September 22, 2023

Colonial Period in The Archipelago – The Indonesian colonial period did not immediately begin when the Dutch first set foot in the archipelago at the end of the 16th century. On the contrary, the process of colonialism by the Dutch was a slow, gradual process of political expansion and continued for several centuries before reaching the borders of Indonesia as it is now.

During the 18th century, Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC) was established. VOC was known as an economic and political force on the island of Java after the collapse of the Sultanate of Mataram. This Dutch trading company had been a significant force in Asian trade since the early 1600s. However, in the 18th century, they began to develop an interest in interfering in Indigenous politics on the island of Java to increase their power in the local economy. 

But corruption, poor management, and intense competition from the UK (East India Company) resulted in the collapse of the VOC towards the end of the 18th century. In 1796, the VOC went bankrupt and was later nationalized by the Dutch government. As a result, VOC property and property in the archipelago fell into the hands of the Dutch crown in 1800. However, when France occupied the Netherlands between 1806 and 1815, the treasure was transferred to the British. After Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, it was decided that a large part of the archipelago returned to Dutch.

Forced Cultivation System in Java

Competition with British traders, the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, and the Java War caused a substantial financial burden on the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was decided that Java should be a major source of income for the Dutch. Therefore, Governor-General Van den Bosch encouraged the beginning of the Forced Cultivation era in 1830. Historians in Indonesia noted this period as the Forced Cultivation era, but the Dutch Colonial Government called it Cultuurstelsel, which means the Cultivation System.

With this system, the Dutch monopolized the trade of export commodities in Java. Moreover, it was the Dutch who decided on the type and amount of commodities that must be produced by Javanese farmers. In general, this meant that Javanese farmers had to surrender one-fifth of their harvest to the Dutch. In exchange, farmers receive compensation in the form of money at a price determined by the Netherlands regardless of commodity prices on the world market. Dutch and Javanese officials receive bonuses if their residency sends more crops than before, encouraging top-down interventions and oppression. In addition to forced labor, Raffles’s land tax also still applies. The Cultivation System results in financial success. Between 1832 and 1852, around 19% of total Dutch government revenue came from the Javanese colonies. Between 1860 and 1866, this figure increased to 33%.

Initially, the Cultivation System was not dominated only by the Dutch government. Javanese power holders, private Europeans, and also Chinese businessmen played a role. However, after 1850 where the Cultivation System was reorganized, the Dutch Colonial Government became a major player. But this reorganization also opened the door to private parties to begin to dominate Java. A process of privatization occurred because the Colonial Government gradually shifted the production of export commodities to European private entrepreneurs.

Architect of the Colonialism in Indonesia

There are two prominent names known as the architects of the Dutch Colonial Government in Indonesia. The first one would be Herman Willem Daendels, who was a Governor-General (1808-1811) when France controlled the Dutch. The second was British Lieutenant Stamford Raffles, who was a Governor-General (1811-1816) when Java was controlled by the British. Daendels made adjustments to the central and regional colonial government by dividing the island of Java into a residency led by European civil servants who were the residents who were legitimately subordinate to and had to report to the Governor-General in Batavia. These residents are responsible for various matters in their residencies, including legal issues and agricultural organizations.

Raffles continued the reorganization of his predecessor (Daendels) by reforming the court, police, and administrative systems in Java. He introduced a land tax on Java, which meant that Javanese farmers had to pay taxes, roughly the value of two-fifths of their annual harvest, to the authorities. Raffles was also very interested in Javanese culture and language. In 1817, he published his book The History of Java, one of the first academic works on the island of Java. However, the reorganization of its administration by Raffles also meant an increase in foreign intervention in the Javanese society and economy, which was reflected in the increasing number of European middle-ranking officials working in residencies on the island of Java. Between 1825 and 1890, the number increased from 73 to 190.

The Dutch colonial system in Java was a direct and dualistic system. Along with the Dutch hierarchy, there is an indigenous hierarchy that functions as an intermediary between Javanese farmers and European civil service. The upper part of this indigenous hierarchical structure consisted of Javanese aristocracy, former officials who managed the Mataram government. However, because they were controlled by the prijajis, they were forced to carry out the will of the Dutch.

The increasing Dutch dominance over Java did not come without a fight. When the Dutch Colonial Government decided to build a road on land owned by Prince Diponegoro (who was appointed guardian of the throne of Yogyakarta after the sudden death of his half-brother), he rebelled with the support of the majority of the population in Central Java and he made it a war of jihad. This war took place in 1825-1830 and resulted in the death of around 215,000 people, mostly Javanese. But after the Javanese War was over – and prince Diponegoro was captured – the Dutch were far stronger in Java than before.

The Age of Dutch East Indies

More and more voices were heard in the Netherlands rejecting the Cultivation System and pushing for a more liberal approach for foreign companies. The rejection of the Cultivation system took place due to humanitarian and economic reasons. In 1870 the liberal group in the Netherlands won power in the Dutch parliament and successfully removed some of the characteristics of the Forced Cultivation System, such as the percentage of planting along with the necessity of using land and labor to export crops.

This liberal group opened the way for the start of a new period in Indonesian history known as the Liberal Age (circa 1870-1900). This period was marked by the great influence of private capitalism in colonial policy in the Dutch East Indies. The Colonial Government at that time more or less played the role of a supervisor in the relationship between European businessmen and Javanese rural communities. However, although liberals say that the benefits of economic growth will also flow to the local community, the situation of Javanese farmers suffering from hunger, lack of food and disease is no better than during the Cultivation Period.

The 19th century is also known as the century of expansion because the Netherlands carried out substantial geographical expansion in the archipelago. Encouraged by new imperialism mentalism, European countries competed to find colonies outside the European continent for economic motives and status. One important motive for the Netherlands to expand its territory in the archipelago – in addition to financial gains – is to prevent other European countries from taking part in this territory. The most famous battle (and the longest battle between the Dutch and the indigenous people) during the period of Dutch expansion this century was the Aceh War which began in 1873 and ended in 1913, resulting in the deaths of more than 100,000 folks. However, the Netherlands never held complete control over Aceh after all.

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