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Fourth International, May 1943


P. van Vliet

The Dutch East Indies


From Fourth International, vol.4 No.5, May 1943, pp.149-152.
Transcribed, marked up & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


March 7, 1942, the day of the fall of Java, the Dutch colonial myth came to a sudden end. The swift Japanese advance through the outer islands, followed by the conquest of Java in eight short days, proved once and for all that Dutch imperialism, like French and English imperialism, was incapable of mobilizing its colonial masses. In spite of the fact that the entire official Nationalist movement supported the government, in spite of a well-organized and intense campaign for preparedness begun long before the invasion, the great mass of the people remained indifferent and during the Japanese onslaught continued its daily life, accepting the events as happenings in which the common man has no stake. The Indonesian people who, we may be sure, are qualified to judge, did not care enough to rise in defence of the Dutch brand of “better” imperialism against the Japanese brand, although for the moment the latter will undoubtedly bring greater immediate hardships on the population due to Japan’s pressing needs.

Exactly what policy Japan is following in the East Indies is difficult to ascertain as little news is received. It is safe to assume, however, that the Japanese imperialists will look into the methods used by their predecessors, for it is well known that these have proven to be very effective and profitable. Statements made by a Dutchman who escaped from Java several months after the occupations seem to bear out this assumption:

“The tax system was left as it was. The Japs admitted that it was effective. Their close imitation of Dutch administrative methods was one of the most ominous aspects of the Jap conquest.” (Colliers, May 1, 1943.)

Naturally the Dutch are irritated to see their methods successfully imitated, for they count on their reputation of superior colonizers to give weight to their claims for restoration of their empire after the war.

The Evolution of Dutch Rule

The Dutch colonial policy, as it was at the outbreak of the Pacific war, was the result of centuries of experience. The record, from the early days of conquest well into the 19th century, is by no means more savory than that of other imperialist powers. This period, marked by all the classic brutality, ruthless extortions and complete disregard for human life commonly associated with imperialism, had its culmination point in 1830. Holland was bankrupt as the result of wars in Europe and Java. Drastic steps were taken to fill the treasury. The notorious Vandenbosch Cultivation System was introduced in Javaandin some of the outer islands. According to this system the native peasant had to devote part of his land to the cultivation of products profitable for export, the proceeds going to the Dutch treasury. These products – mainly coffee and spices – demanded more care and time than the usual food crops and little time was left the peasant to provide for his own livelihood. Revolts were frequent, yet the system continued unabated until 1870. Holland by that time had recovered and, more important, the system ceased to be profitable. Vestiges of it continued in the so-called “Lords’ Services” by which all men up to 50 years of age were required to labor at public works and roads for a specific number of days each year without pay.

At the beginning of the 20th century the old methods had been exhausted, the national consciousness of the masses was growing, difficult days were ahead, The Dutch rulers changed their course. A paternalistic approach was adopted which was less brazen and more effective in its methods.

The Dutch bourgeoisie employed a large corps of civil administrators, who formed practically the only section of the European population which had intimate contact with the natives. Of course these officials preferred to think of themselves as representatives of the Dutch crown come to the Indies to servethe people. At the liberal university of Leiden they had been imbued with a paternal spirit and a great admiration for Indonesian culture. They were well acquainted with the Adat or moral code of the islands, they spoke the many languages of the archipelago. This group of people, aided by the Indonesian chiefs and functionaries, were the most ardent defenders of native culture and tradition. They opposed too impatient acts of exploitation by the big sugar and rubber companies. In close daily contact with the people, they knew how far to go.

For this solicitude the more sophisticated capitalist circles nicknamed the Department of Internal Administration (Binnenlandsch Bestuuror – B.B. for short) Babu Besar – Big Nursemaid. But this was kind mockery, for the capitalists realized only too well that their interests were best served by this humanitarian veil thrown over the crude reality.

The rest of the European people in the Indies lived a life completely separate from the Indonesians. They generally spoke only market Malay, that is, just enough to get on with the servants in the household. Malay, the language adopted by all peoples in the archipelago as the official Indonesian language, was not taught in any of the Dutch schools in the Indies.

After three hundred years of Dutch rule the life of the Indonesians had undergone little change. A small section had become westernized and lived like the Europeans, but the masses still lived in the old conditions. Modern transport and medicine had done away with famines and epidemics, with the result that the population increased from 5,000,000 (about the year 1800) to 72,000,000 today. The Dutch have done little, however, to provide these millions with a livelihood other than opening up new land in an attempt to keep up the production of food and agricultural products. On the island of Java alone – no bigger than New York state – the population is 50,000,000.

