In de 19th century, the Dutch East Indies - modern Indonesia - developed into a profitable colonial empire. Local insurgents were suppressed and henceforth a huge slice of Dutch revenue came from the East Indies. The Japanese occupation was followed by a war of independence, and in 1949 the Dutch ceded control of the archipelago.

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Establishing colonial power

Livingroom at the home of Jan Brandes in Batavia with his son Jan and slave Flora. Jan Brandes, 1784

Model of a Javanese market stall. Java, c. 1825-1850

In the bustling markets of Batavia on the island of Java, a cross-section of all the inhabitants of the East Indies could be found: Chinese, Malabar, European, Javanese and many others. Because of its unhealthy climate, the Dutch elite preferred to live outside Batavia after 1800. The administration also moved several kilometres south, to Weltevreden estate. Here, following the collapse of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), a new civil service was created to govern the colony from the centre.

The VOC had only controlled part of the coast of Java and the city of Batavia. The company exercised little influence in the interior, where local sultans ruled. These come into conflict with the new administration when the Dutch state began establishing control over the entire colony in 1816.

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1825-1830 Java War

The Surrender of Prince Diponegoro to Lieutenant General Baron de Kock, 28 March 1830. Nicolaas Pieneman, c. 1830-1835

New agricultural policies upset the balance that had existed between the Dutch administration and the Javanese rulers and peasantry of the interior. Led by Diponegoro, a Javanese prince, unrest erupted into widespread armed rebellion in 1825. The immediate cause for Diponegoro’s revolt was the construction of a road over his ancestors’ grave, yet the wider cause of the conflict lay in the general disapproval of the Dutch administration among the people of Java. Support for the revolt came from part of the rural population and the aristocracy, however, with their greater resources, the Dutch colonial army proved stronger in the field. Diponegoro continued a guerrilla campaign until in 1830 he was forced to surrender. Despite agreements to the contrary, the Javanese prince was taken prisoner. He died in exile in 1855. The Java War cost the lives of 15,000 Dutch soldiers and 200,000 Javanese.

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Cultivation system

Four Javanese court functionaries. Java, c. 1810-1870

Four Javanese court functionaries. Java, c. 1810-1870

Four Javanese court functionaries. Java, c. 1810-1870

Four Javanese court functionaries. Java, c. 1810-1870

After the Java War, a Dutch vision developed of the East Indies as a subdued province. Johannes van den Bosch, the governor general who launched the cultivation system in 1830, envisaged that instead of paying rent, the indigenous population would henceforth devote a fifth of their land to export crops. This produce – indigo, sugar and coffee – was sold in Europe by the Netherlands Trading Company (Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij or NHM), which made a vast profit.

The Dutch government received considerable revenue from the East Indies: in some years, as much as a quarter of the nation’s income came from the colony. Local rulers also benefited from the cultivation system. They received bonuses if their farmers increased production. For the ordinary Javanese, the cultivation system was an additional financial burden, moreover it led to corruption and exploitation. Despite protests against its harmful effects, the system remained in place until 1870.

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1873-1914 Aceh War

Shield of an Aceh warrior, captured in 1876. Aceh, ca. 1870-1875

For many years, the colonial administration focused purely on Java. It was thought that the other islands of the archipelago, the outer provinces, were unprofitable, so they were left undisturbed. In the late 19th century, the Dutch changed tack. With the opening of the Suez Canal, more ships had started to use the Malacca Strait, and these had fallen prey to pirates who operated from the nearby sultanate of Aceh on Sumatra and threatened to make use of the route impossible. Moreover, in 1871, the Netherlands had acquired official sovereignty over Aceh. To enforce its authority, the Dutch sent troops to take over the palace of the sultan of Aceh. It was a symbolic act, but a guerrilla war erupted which seemed impossible to suppress. Led by J.B. van Heutsz, a Dutch army eventually managed to break the resistance. Dutch troops treated the indigenous population with particular severity.

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Ethical politics

Javanese with engine block. Marinus J. Hack, c. 1913

With the subjection of the outlying islands, such as Sumatra, Dutch authority now extended to every corner of the East Indies archipelago. The main loser in this was the indigenous population. Yet the Dutch brought more than just death and destruction; in the Netherlands, Christian and progressive organisations saw the possibility of a moral mission in the colony. They felt that the people of the East Indies should be educated in order to take on some of the responsibilities of political and economic independence. Poverty prevention, schooling and construction of irrigation works and roads would improve the economic conditions in which the native population lived. Although educational opportunities allowed a small elite to emerge among the colony’s population, these ethical policies bore little real fruit. The main obstacle was a chronic lack of manpower and funding. And this only worsened in the Depression of the 1930s.

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East Indies lost, at what cost

Javanese head, from the demolished Van Heutsz monument in Batavia. Hendrik A. van den Eijnde after a design by Willem M. Dudok. Batavia, 1932

In the early 20th century, a new nationalist movement emerged among the Western-educated indigenous elite. Boedi Oetomo, founded in 1908, focused mainly on stimulating the local Javanese culture. Four years later, a more widespread organisation – Sarekat Islam – demanded democratic involvement. A major breakthrough came with the foundation of Partai Nasional Indonesia, the Indonesian nationalist party, by Soekarno in 1927. An insurrection was attempted but failed, and was followed by harsh repression of these nationalist groups. In 1930, Soekarno found himself in prison.

During the Second World War, the colony was occupied by Japan, and the local nationalist movement was able to develop. When the Japanese capitulated and withdrew, Soekarno declared the independent Republic of Indonesia. In the Netherlands, this was seen as a potential disaster and the government sent troops to restore its authority. Two military campaigns followed in which an estimated 150,000 Indonesians and 5,000 Dutch soldiers died. Eventually, international pressure forced the Dutch to concede independence in 1949.