Enterprising Western European countries such as the Netherlands have all had a colonial history. Rob Sweebe and his family are part of the Dutch-Indonesian colonial history. As an Indo, Rob has parents of both European and Indonesian origin. Admirers of his photography even claim to recognise Asian influences. He himself does not dismiss the idea that the ‘Belt of Emerald’, as Multatuli called the East Indies, forms an undercurrent in his work.

But more than with what is now called Indonesia, Rob identifies with the Netherlands, which ‘this patriot’ lovingly refers to as ‘our little country’. Looking back, he reflects back to a time before Indonesia, to the pre-Indonesian period in the history of the Sweebe family, which lay in Amsterdam and Rotterdam and, in the centuries before that, the German regions around Leipzig.

The Indies
In the years after 1500, the East Indies (Indonesia) and West Indies (the Antilles, Surinam and parts of West Africa) were already important trading areas of the later Republic of the Netherlands. Since that time, populations of mixed race have developed in these distant colonies. They formed a separate ethnic group with their own place within colonial society. It was into one such special mixed-race group, such as are to be found the world over, that Rob Sweebe was later born.

The first Dutchmen stepped ashore in the East Indies around 1500. The economic importance of the Indies grew over the years and helped raise the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands to its zenith in the 17th century, a period also known as the Golden Age. The Dutch East Indies was then a province, but from that position gradually evolved into an accepted part of the modern Kingdom of the Netherlands, mainly given over to tropical agriculture.

During World War II, nationalist Japan occupied the East Indian islands, as a German ally with a regional expansionist policy. Following the dropping of the American atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, and subsequent liberation of the ‘Jap camps’, the Dutch and Indos thought that history would return to its previous course. But after the Japanese oppression, what awaited them and pro-Dutch natives was the years of the Bersiap, the Indonesian war of independence.

What had been seen as indisputable to the Dutch, Indos and pro-Dutch natives, was considered anything but by the indigenous resistance movement and its millions of supporters. You can agree with their motives and goals, but the gruesome and excessive terror they employed can only be condemned.

Refugee and Fatherland
Japan had ignited the smouldering fire of the Bersiap amongst the freedom fighters. At the same time, the withdrawing Japanese took the Dutch and Indos into, ironically enough, their ‘Jap camps’ to protect them from the terror of the revolution.

What had been previously taken for granted became untenable. Like all West European colonies, Indonesia, too, threw off the yoke of colonialism and opted for self-government and self-determination to further the interests of its people. The old establishment and those of mixed race had to flee for their lives. The pro-Dutch natives could not flee and had to suffer the terror completely unprotected. As a member of a refugee family, in 1950 Rob Sweebe arrived in the Netherlands from the Dutch East Indies.

The Sweebe family were lucky, as they were in a position to readily embrace the Netherlands as their new homeland: Indos were already pro-Dutch. They had partly Western European ancestors. The Sweebes had also benefitted from a Dutch education. And they were Lutherans and thus followers of the predominant Christian faith.

Two worlds
On the whole, the Sweebe family settled without difficulty into their new society, something not always so easy if there are greater cultural or religious differences. But however easy or difficult integration proves, there will always be an element of displacement and homesickness, and the indescribable sense of being a child of two worlds.

European governments try to find fair solutions for refugees and to address discrimination and exclusion, and these are themes for philosophical and political debate. But discrimination and exclusion were never major issues for the Sweebes in the Netherlands. Displacement and homesickness were, though Rob got over them. What remained, and what will always remain, is the sense of being a product of two worlds. A feeling of perpetual dividedness only recognisable to those who have experienced it themselves.

Building bridges
As a product of two worlds, Rob uses his photos and art to make artistic bridges between worlds that scarcely understand each other’s languages, religions or cultures. His theme is the triptych of poetry – decline – rejuvenation. An almost primal theme seen from an intercultural world history perspective. Rob’s beautiful photographs and art, and the hundreds of thousands of wonderful mixed-race children living in the Netherlands alone, offer pessimists consolation: life may be simultaneously grim and magnificent, nevertheless beauty and youth will always shine out.