An official publication of the Netherlands Government candidly states that one reason why no large scale industries were ever started in the Indies to provide work for the growing population is that the rulers did not relish the thought of creating a large industrial proletariat. The Dutch imperialists have preferred to keep up a continual race against the growing increase in population at the risk of disaster if their calculation should go wrong. That the rulers were not blind to this danger may be seen from the following statement made at a congress of agricultural advisers in 1937:

“We may well look with anxiety upon the fact that in Java the crop balance becomes negative with every crop failure of any dimensions and that we are only two years ahead in the race between production and population. This means we cannot afford to allow the expansion of production to flag even for a single year.” (The Structure of Netherland Indies Economy, by J. Boeke.)

This Dutch economist comments: “A real solution can be found only by instilling into the masses of the people a Western spirit which will bring forth a rationalistic view of sex relations and a dynamic view of production. But how to arouse this spirit?” The answer would appear to be obvious: through mass education. But the Dutch feared an educated colonial people for the same reasons that they feared a colonial working class. Moreover it is not likely that they really wanted to keep the increase in population within limits.

The Scope of Exploitation

While the native masses thus lived in a continuous struggle to maintain their meager standard of living, great profits were made by the Dutch companies. The Indies have proven to be the most profitable of any colonies. India, with twice the area and six times the population of the Indies, had only twice its volume of export and import. The export surplus of the Indies was even larger than that of India; in 1938 it amounted to $100,000,000,and it has at times been as high as $400,000,000.

The Indies provide a wealth of agricultural products. They produced 90 per cent of the world’s quinine, 85 per cent of the pepper, 64 per cent of the kapok, 33 per cent of the rubber, 29 per cent of the oil palm products and smaller percentages of tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa; in addition large crops of food products for home consumption, especially rice.

The Dutch have been careful to maintain “independent” native production on small farming unite. Native contributions in this form to the export market increased from 10 per cent in 1900 to 46 per cent in 1937. Native producers contributed 10 per cent of the rubber, 98 per cent of copra, all of the pepper and 90 per cent of the kapok to the export market. However, the real profits went to the Dutch export firms, for the natives had no way of selling their products on the world market.

The Netherlands Indies government obtained its funds largely from taxation, government industries and monopolies. Railroads, public utilities, post and telegraph were government operated. So were the pawnshops. Paternalistic Dutchmen were fond of making gentle fun of the Indonesians’ alleged passion for pawnshops. Of course this is only one more indication of the poverty of the population.

Most of the government’s income went for salaries of its functionaries. Only 10 per cent went for education and during the depression this was cut down to 5 per cent. Illiteracy consequently is widespread, less than one-tenth of the population can read and write. There was no compulsory education and in most cases the children worked to add to the family income.

The small strata of well-to-do Indonesians and the Indonesian nobility, however, had long been accustomed to send their children to school in the cities and often to Holland to the Universities. The first movement of national consciousness was therefore logically founded in 1908 by a group of aristocratic students at a college in Batavia. A purely Javanese and mainly philanthropic movement, it never attracted any mass support.

The National and Communist Movement

In 1912 a group of Indonesian merchants founded the Sarekat Dagang Islam (Islamic Merchant Association), originally to defend the interests of the native merchants against the economically stronger Chinese. But before long the name was changed to Sarekat Islam (Islamic Association) and it became a full fledged nationalist party. Using the Islam as a means of uniting the preponderantly Mohammedan masses, the party soon acquired a mass following, counting 800,000 members at the height of its rise.

During those days the Dutch revolutionary socialist Sneevliet arrived in the Indies and formed the Indies Social Democratic Association, which attracted some Indonesian members. Sneevliet sent these Indonesian members into the Sarekat Islam as a red fraction. Although in the beginning the Sarekat Islam leadership went along with the exceedingly energetic revolutionists, the inevitable struggle over final control of the SI led to a split in the 1920’s. In 1920, these revolutionists and Sneevliet formed the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) out of the Indies Social Democratic Association. After the split the SI lost most of its influence and abandoned politics. The PKI, on the other hand, embarked on an energetic campaign to propagate its ideas, establishing schools and courses, and gaining a foothold in the young trade unions. In 1926 – after Sneevliet had been exiled – the Communist leaders inspired premature uprisings which spread from Western Java to the West Coast of Sumatra. The Dutch government had to call out troops to crush this rebellion. 13,000 rebels were arrested and over a thousand of the leaders were exiled to Boven Digul, a concentration camp for political prisoners in New Guinea. This upheaval left the population dazed and at a loss. The decapitated PKI was crushed for good.

