  Imambara, a still in use Mosque and Imambarah, used by locals, serves as a reminder that colonial heritage is a small part of modern Bengal: Photo by Amartyabag

Arnab Dutta

‘Little Europe in Bengal’ is a term generally used to refer to a small patch of land on the bank of the river Hooghly in the Indian province of Bengal, where a number of European national groups, such as the Brits, the French, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Danes and the Armenians had once settled and carried out their trade and colonial ventures. Although the British colonial powers in the region gradually seized most of these territories from their Continental rivals, a few scattered architectural remnants from the Dutch and the Danish past continue to play an important role in the unique nature of this area. Enthused by the desire to protect the remnants of these non-British territories, and fanned by the huge sums of money being poured in, the early years of twenty-first century have seen a steady upsurge of interest in these locales.

The Kingdom of Netherlands has been for last few years trying to physically map the Dutch heritage that remains in Chinsurah, and present the findings on an interactive online platform. This endeavor is occurring hand in hand with other Dutch initiatives, such as the publication of a book written by Baule van der Pol about the history of the Dutch East India Company in this region, and a collaboration with the tourism board of the Government of West Bengal to facilitate attracting foreign tourists to these small towns of ‘Little Europe’.

Opnamedatum: 2010-03-18
Painting of a Dutch plantage in Chinsurah, Bengal. It serves as a reminder that the Dutch colonial forces in India were there for profit and exploited the locals. Painting by Dutch painter Hendrik van Schuylenburgh (c.1620-1689)

The Danish initiative is taking a different path, for it is putting more stress on physical restoration rather restoration based on digital humanities. The National Museum of Denmark has initiated the ‘Serampore Initiative’ to carry out conservation projects to refurbish the dilapidated Danish architectural remains of Serampore. As the French managed to hold their last bastion, Chandernagore, right up until 1952, the Frenchness of Chandernagore is both tangible and intangible, and is obviously in a better state than the other European remnants which had been long ago forfeited to British rule. However, this does not mean they are lagging behind. Aishwarya Tipnis Architects, the conservation architect firm that has been entrusted with Dutch Chinsurah has also been appointed to engage with the restoration of French Chandernagore. This, in a nutshell, is a story of various European nation states slicing into the territories they once held; this time not under the cloak of colonial power but as heritage conservationists.

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In Serampore, local art and culture has long overtaken the remnants of Danish colonialism: Photo by শ্রীরামপুর মাহেশ

As far as this narrative of restoration goes it seems like a tranquil tale of European states, having suddenly remembered their Indian pasts, investing huge sums of money into the conservation and the restoration of their heritage. A closer scrutiny would, however, complicate the tale. The path towards the conservation of heritage can always lead to certain uncomfortable questions being asked, like whose heritage is it? Why have the former colonial remnants suddenly come under the umbrella term of heritage? It is also important to consider what has actually survived from the past, apart from the architecture? Considering something as part of one’s heritage involves recognising what is to be inherited and what not. Only after this act of recognition can the act of preservation begin. It is this primary act of deciding what is worth remembering and conserving that invites more controversy than anything that happens to follow.

This polemic of recognition and conservation often takes recourse to the idea of metonymy, where a smaller part of the remnants can stand for a broader narrative of the European past in the region. The fact that,  with the exception of French Chandernagore, there was no uni-linear history of non-British colonialism in any of these small settlements, makes the effort of remembrance more fuzzy and complex. It is a well-known fact that when, in 1825, the Brits were bequeathed Chinsurah in exchange for a Dutch monopoly over Java, they completely dismantled the Dutch Fort Gustavus, and made a British Chinsurah on its rubble. The only thing that remains of the Dutch past is the Dutch cemetery, as it was anathema to desecrate a Christian cemetery even after the Brits took over. An entire historical narrative being built on nothing but a cemetery is in itself a daunting exercise!

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Jubilee Bridge, linking Hooghly (Chinsurah) to Bandel, shows the massive transformations the region has gone through since the time of Dutch settlement: Photo by Piyal Kundu

Therefore the Dutch in Chinsurah initiative of the Embassy of the Kingdom of Netherlands in India had to start with a digital humanities project called ‘Dutch cemetery’. A digital humanist method to approach heritage was, perhaps, a conscious decision on their part, where one could conserve the Dutch past on a virtual platform rather than on a materially palpable scale, a cheaper and less political project. The Dutchness is then to be invoked in one’s imagination primarily. All they are trying to do is to generate a narrative, composed across several channels of communication – anecdotes, oral history, legends, and fantasies – juxtaposing it with an imaginary idea of space. One can imagine a situation where a cannon is unearthed in an archaeological excavation. The cannon carries a VOC (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie) logo engraved in it. Considering the fact that this kind of cannon might have been installed at the entrance to a Dutch fortress, urban archaeologist and conservationists might build a narrative of the spatial configuration of that lost Dutch fortress around the restored cannon. Following the rule of metonymy, these small objects become marker of a larger picture, a larger narrative of the lives and times of Dutch traders and colonials.

However, should the conservation recently carried out in the name of restoring Dutch heritage in Chinsurah totally neglect the layers of British ‘heritage’ that had been laid there over a period of a hundred years? Danish Serampore faced a similar question when they started to restore St Olav’s church. After Serampore was handed over to the Brits by the Danish government, St Olav’s ceased to be a Danish Protestant church and was consecrated as the Anglican Church of that parish. It is therefore difficult to ‘rejuvenate’ and ‘reinvent’ the essential Danish styles and markers without completely exfoliating a century of British heritage. Does conservation of one form or era of heritage inevitably mean the brushing away of another layer of colonial deposit? These complex questions are obviously not exclusive to Bengal, but will arise in any conservation project of European cultural heritage outside of Europe.

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Chandernagore Government College today, a world of difference from the time the area was still held by France: Photo by Arpan Sarkar

The broader question behind this ‘politics of conservation and heritage’ is even more pressing. On 9 November 2014 Chandernagore’s Government College (known as Le College Dupleix during the French rule) organised a conference to engage multiple stakeholders and academics to discuss the renewed European interests in the region. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak from Columbia University launched a strong critique of the ways in which ‘heritage’ is being invoked as a furry comfort against an otherwise atrocious narrative of the colonial presence in these settlements. Now that different European countries are reclaiming a stake in the region under the guise of conservation, redistributing among themselves their respective claims over a space that is inhabited by a populace who might have no interest in the colonial past, eyebrows are being raised.

Similar to Spivak’s line of argument, questions are being asked, sometimes in a hushed tone and sometimes rather loudly, as to where to locate the place of the precolonial past that occurred long before the Portuguese, the Dutch or the French came? It is, in Spivak’s words, the desire of current European stakeholders to use ‘heritage’ – as a gateway to the contemporaneity of a crucial Geo-political location of the modern global constellation, quite similar to the colonial gateway they used in the early-modern era. If ‘heritage’ means only certain artifacts and architectural remains from the European past in the region, how does the region of ‘Little Europe of Bengal’ engage with its own Bengali past? As the narrative becomes more complex the answer to this question becomes all the more important.

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Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: Photo by Robert Crc

One thing, however, remains unblemished. That is the crucial role ‘Little Europe’ plays to this day in both the Bengali psyche and the heritage-enthusiasm of various European bodies. It could at least fulfill a primary task. After a long time of amnesia, the politics around the ‘heritage’ compelled historians to peek into the forgotten ties of Continental Europe with an otherwise British-dominated Indian subcontinent. Little Europe is being historically reinvented not as a tiny landmass in the Gangetic delta, but as a crucial nodal point for maritime journeys from Portugal or the Netherlands to the Far East. It played the role of a middle ground between the metropolises and the margins of the Portuguese and the Dutch Empires – between Amsterdam and the Dutch East Indies, or between Lisbon and Portuguese Malacca. Today’s Little Europe is still at the crossroads, but of an even bigger world.

Click here to read more about ‘Little Europe in Bengal’.

Click here for more by Arnab Dutta.

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