Chapter 4: The Netherlands Indies, 1800-1942

Conquest and Annexation

At the end of the 18th century, Dutch power in the Indonesian archipelago had been waning. The VOC claimed a weak hegemony over most of the Indonesian archipelago, but this claim was heavily qualified. More or less direct Dutch rule applied in parts of the west coast of Sumatra, the city of Melaka, most of Java and scattered areas of eastern Indonesia, while there was a British colonial presence in Sumatra and a Portuguese presence in Timor. For the rest, Indonesia was a patchwork of independent indigenous states. VOC administration was listless and corrupt, while new forces in the archipelago, both indigenous and external, were gathering strength to seize the initiative. The sultanates of Aceh, Siak and Palembang in Sumatra, Pontianak and Banjarmasin in Borneo, Yogyakarta in Java, and Makasar in Sulawesi were all ready to reassert their independence, while the British and French also began to show interest in the Dutch colony. For the five years from 1811 to 1816 the Dutch entirely lost control of their Indies possessions.

In the course of the 19th century and the early 20th century, however, the Dutch transformed this picture. The Dutch state took colonial administration in hand and mounted a systematic campaign of conquest and annexation of their indigenous rivals, turning their scattered archipelagic possessions into an integrated empire. Internal administrative structures were strengthened and made more uniform. The Netherlands Indies took shape, externally and internally, during the 19th century. The borders with British, Spanish, Portuguese and German colonies in the region were gradually settled, and the formerly independent indigenous states of the archipelago were brought under Dutch hegemony by military and diplomatic means. A complex administrative structure bound the Dutch possessions together in a hierarchy leading to the offices of the Governor-General in Batavia and Buitenzorg in Java. The Netherlands Indies emerged on the world stage as a distinct political entity.

Within this colonial framework, indigenous society was increasingly transformed, both by new economic forms and by changing forms of consciousness. Dutch rule reinforced  – even created  – the village as the basic unit of administration in the Javanese countryside and tied the peasantry far more closely to the land than had even been the case in pre-colonial or early colonial times. At the same time, however, colonial policies had a clear and sharp impact on the daily lives of the people, while education began to develop new skills and to expose people to new ideas. In the 20th century, these changes led to the growth of a nationalist movement aiming at the creation of an independent Indonesia. Dutch repression and internal differences, however, prevented the movement from making significant progress towards independence until the Japanese occupation from 1942 brought Dutch rule to an end.

Java

When the Dutch returned to Java in 1816, they found the island seething with turmoil and their own policies exacerbated the problems. Colonial interference in court affairs, especially in Yogyakarta, left the royal family and aristocracy in a state of constant uncertainty and instability. The territorial losses of 1812, moreover, had deprived the Javanese rulers of appanages to allocate to their followers, so that internal competition over fewer resources became more intense. In order to preserve their incomes, many Javanese aristocrats leased their lands to European and Chinese entrepreneurs who established new sugar, indigo, cotton and pepper plantations. On these plantations, Javanese peasants were now forced to labour for little return instead of growing rice for themselves. Hardship in the countryside was exacerbated by an extortionate system of taxation, especially toll gates, which added dramatically to the cost of moving people and goods from place to place.

Simmering discontent boiled into rebellion when the Dutch authorities abruptly abolished the lease system in 1823, requiring the aristocracy not only to reimburse foreign entrepreneurs for leases paid in advance but to pay also for plantation infrastructure which they had no intention of using. In July 1825, a major uprising broke out under a Yogyakarta prince, Diponegoro, who believed that he had been chosen as king of Java by the Goddess of the South Seas. The Java War which followed was partly a civil war, pitting the followers of Diponegoro against supporters of the royal courts, who saw Diponegoro as a straightforward dynastic rebel. The war was a ferocious affair in which perhaps a quarter of a million Javanese died. Superior Dutch weaponry and military techniques turned the tide and Diponegoro himself was captured by a ruse in 1830. Victory gave the Dutch the opportunity for a wholesale revision of the status of the Javanese states. Both Yogyakarta and Surakarta were shorn of most of their outlying territories, and a relatively neat border was drawn between them, in contrast to the patchwork of different territorial jurisdictions which had followed the Treaty of Giyanti in 1755.

Java War, 1825-1830

Princely states (Vorstenlanden) of central Java after 1830

Sumatra

In the late 18th century, the Dutch presence in Sumatra was limited to a narrow coastal strip on the west coast, a few small posts on the east coast and vague territorial claims in the south based mainly on treaties with Banten in the 17th century. The 19th century, however, saw a steady Dutch conquest and annexation of the island, moving roughly from south to north, though facing very different conditions from region to region.

Dutch expansion began with occupation of the tin-producing island of Belitung in 1817, but they soon turned to neighbouring Palembang whose sultan had taken advantage of the British occupation of Java to slaughter the small local Dutch garrison. In a series of campaigns from 1818 to 1821, the sultanate was defeated and, in 1823, abolished. This success also allowed the Dutch to reoccupy the other major tin-producing island, Bangka, in 1822, but they did not reoccupy the Lampung region immediately to the south until 1856.

West of Palembang in 1823 was the British possession of Bencoolen (Bengkulu), but this was handed peacefully over to Dutch control in exchange for Dutch Melaka under the 1824 Treaty of London, which also formalized a division between British and Dutch spheres of influence. Although the specifics of the treaty were later questioned, it clearly provided in general for a demarcation line along the Equator, thus leaving the whole of the Malay peninsula in the British sphere. Immediately to the north of Palembang, Jambi recognized Dutch sovereignty after a brief military intervention in 1834, and Indragiri followed in 1838, but under the London treaty Britain objected to Dutch expansion north of the Equator and the Dutch had no formal presence in Indragiri. North of Indragiri, however, the sultanate of Siak experienced internal political struggles in the 1850s and the British reluctantly permitted the Dutch to establish their hegemony in 1858 in order to preserve regional stability. Dutch sovereignty now extended north to the borders of Aceh.

