HISTORY by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
High tide of Dutch rule in Indonesia recedes
, August 1, 2015
The first day of the 19th century confirmed the bankruptcy of the Dutch East India Company (VOC). The VOC had paid an 18 per cent dividend for almost 200 years. Now, beset by rampant corruption and a loss of confidence, it was nationalised by the Dutch government. The Dutch East Indies, from 1 January 1800, became a Dutch colony.
Sir Stamford Raffles
The Napoleonic Wars were consuming Europe. Holland became a French possession. The Dutch fully expected that the East Indies would be invaded by the British, who coveted the Dutch colony, one of the richest European colonies. In 1811, a British East India Company force commanded by Lord Minto, governor-general of India, fulfilled that expectation.
Raffles in Java
Minto delegated the task of governing Java to Sir Stamford Raffles, a man of apparently inexhaustible energy and inspiration. Apart from administrative reforms and military expeditions, Raffles also unearthed many ancient monuments, including Borobudur, the world’s most extensive Buddhist structure.
With Napoleon’s downfall, Britain and Holland concluded a peace treaty in 1814. In 1815 the East Indies were returned to Holland. Raffles left behind yet another major work for posterity, his History of Java, published in 1817. Raffles was later appointed governor of Bencoolen, the British enclave on the southwest coast of Sumatra. And he went on to found Singapore. All this in the short 44 years granted to him on this Earth.
The return to Dutch control did not have good omens. The people of Java were tormented by crop failures, pestilence, famine, heavy taxes and a revolt by the Javanese nobles. From this ground, fertile for revolt, arose Diponegoro, a rebel leader from a princely house.
Diponegoro had been passed over for succession to the throne of Yogyakarta. In Indonesian belief systems, a ruler must be sakti, that is, have the blessings of the gods and be endowed with mystical powers. The closer one approaches the ruler, the more one absorbs his radiated power.
Prince of Yogjakarta
Diponegoro led a revolt
against the Dutch in the
early 19th century.
His revolt was initially successful, but a change of tactics and leadership by the Dutch wore him down. By 1830, he had been defeated. He was invited by the Dutch to negotiate under a flag of truce but he was betrayed.
One of the few well-known monuments to Dutch rule is the Stadhuis (city hall), now restored as a museum in Jakarta. Officially known as the Jakarta History Museum, it is known in Bahasa Indonesia as Taman Fatahillah. Built in 1707, it is now being renovated with Dutch assistance. The Stadhuis was not only the centre of government; it also contained dungeons at its base. It was here that Diponegoro was held captive. He was later exiled to the outer islands.
The Indonesians have a great sense of continuity in their culture. Their remembered history goes back well over a thousand years. Surely, it is no accident that they have honoured Diponegoro. Each Indonesian province has a military district. The military district for Central Java, the heartland of the Javanese people, is the Diponegoro Division.
Drain on the Dutch treasury
Peace does not come naturally to Java. The reoccupied colony was bankrupting the Dutch treasury. The Dutch government introduced in the 1830s the Cultivation System to boost returns and reduce the drain on the public purse.
Under the Cultivation System, all farmers were required to cultivate a certain quantity of export crops such as tobacco and sugar. This meant that fewer resources were devoted to staple food crops such as rice. The famines that ravaged this fertile island were attributed to a misallocation of resources.
Whether this is true has been debated. What is true is that when I first visited Java in 1977, Indonesia was barely self-sufficient in rice yet was exporting food crops. At that time, land in Central Java was still not being cultivated because the owners had disappeared during the coup attempt of 1965.
The cultivation of rice is central to the maintenance of civilisation in Indonesia. Dry-land rice cultivation is preferred in the outer islands, where it is called “swidden agriculture”. Swidden is known as “slash and burn” because the forest is first cut then burned to provide fertile soil for the cultivation of rice.
The other form of rice cultivation is sawah, which is wet rice cultivation. Wet rice is frequently grown on terraces, which makes the countryside of Java so beautiful. Sawah is far more productive than swidden. It also requires a far higher level of social and political organisation.
Clifford Geertz produced one of the most influential studies on Javanese society. His book, Agricultural Involution: The processes of ecological change in Indonesia (University of California Press, Berkley, 1963), proposed that the output of rice increased as the inputs of labour increased. While the output per head remained constant, total output of rice increased.
The main conclusion was that the same area of land could sustain a higher population, meaning the population could increase even though the area of land under cultivation did not increase. This was important because under the Cultivation System, more land was allocated to cash crops than to consumption crops.
Indonesia is a very warm, wet and fertile land. In the monsoon season, the rain buckets down every afternoon, almost like clockwork. In most areas, farmers are able to grow two, perhaps three crops of rice a year. The Green Revolution rice, which can boost crop output substantially, is not always popular. Given the choice, most people prefer the traditional varieties.
Indonesia is one of the world’s top three rice producers but still imports rice as it is the staple food. Most people don’t feel satisfied unless they have eaten rice.
Under the Cultivation System the Indonesian population, particularly on Java, continued to grow while land inputs did not. Any additional land that was put under cultivation tended to be of marginal quality. Thus, emphasis was put on increasing output from better quality crop land. The “rice culture” of intensive wet rice cultivation came to determine the political, social and agricultural structure of society.
Staple more than just food
Rice has a mystical role in Indonesian – especially Javanese – society. For example, rice was harvested with an ani-ani. An ani-ani is a small blade hidden in the woman’s hand, so as not to offend the gods when the rice was harvested. Some varieties of rice were preferred to others due to their aroma and flavour. Certain rice dishes were served at particular life events. Saffron was used to colour rice yellow for rice served at weddings.
Dissatisfaction with the Cultivation System was making an impact in the Dutch homeland. Changing policies towards Indonesia were due in no small measure to domestic political policies in Holland. The introduction of the “Liberal Policy” reflected the trend towards liberalism, in the European sense, which emphasised deregulation and free trade. From the advent of the Liberal Policy in the 1860s to the Depression of the 1890s, Dutch enterprises thrived mightily, not only in Java but also in Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Colonialism often influences the colonisers as much as those colonised. Once independence is gained, the former colonisers frequently make comments such as “they weren’t ready, we should have stayed longer”. The Dutch did, in the end, try to be responsible colonisers, but it took almost 400 years. In 1901, Queen Wilhelmina announced the “Ethical Policy” based on irrigation, internal migration (transmigrasi) and education.
Irrigation was central to Indonesian agriculture. Transmigrasi referred to the practice of shipping people from Java to the outer islands, in particular Sumatra and Kalimantan.
Education did not go as planned. The actual process of educating a student beyond primary level was arduous and expensive. As it happened, those who did attain some educational distinction typically began questioning the necessity for Dutch colonial rule. The Dutch could not have stayed longer because the Indonesians took up arms to eject them, which they did successfully.
By the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s, the Ethical Policy was a dead letter. Certainly, Indonesia was a productive land. Some of its products, such as petroleum and rubber, were in great demand. But the Indonesians were becoming disenchanted with their Dutch rulers. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) was formed in 1920 in Semarang, the port in northern central Java. A PKI revolt in 1926 went off half-cocked and resulted in many activists being arrested and exiled.
The number of Indonesians who had any more than a basic education was still lamentably small. Those who did, like future President Sukarno, often proved to be a thorn in the side of the Dutch.
All Indonesians are required to belong to one of six religions: Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Confucianism. All of these faiths have long histories in Indonesia, some going back thousands of years. St Francis Xavier baptised thousands of converts, as did other missionaries. The VOC, though, did not like missionaries, especially Catholic ones. Dutch Reformed Church missionaries planted many churches.
When the Japanese invaded Indonesia during World War II and Dutch resistance quickly crumbled, it sounded the end of 400 years of Dutch colonial rule. Europeans were not infallible; they were just humans like everyone else; they could be beaten, the Indonesians said. The Japanese gave the Indonesians a large degree of autonomy. Suharto, among other leaders, gained experience of command with the local Indonesian militia during World War II.
The Dutch would later commence a “police action” to recover their former colony, but their era had passed. Yet even as political power passed from the Dutch to the Indonesians, many Dutch policies remained in place with little change – dam building and irrigation, transmigrasi, agricultural diversification, the jati (teak) forests. But it is remarkable how little cultural residue remains from the colonial era.