His website, full of the unifying beauty born out of the triptych of poetry – decline – rejuvenation, brought Rob into contact with the Zwebe family, who had been searching for the origins of their family for two generations.

Martijn Zwebe found Rob via Rob’s website and some years back wrote to say he was trying to find proof that their families had common ancestors. A few months later Martijn found that proof in archived documents from Java, Indonesia.

Martijn Zwebe came across Rob Sweebes’ ancestor Johann Godhold Sweebe (1778-1842) from Batavia, now Jakarta. Said Johann Godhold was born in Amsterdam. With this information, Martijn gave Rob back his roots, something that worked as a plaster on the wound of his sense of displacement.

Johann Godhold had a younger half-brother, Antonius Zwebe (1789-1851), who was an ancestor of Martijn. His father was Frederik Christian Willem Schwebe (1754-1822), who was thus a mutual ancestor of Martijn Zwebe and Rob Sweebe. Frederik Christian Willem was a diamond polisher living in Amsterdam and born in Nassau-Weilburg. Schwebe, Zwebe and Sweebe had a shared ancestry. Rob and Martijn’s stories remind us why, in our fractured times, it is hardly surprising that so many are attracted to genealogy as a hobby.

Phonetic confusion
Martijn Zwebe’s furthest research goes back to Christoph Schwebe, born between 1585 and 1590 near Leipzig, in ‘Luther’s city’ of Wittenberg, Saxony-Anhalt, Germany, and died in 1634 or 1635 in nearby Gräfenhainichen, in the Steingrubermühle (Stone Quarry Mill) there.

Christoph married the daughter of the Steingrubermühle miller. This stone mill was in the possession of the family for a century. Eventually it was demolished in 1980 and disappeared under the huge lake produced by lignite mining in the former East Germany.

Christoph Schwebe (1585/90-1634/35) had a son, Georg Schwebe (ca.1615-1681), who in turn had a son, Georg Gottlieb Schwebe (1669-1720). His son was Johann Gotthold Schwebe (1717-1795).

These generations of Schwebes were no longer working the mill, but were musicians and composers in Leipzig and the surrounding area, where around this time none less than Johann Sebastiaan Bach was causing something of a stir. Leipzig was then the epicentre of the Western world, not only musically but also religiously, as it was in nearby Wittenberg that Martin Luther nailed his revolutionary theses to the church door and later developed his ecclesiastical teachings.

Johann Gotthold was in the service of the court of the nobles of the House of Orange-Dillenburg. He lived in Nassau-Weilburg and had a son, Frederik Christian Willem Schwebe (1754-1822). Johann Gotthold became a widower and when the Orange-Dillenburg House moved to The Hague, he moved too, taking his three children, including Frederik Christian Willem. Johann Gotthold later remarried with a woman from The Hague and settled in Amsterdam. Frederik Christian Willem Schwebe had a son, Johann Godhold Sweebe (1778-1842). The boy was named after his grandfather; however, the spelling of the surname was now Dutch. This was because when the boy was added to the Amsterdam birth register, the civil servant, hearing the name with Dutch ears, wrote down the surname Sweebe.

1803: a new future in the Dutch East Indies
The young Johann Godhold Sweebe was stationed as a naval officer in the East Indies. There he settled in Batavia, now Jakarta. He became the manager of the harbour warehouses and had a son, Frederik Willem Sweebe (1830-1892). Frederik, a white Dutchman with German roots living in the East Indies, then fell in love with a Javanese girl named Waaj; but couldn’t marry her because mixed marriages were not accepted in the colonies on cultural grounds. Though it had major social consequences for Frederik, his loyalty to the Javanese Waaj was unconditional. Marriage or no marriage, Frederik and Waaj had a son, Pieter Albert Sweebe (1863-1926), who was thus the first Indian ‘half-breed’ Dutchman in the ancestral line of Rob Sweebe.

