(Re-)negotiating Identities in the Kampoeng: Masculinities, Medical Mercenaries, and the Aceh War (c. 1873-1900)

The Aceh War (1873-1904/14) in northern Sumatra was a particularly momentous ‹war theatre› in the history of Dutch imperialism in Southeast Asia. Not only did it take the Dutch more than 40 years to ‹pacify› the Acehnese guerrilla resistance through brutal counter-insurgency campaigns. Tropical nature, or, more particularly, (supposedly) tropical diseases such as malaria or beriberi could cost the lives of entire troops, making medical officers particularly valuable assets in perpetuating the war. The Dutch Colonial Army (KNIL), however, was not able to meet its high demands for physicians with volunteers from the Netherlands alone. Hence, the KNIL intensified its efforts to recruit medical practitioners in Europe – most predominantly in the German and the Austro-Hungarian Empires as well as in Switzerland.

This paper zooms in on the lives of two such ‹medical mercenaries› deployed in Aceh: the Swiss Dr. Heinrich Erni and Austrian-Hungarian Dr. Heinrich Breitenstein who joined the Dutch Colonial Army in 1879 and 1876. By closely analysing their testimonies of the daily lives in the camps and kampoengs in northern Sumatra, it asks how masculinities were construed and contested through medicine, on the one hand, and ‹medical mercenaries›, on the other, in colonial wars in from a European perspective remote, unknown tropical nature.