On the west coast, the Dutch had greater difficulty, although Padang had once been their main headquarters on the island. The Dutch had only been restored to Padang by the British in 1819 and they found the Minangkabau hinterland in the final throes of a civil war between radical Muslim reformers generally called Padri and the royal family with its supporters amongst the more traditionalist, less orthodox Muslims, though the issues involved were complex. Largely defeated by the Padri, the royalists turned to the Dutch for support, signing the Minangkabau region over to Dutch sovereignty in 1821 in exchange for military assistance. The Dutch expected a relatively quick victory, but instead became bogged down in seventeen years of bitter guerrilla warfare before a final victory in 1838. Annexation of Barus and Singkil in 1839 and 1840 then took Dutch territory up to the Acehnese border on the west coast.

Dutch territorial expansion in Sumatra, 1817-1907

By 1860, only Aceh, the Batak regions in the interior of northern Sumatra and one or two relatively insignificant independent pockets along the island’s mountainous spine remained independent. Part of the Batak region was conquered in 1872, and the remainder fell in piece-meal fashion during the following decades.

Dutch conquest of northern Sumatra, 1837-1907

Aceh’s position was different, both because it was still a relatively powerful, centralized state, and because the Treaty of London had specifically protected its independence. The late 19th-century European scramble for colonies, however, and the ill-concealed interest of some French and Americans in getting a foothold in Sumatra led the Dutch and British to agree in 1871 that the Dutch should have a free hand in Aceh in exchange for transferring their small colonial possessions in West Africa to the British. In 1873, hoping to forestall an Acehnese treaty with the United States, the Dutch invaded. With some difficulty, they captured Aceh’s capital, Kutaraja (now Banda Aceh) and in 1874 abolished the sultanate and annexed the kingdom.

The Acehnese, however, refused to submit and the Dutch spent the next thirty years and vast amounts of money in a bloody colonial war. For extended periods, the Dutch were confined to a small fortified perimeter around Kutaraja and their forays into the countryside were marked by brutality on both sides. The strongly Muslim Acehnese saw their struggle as a holy war, as well as a struggle for freedom. Only towards the end of the century did a carefully devised political strategy of seeking alliance with the regional lords, or uleëbalang, and offering support to religious leaders who abstained from politics, bring a form of victory to the Dutch. Even so, the region remained under Dutch military government and the ‘peace’ was peppered with military engagements until the end of colonial rule.

Dutch defensive perimeter around Kutaraja, Aceh, 1885

In the time of Srivijaya and Melaka, the western coast of the Malay Peninsula formed a single cultural and political zone with the eastern coast of Sumatra. After Melaka fell to the Portuguese in 1511, this unity steadily diminished as the Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya established hegemony over much of the peninsula and extensive Buginese settlement changed the political and social character of Johor and Selangor. In the mid-18th century, the Dutch still regarded the peninsula as part of their archipelagic sphere of influence and they continued to hold Melaka. British settlement in Penang in 1786, however, began a process which culminated in British colonial domination of the peninsula.

The British had seized Melaka, along with other Dutch colonies, in order to keep them out of the hands of the French during the Napoleonic Wars. They returned the city to Dutch rule in 1818, but in 1819 the former British lieutenant governor of Java, Stamford Raffles, seized Singapore as a base from which to control and protect the India–China shipping route. Although the Dutch objected to his action, they were too weak to prevent it and in 1824 they signed with the British the Treaty of London, under which they handed Melaka back to the British in exchange for British possessions on the western coast of Sumatra, notably Bencoolen (Bengkulu). The treaty also established British and Dutch spheres of influence, respectively north and south of the Melaka Strait. In 1830, the British East India Company constituted Penang, Melaka, the Dindings and Singapore as the Straits Settlements, a residency within the Company’s Bengal Presidency. The colony came under direct British rule with the abolition of the Company in 1858.

Malay peninsula, 19th century

In 1826, Britain signed a treaty with Siam which set the Kedah–Perak border as the boundary between British and Siamese spheres of influence on the west coast but the two continued to compete for influence in the east coast states of Kelantan, Trengganu and Pahang. From 1873, Britain expanded its control on the mainland, posting residents to ‘advise’ the Malay rulers of Perak, Selangor, Pahang and Negeri Sembilan and in 1895 designating the states as the Federated Malay States. In 1909 Siam surrendered its suzerainty over the four northern states of Trengganu, Kelantan, Kedah and Perlis and the British administered these states along with Johor as the ‘Unfederated Malay States’.

Borneo

In 1800, the island of Borneo was almost entirely free of Western influence. During the 19th century, however, the entire island came under varying degrees of colonial domination and it was partitioned between a Dutch sphere of influence in the south and a British sphere in the north.

After the restoration of Dutch authority to Java in 1816, the Dutch began a concerted campaign to reassert their authority in Borneo. Between 1819 and 1823, a series of expeditions to the existing independent states of western Borneo led all of them to sign treaties accepting Dutch sovereignty. Small areas of land were ceded to the Netherlands Indies in Pontianak and Sintang for military and administrative purposes, and the Dutch also annexed the uppermost headwaters of the Kapuas.

In 1817, the Dutch signed a new treaty with the Sultan of Banjarmasin, bringing the sultanate under Dutch suzerainty and ceding to the Dutch his claims as overlord of the states of the south and west coast, including Kutai, Kota Waringin, Pasir and Berau; all that remained to the sultan was the hinterland of Banjarmasin, a long strip of territory stretching from the low hills of Martapura and Tanah Laut through uplands of Amuntai to the middle reaches of the Barito river, where Malay cultural influences began to give way to the Dayak communities. As in the west of the island, the Dutch sent expeditions to sign further treaties with the local rulers (Kutai in 1825, Sambalioeng and Goenoeng Taboer in 1834) to establish their hegemony beyond doubt. Later in the 1830s they claimed the more northerly Tidung region, which had previously been regarded as vassal to the sultan of Sulu.

Borneo, 1800-1857

This incorporation of Borneo into the Dutch sphere of influence had little immediate effect, because the Dutch were primarily interested in forestalling potential rivals rather than in directly exploiting the island. In the 1840s, the Dutch presence in the middle reaches of the Kapuas was slightly increased to forestall what they saw as the ambitions of the Englishman James Brooke in Sarawak. In 1841, the sultan of Brunei had appointed Brooke as governor of the Sarawak region, whose border with Sambas had often been contested; Brooke turned this fiefdom into the basis for an independent state which steadily expanded along the north coast at the expense of Brunei. One of Brooke’s political strengths was his strong relationship with the Iban of the interior, and the Dutch had some fears that he might use that relationship to expand over the watershed into the Kapuas basin. Brooke’s relations with the British themselves were always ambiguous. On the one hand they saw him as a reliable friend of Britain who would keep his domain within their sphere of influence; on the other hand they distrusted him as an adventurer. In the event, they remained confident enough in him to allow Sarawak to reduce Brunei to a pair of small enclaves by the end of the century; the only direct British acquisition in the region was the island of Labuan, at the mouth of Brunei Bay, which they took in 1846. Other British adventurers attempted to emulate Brooke on the east coast of Borneo, but none were successful in breaking Dutch hegemony.

Brunei shrinks, 1861-1905

Significant resistance to Dutch rule came in only two areas. Since the 1820s, the kongsi, or Chinese gold-mining republics, of the northwest had resisted Dutch efforts to control trade in opium and firearms and to levy taxes. By 1850, however, rivalry between the kongsi over diminishing gold reserves gave the Dutch the opportunity to intervene militarily; even then, the region was not pacified until 1854.

Seven kongsi, or Chinese gold-mining republics of north-western Borneo

Much more persistent resistance faced the Dutch in Banjarmasin. In 1857, the colonial government selected the unpopular Tamjidillah to succeed to the throne, prompting a revolt which quickly attracted the support of peasants, aristocrats and Muslim religious leaders. The Dutch had largely defeated the rebels by 1863, but sporadic resistance continued until 1906. The depth of resistance from the Banjarmasin elite led the Dutch to abolish the sultanate in 1859 and to introduce direct rule in those regions where the elite could not be detached from its old loyalties. The old heartland of the Banjarmasin empire, therefore, became the only extensive area of direct rule in Borneo.

The northernmost peninsula of Borneo remained independent of European power until late in the century. The coastal regions there were subject to the sultan of Sulu, while the interior was dominated by largely independent Kadazan tribes. In the 1870s, however, an Austrian entrepreneur, Baron von Overbeck, obtained various concessions from the sultans of Sulu and Brunei which enabled him to claim what came to be called North Borneo as a largely independent fiefdom. Von Overbeck soon lost prominence in the venture to British interests, and in 1881 the North Borneo Company was chartered in London. The Company had full administrative responsibility for North Borneo, but operated under formal British protection. In 1885, the Company’s position was confirmed by a treaty among Britain, Germany and Spain, which affirmed Spanish suzerainty over Sulu but renounced Spanish claims to Borneo. The island was now fully partitioned.

Bali in 1880

Bali and Lombok, 1880-1908

Eastern Indonesia

The territorial expansion of the Netherlands Indies in the west and north was limited by the colonial interests of Britain and, to a lesser extent, Spain. Uncertainty hovered, however, over how much of the island of New Guinea was to fall into the Dutch sphere. The coastal districts on and close to the Bird’s Head peninsula could be claimed by virtue of Dutch suzerainty over Tidore, but on more distant coasts and in the interior there were no states with which the Dutch could sign treaties.

In the early 19th century, there was no apparent economic value in New Guinea, but the Dutch were keen to avert the possibility of colonization by another Western power: the British had briefly placed a post at Dore on the north coast in 1793–1794. In 1828, the Dutch formally claimed the south coast as far as 141°E, and 1848 they claimed all districts west of that meridian. To back their 1828 claim, they established a settlement called Fort Du Bus, but conditions there were so difficult that the post was abandoned after eight years. Dore became the quarters of German Christian missionaries in 1853, and several coastal regions of the island were regularly visited by the semi-official packetboat service in the last decade of the 19th century, but the Dutch did not re-establish a government post on the island until late 1892, when they briefly placed a post at Salerike in the south. Only in 1898, when officials were stationed in Manokwari and Fak Fak did the formal Dutch presence become permanent.

Western New Guinea, 19th century

A permanent Dutch presence was placed on the Aru and Tanimbar Islands in 1882, and in the Kai Islands in 1890.

Although the Netherlands Indies was primarily an archipelagic empire, it faced other European powers across land borders on three islands, Borneo, Timor and New Guinea. In all three cases, determining borders depended first on establishing approximate spheres of influence and only then on demarcating precise boundaries according to local conditions.

In western Borneo, the Dutch had accepted in the early 19th century that the northern coast lay in a British sphere of influence and their main interest was in keeping Raja Brooke and other pro-British interests north of the island’s main watershed. The border was formally determined by treaty in 1891, though several minor revisions in the interior were made once the topography was better known.

In the Timor region, the problem was more complicated, because Portugal had settlements on Flores as well as Timor, and maintained treaty relations with indigenous states on both those islands as well as Solor and Adonara. After turning down a Dutch offer to purchase their interests there, the Portuguese agreed in 1859 to a consolidation of territory. In exchange for abandoning the settlements on Flores and giving up treaty ties outside Timor, Portugal was confirmed in its possession of eastern Timor, Atauro and two enclaves in western Timor. A further consolidation took place in 1904.

Dutch-Portuguese borders in Timor, 1859-1904

The Dutch blanket claim of all territory in New Guinea west of 141°E reflected the fact that they knew virtually nothing of the topography or social conditions of the interior of the island, but neither other European powers nor indigenous Papuans had any immediate cause to challenge the claim. Only in 1884, when Germany and Britain claimed the northeast and southeast parts of the island respectively did the need for demarcation begin to arise. Negotiations with Britain in 1893–1895 produced an agreement that the border should intersect the coast at the mouth of the Bensbach river, a little to the east of 141°E and that, in exchange for the narrow strip of additional territory the Dutch thereby received, Britain should take the arc of territory enclosed by the Fly river where it crossed the meridian. North of the Fly, as far as the German border, the demarcation line returned to 141°E. Agreement over the northern part of the border was not reached until after Australia had taken over the former German colony after the First World War. Due to survey difficulties, Australian–Dutch agreements in 1933, 1936 and 1960 slightly deviated from 141°E, but the meridian was restored in 1964 in agreement between Indonesia, which had just recovered West New Guinea from the Dutch and Australia, which had taken over as colonial power in southeastern New Guinea (Papua) in 1901.

Dutch New Guinea, 1895-1938

After the end of the Java War, Dutch rule in Java was not significantly challenged until the emergence of the nationalist movement in the early 20th century, though a few local movements caused the Dutch occasional brief alarm. In many parts of the archipelago, however, the most serious resistance to colonial rule was offered after the Dutch had formally incorporated a region into their empire. This was largely because the Dutch often claimed sovereignty in a region before they had either the capacity or the intention to take a significant role in its administration. In fact there were few regions outside Sumatra where the Dutch could not claim some degree of hegemony on the basis of treaties inherited from the VOC and in two to three decades immediately after their return to the archipelago they made strenuous efforts to include all of the independent rulers of the archipelago in some kind of treaty relationship with them, a process which was not always achieved without intimidation or deception. Large areas in the outer islands, therefore, came within the Netherlands Indies, in Dutch eyes, without their inhabitants being aware of the fact. What the Dutch called ‘uprisings’, therefore, were often the resistance movements of largely independent peoples to colonial encroachment, rather than rebellions by colonial subjects, though a true anti-colonial rebellion in Ambon under Pattimura in 1817 was the earliest instance of resistance to the Dutch after the Napoleonic interlude.

In Sumatra, resistance to the Dutch emerged in Palembang in 1849 and 1881, led by members of the deposed royal family. Lampung was persistently unruly, and a major uprising in 1850 was not crushed until 1856. Sultan Taha of Jambi, who came to the throne in 1855, led widespread resistance upriver which lasted under a succession of leaders until 1904.

Elsewhere in the archipelago, the story was often similar. Shortly after their return to the Indies, the Dutch assiduously obtained treaties from all the significant rulers on the west, south and east coasts of Borneo, but after they attempted to impose tighter rule, they faced major wars in Banjarmasin and west Borneo. The Banjarmasin War, which began in 1859, was led by Prince Antasari and it drew together aristocrats, Muslim religious leaders and peasants in opposition to the Dutch. Antasari died in 1862, but the resistance continued until 1906. The resistance in west Borneo came from the Chinese mining kongsi, which had a deep suspicion of outside authority and which jealously guarded their gold mines.

When the Dutch returned to southern Sulawesi early in the 18th century, most states there were willing to reaffirm the Treaty of Bungaya, which had been the cornerstone of Dutch dominance. The VOC’s former ally Bone, however, refused to sign and instead assembled an anti-Dutch coalition. As so often, the colonial forces were able to achieve a fairly swift formal victory, but could not achieve a docile peace. Bone did not renew the Bungaya Treaty until 1838, and the region remained restive until a full-scale campaign in 1905–1906, which also brought the inland Toraja peoples under colonial rule.

In Bali and Nusatenggara the Dutch also had to fight. They took the Balinese kingdoms piecemeal in a series of campaigns from 1846 to 1908; Lombok was conquered in 1894. Of the islands further east, the most difficult was Flores. Expeditions in 1838 and 1846 failed to subdue the local kingdoms, and a violent military campaign in 1907–1908 was necessary before the island became relatively docile.

Colonial warfare and indigenous resistance, 1815-1910

Administration

The transfer of the Indies from the VOC to the Dutch crown at the end of the 18th century brought an almost immediate change in the administrative structure of the colony. In part the change was a consequence of the loss of most of the VOC empire around the turn of the century. With Batavia now the capital of a more compact Indies empire, the old system of large, relatively autonomous gouvernementen was replaced with a system of smaller territorial units, generally called gewesten (regions), whose heads were more closely under the authority of the Governor-General. This change took place first under the Napoleonic Governor-General H. W. Daendels (1808–1811). He summarily abolished the old Gouvernement of the North Coast of Java and divided Java into prefectures or landrostambten. The number and boundaries of these divisions changed many times under Daendels and his successors, but the division of Java into somewhere between twelve and twenty executive regions, generally called residencies, remained the central feature of Dutch administration on Java until the 20th century. Gewesten also became the key elements of the Dutch administration outside Java, though more important regions were often still called gouvernementen.

Java's administrative divisions at the conclusion of Daendels' rule

Within the gewesten, however, administrative arrangements were often bewilderingly complex. As far as possible, the colonial government preferred to administer its Indies subjects through their own traditional rulers, but the extent to which they did so in each region depended both on the extent to which those indigenous rulers had survived the transition to colonial domination and on the complexity of Dutch demands on them. Where local rulers had submitted to colonialism without significant resistance and where European economic interests were few – in much of Borneo during the 19th century, for instance – the Dutch generally maintained a system of indirect rule, in which traditional rulers were preserved in their titles and positions and retained a considerable degree of autonomy. Where local rulers had resisted and European economic interests were strong, colonial rule tended to be more direct.

Constitutional division of the Netherlands Indies, 1909

The difficulty of maintaining traditional indigenous authorities while requiring them to serve colonial interests was most strongly felt on Java. By 1830, the once great empire of Mataram had been reduced to an enclave and divided between four separate royal families. Throughout most of Mataram’s former domains, however, the Dutch continued to use the bupati who had been regional lords under Mataram. At times when the Dutch valued their authority over the mass of the people, the bupati enjoyed enormous power and prestige within their regions, with a status close to that of royalty. At times when the Dutch placed greater emphasis on what they saw as capable and efficient administration, on the other hand, the bupati were treated, and disciplined, more as officials within a colonial hierarchy.

