British Singapore, Malaya, and Borneo


Please accept my apologies for the delay.  On Friday, the day Episode 23 was supposed to go up, we had a death in our household.  No, it was not a person or pet, thank God; it was our refrigerator.  Everything else had to be put on hold until the refrigerator was replaced.  Then, after that was done, I could finish recording this podcast episode.  Today we see the British Empire get involved in Southeast Asia, and learn how they gained control over Malaya, Singapore, and part of Borneo.


(Transcript, added 05/02/2020.)


This episode is dedicated to P and Seona, who recently made donations to support the podcast. Thanks to both of you for allowing the podcast to continue for another month. The website I have chosen to host the files,, is not free; I have learned from experience that when websites allow free hosting or storage of soundfiles, they tend to go out of business. To give one example, does anybody remember the music site Spiral Frog? And since I do not believe in putting episodes behind paywalls, as some podcasters do, your contribution will benefit all the listeners. As I have said before, thanks for your support.

I also want to apologize for being a day late with this episode. My personal goal is to upload episodes on the 1st and 16th day of each month, except in February, when I’ll upload the second one on the 15th because that month is short. In early June I was called on to give a history presentation at a conference in the real world, so I had to put the podcast on the back burner until that was over. Despite the late start on this episode, I still had a fighting chance of getting it finished on schedule, but then before I was done recording, we had a minor emergency at home; the refrigerator died. It was an eighteen-year-old refrigerator that suddenly stopped working yesterday morning; it gave its life for frozen meats and my wife’s exceptional cooking. If this was winter, we could have taken our time, keeping the refrigerator’s contents outside for a day or two, but with the heat of summer on us, we had to go get a new refrigerator right away, so yesterday I spent my recording time shopping for a new fridge. Finally, I spent today waiting for the new refrigerator to be delivered; I couldn’t go anywhere until it arrived, and had to finish recording and editing this episode around that delivery. By the time you hear this, things should be back to normal in the house, so let’s get started, with no more delays.

Episode 23: British Singapore, Malaya, and Borneo

Greetings, dear listeners! So far in this podcast we have seen the rise of three Western empires, those of Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands. We have also seen one of those empires fall, the Portuguese Empire. Now we are going to see a fourth European power, Great Britain, dive into the colonial game. We have already seen the British for a while; the British East India Company was active in Southeast Asia, at least until it switched its focus to India. By 1800 Britain had acquired four outposts in Southeast Asia: Bencoolen, Malacca, Penang Island, and Province Wellesley. Bencoolen was on the west coast of Sumatra, while the others were in the Malacca Strait. In 1762, during the Seven Years War, a British squadron invaded the Philippines, an event we’ll cover in a future episode, and in the last episode, we saw Britain conquer Java in 1811, and hold it for the rest of the Napoleonic Wars. Although Britain started out later than the other Europeans we mentioned, their superior navy allowed them to catch up, and after the Napoleonic Wars the other empires were in ruins, so Britain was the world’s richest, most powerful nation in the nineteenth century. Rule Britannia.

It has been said that, quote: “the British Empire was acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness.” End quote. As a result of the Seven Years War, the British found themselves controlling Canada and the most valuable part of India, Bengal. The conquest of Canada was one of the goals set by William Pitt, who became Britain’s prime minister in the middle of the war, but Britain gained Bengal suddenly, as a result of winning the battle of Plassey in 1757. Bengal had 35 million people and generated an annual revenue of £2 million, about $800 million in today’s US dollars. Acres of farmland were set aside for the production of crops that brought the most profit: tea & cotton for the mother country, and opium for the growing drug traffic with China. The acquisition of income and workers on this scale gave Britain the resources to do what no other European power could accomplish, namely the conquest of the whole Indian subcontinent. They would do this one step at a time, usually in response to threats against what they already had.

Likewise, in the rest of the world, Britain would look to take colonies that would protect their Indian interests, like the Suez Canal. Take a globe of the earth, turn it so that you are looking directly at the Indian Ocean, and from that point of view, almost all the lands you will see were part of the British Empire by the early twentieth century: India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaya, Australia, most of East Africa, South Africa, Egypt, South Yemen, the Maldive Islands, and so forth. In other words, the Indian Ocean had been turned into a British lake. “The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets” was created just to secure its most valued colony.


In Southeast Asia, Britain was now motivated to gain colonies to protect India against any future enemies that might attack from the east. That was why Britain moved against Dutch-ruled Java, when the Netherlands were on Napoleon’s side. In the last episode we met the British governor of Java, Thomas Stamford Raffles, and when his time as governor ended, Raffles hated giving Java back to the Dutch, because his work on the island wasn’t finished. Therefore, after Raffles was transferred to Bencoolen, he looked for another colony that would be a fair replacement for Java, one that would give Britain control over the waters and commerce between India and China. Bencoolen wouldn’t do; we saw previously that Bencoolen had a bad location, so it never amounted to much. Nor could Britain use any Dutch-controlled ports for naval or commercial transportation; the Dutch either banned British ships outright from their ports, or charged high fees. The governor-general of India, Lord Hastings, gave Raffles permission to search for a place to build another trading post, provided he do nothing to offend the Dutch.

In 1819, after visiting two or three places that were unsuitable, Raffles visited Singapore, an island off the southern tip of Malaya, and he decided this was the place. Way back in Episode 11, we saw that Singapore City was founded here in 1299, by the last prince of the Srivijayan empire. But now, 520 years later, there were only about 1,000 inhabitants. Many of the residents were so-called “Sea Gypsies,” tribesmen who preferred living in boats over living on dry land; the rest were a mixture of Malays and Chinese. Most of the island was still untamed jungle and swamp. Even so, Singapore was perfect for what Raffles had in mind. Besides being underpopulated, it had a superb geographic location, and a deep harbor. In addition, fresh water was available, and it had timber for repairing ships. Best of all, the island was not controlled by a strong government. The nearest Malay state, Johore, had a claim to the island, but the throne of Johore had become vacant with the local sultan’s death in 1812. Since then, the sultan’s two sons, Hussein and Abdul Rahman, had claimed the throne, leaving Johore divided and paralyzed. The local chief, Temenggong Abdu’r Rahman, was willing to sell some land for a trading post, but he was a subordinate of Abdul Rahman, and Raffles soon decided he could get a better deal from the other prince, so Raffles helped Hussein become the next sultan. Afterwards Raffles and Hussein signed a treaty that gave him permission to build a British port, in return for a small annual subsidy paid to the sultan.

To make sure that people would come to Singapore, Raffles declared it a free port, where anyone could bring cargoes without paying the duties imposed at Batavia and other Dutch ports. Sure enough, Arab, Malay and Chinese merchants started visiting Singapore immediately. The result was instant success; the trade goods that passed through in the very first year were worth $400,000 Spanish dollars, or $6.4 million in today’s US dollars. Four years later, in 1823, Raffles sailed away to England, and never returned, because he would die in 1826, but already the colony was growing so fast that he could take pride in his accomplishment.

Raffles wasn’t supposed to offend the Dutch, but they got upset anyway, because they had long viewed all of Indonesia and Malaya as belonging to them, and now there was a growing British city in the middle of this area. Tensions rose, until Britain and the Netherlands negotiated, and in 1824 they signed a new treaty. Here the Dutch gave up their claim to Malacca and recognized Britain’s right to Singapore. In return, Britain gave Bencoolen to the Dutch, recognized the Dutch claim to western New Guinea, and declared that everything south of the Malacca Strait was in the Dutch sphere of influence, even if Malaya was no longer part of it. By 1824, Singapore’s population had grown to 10,000, and it had replaced Penang as the busiest port in the Malacca Strait. Before 1824 was over, Britain signed a new treaty with the sultan of Johore, that extended British rule to the rest of the island. There would be a slump when Britain founded another major port in the Far East, Hong Kong, in 1841, but Singapore would recover after the Suez Canal opened, and sea traffic increased everywhere. Then it would go on to enjoy even greater prosperity. So this isn’t the end of the story of Singapore; it’s only the beginning.

Adventures on Borneo

In the last few episodes we saw individual Europeans come to Southeast Asia, and cause big changes because of their presence. Now we are going to meet another one, James Brooke. By far the best source I could find for a biography of Brooke was an article on the website, so I will start by reading a couple paragraphs from that. Quote:

Born in India in 1803, son of a British judge, Brooke was sent to England at the age of 12 to be educated, a process punctuated by running away from a school he disliked. He returned to India at the age of 16 and was commissioned into the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. (In this period there was no direct British rule, nor was there to be for another thirty years). The First Burmese War broke out in 1824 and Brooke was soon in action with a body of volunteer Indian horsemen he had trained. He was to lead them in a successful charge at the Battle of Rungpore in January 1825 and two days later repeated the exploit. This time however he was shot in the lung. Thrown from his horse, he was left for dead, and only when the battlefield was cleared was he found to be still breathing. He survived, but even after his initial recovery was weak enough to be sent back to Britain to recuperate. His wound was sufficient to justify a pension of £70 per year for life. The next five years, marked by continuing ill health, were spent in England and when he returned to India in 1830 he resigned his commission. Fascinated by South East and East Asia, he sailed on to China – more illness there – and back to England.

Once at home again Brooke began to read widely on the East and to consolidate the negative opinion he had formed of the East India Company (known as “John Company”) and the stranglehold it maintained on commercial activity. He did not share the prejudice of so many of his class against “trade” and he recognised significant opportunities in South East Asia. Drawing on family money, Brooke purchased a “rakish-looking slaver brig,” the 290 tons Findlay, loaded it with trade goods, hired a crew and master and took her to Macao, the Portuguese colony on the China coast. The venture was a financial disaster and Brooke returned home much chastened. He bought a small yacht and sailed it off Britain to increase his knowledge of seamanship – which he should probably have done to start with – and the death of his father in 1835 brought him an inheritance of £30,000, a vast sum at the time. Now 33, Brooke realised that it was now or never if he was to realise his dreams. He bought a 142 ton schooner, the Royalist, and set systematically about learning all he could about Borneo, which he had identified as offering the greatest opportunities. There was a Dutch presence on the south of the island, but the Malay Sultanate of Brunei, on the north coast, had been weakened by corruption and extortion and had only limited control of its territories. Oppression of the Iban tribes by the Malay rulers was extreme and there was widespread resentment. Loose control led to flourishing piracy, the most important participants being “Illanuns” from Mindinao in the Southern Philippines, as well as indigenous groups known as the “Sea Dyaks”. Borneo’s estuaries provided ideal hiding places and the pirates tended to victimise Chinese traders and to avoid European shipping. If trade was sparse then the pirates moved inland, along the rivers, to raid the tribes living there. It might be added that headhunting was a widespread and honoured tradition at this period.

End Quote.