Like his father, Pieter Albert did not capitulate to the morality of the day and took a Javanese girl, Siti, as his life companion. They named their son Eduard Frans Sweebe (1902-1977). Eduard Frans, who married the Dutch-Indonesian Hendrika Verbruggen (1902-1988), was the grandfather of Rob Sweebe.

1950: a new future in the Netherlands
“My grandfather was called Eduard Frans,” explains Rob Sweebe. “With my grandmother Hendrika Verbruggen, he produced my father, Frans Eduard Sweebe (1920-2016). Frans Eduard married my mother Constance Antoinette von Harenberg (1926-2003). I was born in Bali as Rob Sweebe (b. 1948).”

“In 1950 our parental family had to leave the tropical archipelago, where our family, from Johann Godhold in 1803 to Frans Eduard in 1950, had built its life.”

“We scarcely survived the Japanese occupation (1940-1945) and subsequent Bersiap Indonesian revolution (1945-1948). Many of our family members were murdered or died from hunger and disease in the camps. My parents and us, their children, were lucky and became refugees. We had lost our family and our country, and been deprived of all our possessions; but in 1950 we got a new future in the Netherlands.”

Eventually, after a century and a half, the Sweebe family had returned to the modern Netherlands. Rob Sweebe is proud of this fact, just as he is proud of how the Sweebes have contributed to building the democratic kingdom that the Netherlands is today.

In Rob Sweebe, and in all Indos, the histories of Europe and the East Indies are brought together. Rob calls it an indescribable feeling to be a child of two worlds. Martijn Zwebe’s search to find their mutual ancestors has given Rob back his German roots. But more recently Rob was also tracked down by Anne-Lot Hoek, who has led him to rediscover his Dutch-Indonesian roots.

Back to the Dutch East Indies
Anne Lot Hoek is a journalist, writer and historian, whose graduation dissertation was on human rights. Her style and predilection are to place events within a larger context. After graduating, she initially focused on African and South American events. Then she shifted her attention to the origins of the Republic of Indonesia. For her studies there, the Sweebe family became one of her sources.

First Anne-Lot studied Dutch military campaigns in the Dutch East Indies/ Indonesia during the Indonesian struggle for independence following Japan’s surrender. She also looked into the violent excesses that took place on the (Buddhist/Hindu) island of Bali in the years 1946-1949. Currently, Anne-Lot is researching the transfer of sovereignty in Bali at Amsterdam’s NIAS institute.

It was during the exact period that Anne-Lot is studying that Rob Sweebe was born as a mixed-race Indo in Bali. Rob’s parental family survived the Japanese camps and the Bersiap and, unlike many families, managed to flee to the Netherlands. Rob’s elderly father, Frans Eduard, was one of the last two remaining first-hand witnesses and was interviewed several times by Anne-Lot about events, of which descriptions differ in academic literature.

“It was in and around these conversations with Anne-Lot,” says Rob Sweebe, “that my father, Frans Eduard, sketched the negative aspects of the romantic colonial picture that I had received from those same parents back when we’d only been living in the Netherlands a short time. We half-breed Indos were neither natives nor colonials. You could also argue that, as children and grandchildren of both Dutch people and natives, we were the personification of the future of Indonesia. But at the time, we were considered undesirable hotchpotches by the Dutch. And for the revolutionaries, we were the enemy. Just like many refugees from present-day war zones, once in the Netherlands nobody was interested in the burdens carried by Dutch-Indonesian refugees from war or camp traumas.”

Back to Indonesia
Rob Sweebe has never been back to his country of origin. But the work of Anne-Lot and his father, and his own modest contribution to it, have opened the door.

“The work of Anne-Lot Hoek has brought out family stories that I would never otherwise have heard. A visit to Bali has become an attractive possibility.”

Thanks to the work of Martijn Zwebe and Anne-Lot Hoek, Rob Sweebe has discovered his European and Indonesian roots, which has made him realize that he embodies the best of both worlds. That actually he is a child of the future, that his time lies a wee way ahead. And that a life spanning more than 70 years has given him two rich sources of inspiration from two different corners of the globe.