Colonial Economy and Society, 1870-1940

Indonesia Table of Contents

The dismantling of the Cultivation System on Java, Dutch subjugation of Sumatra and the eastern archipelago, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 stimulated the rapid development of a cash-crop, export economy. Another factor was technological change, especially the rise of the automotive industry, which created unforeseen markets for tropical products in Europe and North America. Although palm oil, sugar, cinchona (the source of quinine, used in treating malaria), cocoa, tea, coffee, and tobacco were major revenue earners, they were eclipsed during the early twentieth century by rubber and, especially, petroleum. Sumatra and the eastern archipelago surpassed Java as a source of tropical exports, although sugarcane remained important in East Java.

Rubber plantations were established on a large scale in the early twentieth century, particularly around Medan, Palembang, and Jambi on Sumatra, with British, American, French, and other foreign investment playing a major role. A high-yield variety of rubber tree, discovered in Brazil and proven very profitable in Malaya, was utilized. It was during this period that the emergence of small-holder rubber cultivation, which was to play a major role in the Indonesian economy, took place.

Tin had long been a major mineral product of the archipelago, especially on the islands of Bangka and Billiton, off the southeast coast of Sumatra. But petroleum was, and remained, Indonesia's most important mineral resource. Oil, extracted from Sumatra after 1884, was first used to light lamps. In 1890, the Royal Dutch Company for Exploration of Petroleum Sources in the Netherlands Indies (Koninklijke Nederlandsche Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van Petroleum-bronnen in Nederlandsche-IndiŽ) was established, and in 1907 it merged with Shell Transport and Trading Company, a British concern, to become Royal Dutch Shell, which controlled around 85 percent of oil production in the islands before World War II. Oil was pumped from wells in Sumatra, Java, and eastern Kalimantan.

Rapid economic development during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries profoundly changed the lives of both European residents and indigenous peoples. By 1930 Batavia had a population of more than 500,000 people. Surabaya had nearly 300,000 people and other large cities--Semarang, Bandung, Yogyakarta, and Surakarta-- had populations between 100,000 and 300,000.

Always conscious of its ethnic and cultural diversity, Indonesian society grew more so as the number of Dutch and other Western residents--especially white women--increased and chose to live European-style lives in special urban areas with wide streets or on plantations. There also were increasing numbers of Indonesians who lived in these Western-style urban areas. Nevertheless, the European trekkers, as they were known in Dutch, were often not much different from their British counterparts described by George Orwell in Burmese Days, longing for the home country and looking on the native world around them with suspicion and hostility. An early twentieth century work described Batavia's European quarter as "well planned, it is kept scrupulously clean, and while the natives in their bright colored clothes, quietly making their way hither and thither, give the required picturesque touch to the life in the streets, the absence of the crowded native dwelling houses prevents the occurrence of those objectionable features which so often destroy the charm of the towns in the Orient."

The trekkers contrasted with an earlier generation of Dutch colonists, the blijvers (sojourners), who lived most or all of their lives in the islands and adopted a special Indisch (Indies) style of life blending Indonesian and European elements. The rijsttafel (rice table), a meal of rice with spicy side dishes, is one of the best-known aspects of this mixed IndonesianEuropean culture. Eurasians, usually the children of European fathers and Indonesian mothers, were legally classified as European under Netherlands Indies law and played an important role in colonial society; but as trekkers outnumbered blijvers, the Eurasians found themselves increasingly discriminated against and marginalized. It is significant that a strand of Indonesian nationalism first emerged among Eurasians who argued that "the Indies [were] for those who make their home there."

The Chinese minority in Indonesia had long played a major economic role in the archipelago as merchants, artisans, and indispensable middlemen in the collection of crops and taxes from native populations. They encountered considerable hostility from both Indonesians and Europeans, largely because of the economic threat they seemed to pose. In 1740, for example, as many as 10,000 Chinese were massacred in Batavia, apparently with the complicity of the Dutch governor general. In the late nineteenth century, emigration from China's southern provinces to Indonesia increased apace with economic development. Between 1870 and 1930, the Chinese population expanded from around 250,000 to 1,250,000, the latter being about 2 percent of the archipelago's total population. Chinese were divided into totok, first-generation, fullblooded emigrants, and peranakan, native-born Chinese with some Indonesian ancestry who, like blijvers and Eurasians, had a distinct Indies life-style. Overseas Chinese lived for the most part in segregated communities. During the early twentieth century, the identity of overseas Chinese was deeply influenced by revolutionary developments in their homeland.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress