Language and power in the Dutch empire


Language policies are structural elements of colonial domination because they undermine the cultural identity of the subdued populations. Here I will discuss the checkered relationship between language and imperialism, paying special attention to the Dutch case. A story of language, power and inequalities.

Header image: Map Of The Caribbean Region by Jacob van Meurs. Credit: Koninklijke bibliotheek.

One world, few languages

Centuries of European colonialism ensured that English, French, Spanish and Portuguese are spoken almost everywhere in the world. Indeed, a common trait of colonial domination was the imposition of the homeland language on the governed populations.

Take the French, for example. The French colonial administration is a commonly referred to case of cultural expansionism. As part of their colonial enterprise, the French aimed to integrate every conquered territory into the French nation, arguing that being part of the French empire was advantageous for the colonized populations. This in turn was achieved by destroying the identity of the conquered countries and replacing it with their own national values and, importantly, language. Their colonial agenda was even mirrored in private ventures like the Alliance Française. Founded in 1883 and still active, this tax-supported language academy aimed “to propagate the French language in the colonies and abroad” [12]. They were successful: the French language is nowadays one of the most widespread in the world (5th for second language speakers) and this testifies to the heritage of a powerful empire.










Image: Transport Of Colonial Soldiers by Isaac Israëls.

Curiously, despite the Dutch empire being similarly widespread, the Dutch language wasn’t and still isn’t. This is because the Dutch colonial enterprise pursued a different policy regarding the language to be used in the overseas territories. Language administration in the Dutch empire is less well-known, but worth a closer look as it showcases a different (but equally problematic) facet of the relationship between language and colonial power.

The Dutch colonial empire

The Dutch empire was one of the earliest and most extended colonial domains. Unlike other countries – Spain, France, Portugal and Britain -, the Netherlands expressed their power through control of commerce and maritime routes more than through the administration of the territories, and often the empire’s holdings were limited to coastal forts and ports (Figure 1). Indeed, the Dutch empire started as a commercial enterprise of the West and East India Companies in 1602, which came to an end when the British replaced the Dutch commercial and military supremacy in the aftermath of the fourth Anglo-Dutch war (1780-1784). The central government of the Netherlands then took on the administration of the colonies, after the companies went bankrupt at the end of the 18th century. In response to the new world order, the Dutch maritime power declined and the administration of the conquered territories received progressively more attention.









Figure 1. Territories of the Dutch West (dark green) and East (light green) India Companies. Orange dots were trading posts. Source

During colonial domination, neither the West and East India Companies nor the Dutch State invested energy and funds into making the Dutch language the common language in these territories. Indonesia (previously called the East Indies), Suriname, Sint Maarten and Sint Eustatius – which are located, respectively, in South East Asia, South America and the Antilles in Central America – remained territories with their own languages, which in some cases were those of former colonisers who had had strict language policies. For example, in Indonesia, Portuguese and not Dutch was the language of trade. Similarly, Sint Eustatius is an English-speaking island, as it was conquered by the Brits in the fourth Anglo-Dutch war. It was later reconquered by the French, allies of the Dutch, and returned to Dutch control.













Image: The Moneylender And His Wife by Quentin Matsys. Credit: The Yorck Project (2002).

Language & power in the Dutch colonies, a decolonial perspective

So, why were the Dutch rulers never invested in expanding their hegemony through language? We can find some answers in an article published in 2020 in the cultural magazine “The Low Countries” by a Dutch-Indonesian journalist, Joss Wibisono. He suggests that the East India Company’s profit-oriented policies were the primary obstacle: “Profit maximisation was important for the company, and costs in the colony had to be minimised. It was cheaper to teach [Dutch] employees Malay [from which the Indonesian language evolved] than to teach the population Dutch. When the Dutch East India Company went bankrupt, around 1800, the Dutch State took over the colony, retaining the company’s language policy […]”.

Joss Wibisono suggests that this language policy was a result of economic interest, and in particular of cost-cutting. However, this argument does not do justice to the complex outcome that this administration produced. I would like to offer another perspective from the standpoint of the sociology of language, suggesting that this particular language policy was not a consequence but an aim in itself, a tool of domination and segregation of the population.

Many authors have written about the role of language as an instrument of dominance and political violence. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, in his work “Language and Symbolic Power”, investigates how language can be a fundamental brick of social relations. Bourdieu argues that when two parties speak, they express their linguistic skills, habits and dispositions, which Bourdieu calls their language capital. Through language, they affirm their social status and recognize their social classes. The author draws examples from the linguistic transformations that happened in France after the Revolution, especially in the countryside. At the time, the introduction of a national language in education and administration favored those people that could speak both the newly introduced national French and the local dialects. These people – often public figures such as doctors, teachers, and priests – became the mediators between the State and the common people. Because of the languages they spoke, they gained authority and consolidated their power in the rising French Republic.