The resulting administrative structure, called the Binnenlandsch Bestuur (Interior Administration) is generally described as dualistic. A ‘native’ administrative hierarchy, the Inlandsch Bestuur, was partly parallel, partly subordinate to an exclusively European administrative hierarchy (the Europeesch Bestuur). In much of Java, a controleur and assistent-resident had responsibility for the same territory as a bupati and the relationship between them was compared to that between an elder and a younger brother.

The four surviving royal families of Central Java fell into a different category. Their territories, known to the Dutch as the Vorstenlanden, or Princely States, were considered to be indirectly ruled. Colonial authority was expected to be at arm’s length, with the indigenous rulers enjoying greater freedom and greater prestige than bupati. In some respects this separate status made a difference: regulations on the leasing of land, for instance, were different in the Vorstenlanden from those in the rest of Java, but the autonomy of the Javanese rulers remained within the boundaries of what was tolerated by the Dutch.

In the islands outside Java and Madura, known to the Dutch as the Buitengewesten, or outer territories, somewhat different complexities applied. Whereas in Java the indirectly ruled native states were reduced to a small remnant, in the outer islands they constituted well over half the land area under Dutch suzerainty. The 280-odd states, moreover, ranged in size from substantial, well-populated kingdoms to minor settlements of only a few hundred people. The precise legal status of the states varied too. 

Until 1909, there were still a few regions acknowledged by the Dutch as independent in international law, though the colonial government regarded them as falling within a Dutch sphere of influence; the independent Batak states of northern Sumatra were in this category. Then there were states which were formally allied with the Dutch, states which were under Dutch protection, and states which were vassal to the Dutch, as well as territories formally annexed to the Dutch crown but administered by their former rulers as agents of the Dutch crown (rather than as officials of the Netherlands Indies government like the bupati on Java). Even within these categories, the precise terms of the treaty relationship with the Dutch often varied, though from the end of the 19th century the Dutch sought to bring greater uniformity into their relations with these states by having most of them sign the so-called Korte Verklaring (short declaration), which briefly and consistently set out the states’ obligations to the colonial authorities.

In the directly ruled territories of the outer islands, the Dutch maintained a dualistic administrative system comparable to that on Java. Europeans held the more senior positions and indigenous officials, who bore a wide variety of titles from region to region, reported to them. In general, however, European administration in the outer islands was less intrusive than that on Java: the administrative overlap between the bupati on the one hand and the assistent-resident and controleur on the other did not exist.

For the most part, the Dutch made a sharp distinction between the Inlandsch Bestuur of salaried indigenous colonial officials, who reported to Dutch superiors and who were subject to administrative discipline, and the Inlandsch Gemeentebestuur (Native Community Administration), or Zelfbesturende Landschappen (self-governing territories), whose rulers were expected to be agents of local, rather than colonial, interests, even though their succession was generally subject to the approval of the colonial government. As a result, the administrative sub-division of the Buitengewesten into gewesten, afdelingen and onderafdelingen often bore little relationship to the boundaries of the native states, and the territory of a native state might be divided by the boundary of an onderafdeling, an afdeling, or even a gewest.

The boundaries both of native states and of the Dutch administrative framework changed repeatedly during the colonial period. From time to time, the colonial authorities annexed small areas of land for their administrative offices within native states; less commonly they abolished states altogether, sometimes because of what they saw as maladministration or insubordination by native rulers, sometimes simply because they could find no suitable successor to a throne. Dutch administrative boundaries themselves altered in response to population shifts, economic interests, lines of communication and political circumstances in their sprawling colony. The system produced a constant struggle between bureaucratic pressures for uniformity and continuity, and political and economic pressures for change and diversity. Some of the administrative flux which these pressures produced can be seen on the following pages.

Java administrative divisions, 1832-1866

Java administrative divisions, 1867-1900

Java administrative divisions, 1901-1924

Java administrative divisions, 1925-1931

Java administrative boundaries, 1931-1942

Administrative divisions in West Java, mid 19th century

Administrative divisions in central Java, ca 1857

Administrative divisions in eastern Java, ca 1857

Eastern Java:  subdistrict boundaries ca 1921

Administrative divisions in West Java in 1931 (as used for presenting results of the 1930 census)

Administrative divisions in Central Java, 1931

Administrative divisions in East Java, 1931

A third administrative category on Java comprised the private estates (particuliere landerijen), which were concentrated in the countryside east of Batavia. After the Dutch crown took over the Indies, the landlords of these estates, who were predominantly Chinese and European, were permitted to retain their quasi-feudal rights over the tenants and were given responsibility for education, health and other social services within their domains. In practice, few landlords paid much attention to these responsibilities and the unfortunate inhabitants of the private estates were amongst the most disadvantaged communities of the archipelago at the end of the 19th century. From the beginning of the 20th century, this situation prompted a systematic campaign by the colonial government to purchase estates from their owners and to incorporate them into the system of administration and social welfare that applied in other directly ruled parts of Java. Some of the estates purchased in this way continued in private hands while surrendering the so-called heerlijke rechten (‘lordly rights’) of their neighbours. In other cases, management of the estates was taken over by a government corporation whose task was to prepare the physical infrastructure and village institutions needed for inclusion in the normal administrative system. Progress, however, was slow and virtually ceased with the onset of the Depression in 1930. Many private estates, therefore, remained in existence, especially in the vicinity of Batavia, at the end of the colonial era.

Private estates of Java, 1900 and 1930

Private estates east of Batavia in 1932

Administrative divisions in Dutch Sumatra, 1824-1837

Administrative divisions in Dutch Sumatra, 1838-1872

Administrative divisions in Dutch Sumatra 1873-1906

Administrative divisions in Dutch Sumatra 1906-1933

Administrative divisions in Sumatra, 1933-1942

Uleëbalang territories in Aceh, early 20th century

The uleëbalang (regional lords) received only limited benefit from their alliance with the Dutch. Although they were considered to be autonomous rulers, they came under close supervision by the Dutch, especially in financial matters. In the more economically developed regions of Aceh, where uleëbalang had the opportunity to profit from the end of the war, their incomes were regulated through landschapskassen, or state treasuries, and could not be spent except on purposes approved by the Dutch.