The same year, after the hysteria in the white press had somewhat subsided, a new movement was founded under the leadership of the engineer Sukarno, called the Partai Nasional Indonesia (National Indonesian Party). The leaders were for the greater part former members of an Indonesian student society in Holland,hich had been in contact with the Comintern and with the Stalinist-controlled Anti-Imperialist League. They called themselves revolutionary nationalists, and did not accept posts in the People’s Council or in the regional councils. (These bodies were partly appointed and partly elected by a complicated procedure.)

The Dutch community feared the Communists but had never taken the nationalist movement very seriously up till this time. The PNI however was led by able leaders, its propaganda was widespread and successful, it had a definite program. Government employees were forbidden to belong to the PNI. Finally the offices of the PNI all over the archipelago were raided and Sukarno and several other leaders were arrested and brought to trial. They were found to constitute a danger to public peace and order and all defendants received prison sentences of about two years. After his release in 1932 Sukarno was again arrested and exiled to the island of Flores without trial. In spite of frequent demands by the nationalist movement and liberal Dutch elements during the crisis preceding the Pacific war, neither Sukarno nor any of the subsequently exiled Nationalist leaders was ever allowed to return to Java, the center of political activity in the Indies.

In 1935 a new section was added to the Penal Code of the Indies restricting the rights of assembly and association. It became impossible for any anti-collaborationist movement to function legally. Propaganda had to be conducted through door to door visits and private instruction. Under these conditions the existing movements could not survive and one after the other slowly dissolved. There was no activity of any importance until the rise of the Parindra (Partai Indonesia Raya or Greater Indonesia Party) which was founded in the late thirties through a fusion of two earlier movements. Although collaborationist, this movement became very influential and was the most powerful force at the time of the Japanese invasion. When native conscription was put before the People’s Council in November 1941, after the fall of Holland, the Nationalists, under Parindra leadership, voted against it on the grounds that the people could not be heard on the proposal because there was no parliament. Native conscription was put through anyway, whereupon the Parindra representatives withdrew from the People’s Council and organized a popular demand for a parliament. At the outbreak of the war in the Pacific, however, the Parindra, like all other nationalist and religious parties, offered their support to the government.

The Native Trade Unions

The Indonesian trade union movement came into existence during the first world war. The first to organize were the government employees (teachers, pawnhouse employees, railroad and customhouse employees).

Industrial unions were organized a little later with the help of Sneevliet. The first organized strikes broke out in 1920 among plantation workers. In the same year printers, machine workers and dockworkers went on strike in Surabaya. These strikes were broken by the manufacturers who declared a general lock-out. Through this action even those factories where no strikes were going on were closed down and thousands of workers were thrown out of work. This situation continued for several weeks and ended finally by the capitulation of the workers. These strikes had been organized and led by Communists.

In 1925 again the machine workers in Surabaya went on strike because a Communist worker had been fired. The strikers advanced several demands, and half of these were granted. This first success did not fail to make an impression on the workers and the membership of the unions increased rapidly. In the same month strikes broke out in other factories and in the shipyards, but again the manufacturers got together and held out. After a month the workers had to return to work. The manufacturers, however, did not hire back all the strikers. They instituted a system of finger-printing all workers, and refused to engage those who could read and write. Their argument was that the literate workers were more easily influenced by Communist propaganda. When the strikes were concluded, the Department of Labor started an investigation into working conditions. This was done to give the government a semblance of impartiality and that it had an open ear for “justified” demands. The government investigator came to the conclusion that the prevailing rate of one guilder (at most60 cents) or two for a working day ranging from eight to ten hours gave the worker enough income to keep his family. It was admitted that rents were very high and housing conditions appalling, but the final verdict was that the strikes had not been prompted by dissatisfaction of the workers, but by Communist propaganda. A few Communist agitators were therefore arrested, while several Dutch Communists were told to leave the islands.

In 1926 the strongest union, that of the railroad workers, called a general strike which disrupted transportation for several days. Some of the most important Communist Indonesians belonged to this union and organized the strikes. The government – the employer in this case – stepped in immediately and dissolved the union and had a “loyal” union take its place. The Communist leaders were exiled.

That was also the year of the defeated uprisings and the reaction of course was felt in the trade unions too.

Although in every succeeding year a number of strikes broke out, they never again assumed the well-organized political character of 1925-26. The Nationalist movement got control over the unions and much of their militancy was lost. The Nationalist movement has always been more interested in the large mass of peasants than in the comparatively small number of industrial workers.

In all these conflicts, the Indonesian workers fought their strikes alone, helped only by a few Dutch Communist organizers. Although the Dutch employees in the factories in 1925-26 were greatly dissatisfied with their own conditions and had been contemplating a walk out, they sided with the management when the Indonesians went on strike. Most of the Dutch were either highly skilled workers or supervisors whose living conditions and wages could not be compared with those of the native workers.