If you haven’t heard of the war between Britain and Burma, don’t worry; we haven’t covered it yet in this podcast, and I am saving it for the next episode. We have seen the Sultanate of Brunei. At its height, around 1500, it claimed rule over all of Borneo and part of the Philippines, including Manila. In practice, though, it only controlled the north coast of Borneo, and when Brooke showed up in 1838, the sultan was facing pirates and a rebellion in the southwest corner of his realm, a part of Borneo called Sarawak. Brooke took command of the local Malay and Chinese troops, donated the light guns carried on his ship, and won a series of victories against the pirates and Sarawak rebels. In 1841, with the help of some units from the British navy, he also restored the sultan to his throne, after some Malay nobles on the side of the rebels tried to depose him.

The grateful sultan rewarded Brooke by crowning him rajah of Sarawak in 1842. Brooke in turn gave the small offshore island of Labuan to Britain in 1846, for use as a coaling station. Soon after that, on another visit to England, Queen Victoria knighted Brooke, and he became known locally as “the White Rajah.” Brooke also acted as the chief judge of the realm, presiding over court sessions in the front room of his house, with his pet orangutan Betsy running around in the background. The strangest case was the trial of a man-eating crocodile, that was accused of killing a court translator who had gotten drunk one night and fell into a river. After hearing the arguments from the prosecution and the defense, Brooke made his verdict and wrote the following in his diary. Quote:

“I decided that he should be instantly killed without honours and he was dispatched accordingly; his head severed from his trunk and the body left exposed as a warning to all the other crocodiles that may inhabit these waters.”

End Quote.

Unfortunately, Sarawak turned out to be unprofitable; Brooke never pulled down more than a few thousand pounds in income from the territory each year. That was barely enough to pay for his family’s upkeep, and the salaries of the administrators he hired; in the best of times, Sarawak broke even, and when it didn’t, Brooke had to make up the difference by paying out of his own pocket. In addition he had to continue fighting pirates for nearly all of the rest of his life. I will read another excerpt from, which tells about the campaign I found most interesting, because it involved the relatives of two famous authors. Quote:

Much trouble was caused by a trader called Robert Burns, apparently a grandson of the Scottish poet and described as “disreputable”. He was accused not only of stealing women but of encouraging local tribes to kill anybody trying to enter his areas of operations. Expelled from Sarawak, Burns was to turn to arms trading off North Borneo. Here he literally lost his head after his ship was attacked by pirates. Brooke accompanied the Royal Navy commander in the area, Admiral Sir Francis Austen, on an expedition to punish those responsible. This resulted in the unlikely circumstance of the novelist Jane Austen’s brother avenging the grandson of the poet Robert Burns.

End Quote.

James Brooke died in 1868. He never married, and though he admitted having one illegitimate son, he kept the mother’s identity secret. Therefore he named his nephew Charles Johnson as his heir, and Charles changed his last name to Brooke so everyone would know who his uncle was. As the second White Rajah, Charles enjoyed a long reign of forty-nine years, from 1868 to 1917. Whereas James kept himself busy establishing law and order, and protecting the native population from outside exploitation, Charles enlarged the state, strengthened his control over it, and concentrated on infrastructure improvements, like building roads, waterworks, a railway and a hospital.

The third and last White Rajah was a son of Charles, Charles Vyner Brooke. Before taking over he served incognito as a private in England during World War I. As Rajah, he used the growing local rubber and oil industries to finance the modernization of the state, and he protected the indigenous culture by banning Christian missionaries. However, one local custom he did not tolerate was headhunting; that notorious practice was outlawed by all three White Rajahs. In 1941, Vyner accepted a constitution that took away his powers as an absolute ruler, in exchange for £200,000. At the end of the same year, World War II broke out and the Japanese rudely interrupted his reign by invading Borneo. Vyner and his family were visiting Sydney, Australia at the time, so they stayed abroad for the rest of the war.

Vyner returned to Sarawak in April 1946. By this time, after being away for so long, he was broke, so he agreed to hand over Sarawak to the British government, in return for a pension given to him and his family. Thus, Sarawak became a regular British crown colony on July 1, 1946. It was the last colony gained by Britain, at a time when the British were preparing to shed their other colonies, starting with India.

While James Brooke was establishing himself in Sarawak, it wasn’t clear who owned uncivilized North Borneo, or Sabah. This territory was claimed by many but occupied by none. The claimants were the Netherlands, Spain, Britain, Brunei, Sarawak, the sultan of Sulu (in the Philippines), and the United States. The American claim was the doing of Charles Lee Moses, the American Consul General of Brunei. In 1865 Moses obtained a ten-year lease over North Borneo from the sultan of Brunei, and he in turn gave it to three American merchants. The merchants formed the American Trading Company of Borneo, and established a settlement about 60 miles north of Labuan, but it was a failure after that. Thus, in 1876 the American company was sold to Baron Gustav von Overbeck, the Austro-Hungarian consul in Hong Kong. He got a ten-year extension on the lease, and then transferred it to a British agent, Alfred Dent. Dent formed a new company to exploit the territory in 1882, the British North Borneo Company. Then the British government moved in. Using negotiations (and some strategically placed bribes), Britain was able to persuade all other parties to drop their claims by 1888.

The sultan of Brunei saw what was coming next. All he had left were two small tracts of land, surrounded by and divided by Sarawak, so in 1888 he accepted the status of a British protectorate, barely avoiding outright colonization. Although the sultan was allowed to keep his throne, a treaty signed in 1906 formalized the relationship between Brunei and Britain by introducing a British resident. The resident advised the sultan on all foreign matters, and the sultan had to accept this advice.

