Netherlands East Indies

Netherlands East Indies
Netherlands East Indies

The Netherlands East Indies was a political unit controlled by the Dutch, covering what is now Indonesia. Consisting of a vast archipelago of over 2,000 islands, it had been taken over piecemeal by the Dutch over several centuries. The center of their rule was on the island of Java and their capital was Batavia (now Jakarta), located on the north coast of Java.

Their main reason for initially taking the islands had been to control the trade with the Spice Islands, and the Dutch therefore exerted great control over the eastern islands in the archipelago, the Moluccas, especially the island of Ambon. Gradually the Dutch established military bases throughout the islands and in the early 17th century began to cultivate plantations.

On the island of Java, they first took over Batavia and the area around it in 1619, adding the Preanger districts to the south of Batavia in 1677. Two years later they annexed Cheribon and then Semerang, taking Bantam, the westernmost part of Java in 1684.

The Dutch then took control of the northern coast in 1741 and the island of Madura two years later. Some areas in south-central Java remained in the control of the sultans of Yogjakarta and Surakarta (Solo).

Outside Java the Dutch had reached agreements to trade and establish bases on many islands but did not have control of northern Sumatra, which was under the control of the sultans of Aceh (or Atjeh) and the island of Bali. By the 1770s they had control over much of the coastal regions of Borneo and the Celebes (now Sulawesi).

On an administrative level, the Dutch ruled through the Dutch East India Company, which, outside Java, made no attempt to control the people, working through native rulers—with the exception of the islands of Ambon, Ternate, and Banda in the Moluccas. However, from 1770 the company was faced with bankruptcy. Its employees had made huge fortunes but the main company itself was in a disastrous financial position.

When war broke out with England in 1781—the American Revolution—the Netherlands government had to intervene financially to prevent the company going bankrupt. However, the debt burden increased and in 1783 the company ceased paying dividends to shareholders.

In 1790 the Dutch government appointed a committee to overhaul the company—the government itself was the chief creditor. While a rescue package was being arranged, war with France broke out in 1792 and three years later the Netherlands was invaded.

The National Assembly, under French revolutionary control, then proclaimed the Batavian Republic and enacted a new constitution by which the state took over the Dutch East India Company, and the company was formally dissolved in 1798.

The Batavian Republic was eager to get funds from its colonies and decided to institute a different administrative structure for the East Indies. By the nature of the various treaties with the different sultans and rulers, it was necessary to totally overhaul the entire system, and in 1803 a report was submitted to the new republican government.

Most of its recommendations were actually academic because in 1795 when William V had fled the Netherlands ahead of the French, he had taken refuge in England and ordered all his colonial governors to welcome British troops and merchant ships.

Thus the British had taken control of Malacca also ruled by the Dutch at the time; and the bases at Padang (which had been sacked by the French in 1793 and was unable to resist), Ambon, Banda and even Ternate in 1799.

The latter was particularly important for the trade in sandalwood. In 1802, by the Treaty of Amiens, all these places were to be restored to the Dutch; however, with war breaking out so soon afterwards, the British decided to keep them all and prepare to invade Java.

Java and in particular Batavia had been going though a period of semi-independence at the time. With the British controlling most of the seas, little control was exerted from the new Batavian Republic or from France. The governing authorities in Java were even able to conclude commercial treaties with Denmark and the United States.

However, this whole situation changed in 1806 when the Batavian Republic was swept away and Louis Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon I, became king of the Netherlands. On January 28, 1807, he appointed Herman Willem Daendels, a Dutch Jacobin, to be the new governor-general of the Netherlands East Indies.

Determined Change

Herman Willem Daendels
Herman Willem Daendels

Daendels arrived in the Netherlands East Indies determined to change the whole administrative structure. He was anxious to regularize and standardize commercial arrangements, codify the laws, operate through a more formal judiciary, and reduce the influence of Chinese businessmen.

At the same time he had to overcome the appalling sanitary conditions of Batavia. He did this by demolishing sections of the old city, Kota, and moving the old cemetery, which was close to the water table, to a new site outside the city walls. The large square in front of the governor’s residence in Batavia was also his creation.

Daendels also had the task of fortifying the city to prevent an imminent British attack. He moved much of the army out of Batavia, where it was in range of British ships, to a garrison base at Meester Cornelis, just south of the city.

There work began on massive fortifications. Although many of the decisions made by Daendels were needed, his reforms did create much resentment among the businessmen in Batavia who complained regularly to the Netherlands.

By this time Napoleon had decided to annex the Netherlands, incorporating it into France. Daendels was recalled and replaced by Jan Willem Janssens, who was far more conciliatory in his approach, and also less decisive.

British Attack

Unfortunately for Janssens, soon after he arrived, the British attacked. Lord Minto, the governor-general of India, had wanted to capture Java. A British East India Company agent, Thomas Raffles, had long urged him to do so. Finally in 1811 Minto led a massive expeditionary force, with 9,000 soldiers, to Malacca, and then they sailed for Batavia, landing at Ancol, just east of the city.

As well as soldiers, Minto had brought with him teams of agronomists, botanists, and scientists. Minto’s massive and well-armed force frightened Janssens, who immediately retreated to Meester Cornelis, leaving Batavia as an open city. The British took it, marveling at its wealth.