Upon resuming contact with Borneo after 1815, the Dutch posted Residents to Banjarmasin, Pontianak and Sambas, and Assistent-Residents to Landak and Mampawa. By 1830, however, because of financial stringency during the Java War, the Dutch presence on the island was reduced to six men: a Resident and clerk at Banjarmasin, a Resident at Pontianak, an Assistent-Resident at Sambas and two customs agents at Tayan.

After the end of the Java War, the Resident in Pontianak was made head of the Residency of the West Coast of Borneo, while his counterpart in Banjarmasin became head of the South and East Coast. In 1846, the colonial government created a Gouvernement van Borneo en Onderhoorigheden (Government of Borneo and Dependencies) with its capital at Sintang, but it never took effect and in 1848 the two former residencies were restored as the Westerafdeeling and the Zuider- en Ooster-afdeeling.

In 1938, both residencies of Dutch Borneo were again united in a Gouvernement of Borneo with its capital at Banjarmasin.

Borneo in 1850

Administrative sub-divisions in Dutch Borneo, ca 1879

Native states (zelfbesturen) in  Dutch Borneo, 1900

Administrative divisions in Dutch and British Borneo, 1902

Administrative divisions in Dutch Borneo, 1902

Administrative divisions in Dutch Borneo, 1930

Administrative subdivisions in Dutch Borneo and Sarawak, 1930

Borneo in 1942

The eastern islands of Indonesia presented the Dutch with many practical administrative difficulties. By the 19th century, the spice trade had declined in importance and the region was no longer central to Dutch commercial activities. Local taxes were sometimes insufficient to support the colonial administration, but the Dutch wished to maintain a clear presence in the region to discourage other foreign powers from seeking a colonial base there. The region was ethnically and culturally diverse, presenting a patchwork of Muslim, Christian, Hindu and animist communities and with strong differences between the Austronesians of the west and the Melanesians of New Guinea. Long distances at sea and rugged terrain on land also made communication difficult.

Between 1817 and 1942, therefore, there were repeated reorganizations of the region’s administrative structure.

Administrative divisions in eastern Indonesia, 1817-1823

Administrative divisions in eastern Indonesia, 1824-1866

Administrative divisions in eastern Indonesia, 1867-1908

Administrative divisions in eastern Indonesia, 1909-1919

Administrative divisions in eastern Indonesia, 1920-1924

Administrative divisions in eastern Indonesia, 1925-1942

Administrative subdivisions in the Moluccas and Dutch New Guinea, 1930

Administrative divisions in southern Sulawesi, 1909

Native states of central Sulawesi, ca 1909

Administrative subdivisions in Sulawesi, 1930

Indigenous states and polities on Timor and adjacent islands, mid-19th century

Administrative divisions in the Residentie Timor en Onderhoorigheden, 1930

States and polities in Sumba, ca 1852

The administrative complexity of the Netherlands Indies was further complicated by the separate legal status of those inhabitants of the archipelago who were neither European nor indigenous. These minorities, predominantly Chinese but also including Arabs, Indians and others, were eventually classified legally as Vreemde Oosterlingen (Foreign Orientals), and where they lived in large enough concentrations they were administered by their own leaders, generally appointed by the Dutch with the titles of Majoor, Kapitein or Luitenant. The military titles reflected the role of the officers in keeping law and order within their communities. This separate legal status was a significant barrier to the assimilation of Chinese residents into Indonesian society. The sheer size of the Chinese communities in Java, western Borneo and Bangka was also a factor which made assimilation less likely, as did the wide cultural gap between the Islam of most Indonesians and the Buddhist-Taoist-Confucian religious blend of many Chinese.

Location of Chinese officers in the Netherlands Indies, 1867

Location of Chinese officers in Java, 1867

Chinese officers in Java, 1930

Officers from other ethnic groups in Java, 1930

Officers from other ethnic groups in the Netherlands Indies, 1930

From about the end of the 19th century, the Dutch increasingly began to associate ethnicity with territory, rather than simply with individuals. Although they had always been aware of ethnic differences in the archipelago, only relatively late did they develop mental picture of the archipelago which divided the land comparatively neatly into coherent ethnic groups. In taking this step, the Dutch were following the powerful impulse of late 19th century Europe to classify the lands of Europe according to the ethnicity of their inhabitants and to envisage those ethnic groups as potential bases for new nation states. 

Ethnicity and territory in the late colonial imagination

The administration of law added a further element of complexity to the government of the Netherlands Indies. Under the practice of indirect rule, the Dutch preferred to leave each population group under its own laws, as long as these could be relied upon to maintain general public order.

The greatest complexity was in the administration of indigenes. Because traditional law and legal practice varied widely throughout the archipelago, the Dutch found it necessary to identify a number of so-called adatrechtskringen, literally ‘customary law circles’, within which legal practices were fairly similar. The codification of law and practice for each of these adatrechtskringen became a major scholarly project for Dutch jurists in the 20th century. Within an adatrechtskring, however, individual regions were subject to either Netherlands Indies or native law, each of which in turn could be administered by either colonial or indigenous courts. In other words, the territorial division between directly and indirectly ruled territories did not coincide with the division between regions of government and native jurisprudence.

Legal differences between ethnic groups were applied most strongly in areas of personal law (relating to marriage, inheritance and similar issues) and least strongly in matters of criminal law. In 1918, a single criminal code was introduced for the entire colony, though separate criminal code procedures remained in use for different groups of the population. Chinese were subject to a further set of legal practices which differed in turn from those applying to ‘Foreign Orientals’ who were not Chinese. It was also possible for Indonesians and ‘Foreign Orientals’ to submit wholly or partly to European law, or to subject themselves to European law for the purposes of a particular transaction. Separate courts applied Islamic family law.

Adatrechtskringen (customary law circles) in the Netherlands Indies, 1918

The Government Regulating Act (Regeeringsreglement) of 1854, which was in effect the constitution of the Netherlands Indies, classified the population as either European or native, and equated Asian non-natives to the native population. Non-European women could obtain European status by marrying a European, and any non-European could gain European status either by showing strong cultural assimilation or by proving a professional or commercial need for European status, but the number who changed status in this way was small.

The racial basis of this law was definitively breached, however, by Japans insistence that its citizens be given European status in law. This change, promised in 1899 and implemented in 1920, forced the Dutch to revise their system of discrimination. In the revised constitution of 1925, European status was promised in principle to all nationalities whose home country had adopted a Western system of private law. Under this law, Siamese and Turks gained European status, while remaining groups, mainly Chinese and Arabs, were classified as ‘Foreign Orientals. Under these circumstances, China’s intention in 1930 to adopt a Western system of private law caused great alarm in official circles in the Indies, but the intention was never realized, and racial classification remained a feature of Indies law until 1942.

Alongside its civilian bureaucracy, the colonial government maintained a range of forces which could be used to defend the colony from outside attack, to extend its territory, or to suppress resistance by indigenous peoples. Alongside the colonial army or KNIL (Koninklijk Nederlands Indisch Leger) were a variety of police units – the general police, the armed police and the field police – as well as a small number of armed units attached to the courts of native rulers. In the days of the VOC, the company’s administrative officials often took a direct role in military campaigns; with the establishment of the KNIL in 1830, however, the military received greater autonomy. During the era of major colonial expansion in the Indies in the 19th and early 20th centuries, military officers were often placed in charge of the local civilian administration in areas of unrest, so that the full resources of the government could be applied to defeating the rebels.

Convictions for crimes against person and property, 1929

Prisons on Java, with total number of days of detention, 1935

Prisons in the Outer Islands, with total number of days of detention, 1938

Military garrisons in the outer islands, 1913

Military garrisons and military regions on Java, 1913

Government, Society and the Rise of a National Consciousness

In the course of colonial rule, the indigenous subjects of the Netherlands Indies became Indonesians. There was no Indonesian state until 1945, after the Second World War, but during the last century of colonial rule the consciousness of a great many people changed so that independence as citizens of a single archipelagic state became their central political goal. This transformation is, of course, difficult to map, because it was a change in the minds of people. We can, however, identify some of the major features of the transformation in spatial terms.

First, nationalism was a response to the intervention of colonial rule into the lives of millions of inhabitants. Although Dutch policy was to interfere as little as possible with the lives of their indigenous subjects, warfare and the colonial economic system were responsible for enormous disruption. First in Maluku and Java, and later in Sumatra and other islands, the people were forced by command or by economic necessity to work on plantations on behalf of the Dutch (or occasionally other powerful entrepreneurs) or to devote part of their own lands to cultivation for the colonial authorities. The systems of exploitation varied throughout the long colonial era and from region to region. Labourers on the plantations around Batavia in the 17th and 18th centuries had a status little different from serfs or slaves. In the hill country of West Java, local people were summoned to work on coffee plantations by their local chiefs, the bupati. The Cultivation System, introduced on Java in 1830, involved a complicated system in which peasants had to devote a notional fifth of their land and labour to cultivating crops designated by the colonial government which went to pay land tax. From about 1870, government regulation became less important and private entrepreneurs (who had never been completely absent from the Indies economy) assumed a higher profile. In this era, the plantations of the East Coast of Sumatra became an economic powerhouse of the Indies.

Village reorganization on Java during the Cultivation System: before the reorganization, ca 1830

Village reorganization on Java during the Cultivation System: after the reorganization, ca 1835

Opium monopoly in 1881

Opium monopoly in Java in 1881

Opium consumption and registered opium users, 1932

Salt monopoly in 1881

In the 20th century, concern over what appeared to be severely declining living standards on Java led the Dutch to adopt what came to be called the Ethical Policy. The colonial government aimed to initiate self-sustaining economic development in Java by programmes of improved health care, education, agricultural extension, irrigation, transmigration and veterinary services. Although these programmes were well-intended and in some cases well conceived, they encouraged a new spirit of paternalism amongst the colonial officials and were often perceived by Indonesians as another example of unwanted intrusion into Indonesian life. Freedom from Dutch regulation became an important element in the aspirations of Indonesian nationalists.

The colonial government was aware of the importance of regular shipping services in the Indies, both as an element of infrastructure for economic development and as a symbol of the Dutch claim to sovereignty in remote regions such as New Guinea where there was still no administrative presence. During the second half of the 19th century, a number of attempts were made to contract for regular mail and cargo services to specified ports in the archipelago. In 1888, the government contracts were awarded to the Koninklijk Paketvaart Maatschappij, which quickly developed a comprehensive shipping network to the exclusion of most of its rivals.

Railway lines in southern Sulawesi, 1925

Railway lines in Sumatra in 1925

Railways on Java, 1888

Railways on Java, 1899

Railways on Java, 1913

Railways on Java, 1925

Regular services of the Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij (KPM), 1891

Telegraph lines also played an important integrative role.

Telegraph lines in the Netherlands Indies, 1903

Until 1900, there was little foreign tourism in the Netherlands Indies, apart from the visits of Western scientists. Under the Ethical Policy, however, restrictions on private travel in the archipelago were loosened, and tourist visits began to increase in number. Tourism initially focussed on Java and its attractive landscape (volcanoes, forests, lakes and boiling mud pools), but from the 1920s tourist itineraries began increasingly to focus on indigenous culture, with Bali quickly coming to take a central role.

Java:  Typical tourist itinerary, 1909

Bali: Typical tourist itinerary, late 1920s

Plague-affected areas in Java, 1911-1915 and 1936

Anti-plague measures in the village of Karangasem, East Java, 1912

Posting of agricultural extension officers, 1929

Destination and value of exports from the Netherlands Indies, 1928

Destination and value of exports from the Netherlands Indies, 1934

Participation in the education system remained limited in most parts of the Netherlands Indies until the end of colonial rule. In the early 20th century, the colonial government founded schools to give Western-style education in Indonesian languages in many regions, but these schools reached only a small proportion of the school-age population. The few high schools and even fewer university-level institutions which the Dutch established, however, were of high quality. Their graduates were capable of undertaking most tasks previously reserved for the Dutch and became resentful of the discrimination they faced despite their qualifications.

Participation in education by all children, 1935

Participation in education by girls, 1935

In the second half of the 19th century, newspapers and periodicals printed in Indonesian languages, especially Malay, began to appear in many cities of the Netherlands Indies. The print run for all these publications was small and they reached only a limited audience, but they provided a vehicle for information about the rest of the Indies and the wider world, and played a major role in making the indigenous people of the archipelago more familiar with ideas of modernity.

Vernacular newspapers and periodicals in the Netherlands Indies, 1875-1900

Vernacular newspapers and periodicals in the Netherlands Indies, 1900-1913

The earliest modern political association in the Indies was Budi Utomo, an organization formed in 1908 to promote the cultural and educational interests of lesser Javanese aristocrats, primarily within the colonial bureaucracy. Some of its members became interested in a radical agenda, but the organization as a whole remained conservative and basically sympathetic to continued colonial rule.

Emergence of a nationalist movement

Sarekat Islam membership, 1912-1916

In 1911, however, a more radical movement emerged in the form of the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Union). Initially a commercial cooperative formed to assist Muslim batik traders against their Chinese competitors, the Sarekat Islam developed into a mass organization under the leader-ship of H. O. S. Tjokroaminoto, with branches in Java, Sumatra and Kalimantan.

The emergence of the Sarekat Islam marked the beginning of an age of political ferment in which the peoples of the archipelago explored a wide range of political ideas and strategies in order to determine what kind of progress they wanted and how that progress might be achieved in the face of Dutch resistance. Three streams of thought developed, all of them emerging in one way or another from elements present in the early Sarekat Islam. First, Islamic modernism became a major political force. Arguing that Islam needed to be cleansed of un-Islamic practices which had accumulated over centuries, the Islamic modernists emphasized that true Islam was fully compatible with modern science, technology and political power. Modernism’s most important organizational expression in Indonesia was the Muhammadiyah, founded in 1912 to strengthen the Islamic character of society by promoting education and combating ‘superstition’. The second important stream was socialist. It drew on Marxist and Leninist analyses of colonialism both to explain the condition of the archipelago under Dutch rule and to find hope for the future. Indonesia had no more than a tiny industrial working class, but Marxists won a following amongst urban workers, especially in the railways. The most important organization to develop on this intellectual basis was the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), founded in 1920.

The third intellectual stream aimed at taking Indonesia along an accelerated path towards Western-style modernity. This stream saw many colonial practices and policies as contradicting the best in the Western tradition and they sought to make the benefits of modernity and prosperity accessible to all people, not just to a colonial or aristocratic elite. This stream did not crystallize into a distinct political political movement until 1927, when the young nationalist Sukarno founded the Perserikatan (later Partai) Nasional Indonesia or PNI in 1927. Despite antagonism between these streams, intellectual interaction between them remained important, especially as a result of the activities of Sukarno to create a sense of unity across what was generally called the Movement (Pergerakan) as a whole.

Budi Utomo’s primarily Javanese orientation was reflected in the emergence of other regional organizations such as the Sarekat Sumatra and the Pasundan (based amongst the Sundanese of West Java), but there was little serious interest in seeking independence outside the frame-work which was coming to be called Indonesia. That name was a relatively new coinage, but it reflected a widespread feeling in the Pergerakan that the problems of the archipelago would be best solved within a political framework encompassing the entire archipelago. This feeling was formalized at a Youth Congress in Batavia in 1928 which adopted the slogan ‘One people, one language, one homeland: Indonesia’.

Convictions for political crimes (crimes against the state and against public order), 1929

Nonetheless, nationalists were always far from agreement on just how the goal of independence could be achieved. The Sarekat Islam caught a wave of popular opposition to Dutch rule but it had no idea how to transform that wave of opposition into an effective strategy to win power. Sections of the organization secretly planned revolution and were implicated in the assassination of a colonial official at Toli-Toli in 1919. The Dutch, however, stepped up police surveillance and effectively prevented further action on this front. The PKI also attempted armed rebellion, but the Dutch apprehended its plans for a coordinated archipelago-wide uprising and were able to prevent serious outbreaks except in Banten (November 1926) and West Sumatra (January 1927). A few of the leaders were shot, but more than 1,300 were sent into exile at a prison camp called Boven Digul (Tanah Merah) in West New Guinea, where they were later joined by other radical nationalists.

Aware of the power of the Dutch to defeat any immediate challengers, the nationalists began to take a longer-term view, concentrating on building their own organizational infrastructure and spreading nationalist ideas to a broader public. Even this strategy, however, was unacceptable to the Dutch, who harassed and arrested nationalist leaders, often exiling them to remote parts of the archipelago. Sukarno was sent first to Endeh in Flores and then to Bengkulu in Sumatra; leading nationalists from Sumatra, Mohammad Hatta and Sutan Sjahrir, went first to Boven Digul and then to Banda.

The only channel left open to nationalists was participation in a limited representative institutions established by the Dutch from 1903. The first elected municipal councils mainly benefited the European population, but in the course of the 20th century the notion of representation was gradually broadened, not only with an extension of the franchise to some Indonesians but also with the creation of councils at regional and central levels. Through these councils, Indonesians elected representatives to a central People’s Council or Volksraad, though they elected far fewer representatives proportionate to the size of their community than did the Europeans and Foreign Orientals.

Representative councils in Java, 1937

Representative councils in the Netherlands Indies, 1937

The councils presented Indonesian nationalists with a dilemma: because council powers were restricted, they appeared an improbable step towards independence, yet they offered aspiring politicians the chance to develop their political skills. The gulf between the cooperators, who were willing to work in the councils, and the non-cooperators who would not, became one of the main strategic divisions within the nationalist movement in the last decade of colonial rule. Nonetheless, during the 1930s many nationalists looked increasingly to the growing power of Japan as a force which might change that balance of power in eastern Asia and bring about liberation from colonial rule.