Taking Malaya, One Piece at a Time

So far in this podcast series we haven’t talked much about the Malay peninsula. For most of history the peninsula was divided into petty states. We did not talk about how they interacted, because none of that mattered to the rest of the world, and recounting such details would probably bore the listeners. The only important nation that ever had its capital on the peninsula was Malacca; we covered the story of Malacca in Episodes 11 and 12. At other times, the nearest empires claimed that Malaya was within their sphere of influence. Srivijaya had once claimed and possibly occupied Malaya, then Majapahit did likewise, and since the sixteenth century, Siam had been working to extend its control over the peninsula.

There were nine Malay sultanates on the peninsula in the nineteenth century. The four in the north, just below Siam’s southern border, were Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu. After several attempts, Siam succeeded in conquering Kedah in 1821, and it reduced the other three to vassal status, forcing them to pay tribute to Bangkok. Below them, the next four states managed to keep their independence, at least until the British got involved here. Their names were Perak, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang and Selangor. Finally, in the southern end of the peninsula was a single state, Johore. Often Johore was the most influential of the nine sultanates; we saw in previous episodes that the first Moslem missionary to the Philippines came from Johore, and at different times it was allied with Champa, Vietnam’s old rival, and with the Dutch East India Company.

By the 1820s, Britain had four pieces of Malay territory: Penang, Province Wellesley, Malacca, and Singapore. In 1826 these territories were organized into one province, called the Straits Settlements. For a few decades that was all Britain wanted; the British were not interested in the rest of the peninsula. However, they would have to get involved in peninsular affairs eventually, to protect the interests they already had. The first example of this came in 1820, when Britain intervened to prevent Siam from annexing the central state of Perak.

Then huge deposits of tin were discovered in Perak and Selangor, and that changed the economy completely. Ever since then, Malaya, modern Malaysia, has been one of the world’s top tin producers. In 1853 the British government canceled a duty on imported tin, and tin exports to Britain boomed; the British were now willing to buy all the tin that the Malay sultanates would sell to them. Because the easygoing Malays were not interested in hard labor, Chinese immigrants were brought in, and they went to work in the tin mines. When the mines needed more workers, more Chinese arrived to fill the available jobs. Other Chinese moved into the British outposts, where they formed a middle class of merchants and moneylenders, just like they did in Manila, Batavia and Bangkok.

Late in the nineteenth century, another important industry, rubber, got started in Malaya. The story of how that happened deserves to be told in detail, because it is another example of an individual who changed the world. Originally rubber was only available in the New World. The favorite sport of the Mayan, Aztec and other Mesoamerican civilizations was a ball game resembling soccer, that used a ball made from solid rubber. They got their rubber from latex, a sap extracted from certain plants. In North America you could get latex from a desert shrub called guayule, but the best source was the rubber tree, Hevea brasiliensis, which only grew in the Amazon jungle. As soon as Europeans discovered rubber, they thought it was a nifty thing to have, but the seeds of the rubber tree lost their fertility so quickly that they could not be planted anywhere but Brazil.

The drug used to treat malaria, quinine, came from another South American plant, the cinchona tree, and in 1860 Clements Markham successfully transported cinchona trees across the Atlantic, but even the fastest clipper ships could not deliver rubber seeds in time. Thus, Brazil enjoyed a monopoly on rubber when the process of vulcanization was developed, and the demand for rubber was great, now that it could be put to many new uses, like tires.

This was the situation when a British adventurer named Henry Wickham entered the picture. Wickham found life in England boring, so he spent his life traveling around the world seeking his fortune. He tried to do it by raising various crops wherever he went. These included sugar, manioc, tobacco, sponges, coconuts and pearls, but he failed at all of them. Only once did a scheme of his work, and what a success that was! It happened in 1876, when Wickham came to Brazil to gather rubber seeds. He had been offered £10 for every thousand seeds he could bring back alive to England. Wickham managed to collect 70,000 seeds, potentially worth £700, before he figured out a way to deliver them. Then a British steamship came to the Amazon city of Manaus, not far from where Wickham was. The ship delivered its cargo, but the captain found, to his dismay, that he had lost his cargo for the return trip. When Wickham heard about the empty steamship, he chartered it, loaded it with the seeds, and sent it to England, knowing it would cross the ocean faster than any sailing ship. There was a tricky moment when he had to get the seeds past Brazilian customs agents, and he used the honest approach, telling them that the ship was full of delicate plants “for delivery to Her Britannic Majesty’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.” The agents didn’t know that the Kew Gardens are the plant nursery and botanical research center of the British Empire, so they let the ship go without inspecting it; they must have thought Wickham was taking orchids to Queen Victoria.

Fortunately for Wickham, he was paid for the number of seeds delivered, not the number that survived the trip. At Kew Gardens 2,397 seeds sprouted, 3.42% of the total amount. Six months later, rubber seedlings were shipped to India, Sri Lanka and Singapore. The Singaporean seedlings went to neighboring Malaya, where plantations were set up to cultivate them. Whereas Brazilians collected latex by simply tapping wild rubber trees in the jungle, cultivated Malayan trees produced more rubber, because they had fewer diseases, and fewer parasites – and the rubber contained no shrunken heads. By 1914, the United Kingdom had replaced Brazil as the world’s largest rubber producer.

A small but significant number of Indian immigrants moved in to work on the rubber plantations. As the nineteenth century ended, the Malays found themselves becoming a minority in their own country. In fact, they were already a minority, because some Indonesian immigrants came in as well; they were considered Malays as soon as they stepped off the boat because they were of the same race and religion, and their language was almost the same. One European observer wrote that if the Chinese immigrants had brought women with them, they would have completely absorbed the Malay population within a few generations.

Malaya’s nine sultans found the Chinese newcomers to be clannish and impossible to assimilate. The Chinese miners organized themselves into gangs, which waged bloody feuds between each other for control of the tin mines. Then in 1871 the sultan of Perak died, and the Malays of that state got into a quarrel of their own, over who should be the next sultan. The British ignored these disputes at first, but in 1874 the fighting spilled over into Penang. Britain immediately went to Perak with Indian troops and ships and negotiated a treaty, the Pangkor Treaty of 1874. The sultan of Perak was given a British advisor, like the sultan of Brunei had. This advisor was not allowed to meddle with religion or local customs, but otherwise he told the sultan how to improve the local economy and made sure that the sultan did not forget Britain’s interests in the area.

The new system worked so well that by 1896 the other states in central Malaya – Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, and Selangor – also had British advisors. In that year all four states were organized into a federation, called the Federated Malay States. To outsiders and many of the Malays themselves, it looked like the British hadn’t really taken over, because the sultans remained in charge of the lands they ruled previously, but the ultimate leader of the federation was a British resident-general. The place chosen for the federation’s capital was not one of the sultans’ capitals, but Kuala Lumpur, a mining camp in Selangor. This showed where the land’s real wealth came from.

Before long the four northern sultanates were given British advisors, too, and in 1909, after the sultans supposedly “asked” for British protection, Britain forced Siam to drop its claim to the northern states. Siam was allowed to keep a piece of Kedah because it had a mostly Thai population; that became the province of Satun in modern-day Thailand. The northern sultanates were not enrolled in the federation, and were simply called the Unfederated Malay States. Although British control over the Unfederated Malay States was looser, London made sure the sultans did not even think about declaring independence. The last holdout was the southern sultanate of Johore. It resisted British advances at first, and then finally accepted a British advisor in 1914. Like the northern sultanates, Johore became one of the Unfederated Malay States.

Having British lords over them did lessen the prestige of the sultans, but the British interfered as little as possible with Malay culture. The peninsula’s ethnic mixture, however, proved to be Malaya’s biggest problem. Malays, Chinese and Indians did not trust each other; in fact, each group preferred British rule to domination by one of the other groups. Because of this situation, the only rebellion against British rule was a 1915 revolt by Indian troops in Singapore. In 1931, the Malayan Communist Party was organized in the Chinese community, and a Malay political organization, the Union of Young Malays, was founded in 1937-38. These were the only nationalist movements in Malaya before World War II, and they got started decades after similar movements appeared in the Philippines, Burma, Indonesia and Vietnam. And because of the distrust between the ethnic groups, after the war the British would offer independence before the natives asked for it.

On that note, we have gotten all the way to the beginning of World War II, where Malaya and the neighboring territories are concerned. However, we are not done watching the British Empire grow. In the next episode we will see Britain conquer one of the big mainland kingdoms, Burma, so join us again at the beginning of July 2017, or any time after that, to hear how the British did it. And then in future episodes we will see the French and the United States go for colonies of their own, followed by a series of episodes on the development of modern Southeast Asian nationalism. I promise you, it won’t be boring!

If you enjoyed this episode, you can make a donation to support this podcast, by using the Paypal button on this episode’s page. It can be either a one-time donation, like what has come in so far, or you can be the first to set up Paypal to make a monthly donation of whatever amount you wish, starting at $1. Also, consider writing a review of the podcast on iTunes. As of mid-June, I estimate the podcast has just over a thousand listeners, but there is always room for more. “Like” the History of Southeast Asia Podcast page on Facebook, if you haven’t done so already. And like I have said before, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!

The Dutch East Indies



After taking a bit of a break last month, the podcast is ready to resume the narrative, with the first episode covering events in the nineteenth century.  This time we will see how the Dutch conquered all of Indonesia, or as they called it after they took over, the Dutch East Indies.


(Transcript, added 04/23/2020.)


This episode is dedicated to Marcus J, who made another donation to support the podcast last week. Marcus, you really know how to make my day! Again, thank you for doing your part to make sure the podcast continues towards the present. I’m sure many more listeners will be joining us as the narrative reaches topics they find interesting, especially World War II and the Vietnam War. To the rest of the listeners, donations are not required, but they’re always appreciated, and they’ll get your first name in lights, too.

Episode 22: The Dutch East Indies
Greetings, dear listeners! Before we begin, there is one loose end from last time. I announced that this episode will be the first covering the colonial era, and in the last episode’s program notes, I gave the dates 1800 to 1965 for the colonial era, but I did not tell you where I got them. Those dates are purely arbitrary. No specific event marks the beginning date I picked for the period, 1800. That date seemed like a natural starting point because Episodes 17, 19, and 20 all ended near 1800, and Episode 21 talked about trends that started around the same time. As for when colonialism ended, we don’t have a specific date for that, either. When talking about colonial history in Africa, a good end date marking it is 1960, because seventeen of modern Africa’s fifty-four nations became independent in that year; sometimes 1960 is called “the African Year.” However, we can’t do that with Southeast Asia, because the dates for independence stretch out across more than half a century, from 1946 for the Philippines, to 1999 for East Timor. Here I picked 1965 because that was the date of Singapore’s independence, and by then colonialism was all but finished in the region. The only Southeast Asian nations to become independent after that were Brunei and East Timor, and neither one of them has enough land or people to make much of a difference in today’s world. However, the sultan of Brunei has lots of oil money, and near the end of this podcast series I’ll probably do an episode on how he spends it.

In the past, whenever it was practical, I devoted each episode to a specific part of Southeast Asia, usually one country, so for the colonial era I will start by telling how the Dutch conquered Indonesia and transformed it into the Dutch East Indies. And now, with no more ado, let’s resume the narrative!


The last time we talked about Indonesia was in Episode 17, so here is a refresher. Since the fall of the short-lived Majapahit empire in the fifteenth century, Indonesia and nearby Malaya have been divided into many small states. When the Portuguese arrived, this division allowed them to capture Malacca and establish outposts in key locations of the archipelago. Then when the Dutch showed up, it was at a time when the Netherlands was at war with Spain. From 1580 to 1640, the crown of Portugal belonged to the king of Spain, in what we call the Iberian Union, so the Dutch attacked both Spanish and Portuguese targets during this time.

In Southeast Asia the Dutch eventually captured all of the Portuguese colonies and outposts, except for Macao and Timor. Macao remained in Portuguese hands because Spanish ships were sent from the Philippines to successfully defend it. When Portugal regained its independence under a native king in 1640, the war between the Portuguese and the Dutch ended, because they didn’t have a reason to fight anymore. At that point, they had been fighting over Timor, a medium-sized island in the east that was important to missionary activity. They settled the conflict by dividing Timor; Portugal got to keep the eastern half of the island, while the Dutch organization in the region, the Dutch East India Company, took the western half. That is how East Timor got the name we use for it; the natives call it Timor Leste. As for West Timor, it had its fifteen minutes of fame in 1789, by appearing in the story of the mutiny on the Bounty. When the mutineers took over that famous ship, the captain, William Bligh, and the crewmen loyal to him were put in a lifeboat, and Bligh successfully sailed this lifeboat across the Pacific, until they reached Kupang, the Dutch outpost on West Timor. Bligh went for Timor because it had the nearest European settlements of any kind. Still, to get there they had to travel for forty-seven days and cross 4,162 miles of open sea, with only a sextant and a pocket watch to navigate with. However you look at it, that was an amazing achievement.

What else did the Dutch East India Company have, besides West Timor? They had taken Malacca from the Portuguese, giving themselves control over the Malacca Strait. By the end of the seventeenth century they had conquered all of the Moluccas, the so-called “Spice Islands”; we saw this was the biggest prize in the region, the cluster of islands that Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands had all wanted the most. We also noted that Java was the most important Indonesian island; the Company had its headquarters here, first at Bantam, and from 1619 onward, at Batavia. By 1705 the Company had gained control over one third of Java, and by the time the Company went out of business, its control had increased to two thirds of the island; the rest was ruled by friendly sultans. On the other side of the Bay of Bengal, the Company controlled Sri Lanka. And those were the main assets; on other islands like Sumatra and Borneo, the Company claimed to be the ultimate authority, but all it actually had were a handful of outposts, and cooperative native chiefs remained in charge. At the end of Episode 17, we saw that the end came for the Company in 1799; in that year the Dutch government revoked the Company’s monopoly rights, and all Company assets were transferred to the government. From then on, the areas ruled by the Dutch government would be called the Dutch East Indies.

However, there was one more player that couldn’t be ignored — Great Britain. The British had also been involved in the Indian Ocean since the seventeeth century began, and since 1685 they had ruled Bencoolen, a town on the west coast of Sumatra. But they were more interested in India, so they waited nearly a century to make their next move in Southeast Asia. In 1762 they sent a military expedition to the Spanish Philippines; we will talk more about that the next time we have an episode on those islands. Then in 1786, a merchant captain from the British East India Company, Francis Light, leased Penang, an island off Malaya’s west coast, from the friendly sultan of Kedah, the nearest Malay state. Light did it both to promote trade between India and China, and to keep the French and the Dutch from growing any stronger in Southeast Asia. To defend Penang he built a fort on the island named Fort Cornwallis, named after Charles Cornwallis, the same Cornwallis who led the British army at the end of the American Revolution; by now Cornwallis was doing a better job as governor general of India. Light also founded a city on Penang, which he naturally called Georgetown, after King George III; it would grow to become the second largest city in modern Malaysia.

On the mainland, the part of the coast facing Penang was a haven for pirates. In addition, the sultan of Kedah expected military aid from Britain, to keep his big northern neighbor, Siam, from conquering Kedah. Not long after that, Siam attacked and Britain sent no aid, so relations soured and in 1790 the sultan assembled an army on this stretch of coast to take back Penang. The British East India Company nipped this threat in the bud by launching night attacks on Kedah’s forts. Then in 1800 the first Lieutenant-Governor of Penang, Sir George Alexander William Leith, negotiated the transfer of a 73-square-mile tract on the mainland adjacent to Penang; this was renamed Province Wellesley and added to the Penang colony.

Those of you familiar with European history know what happened at the end of the eighteenth century, and the beginning of the nineteenth century. This was a generation of turmoil, the time of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. At first the Netherlands were part of the anti-French coalition, but in the winter of 1794-1795 the French cavalry charged across the frozen Scheldt River, and captured the icebound Dutch fleet; the Netherlands surrendered and became a puppet state called the “Batavian Republic,” allied to France and paying French taxes. Then in 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte transformed the Batavian Republic into a kingdom and put his brother Louis in charge of it. For the Dutch, being forced into the French camp also meant that their overseas colonies became targets for France’s archenemy, Great Britain. The British showed in 1795 that they could do what they wanted with the Dutch empire by seizing Cape Town in South Africa, and Malacca in Southeast Asia. And since the British now had a base in India, conveniently close to Southeast Asia, the Dutch knew they would come back for more.

In 1807 Louis Bonaparte appointed a new governor for the Dutch East Indies, an admirer of Napoleon named Willem Daendels. He arrived on Java in the following year, and his main assignment was to fortify the island against the British attack everyone knew was coming. He did that, but his main achievement was the building of the Java Great Post Road, which ran almost all the way along the north coast of Java. When the British arrived in 1811, the fort Daendels built didn’t do its job; the British conquered the island in a month and a half.

The commander in chief of the Java expedition was the current governor general of India, Lord Minto, and he appointed a young officer, thirty-year-old Thomas Stamford Raffles, to govern Java after the fighting was over. Previously in this narrative, we saw European commanders who were committed imperialists, men who believed serving that God and serving their country were one and the same. The best examples of these were Afonso de Albuquerque of Portugal, and Jan Pieterszoon Coen of the Netherlands; both men believed they were doing God’s will when they grabbed as much land as possible, and extracted whatever wealth they could get from those lands.

Raffles, however, was a different kind of imperialist. He was a committed idealist who believed that imperialism should not just be used to make the rulers richer; it should also be used to improve the lives of conquered peoples. Lord Minto felt the same way, and sent him with these words. Quote: “While we are on Java, let us do all the good we can.” End Quote. Raffles enthusiastically carried this out after he arrived. First he put down uprisings by local rulers, who thought the end of Dutch rule meant complete independence. Then he outlawed slavery, cockfighting and other forms of gambling; he was against gambling because gamblers were sold into into slavery when they could not pay their debts. The ancient temples of Borobudur and Prambanan were rediscovered at this time (Europeans had not noticed them before); Raffles commissioned a project to clear the jungles from around the ruins, and begin a complete survey of those sites. Finally he tried to improve the local economy, but the war ended in Europe before he could accomplish much here. With the end of the war, the British kept South Africa, Sri Lanka and part of Guiana in South America, but returned Java to Dutch rule and gave Belgium as a new territory for the Netherlands to rule in Europe.

Raffles knew he could not stay on Java forever, and before he was done, he sent a military expedition to eastern Sumatra and a nearby island named Bangka, hoping to conquer some land that Britain could keep after Java was returned, but these gains were handed over to the Dutch as well. Because of this expedition, for his next assignment in Southeast Asia, he was made governor of Bencoolen. Since Bencoolen was a dilapidated pepper port that wasn’t really worth having, this was a step downward for him. I am mentuioning this because while Raffles was in Bencoolen, he studied the local tribe, the Bataks, and his report on them shows what an idealist he was; to other Europeans the Bataks were simply cannibals. Quote:

“The Bataks are not a bad people, and I still think so, not withstanding that they eat one another, and relish the flesh of a man better than that of an ox or pig. You must merely consider that I am giving you an account of a novel state of society. The Bataks are not savages, for they write and read, and think full as much, and more than those who are brought up at our Lancastrian and National Schools.” End quote.

The Napoleonic Wars left the Netherlands broke; by 1820 one seventh of that country’s urban population was receiving public assistance. Therefore, when the Dutch got Java back, they wanted to make the Dutch East Indies as profitable as possible. But for fifteen years they could not decide whether to bring back a monopoly system like the Company had, or count on a private enterprise system to produce the crops they wanted. What’s more, irrigation networks and other public works needed to be repaired or developed, after years of neglect; that was going to cost extra money before the profits came in. Finally, the natives were in a state of unrest; to impose their authority, the Dutch had to win two wars, one on Sumatra and one on Java.

The Sumatran trouble started in 1803 when three Moslem clerics from Minangkabau, a state in western Sumatra, returned from a pilgrimmage to Mecca. Over in Arabia, the strict Wahhabi sect of Islam had just gotten started a few years earlier, and these pilgrims were fired up; they wanted to turn Minangkabau into an Islamic fundamentalist state, governed by Sharia law. The pilgrims and their followers wore white robes and turbans, and called themselves Padris, meaning white people, so we call this conflict the Padri War. Wherever the Padris were in charge, they imposed a strict interpretation of the Koran on everyone, and severely punished those who violated those laws. I’m sure this will sound familiar to you; in today’s world there are many similar political movements, from Boko Haram to ISIS to the Taliban.

We saw in Episode 11 that the form of Islam normally practiced in Indonesia is syncretistic; it combines orthodox Islamic teachings with elements of the religions that had been followed previously. One of those old elements was inheritance; the local chiefs could inherit lands and titles from their mothers, which was forbidden by Islamic law. For this reason, the reformers became enemies of the Sumatran chiefs, and sought to overthrow them. The rulers of Minangkabau in turn tried to suppress the Padri movement, failed, and in 1821 they called on the Dutch for help. From 1821 to 1824, Dutch troops were active on Sumatra, but then they had to take a time out because of the war on Java. They returned when the 1830s began, and the Padri War went on until 1837; during the last three years the Dutch and their native allies besieged Bonjol, the Padri headquarters, and the war ended when they took it.

The Java War was much bloodier. In 1822 the Dutch put an infant on the throne of the sultanate ruling eastern Java, Yogyakarta. To crown the kid, they passed over the infant’s older brother, a mystic named Diponegoro, whom many Javanese felt was the rightful heir. Diponegoro allowed the coronoation to take place, but then three years later the Dutch committed a sacrilege he could not accept; they built a road across a tract of land that belonged to Diponegoro and contained his parents’ tomb. Diponegoro proclaimed a jihad, or holy war, and the people rallied behind him, seeing him as the “just prince” who would throw out the infidels, right wrongs, and bring an age of peace. From 1825 to 1828 Diponegoro waged a successful guerrilla campaign; at the height of it, he controlled central Java and had Yogyakarta under siege. From 1828 onward, though, the Dutch got the upper hand, by building forts and good roads in the territory they captured. The war ended with a trick; in 1830 the Dutch invited Diponegoro to a peace conference, promising they would do him no harm, and when he came, he was arrested and exiled to another island, Sulawesi, for the rest of his life. The final casualty count was as follows: 8,000 Europeans and 7,000 pro-Dutch Indonesian soldiers were killed. On the other side, 200,000 Javanese, about 4 percent of Java’s population, lost their lives; nine-tenths of them were killed by disease and starvation, rather than in battles. Now the Dutch ruled all of Java, but Diponegoro is remembered by Indonesians as an early patriot; in modern Indonesia, every city and town has a road named Diponegoro Street.

