Dutch Expansion in Sumatra

Indonesia Table of Contents

Both the British occupation of the archipelago during the Napoleonic Wars and the Java War seriously weakened Dutch authority outside of Java. Pirates flourished in the power vacuum, making Indonesian waters among the most dangerous in the world. In the 1840s, the British established a presence in northern Kalimantan (North Borneo), where James Brooke made himself the first "White Rajah" of Sarawak. Alarmed by such developments, the Dutch initiated policies of colonial expansion in the Outer Islands, which brought all the land area of modern Indonesia, with the exception of Portuguese Timor, under their control.

Dutch expansion began first in neighboring Sumatra. By 1823 the eastern part of the island, including Palembang, was under Dutch control. The Padri War (1821-38) pacified the Minangkabau region. The padri were religious teachers committed to the reform and propagation of Islam and were dominant in the region after the assassination of the Minangkabau royal family in 1815. Conflicts arose between them and secular adat leaders, and the latter called for Dutch intervention. Between the 1870s and the end of the century, colonial troops also defeated the fierce Batak ethnic group, living north of the Minangkabau, and the colonial government encouraged the populace to convert to Christianity.

The 1824 Treaty of London defined a British sphere of influence on the Malay Peninsula and a Dutch sphere on Sumatra, although its provisions placed no restrictions on British trade on the island. Sumatran trade became an issue of contention, however, because the British resented what they saw as Dutch attempts to curtail their commercial activities. One provision of the Treaty of London was the independence of the north Sumatran state of Aceh. But Aceh controlled a large portion of the pepper trade and alarmed the Dutch by actively seeking relations with other Western countries. A new Anglo-Dutch treaty, signed in 1871, gave the Dutch a free hand in Sumatra concerning Aceh. Two years later, talks between the United States consul in Singapore and Acehnese representatives gave Batavia the pretext for opening hostilities. Dutch gunboats bombarded the sultanate's capital, Banda Aceh, and troops were landed. The capital fell under Dutch occupation the following year, but Acehnese forces undertook guerrilla resistance. The Aceh War (1873-1903) was one of the longest and bloodiest in DutchIndonesian history.

During the nineteenth century, militant or reformist Islam posed a major challenge to Dutch rule, especially in Sumatra. The padri of Minangkabau, for example, were returned pilgrims from Mecca who were inspired by Wahhabism--a Western term given to the strict form of Islam practiced in Arabia--that stressed the unitary nature of God. The padri were determined to purge their society of non-Islamic elements, such as the traditional system of matrilineal inheritance and consumption of alcohol and opium. The Acehnese, the most rigorously fundamentalist of Indonesian Muslims, also had close contacts with Mecca.

The principal architect of colonial Islamic policy was Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje, a scholar of Arabic who had gone to Mecca to study Indonesian pilgrims and served as adviser to the Netherlands Indies government from 1891 to 1904. His policy was one of cooptation rather than opposition: instead of promoting the spread of Christianity, he suggested, the government should maintain supportive relations with established Islamic authorities such as the qadi or judges of the royal courts. "Established" Islam was no threat, according to Snouck Hurgronje, but "fanatic" Muslim teachers who maintained independent Islamic schools were. He also advised that the government coopt local nonIslamic chiefs, whose source of authority was based on adat or local law and custom. This practice was, in fact, Dutch policy in Aceh after the war. Local Acehnese chiefs, the uleebalang, were given much the same role as the priyayi on Java.

Farther east, the Dutch imposed rust en orde, the colonial system, on Madura, where local rulers were assimilated into the regency system in 1887; on Kalimantan, where in 1860 the sultanate of Banjarmasin had been dethroned and replaced by direct colonial rule; in Sulawesi, where wars between the Dutch and the Makassarese and Buginese states of Gowa and Bone continued until 1905-06 and where the headhunting Toraja people were also subjugated; and in the remote western half of New Guinea, which was brought under full control only after World War I. The Dutch had first built a fort at Lobo in West New Guinea in 1828, but abandoned it eight years later.

The Balinese stubbornly resisted Dutch attempts to subjugate them throughout the nineteenth century. This mountainous, volcanic island of great natural beauty, with its own Hindu-animist culture, art, and ways of life, was divided into a number of small kingdoms whose rulers saw no more reason to submit to Batavia than they had to Islamic states during the previous four centuries. Although the northern part of the island came under Dutch control by 1882 and was joined with the neighboring island of Lombok as a single residency, the southern and eastern rulers refused to accept full Dutch sovereignty. Between 1904 and 1908, military expeditions were sent to suppress them. Some of the kings and their royal families, including women and children, realizing that the independence and self-sufficiency of their ancient world were crumbling, committed suicide by marching in front of Dutch gunners during the height of battle.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress