History of Dutch Involvement in Indonesia
As projects of heritage restoration necessarily involve history, let us turn now to a brief history of the Netherlands East Indies and Indonesia. I will begin with the Dutch arrival, as the projects discussed below begin their engagement here. When the Dutch arrived on Java in the late sixteenth century, as part of their exploration to begin a monopolistic spice trade route, they found many small Hindu-Buddhist kingdoms and Muslim sultanates. When they returned several years later, it was in the ships of the Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, or VOC, a new type of business venture, a joint stock company supported by the government, which attained monopoly status over Dutch commercial interests in the East Indies, and soon thereafter, over other European interests in the area. In 1619, Jan Peterszoon Coen, then Governor-General of the VOC, established the VOC’s capitol on Java, which he named Batavia, an allusion to the legendary ancestors of the Dutch Republic.
The location had been a Javanese port since the twelfth century, called first Sunda Kalapa, and later Jayakarta, the origin of today’s name, Jakarta. Batavia was not meant to be the capitol of a colonial empire, and the Dutch interests initially did not spread beyond the environs of Batavia. Batavia was intended to be a port, a place for provisioning, and an East Indian administrative center. First, in 1618, Coen built a fort on the northern coast of Java, just east of the opening of the Ciliwung River, and just north of Jayakarta. Jayakarta was then ruled by a local indigenous leader, and in addition to Javanese subjects, Chinese, Portuguese, and British merchants lived in Jayakarta and traded there with each other and the Javanese. In 1619, after about six months of struggle, the VOC gained the upper hand, took over Jayakarta, and razed the old city.
The Golden Age of the two restoration projects I discuss below begins at this moment. At first, much of the VOC’s resources were retained in the heavily fortified fort, but as the Dutch began to feel less vulnerable on Java, they began to build Batavia.
The VOC was wildly profitable in the beginning for its shareholders, but its profitability would decline over the course of the seventeenth century, partly due to a shift in European demand, and further over the eighteenth century due, as Peter H. van der Brug suggests, to the un-healthiness of Batavia, and was liquidated in 1795 due to changes in the European territories under the French revolutionary government. At this point the holdings of the VOC became the property of the Dutch government. In opposition to Napoleonic France, and allied with the British, the Dutch Republic temporarily lost the Netherlands East Indies to the English until after the Napoleonic Wars.
After the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch again became rulers of the Indonesian archipelago. This is when the colonial period officially begins, although it is certainly possible to argue that the area under the VOC was essentially a private colony. As the colony had been declining in profitability in terms of trade, the Dutch now turned inland, and began to take control of the land, rather than simply using the area of Batavia/Jakarta as a port and administrative center. Here begins what is called the “cultuurstelsel,” or Cultivation System (also translated as Culture System), which would be the Dutch policy towards their colony until 1870. Under this system, the subjects of the colony were obligated to pay exhaustive taxes to the colonial administration, in the form of labor, land, and produce. In practice, this meant that each farmer had to spend half of the year cultivating rice for personal consumption and the local market, and half cultivating sugar cane for the Dutch. These two crops require very different techniques, and the cane cultivation majorly disrupted farming practice. Abuses of the system by Dutch overseers led to further exploitation.
In 1870, because of mounting pressure against the Cultivation System by Dutch liberals, many of whom knew of the exploitations, there was a
Shift to what is called the Liberal Period. This system gave more rights to local village level governments, who theoretically, though not in practice, had the right to refuse the constrictive taxation. Realizing the continuing abuses, and claiming to be more enlightened, in 1900, the Dutch began pursuing the Ethical Policy, which intended to right the wrongs of Dutch colonial exploitation through welfare programs, Dutch language education, and an intent to share governance with the locals, once they were educated enough. The Dutch were able to feel better about themselves as a result, though this system again was not very different from the previous.
Real change finally came with the Japanese occupation of island Southeast Asia during World War II. The Japanese essentially took over from the Dutch as colonists, but their policy of rousing the political interests of the locals, and their training and arming of locals, would contribute to the movement for Indonesian independence once Japan lost the war.On August 17th, 1945, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed Indonesia’s independence. The Dutch, however, had no intention of giving up their colonial empire, so until 1949, the Dutch and Indonesians fought over the archipelago. Once Indonesia gained independence, the Dutch retained the right to carry on economically in Indonesia. In 1957, however, the Indonesian government took over the Dutch and other foreign business ventures, handing them over to the military. These included Dutch oil and rubber interests, so it was a huge financial gain for the Indonesian government. In 1965, Indonesian politics were again to undergo a huge change. A coup, attributed officially to the Indonesian communist party (PKI), against President Sukarno led to a counter-coup by General Suharto. This was followed by the mass slaughter of an estimated one to two million suspected communists, led by Suharto. Suharto became the leader of Indonesia, appointed by Sukarno in 1966. Suharto’s regime, called the “New Order,” ran Indonesia like a corporation, historian David Joel Steinberg suggests. He returned the Dutch and other foreign assets to the foreign interests, opening up the economy. He won the election in 1968 and became president, and won the next three elections as well, though his democracy was dubious. Suharto’s was a dictatorial military regime. Abidin Kusno suggests that it was not much different from the colonial regime, except that it was run by an indigenous leader. In 1998, Suharto was forced to step down because of popular pressure and corruption charges. Indonesia is currently a parliamentary democracy and is rebuilding its economy in the wake of the New Order and a financial collapse in 1997-1998.