They then surrounded Meester Cornelis, which had been reinforced by some French soldiers, and after a short battle stormed it. Janssens then fled south with the British in pursuit. Facing them north of Yogjakarta, the British again easily defeated the Franco-Dutch forces, and Janssens surrendered. The British also stormed the sultan’s palace at Yogjakarta, where they looted.

With the British in control of Java, they dispatched ships to seize outlying Dutch bases: Palembang, Macassar, and Kupang (or Koepang) in West Timor. The British East India Company then split their new possessions into four: Java, Malacca, West Sumatra, and the Moluccas. Raffles was appointed lieutenantgovernor and took up residence in Batavia, but preferred the summer residence in Bogor, set in the middle of the botanical gardens.

Raffles pushed through many of the reforms that Daendels had tried to introduce. These actions were generally quite popular. However, Raffles was under pressure to increase the revenue base of his administration.

Most of his moves were free of trouble, but in May 1813, the sale of land at Probolinggo, in eastern Java, resulted in massive protests as Chinese businessmen had increased their control in the region.

Local farmers marched on the British, who were visiting the Chinese community leader at the time and demanded that the British officers acknowledge the local titles to the land and disregard Chinese attempts to evict them. The Chinese had hired local bodyguards, but these fled, and two highlanders, trying to calm the demonstrators, were both “barbarously murdered,” as described on their gravestone.

Convention of London

Raffles was finally making inroads into the land problem when the Convention of London, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, returned to the Dutch all lands held by them after 1803. This was delayed by Napoleon’s return from Elba, but after his defeat at Waterloo, instructions arrived at Batavia to this effect.

The British in Java were angered by this arrangement, as they had actually increased the size of the colony during their rule. However, they relented, holding onto Malacca, and Raffles went on to found a British base on Singapore.

The Dutch, returning to the Netherlands East Indies, were told to be as liberal as they could, to reestablish their rule without opposition from the locals. In 1830 they succeeded in gaining control of the rest of Java and set about building a new administrative structure.

At the heart of this was a school to train Dutch civil servants who would form the administrative class in the Netherlands East Indies. To this end in 1834 they established a school in Surakarta (Solo).

After nine years this project was abandoned and a new school was established at the Royal Academy at Delft, Netherlands. There a two-year (later three-year) course was introduced to ensure civil servants had a good understanding of the culture and history of the East Indies.

The island of Java and its satellite island, Madura, were to form the economic and administrative core of the colony. They were the most densely populated islands in the region—in fact one of the most densely populated parts of the entire world—and were divided into West Java, Central Java, and East Java, with the cities of Yogyakarta and Surakarta having a degree of autonomy. The rich farming lands provided vast quantities of rice and were also good in the raising of livestock, and the seas around Java were rich in fish.

To the west of Java was the island of Sumatra. The British eventually gave up their base at Bencoolen (modern-day Bengkulu) in exchange for holding onto Malacca, but the Dutch were never able to develop high-intensity agriculture on the scale that was the case in Java. With the rubber boom in the late 19th century, extensive rubber plantations were established in Sumatra.

The island of Bangka, and to a lesser extent, the neighboring island of Billiton, off the east coast of Sumatra, was found to have extensive deposits of tin, and Dutch mining companies established large ventures, leaving much of the island covered by a moonscape. The north of Sumatra, under the control of the sultans of Aceh, only finally became a part of the Netherlands East Indies after the Acehnese War, which lasted from 1873 until 1904.

To the east of Java, the island of Bali was occupied by the Hindu princes who had ruled Java before the arrival of Islam. They managed to maintain their independence, but when the Dutch took the island of Lombok in 1894, it was obvious that the Dutch were going to move on Bali, which they invaded in 1906.

Prior to that there had been constant problems over Dutch merchant vessels running a ground on the islands and being looted by the locals. During the Dutch invasion, the Balinese nobility charged the Dutch lines and were massacred.

In Borneo, the Celebes, and the rest of the Sunda islands, the Dutch controlled trade with Dutch administrators, merchants, and businessmen living in towns, but not exerting much control over events in the countryside and the hinterland. This was also the case in Dutch New Guinea. In contrast to this, in the Moluccas, the Dutch exerted a much greater control over the population.

The Dutch built schools and hospitals and many people joined the Dutch Reformed Church. Many Moluccans, especially Ambonese (or Amboinese as they were known at the time), served in the Dutch colonial forces and made up a large section of the Dutch colonial police used throughout the archipelago.

The society in the Netherlands East Indies was stratified with the Dutch ruling class generally living in particular parts of cities, close to churches, and maintaining their own social life and clubs, and being buried in Christian cemeteries apart from most of the rest of the population (who were mainly Muslim).

There were other Europeans, including a sizeable British trading community in Batavia and also some Britons running plantations in Sumatra. The Chinese formed the merchant class of the archipelago and although they never numbered more than 3–5 percent of the population, they dominated business in almost every town in the Netherlands East Indies.

Of the locals, the rulers enjoyed the prosperity that Dutch rule brought, and gradually a small middle class emerged, aiding the Dutch in their colonial rule and also producing the nationalists who worked against the Dutch in the 1930s. For the rest of the peasantry, life hardly changed.