This is a lesson in paying attention to the things we consume, because they contain hidden histories that can tell us the true stories of ourselves.

If you have been to West Africa or any world city that has a large West African population, you may have noticed the brightly printed fabric favoured by stylish West African ladies.

It is a little known fact that these “African” cloths are not from Africa at all, but have their origins in Indonesia and are manufactured in Holland by a Dutch company called Vlisco for export to Africa.

The story begins all the way back in 1846, when Vlisco, attempting to capitalise on Dutch control of Indonesia, flooded the Indonesian market with a low-cost, mass-produced version of Batik. Vlisco’s Batik, however, simply could not match the beauty of the original. Indonesian consumers rejected the half-tones and crackling lines of the Vlisco cloths, and the company failed to make significant inroads in the Indonesian market.1

Luckily for Vlisco, world events turned in its favour.

Vlisco
Clockwise from above left: The Story of Kwasi Boachi, an Ashanti Prince Who Went to Java; African Wax Batik from Vlisco; Africa-Inspired Fashion in Southeast Asia; a Museum Dedicated to the Old Javanese of Elmina.

Around this time, the Dutch military faced a manpower shortage in Indonesia. For one, Belgium had recently separated and become an independent country so it could no longer be relied upon for recruits. For another, Indonesian recruits to the Dutch armed forces obviously had conflicting loyalties.

The Dutch hit upon the idea of recruiting soldiers from Elmina, on the Gold Coast of West Africa (today Ghana), where they had good relationships with the reigning Ashanti kingdom dating from the slave trade era.  Between 1832 and 1872, three thousand men were shipped from Elmina to Java, where many lived in garrison towns for almost a century until Indonesian independence.2

Those recruits that returned to Africa upon discharge settled in a place known as Java Hill in Elmina and were referred to as “Old Javanese.” They even communicated with each other in a hodge-podge of various dialects that they had picked up during their time in Indonesia.

 

The Old Javanese Africans provided a natural market for Vlisco’s Batik. Many of them had already adopted Javanese styles of dress, which in any case were not so different from their own. They had also brought back gifts of Batik for their families in Africa, thereby familiarising the local market and priming it for a full-fledged assault by Vlisco a few years later.

 

By 1876, Vlisco began formally shipping cloth to the Gold Coast in pursuit of a concerted African strategy. Today Vlisco is synonymous with West Africa and boasts a €300 million business on the continent.3 Ironically, many of the designs on this most “African” of cloths are actually facsimiles of Indonesian ones.

In recent years, more and more cultural observers have become aware of the history of Vlisco and West African cloth. Nigerian scholar Tunde Akinwumi has argued that West African cloth should have West African–and not Indonesian–motifs. And, in a sign that things may have come full circle, at the 2012 Islamic Fashion Week in Malaysia, designer Nor Aini Shariff sent models down the runway wearing African-inspired Sarong Kebayas.