Indonesian Coffee and People: Between Decolonization and Local Wisdom

“My story is thus so boring. However, I will not speak of ants, whose joy and sorrow escape our notice because of our sluggish organs. I will talk about humans who move the way we move.”

– Multatuli, Max Havelaar, or Dutch Trading Airline Coffee Auction (1860/translated into Indonesian by HB Jassin, 1917)

The above quote is taken from the most famous and groundbreaking book in the history of Indonesian colonial literature, spoken by the resident assistant who became the book’s title, Max Havelaar. It is a historical novel about ironies and tragedies set in the backdrop of the VOC bankruptcy, financially and morally, and the implications for the Indonesian people and the country’s natural resources exploitation, of which coffee is one of them.

The irony is inseparable from the historical narratives of how coffee became part of the history of this nation’s natural wealth extraction and processing, dominated by colonial and industrial narratives. Starting from a similar empathy as Mulatuli’s when he wrote Max Havelaar, a talk about coffee requires a broader perspective and in favor of the relationship between coffee and society, between coffee and Indonesian people—how coffee becomes an inseparable part of the development of the archipelago people and local wisdom out of its cultivation, both traditionally and modernly, in various parts of the country.

As part of the exhibition ‘Kopi Togetherness’, the collection and archive exhibition ‘Independence Coffee’ presents a series of artifacts and archives from the collections of the Indonesian National Museum and a collaboration of museums and archive centers in the national-international network of Museums and Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Research, and Technology of the Republic of Indonesia.

This exhibition departs from the keywords mentioned above: Indonesian people, decolonization, and local wisdom, trying to provide a window to open a re-reading of history beyond the ‘colonial gaze’ and industrialist narratives. From this window, we hope to initiate diverse discourses, research, and exploration of new perspectives on the history of Indonesian coffee and people.