Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

The Dutch in Indonesia

Steve Muhlberger

One of the largest Muslim countries in the world is Indonesia.  One of the most important things that binds this diverse country it together is adherence to Islam.

 Looking at Indonesia, with a particular emphasis on the 19th century, we will see another variation on the story of intense interaction between European colonizers and a non-European people, with the result, once again, being that the non-European society has been transformed in profound ways.

The first Europeans to come into this area were the Portuguese, who made great profits by rerouting much of the spice trade to Europe through their own hands.  Although the Portuguese were present in this area until the 1970s, they were never completely in control.  As you might expect, there were plenty of native sailors and traders in Indonesia—usually in fierce competition with each other—and Chinese traders made an early appearance in the area.

During the 17th century, after a period of fierce competition with the English, the Dutch became the predominant power in Indonesia.   Direct occupation was restricted to the Spice Islands and a few other key areas, especially some enclaves on the island of Java.  However, the Dutch did their best to control the sea in the entire archipelago, and enjoyed a great deal of success.

By 1700, the Dutch, without losing their hold on the most important Spice Islands, started to change the emphasis of their colonial activities.  These had been originally trading activities under the control of a state-supported monopoly, the Dutch East Indies company, and the original interest of the Company had been in spice trade.  However, they eventually found it impossible to calculate and control the level of supply to assure the killer profits that they wanted to make.  So the Dutch started the cultivation of other valuable tropical plants, things like coffee, tea, and indigo.  They concentrated their efforts on Java, an island very well placed in the trade routes and very fertile to boot.  In modern times, the majority of the population of Indonesia has lived on the single island of Java.  It has a population of about 100 million today.

The Dutch did not do any of the farming themselves.  Rather, they took control of various areas in Java and forced the people there to cultivate what the Dutch wanted produced.  Their control was usually indirect. The Dutch ruled their part of Java mostly through Javanese nobles, so that the Javanese peasants, despite the amount of control the East India Company had over their lives, very seldom saw the Dutch.  Indeed, many intermediary functions, including moneylending and other middleman-type commerce was in the hands of Chinese merchants.  The Chinese, among the most important rivals of the Dutch, had been accommodated to the extent of being given this share of the profits.

This method of indirect rule, which to this point mostly affected Java, and only part of that, was the beginning of divisions in Indonesian society that became very important by the ninteenth century.

The vast majority of the population was of course made up of indigenous elements—I say indigenous elements because there were very many distinct peoples in what’s now Indonesia.

In the still-independent parts of Indonesia, these peoples lived according to their own standards, though the East India Company kept them from freely participating in the world economy by its control of the seas.

In the parts under Company rule, native Indonesians were by and large left to their own laws and customs, subject to the demands of the company for tribute in the form of produce.  Nobles and even kings had a share in the profits of government and commerce, and used them to support a traditional aristocratic culture, which included the production of batik, and specialized dance, music, and armoring.  But even the high-ranking Indonesians were sealed off from participation in the center of power.

The center of power was the East India Company’s capital of Batavia (now Jakarta) in west-central Java.  Here Chinese and Dutch merchants with connections to the outside world enjoyed a disproportionate share of the profits of trade.  Both groups kept pretty much to themselves.   The most powerful merchants and officials were always recent immigrants.  Pure-blooded descendents of either group also enjoyed a high status, while people of mixed heritage had a hard time fitting into either European, Chinese, or Indonesian society.

At the end of the 18th century, the Dutch East India company went broke, as a result of its own corruption and the effects of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars.  It looked for a moment that Britain would take the colony away from the Dutch, as it did in the case of South Africa.  When the peace treaty was signed however, the Dutch got their Indonesian territories back.  This time they were to be run on behalf of the country, not of private investors.

During the brief British occupation, the government in Batavia had experimented, unsuccessfully, with cash taxes instead of forced requisitions of crops, as in the time of the Company.

The returning Dutch abandoned cash taxes and started something called the “culture” or “cultivation” system.  Instead of taxes, Javanese peasants were required to set aside 1/5 of their land to grow some crop specified by the government.  In theory, the peasants would get some of the benefit in years when the crops were good or prices high, while the government would take its lumps if the value of the crops on the 1/5 portion of the land did not meet expectations.

In fact, the government never played fair while this system was in operation.  Peasants were pressured to put more than 1/5 of their land into the “culture” system, and their crops were evaluated in a way that benefited only the government.  Also the government began to annex larger and larger parts of Java so to extend the scale of its operations.

The “culture” or “cultivation” system had a big impact  on both the Netherlands and Java.  The impact on the Netherlands derived from the fact that huge profits were exported from Indonesia to Holland at a time when the latter was in very bad shape economically.  It was Indonesian profits that made possible the rebuilding of the Dutch economy on modern, 19th century lines.  .
For Java, things worked a little differently.  The pressure of Dutch demands resulted in an extraordinary intensification of agriculture in Java.  When the Dutch showed up the norm was slash and burn agriculture, which was practical because the population of the island was under 3 million, and there was plenty of room.  This elbow room made the Dutch presence more tolerable than it might have been otherwise.  If demands for tribute got too high, people could push off and find a new home.

During the 18th century population increases and the pressure of tribute encouraged more and more people to take up a more intensive and settled type of agriculture, wet or paddy cultivation of rice.  The Indonesian environment meant that a large population could be supported by the land and could produce, at the same time as its own food, sugar and other commercial commodities for the profit of the Dutch.  In other words, the potential existed to make Java a huge, vastly profitable plantation.

