- 2004/08/09 Going Dutch

Lore and legend have met in Malacca in the past. More recently, the 'children of the VOC' gathered in the city.

Their history dates back to a time in which Malacca was the port of lore and legend. But three centuries later, their community is threatened with oblivion.

They are fast becoming the forgotten people.

They are the kinderen van de VOC, the children of the VOC. Their roots in Malacca originate in the 17th century. It was then that the VOC (the Dutch East India Company, Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie) monopolised trade in the Far East.

Malacca saw her share of VOC merchant sailors. In 1641, Dutch traders-turned-colonisers conquered the port after defeating the Portuguese. Like their predecessors, they left a lasting legacy.

Malacca's Dutch heritage is evident in structures such as the Stadthuys (now housing the Malacca Museum) and the Dutch Reformed Church (today's Christ Church) and streets such as Jonker (lately renamed Jalan Hang Jebat) and Heeren, the 'Millionaire's Row' we now call Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock.

But the Dutch legacy doesn't stop at streets. Like the Portuguese, many Dutch sailors took local women to wife. Such intermarriages were encouraged; any sailor who married a native woman is said to have been paid two or three months' VOC wages. The progeny of these mixed marriages flourished, many becoming firmly-established stalwarts of society. Most never saw the Netherlands.

After 160 years of Dutch rule, Malacca was handed to the British.

Today, Malacca's Dutch Eurasians have little to show of their past. Physically, they pass for Asians. They don't dress Dutch. They don't speak Dutch. Unlike the town's Portuguese Eurasians, they don't celebrate Dutch festivals. So successfully have they assimilated that their strongest link to their Dutch legacy is in their names: De Witt, Westerhout, Van Huizen, De Vries, De Wind.

Malaysians of Dutch descent are said to number just 600 to 1,200. And realising that they could fast become a closed chapter in Malaysian history, members of the community have embarked on a project to rediscover their heritage.

Called 'Reconnecting through our Roots', the project was kicked off at a recent gathering of some 150 Dutch Eurasians with historical links to Malacca. Appropriately enough, the group met at what is believed to be the former VOC tax office (boomkantoor) in Jalan Hang Jebat. Built in 1673, we know it today as the Atlas Ice building.

The project is being undertaken with the co-operation of the Netherlands Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, the Malacca Museums Corporation, the Malacca Heritage Trust and the Maritime Archaeology Museum.

According to project co-ordinator Dennis De Witt, the aim is to begin a register of Dutch descendants in Malaysia and reacquaint community members with their beginnings. Most important, the project hopes to revive the Dutch Eurasian culture before it's too late.

"To achieve this", says De Witt, "we are working closely with cultural organisations in the Netherlands and other organisations worldwide". Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Through Dutch ambassador in Kuala Lumpur John von MŁhlen, they have been congratulated by no less august a personage than Holland's Queen Beatrix herself!

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