There was one outstanding instance where representatives of the Dutch working class united with Indonesian workers. This was not only a strike but a strike in the Netherlands Indies Navy – a mutiny.

The mutiny on the cruiser Zeven Provincien, in February 1933, climaxed several months of unrest, dissatisfaction and collective demonstrations of disobedience aboard naval ships stationed in Surabaya. It was at the very height of the depression in the Indies, and salaries of naval personnel had been cut by 10 per cent. In December 1932 the word got around that another seven per cent cut would go into effect January 1st. Immediately the Dutch and Indonesian sailors’ unions called joint meetings, sent a joint delegation to the Commander of the Navy and cabled protests to the Second Chamber lower house of parliament in Holland. The government answered that for the moment no further cut in salary was intended. At the same time all officers were ordered to keep their revolvers loaded in their cabins. For the rest they were warned to use the utmost tact in dealing with the men – in order not to precipitate any conflicts. January 26, 1933 the new cut was announced: four per cent for Dutch sailors, seven per cent for Indonesians. In the days following the officers had plenty of opportunity to use their tact. In the morning after the raising of the flag the sailors sang their union song to the tune of the International. There were many meetings and another telegram was sent to the Second Chamber in Holland. Then the authorities heard that the red flag was going to be raised on the cruiser Java. They were “on the alert.” The army stood ready to step in, sailors were not permitted to go ashore, gatherings of more than five men were forbidden. February 1st Dutch and Indonesian sailors alike on several ships in Surabaya harbor refused to present themselves for the morning inspection. Mindful of the order to use tact the officers repeated the command again and again until slowly some of the sailors began to give in.

The news of the wage cut and the strikes in the Surabaya naval base reached the crew of the Zeven Provincien at sea. The ship had been sent on a cruise to the different ports in Sumatra. At a meeting held in one of the ports the sailors decided to protest against the cut and that, to show their solidarity with the men in Surabaya, they would take over the ship in the next port and sail it back to the naval base. This plan was executed on February 4th at night, while the commander of the ship and most of the officers were ashore dancing at a ball. The remaining officers offered no resistance but withdrew to the longroom where they stayed during the further events discussing plans of recapturing control of the ship.

The departure of the ship was of course immediately noticed ashore and its commander was notified. With his officers he got aboard a government steamer and followed the cruiser. His polite wireless messages were answered by the mutineers with “don’t hinder us.”

From then on the little steamer just tagged along behind the Zeven Provincien and the commander knew no better than to cable to Batavia: “Am shadowing Zeven.” In the meantime the authorities in Java were getting frantic. They felt Dutch prestige was suffering heavily in the eyes of the natives as well as of other nations. England had already offered to send a couple of warships from Singapore – an offer which was indignantly refused. The Dutch sent their own squadron of war ships to meet the Zeven Provincien and, since their was some resistance among the sailors in the squadron, the authorities also sent three Dornier bombers. The mutineers refused to surrender when summoned to do so. One of the bombers was ordered to attack it. A direct hit forced the mutineers to raise the white flag. In the general confusion the officers aboard executed their long discussed plan to recapture the ship.

After the mutiny the training school for Indonesian Naval Seamen was closed down. The ruling class feared a repetition, now that the Indonesians had learned that they have allies among the white men. A naval officer expressed this fear in the follows words:

“During my many years in the tropics I have seen a few Europeans degenerate worse than apaches in the big city underworld. But I have never heard of a white man who forgot that he was white in troubled times. I refuse to believe that the European rebels had any notion of their treason to their own race which rules the Indies. The intellectuals behind them, who have failed to restrict the class struggle to their own race, carry a heavier responsibility than that of undermining military discipline. They have risked to expose to the Indonesians once and for all the Achilles heel of our national unity.” (J. Mollema, Around the Mutiny on the Zeven Provincien [in Dutch])

In reality, the Dutch rulers had two Achilles heels. One was the class struggle of the Dutch workers and their tendency toward solidarity with their Indonesian brothers. The other was the impossibility of getting the Indonesian masses to fight the battles of the Dutch against their imperialist rivals. Which Achilles heel was to lose the Dutch their empire was not to be predicted in advance; it proved to be the second. In the critical days after the fall of Holland and preceding the Japanese invasion of the Indies, the government belatedly tried to gain the active support of the masses by a new tune, singing of the “common fate” of the Dutch and the Indonesians. By their indifference toward the war, however, the Indonesians put an end to the pretense that the fate of the Dutch bourgeoisie is of any interest to them. Three hundred years of Dutch exploitation came to its inevitable end.

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Last updated on 26.8.2008