Consequently, in French schools of the time, dialect had a social connotation: it was associated with the ‘corrupted and coarse’ speech of common people. On the other hand, Parisian French was the language of the upper class, the one which the students who aimed to improve their social conditions had to master. Clearly, one type of speech reflected a higher status – a higher language capital – than the other. Speaking ‘proper’ French became necessary to improve one’s social status, because it allowed the speaker to exert influence and power over other people, particularly those with a lower language capital.

If language is an instrument of power, I would argue that not teaching Dutch in the colonies can be interpreted as a means to prevent the native inhabitants from gaining any influence and power in their own country. This language policy resulted in Dutch being the language of those in power, and most native inhabitants could not speak Dutch. Importantly, the Dutch colonists did speak the language of the native inhabitants, at least to such a degree that they could communicate with them. This allowed the Dutch colonizers to interact efficiently with the native inhabitants while keeping the reins of power in their own hands. Thus, this language policy essentially excluded the native inhabitants from taking part in the upper echelons of the society and ensured that they did not have the power to change this.

Most people would probably agree that imposing the colonial language on the native population, as the French did, was a detestable thing to do on the part of the colonizers, because it aimed to erase the local identity. However, it also offered the possibility for accessing the colonizer’s educational system, which for historical reasons had more resources than in the colonized countries[1]. Also, it allowed the native population to understand the thinking of the colonizers and to rise to positions of power, fundamental steps on the way to cultural and political emancipation. It is not by chance that the first wave of decolonial studies and movements arose in the Francophone countries, and was carried on by people like Jacques Derrida and Frantz Fanon, respectively Algerian and Martinican migrants who studied in metropolitan France. Conversely, by implementing a restrictive language policy, the Dutch administration ensured that the native inhabitants could not achieve positions of power or cultural prestige, nor benefit from the homeland educational system with its greater resources.

I want to stress that both forms of colonialism are problematic, and both the French and Dutch used language policies as tools of social domination. In one extreme case the local identity was wiped out in favour of the imperial one; in the other, the local identity was preserved, but was subjugated to the colonial one. In his most critical essay, the decolonial intellectual Frantz Fanon highlights this feeling of ‘inferiority’, both human and cultural, experienced by people of the French Antilles: “The Negro of the Antilles will be proportionately whiter – that is, he will come closer to being a [‘]real human being[‘] – in direct ratio to his mastery of the French language.” [11] In the Dutch case, the aspiration to be ‘white’ was denied from the beginning.

Far-reaching consequences in Sint Maarten

While Indonesia has been a politically independent country since 1950, the island of Sint Maarten is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. As such, it is a contemporary and compelling case of social inequalities that are remnants of the colonial past. This tiny plot of land has a troubled colonial history because of its strategic position in the Caribbean. Since the 17th century, the island has been split into two areas under control of the French and Dutch governments. Presently, the southern part of the island is a constituent country in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Throughout the history of the island, there has never been interest from the settlers in having Dutch as the common language. Indeed, until 1923, the language of the island was mainly English. After the 1950s, with the decolonial movements around the world, the Indonesian-Dutch wars, and the reorganization of the West Indies in the Netherlands Antilles, the official language became Dutch and it still is nowadays. Nonetheless, Sint Maarten’s population is mainly composed of migrants who did not grow up in Saint Maarten and who only speak the common languages in the region, English and Spanish.

Data at hand, in Sint Maarten, most citizens do not speak Dutch (only 4.2% [5]) and this has caused for many years a considerable political imbalance. According to Maria van Enckevort, scholar and local activist, “the official language policy of Dutch Sint Maarten is a political tool used to include or exclude certain groups of people from the democratic process. […] Mainly those that follow the Dutch educational system, and preferably continue their education in the Netherlands, will later on be secured a position in Government.” [4]

















Image: Paul Gauguin 131 by Paul Gauguin. Credit: The Yorck Project (2002).

She identifies the schooling system as the origin of these problems. We can draw a similar conclusion from a recent document of the Nuffic, the Dutch organization for internationalization in education [9]. The report states that only part of the primary and secondary education is offered in Dutch, making it difficult for most people to learn Dutch fluently. In addition, the tertiary education system neatly separates those with the ‘right’ language capital from those without. Of the two universities in the region, the one that offers courses that the Dutch government recognizes as equal to European bachelor’s and master’s degrees has courses in Dutch only. The other university has courses in English but its educational offer is limited to vocational studies.

The situation is slowly changing nowadays, however, also in response to decolonial political activism [4]. Since 2010, English has been recognized as the second official language, for example, although there is not a perfect symmetry between the two [6,7]. To illustrate, according to the 2010 Country Regulation determining official languages on Sint Maarten, if a resident expresses a preference to communicate in either Dutch or English, the administration must use that language as much as possible. At the same time, “where written communication contains a decision or can have significant legal effect”, this does not apply, and written communication is still presented in Dutch.

When the goal is social inclusion and democracy, these efforts are not equivalent to letting the governance be held bilingually, in English and Dutch. Generally speaking, when a society is unbalanced with regard to linguistic capital (some can speak the language of the administration and others don’t), the basis is laid for a society with strict economic and social classes. Likewise, offering vocational training in English and academic training in Dutch is not the way to level social inequalities between families who master the colonial language and families that cannot – migrants, for example. It is my opinion that the Netherlands must strive for a more equal language policy in former colonies to ensure that every citizen can take part in all aspects of society, including democratic processes.


Colonisation caused structural inequalities in the colonised countries of which the influence is still visible in the present day. In this article, I outlined one case that often goes unremarked upon. We are primarily used to thinking of language colonialism as the imposition of a motherland language on the native population. We have seen that in the Dutch Empire, it happened in the opposite way. Although it was the language of the administration, the official language of power was held inaccessible to most of the indigenous people. While at face value you might think that this was a ‘better’ or at least less destructive colonial administration, because it allowed the native inhabitants to retain their local identity, I have argued here that this policy was actually a powerful tool of separation and domination. Restricting access to the language of the administration divided (and still divides) the population in social classes and determined which social classes could (and can) aspire to political power.


[1] The comparison between the educational systems does not refer to a comparison between knowledge or belief systems. The issue of education refers to the material conditions of accessing cultural products and resources. Academia, like any other large institution, requires investments, infrastructures, and technologies. Colonial homelands could support prosperous academies in part also because for centuries they appropriated many of the resources the colonies did have.The question of education in the colonies is a multi-faceted problem, and it depends on the geographical and historical specificities. I do not intend to address this issue in the text. Here I aim to stress the added value that learning an imperial language (French, English, Dutch, German) could offer in terms of personal and career development, and as Fanon argues, in terms of ‘human’ development.

Signs of on-going changes in the language policy also come from the judicial system. In 2017 the Law Enforcement Council issued a report regarding the usage of Dutch in the legal system of former Netherlands Antilles (Bonaire, Curaçao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatius and Saba) [7]. Interestingly, the report is translated in both English and Papiamento. The latter is the local creol language, official language of Aruba and Curacao and spoken by most of people on the island.
Council [8], which is charged with the general inspection of the organizations of the judicial chain, identifies several points where introducing multilingualism could grant fairer legal treatments to “suspects, witnesses and informers”. The report states: “An essential phase in the process of tracking down, prosecution and adjudication is that of the summons. A suspect is informed in writing of that with which he is being charged. It is at this time that he is informed about his rights. In the current practice, this is done exclusively in Dutch. […] the Council advocates that the suspect be notified in the language he does master.”

The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202.

Read further
1. Nicolas Guillén (1970). Problems Of Underdevelopment
2. Joss Wibisono (2020). Why Indonesia Never Really Became Dutch, but Is Now Becoming Anglicised Link.
3. Bourdieu, P. (1991). Language and symbolic power. Harvard University Press.
4. Maria van Enckevort. Cultural Imperialism & the Policy of Language on Sint Maarten. Link.
5. CIA. The World Fact Book Link
6. Government of the Netherlands (2010). Country Regulation determining the official languages on Sint Maarten. Link
7. Law Enforcement Council of the Government of the Netherlands (2017). Report consequences of multilingualism for the law enforcement in the Dutch Caribbeans. Link.
8. Law Enforcement Council of the Government of the Netherlands. Link
9. Education system Curaçao, St. Maarten and the BES islands are described and compared with the Dutch system. Link
11. Fanon, Frantz. Black skin, white masks. Grove press, 2008.
12. Segalla, Spencer D. (2009-01-01). Moroccan Soul: French Education, Colonial Ethnology, and Muslim Resistance, 1912–1956. U of Nebraska Press.

Writer: Alessio Quaresima
Editor: Laurel Brehm
Dutch translation: Cielke Hendriks
Final editing: Eva Poort, Merel Wolf