During the 19th century, the population of Java took off.  In 1815, there may have been 4.5 million people in Java;  In 1830, there were around 7 million;  in 1870, 16 million; in 1900, 28 million.  This is something like a sevenfold increase.  All this happened because it was to everyone’s advantage:  poor peasant families trying to keep up with their quotas under the “culture” system thought they could get ahead by having more children.  Dutch administrators were happy to have a bigger labor force under their control.  Of course the Dutch did better under this system than the peasants.  This sort of growth produced vast increases in output, but the per capita income did not go up at all.

In the 1870s, the method of exploitation changed again.  By this time, the political system of the Netherlands had been liberalized to allow the more prosperous citizens a considerable say in politics.  These people did not see why all the benefits of the colonies should be controlled by the government and its friends.  This was an era when free trade had a big reputation, and people thought that it should be applied to the Indies.  Furthermore, the abuses of the “culture” system had been well publicized in a popular novel, and critics said that by opening up the system everyone would benefit—the so-called mother country and the colonial population both.

So for the last three decades of the 19th century, the Dutch East Indies were under a “liberal” regime, meaning that private investors were allowed to buy land and trade in Indonesia.  They benefited considerably, but the Indonesian population got little out of it.   Dutch and other European enterpreneurs established plantations in the Outer Islands (all the rest but Java), in many cases settling them with Javanese fleeing land shortages at home.  When there was trouble in these areas with the existing rulers or population, the planters demanded intervention.  The government obliged, sometimes at considerable expense in money and blood.  The ultimate result was that the whole territory of Indonesia fairly quickly came under more or less direct Dutch rule.  The process was basically finished by 1914.

Now so far I have been outlining the effects of colonialism in Indonesia without saying anything about Islam.  This is the appropriate time to have a look at Islam in this part of the world.

Islam started infiltrating Indonesia in about the 13th century, from India.   When Islam came to Indonesia, starting about the 13th century, the various cultures of the archipelago were defined by customary codes of law called adat.  There are now about 19 different types of adat law, each dominant in a different area of Indonesia.  These law codes were very important because they defined matters of marriage and inheritance, diet, and art, especially the public arts of dance and music performed at various festivals.

When Islam came to Indonesia, it spread only slowly through the fragmented culture of the area, and it did not displace adat law.  For the vast majority adat law was probably more important than Muslim identity.  This was especially true for the aristocracy.  In most parts of Indonesia, the aristocracy (called in Java priyayi) defined itself as upholders of adat.

In the nineteenth century, the prominence of Islam as an autonomous standard of conduct increased.  There were several reasons for this.

A change in Dutch attitudes towards their new empire also helped spark nationalism.

By the 1890s, the extent and the depth of Dutch power in Indonesia was far greater than it had been in 1800 or even 1850.  It was clear to people who concerned themselves with the colonies that the Netherlands had assumed a great deal of power over other people and therefore had a great deal of responsibility.  This was an idea that was very strong in all the European colonial powers at this time, which was among other things the period when Africa was carved up.  This is the period when Kipling popularized the phrase “White Man’s Burden.”

What was the White Man’s Burden?  It was the responsibility to use unprecedented power for some good purpose.  In the Netherlands, the people who felt this most keenly were called “the Ethici” (Latin for “the Ethicals”) and they pushed for an “ethical” policy.  The Netherlands, which had profited so much from the Indies, had a “debt of honor” that it should pay back.  The payback was visualized not in money terms.  Rather, the idea was that Dutch power in the Indies should be used to raise up the natives, to educate them by the European standards so that they would eventually enjoy the benefits of enlightenment.

What exactly the endpoint of this process would be was always a bit vague.  But it was always expected that the Indonesians would adapt to European standards, under Dutch tutelage.  Perhaps there would be a great Dutch-speaking culture in Indonesia.

So in the early twentieth century, there were some tentative efforts to extend modern education to the Indonesians, starting with members of the Javanese aristocracy.  The project got started only very slowly.

On the Dutch side, most people in the colonies were not “Ethicals” and thought of the “natives,” even the aristocrats among them, as being an inferior race.  As in South Africa, the legal barriers between so-called races had become stricter over the years, being divided between Europeans, foreign Orientals such as Arabs and Chinese, and native Indonesian.  It was a structure of privilege that the colonial Dutch fought hard to maintain.

On the Indonesian side, there were also hesitations.  Adopting Dutch standards meant to some extent abandoning the standards set down by adat and by Islam.  A good example of this was the first modern Indonesian intellectual, a woman named Raden Adjeng Kartini, a Javanese aristocrat whose father had allowed her to be given six years of Western style education.  This totally spoiled her for the way of life she had been intended for—an arranged marriage.  Kartini then began to feel her way towards a satisfying form of modernity.  But it was tough, because neither Dutch society nor Javanese society had a place for an educated Indonesian woman.  She and the husband she eventually married fixed on the idea of creating a school for aristocratic women.  She died before these plans went anywhere, but her writings and influence stirred things up considerably, and she became a nationalist hero in later years.

In Indonesia wesee a divided society with a strong Muslim element entirely taken over and reshaped by a European power for European purposes.  By 1900, the old cultures of Indonesia were perhaps not destroyed, but were thoroughly undermined.   The myriad differences between Indonesians in various districts and on various islands were becoming less important than the fact that the Dutch, with the help of the Chinese, ruled them all.  The common plight of the Indonesians was slowly creating, or at least making possible the creation of an Indonesian national identity.  And as in Algeria, two factors would be very important in creating that identity:  a desire to catch up in power and technical proficiency with the colonial rulers, and a desire to assert the worth of Indonesian traditions.   And one of the most suitable traditions for implementing that second desire would be Islam.


Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.