The Dutch East Indies

   by Charles Kimball

In late 1794 France conquered the Netherlands, putting the Dutch in the French camp during the Napoleonic era. For the Dutch this meant that their colonies would be attacked by Napoleon's implacable foe, Great Britain. The new governor of Java, an admirer of Napoleon named Willem Daendels, did everything he could to fortify the island, but it only took a month for the British to conquer it when they arrived in 1811. The British commander, a young officer named Thomas Stamford Raffles, was a committed idealist who believed that imperialism should be used to better the lives of conquered peoples. His superior had sent him with the injunction: "While we are on Java, let us do all the good we can." This was enthusiastically carried out by Raffles after he arrived. First he put down uprisings by local rulers, who thought the end of Dutch rule meant complete independence. Then he outlawed slavery and gambling (which caused gamblers to be sold into slavery when they could not pay their debts). Finally he tried to improve the economy, but the war ended in Europe before he could accomplish much here.

When Java was returned to the Dutch, the only thing they wanted was to make the island as profitable as possible. But for several years the government could not decide whether free enterprise or a monopoly system was the answer. The issue was decided by a guerrilla war (1825-30, often called the Java War) that started when the Dutch put an infant on the throne of Yogyakarta. The rightful claimant, a Moslem mystic named Diponegoro, launched an anti-Dutch uprising, which lasted until he was captured and exiled.

Once the rebellion was put down, a forceful new economic program was started. Called the Culture Program, it eliminated private enterprise by requiring each community to plant and deliver specified commodities to the government. One fifth of the farmland was set aside for the growing of those crops, and the peasants were required to work on those lands three days a week. Local chiefs and sultans were brought into the system by offering them a share of the profits in return for using their authority to secure maximum production. It was spectacularly successful; the chiefs made the peasants work the government lands until the quotas were overfulfilled, often as much as 200 days a year, vastly increasing their own personal gains. The Dutch found themselves with a problem few governments have ever had--what to do with too much money. Eventually they used it to pay off the national debt and finance the building of the Netherlands railway network.

Despite its success, the Culture Program had a dark side: it was blamed for widespread famine in parts of Java. Complaints against the program, raised by humanitarians and private businesses, caused it to be phased out gradually, starting in 1862. In its place came the so-called Liberal Program, which brought back laissez-faire capitalism. The sugar and coffee monopolies were too profitable to abandon (they lasted until 1890 and 1917 respectively), but elsewhere private enterprise showed itself to be a better moneymaker; in 1885 total exports were worth ten times as much as they were in 1860. Partly this was due to the opening of the Suez Canal, which vastly increased commerce with Europe. Another factor was the opening of the undeveloped outer islands to Dutch exploitation. As the Western powers scrambled for African and Asian colonies in the late 19th century, the Dutch moved to establish direct rule over the entire archipelago, motivated by the need to protect their interests. Most of the islands were conquered without much resistance, but in northwestern Sumatra the kingdom of Acheh fought back fanatically. The war lasted for 35 years (1873-1908), most of the time without results, because the "pacified" natives of any given area would revolt as soon as the Dutch troops moved elsewhere. Christian soldiers from the island of Amboina were brought in to assist the Dutch, but the winning strategy was devised by a general named Johannes B. Van Heutsz, who set up impregnable forts all over the island. By the time the fighting had ended, it had absorbed the profits produced by the other islands and even led to a deficit in the budget of Holland.

The third program launched by the Dutch government (1901) was the Ethical Policy, which proclaimed that henceforth the welfare of the Indonesians would be the government's first concern. Private business was regulated to prevent further peasant exploitation, the natives were educated, and new lands were cleared for farming. It worked, but in one way it worked too well; improved food supplies and modern medicine caused Java's population to mushroom at a Malthusian rate, from 28 million in 1900 to 45 million by 1940. That growth ate up all the economic gains made by the natives, but the Dutch were not alarmed; they saw the growth as proof that they were doing the right thing.

To give the natives experience in self-government, local councils were set up. A national council called the Volksraad was set up in 1916 for the same reason. But the Dutch never let these governing bodies have real power; Batavia claimed that it knew what was best for the Indonesians and it retained the power to veto any council's resolutions. As a result the Volksraad was not a real decision-making body but merely a group of advisors; it never even had a majority of voting Indonesians in its membership. One local wag remarked that the Volksraad was the only successful multiracial club in prewar Southeast Asia!

The Ethical Policy's strongest advocate was Snouk Hurgronje, a Dutch scholar who knew so much about Islam that he was able to visit Mecca without being recognized as an infidel by the Arabs. Hurgronje asserted that because the prestige of the local chiefs was declining, while Islam was more popular than ever, the Dutch could generate support from the Indonesian people by bringing Moslems into the civil service, and by discouraging Christian missionary activity among Moslems. His proposal was put into action, but it was never popular among the Dutch, and when the Ethical Policy was abandoned in the 1920s, the first stirrings of modern Indonesian nationalism would come from the very same Moslems Hurgronje had befriended, who now felt that they deserved much more than the Dutch were willing to give them.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball