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22 November 2020

Indonesia - Java - Purwakarta - echoes of the colonial past

Having visited Indonesia, Java and Bandung many times, I had the opportunity to come across the remains of the recent past.

I was intrigued by the local artifacts related to the Dutch period of rule in this part of the world. This is not a distant story as it turns out. It is also a confirmation of the thesis that it is worth going off the beaten track to get to know the culture of a given country, city or place better.

Selamat Pagi! Good day.

I invite you to a small town - Purwakarta. This is where I got to know the history of Indonesia and the taste of local cuisine. In Purwakarta I also learned the parable about the creation of the Indonesian flag. But you will learn about it at the end of the article.

The Dutch East Indies (Indonesian: Hindia Belanda) was a Dutch colony consisting of what is now Indonesia. It arose from the nationalized colonies of the Dutch East India Company, which passed into the administration of the Dutch government in 1800 due to bankruptcy.

In the 19th century, Dutch possessions and hegemony were expanded, reaching the greatest territorial extent in the early 20th century. The Dutch East Indies was one of the most valuable colonies under European rule and contributed to the global importance of the Netherlands in the spice and agricultural trade in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

This, in a way, gave me the answer to the question: How did small countries like the Netherlands or Portugal, and middle countries like Spain or Great Britain, gained such a position and wealth?

While visiting Purwakarta, I found not only colonial remains, but also proof of the answer to the above question. After all, since the times of primary school, I have seen that colonialism allowed many countries to obtain a high economical status. I missed any tangible proof of how it worked. Now I know.

Centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the Indonesian archipelago cooperated and traded with various nations, including the "commercial" trading states Srivijaya and Majapahit.

They were the intermediary in the supply of valuable spices and agricultural products from Asia, mainly from the South-Eastern part of the continent.

The islands of the archipelago were known to Europeans and occasionally visited by sea expeditions such as the Marco Polo expedition in 1292 or the Italian merchant Odoric of Pordenone in 1321. The first Europeans to settle in Indonesia were the Portuguese in 1512.

Following them, after losing direct access to the spices, the first Dutch expedition set off for the East Indies in 1595.

Main objective - gain access to spices from Asia. Why is it so important?

The spice trade made 400% profit from invested funds!

It's worth having such a highly profitable business, isn't it?



Pepper and cinnamon

Other Dutch expeditions soon followed. Recognizing the potential for trade with the East Indies, the Dutch government merged competing companies into the United East India Company, or VOC for short.

The VOC received enormous privileges for those times: waging war, building fortresses and concluding treaties throughout Asia. The capital city of Batavia (now Jakarta) has become the center of the Asian VOC retail chain.

In their original monopolies on nutmeg, paprika, cloves, and cinnamon, the company, and later colonial administrations, also introduced full control of trade in field crops such as coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco, rubber, sugar, and opium. The future of this business was secured by taking over the surrounding territories.

However, not everything was going smoothly. Smuggling, the constant costs of war, corruption and mismanagement led to the bankruptcy of the VOC at the end of the 18th century. The company was formally disbanded in 1800 and its colonial possessions in the Indonesian archipelago (including much of Java, part of Sumatra, much of Maluku, and port hinterlands such as Makasar, Manado, and Kupang) were nationalized under the Dutch Republic as Dutch India Eastern.

However, the Indonesian archipelago was still ruled by the Dutch, building the economic power of this small country.

The colonial social order was based on rigid racial and social structures in which the Dutch elite lived separately, but was linked to them. The term "Indonesia" was used to describe the geographic location after 1880. In the early twentieth century, local intellectuals began to develop the concept of Indonesia as a nation-state and laid the groundwork for an independence movement.

It was not easy - over 600 ethnic groups, 700 local dialects of the language now known as "Bahasa Indonesia" was a real obstacle. And yet. Strong will, determination and an idea around which the inhabitants were concentrated resulted in the regaining of independence by Indonesia.

I know how it will sound, but World War II helped with this process.

The occupation of Japan during World War II wiped out much of the Dutch colonial state and economy. Following the capitulation of Japan in August 1945, Indonesian nationalists proclaimed the independence they fought for in the next Indonesian national revolution. The Netherlands formally recognized Indonesia's sovereignty at the 1949 Dutch-Indonesian Round Table Conference, with the exception of Dutch New Guinea (Western New Guinea), which was merged with Indonesia 14 years later, in 1963, under the New York Agreement.



"The Flying Dutchman"

Talking to the people of Purwakarta, previously naturalized Dutch in Bali, I realized that from the arrival of the first Dutch ships in the late 16th century until the declaration of independence in 1945, Dutch control of the Indonesian archipelago was always weak. On the one hand, more than 17,000 islands and islets cannot be fully controlled, on the other hand, I believe that the Dutch have a national trait. They are simply "freely distracted" - whoever was in the Netherlands knows what I am talking about.

Although Java was dominated by the Dutch and local wars were fought, many areas remained independent for much of that time, including Aceh (Sumatra), Bali, Lombok and Borneo (Kalimantan).

There were many wars and riots across the archipelago as various indigenous groups resisted attempts to establish Dutch hegemony, which weakened Dutch control and bound its armed forces. Piracy remained a problem until the mid-nineteenth century. Finally, at the beginning of the 20th century, the dominance of the "Flying Dutchman" was extended to what became the territory of modern Indonesia.

In 1811, British forces seized several Dutch East Indies ports, including the Spice Islands in 1810 and Java the following year. After Napoleon's defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, at the Congress of Vienna in 1816, an independent Dutch-British balance was restored in the Malay Peninsula (Malaysia / Malaysia) and Dutch India. The resulting boundaries between the former British and Dutch possessions remain to this day the boundaries between modern Malaysia and Indonesia. Just look at the northern part of Borneo (Kalimantan) - where the Sultanate of Brunei and the two federal territories of Malaysia are located. These were the former British colonies.

From the 17th century on, the expansion of the territory of the Netherlands was a business affair. "Pecunia non olet" - money does not stink. The Netherlands has officially confirmed "profitability" as the basis of official policy, focusing on exploitation in Java, Sumatra and Bangka.

Interestingly, Europeans settling in Indonesia naturalized quite quickly. By entering into mixed marriages and leading honest lives, they became part of local communities. Of course, it did not take on a mass scale, but to this day you can meet many descendants of the then settlers. They were held in a moderate respect, especially as they contributed to the education of the archipelago society.

I also believe, but it is my observation, that this was a response to the situation in Europe.

To prevent intervention by other Western powers during European pressure on colonial possessions, Dutch national expansionism focused on expanding and consolidating island possessions. These activities included: the protection of already occupied areas and the establishment of Dutch claims on the entire archipelago.

As the exploitation of Indonesia's resources expanded beyond Java, most of the outer islands came under the direct control or influence of the Dutch government.

To support this process, the Dutch had to maintain good relations with the local population. Indonesians, educated in the Dutch education system, began to fill many less important positions, offices and government departments.

This was the purpose of, among other things, investments in education. Of course, let's remember, still with a colonial context.


Education and development

The Dutch school system was extended to Indonesians, and the most prestigious schools welcomed Dutch children and Indonesians from the upper classes. The second level of education was based on ethnicity and separate schools for Indonesians, Arabs and Chinese taught in Dutch and according to the Dutch curriculum.

Ordinary Indonesians were educated in Malay, and "linking" schools prepared talented Indonesian students to enter Dutch-speaking schools. Vocational schools and programs were established to train indigenous Indonesians for specific roles in the colonial economy. The Chinese and Arabs, officially described as "foreigners", were not allowed to enroll in vocational schools or primary schools.

Dutch school graduates have opened their own schools modeled on the Dutch school system, as have Christian missionaries, theosophical associations and Indonesian cultural associations. This proliferation of schools was further strengthened by new Western-style Muslim schools that also offered secular subjects. According to the 1930 census, 6% of Indonesians were literate, but only Western school graduates and those who could read and write in the Latin alphabet were this figure. This did not include graduates of non-Western schools, or those who could read but not write in Arabic, Malay, or Dutch, or those who could write in a non-Latin alphabet such as Javanese, Chinese, or Arabic. Interestingly, many of the underlying laws in Indonesia still exist exclusively in Dutch. Hence, the knowledge of this language is still a desirable competence.

It wasn't just education that benefited from colonization. The fact is, being a colony is no fun. However, the efforts of the Dutch for the development of Indonesia should also be noted.

Further departments related to the present identity of Indonesians followed education. This is architecture, for example. Contemporary construction, with a natural ceiling ventilation system, with large windows, high rooms and a pointed roof top, is the result of implementing Dutch architectural art. Also, today's high level of skills in the textile industry (Indonesia, next to Bangladesh, is called the world's sewing room) or the chemical and automotive industry (Bandung University of Technology is in the top 10 universities in the world) is the aftermath of Dutch investments in the professional skills of the archipelago inhabitants.

The economic history of the colony was closely related to the economic condition of the country of the colonizers. Despite rising returns from the Dutch land tax system, Dutch finances were hit hard by the costs of the Javanese War and the loss of Belgium in 1830 brought the Netherlands to the brink of bankruptcy.

With the Dutch attainment of political domination in Java in 1830, it was possible to introduce an agricultural policy of compulsory cultivation controlled by the government.

The cultivation system known as "compulsory plantation" forced farmers to provide, as a form of tax, fixed amounts of specific crops, such as sugar or coffee.

Much of Java has become a Dutch plantation, and the ever-increasing income has been reinvested in the Netherlands to keep it from bankruptcy.

Between 1830 and 1870, 840 million guilders (about 8 million euros) were taken from the East Indies, an average of one third of the annual budget of the Dutch government.



United in diversity

The cultivation system, however, brought many economic difficulties to the Javanese peasants, who suffered from hunger and epidemics in the 1840s.

The colonial exploitation of Indonesia's wealth contributed to the industrialization of the Netherlands, while laying the foundations for the industrialization of Indonesia. The Dutch popularized coffee, tea, cocoa, tobacco and rubber, and large stretches of Java became plantations grown by Javanese peasants, harvested by Chinese intermediaries and sold in foreign markets by European merchants. In the late nineteenth century, economic growth was driven by large global demand for tea, coffee, and quinine.

The government invested heavily in the rail network (240 km or 150 miles in 1873, 1,900 km or 1,200 miles in 1900) as well as telegraph lines, and entrepreneurs opened banks, shops, and newspapers.

The Dutch East Indies produced most of the world's supply of quinine and pepper, more than a third of its rubber, a quarter of coconut products, and a fifth of tea, sugar, coffee and oil. Profits from the Dutch East Indies made the Netherlands one of the most important colonial powers in the world. The royal shipping line supported the unification of the colonial economy and channeled inter-island navigation to Batavia (Jakarta) rather than via Singapore, thus focusing more on Java.

The effects of this policy made Java the most populous island in the world and Jakarta the second most densely populated city on the globe.

This also has contemporary implications. Burning tropical forests for the cultivation of oil palms in Borneo (Kalimantan), robbery management of rubber forests, excessive urbanization of islands, pose many threats to animals living in their natural environment and, consequently, also to humans. It's also the irritating smoke that reaches Malaysia and Singapore every year. I believe that these problems will be solved by the Indonesians in the near future.

Driving deep into the island of Java, I did not know that I would find so many interesting places and stories there. Also the railway line from Jakarta to Bandung, which runs through Purwakarta, is one of the many postcolonial mementoes. Decorative monuments standing in the streets of this small town are the cultural heritage of the inhabitants and the memory of the struggle for independence.

Oh yes, the parable of the flag ... It is also a story closely related to the colonial times. I don't know how much factual but it sounds convincing. Well, after regaining independence on August 17, 1945, the enthusiastic crowd simply began to tear the blue stripe from the flag of the Netherlands, which left a red and white flag, similar to the flag of Poland or Monaco, in an inverted order of colors. The availability of Dutch flags, and the ease with which it could be remade, resulted in the massive, spontaneous appearance of the red and white symbol of independent Indonesia.

"Wonderful Indonesia" is the current advertising slogan. I can only confirm that it reflects the beauty, hospitality and uniqueness of this island's, equatorial country.

“Bhinneka Tunggal Ika” - United in diversity. This motto fully reflects the values of Indonesia.


Sampai jumpa lagi sayang Indonesia! See you soon!


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