By 1830, the Netherlands desperately needed cash. The previously mentioned wars had been expensive, in money as well as lives. Also, in the same year, 1830, Belgium declared independence from the Netherlands, causing an economic depression at home. I think you’ll agree that losing half of your home territory can be bad for business. Amsterdam appointed a new governor-general for the Dutch East Indies, Johannes van den Bosch, and he introduced a radical, forceful new economic program for squeezing a profit from the islands. Previously, van den Bosch had been stationed in the Caribbean, a place where the main industry was sugar plantations using slave labor, so he knew how to make people work.

The new program was called the Culture Program, a misleading name since it did not promote culture; some of my sources call it the Cultivation System. Instead of paying taxes, the peasants had to cultivate government-owned crops on 20 percent of their land, or if they did not own land, they had to work on government plantations for 60 days of the year. The crops were cash crops like coffee, indigo, tea, pepper, cinnamon and sugar, and the peasants were paid a nominal sum for the harvests, usually far less than what the crops were worth. Local chiefs and sultans were made partners in the system by offering them a share of the profits in return for using their authority to secure maximum production. It was a spectacular success; the chiefs made the peasants work the government lands until the quotas were overfulfilled, often as much as 200 days a year, so the chiefs made both themselves and the government fabulously rich. By 1832 the Dutch government was getting 19 percent of its revenue from Java, and by 1860 Java supplied 33 percent of the government’s income. Now Amsterdam found itself with a problem few governments have ever had–what do you to do when you have too much money? They used it to pay off the national debt and finance the building of the Netherlands railway network; both of those projects were completed by 1875.

Despite its success, the Culture Program had a dark side: it was blamed for widespread famine and epidemics in parts of Java. Critics had no trouble finding the cause; rice production had fallen because the peasants were too busy growing cash crops to grow enough food to feed themselves. Complaints against the program, raised by humanitarians and private businesses, caused most of the government monopolies to be phased out, between 1862 and 1870. In their place came the so-called Liberal Program, which restored free market capitalism. Now private citizens were invited to invest in Indonesia, and build private plantations there. The sugar and coffee monopolies were too profitable to abandon (they lasted until 1890 and 1917 respectively), but elsewhere private enterprise showed itself to be a better moneymaker. In 1885, total exports from Inonesia were worth ten times as much as they were in 1860. One of my sources, a book written in 1968, reported the value of the 1885 exports at $70 million dollars, so according to my calculations, the 1885 exports were worth $2 and a quarter billion in today’s US dollars.

Of course much of the increased production came from technical improvements: better equipment, better seeds, infrastructure improvements like irrigation projects and roads, and so on. Another reason was that Java had more workers; the end of famine and the introduction of sanitation and modern medicine caused the island’s population to grow rapidly, from about 5 million in 1815 to 28 million in 1900. In the past, the communities of Southeast Asia had been tiny, compared with the communities of India and China; now, like the human race everywhere else, Southeast Asia had begun to rumble towards the population explosion of the twentieth century.

The third reason was improvements in transportation; steamships, railroads and the Suez Canal all vastly increased the amount of commerce possible. We covered this already in the previous episode. And the fourth reason was that there was much more land available for cultivation. The Culture and Liberal Programs were in effect when the most powerful Western Nations were scrambling to grab as many African and Asian colonies as possible. Most of this activity happened in the second half of the nineteenth century, but as early as the 1820s, the Dutch felt they needed to establish direct rule over the entire Indonesian archipelago, to protect their interests on Java, West Timor and in the Moluccas. At this early date, nobody knew what resources the undeveloped outer islands had, but the Dutch realized that if they didn’t take over them, somebody else would.

One of the first outer territories the Dutch went for was New Guinea. The Dutch saw this huge island as a buffer zone, that could be used to defend the Moluccas against an attack from the east. Surprisingly, they were encouraged by the British, who recognized a Dutch claim to the western half of the island, up to Longitude 141 degrees East. In other parts of the world, especially North America and the Caribbean, the British made it clear that they only recognized the territorial claims of other nations if those nations did something with the land involved. Britain made an exception for New Guinea because they hoped that if the Dutch were busy enough here, they would forget about their claim to the continent south of that island.

The continent south of New Guinea had been discovered by a Dutch explorer, Willem Janszoon, in 1605, and he named it New Holland, but the Dutch never tried to colonize it. However, the British founded their first colony on it in 1788, and they were concerned about how much of the continent they could settle; it wasn’t until the 1820s that they knew for sure that the Dutch had no interest in the place. Of course, without the Dutch there, calling it “New Holland” didn’t make sense, because the land had nothing that would remind people of the Netherlands: no windmills, no tulips, no Gouda cheese, and no real estate below sea level. In 1804 Matthew Flinders, the first British ship captain to sail all the way around the continent, suggested another name: Australia, from the Latin word australis, meaning southern. Over the next twenty years everyone else accepted the name change, and New Holland became Australia.

But now I’m digressing. Back on New Guinea, only the coast had been explored; the interior would remain a big blank spot on maps until the twentieth century. The British had tried setting up a colony there in 1793, but it failed. Then in 1828 the Dutch set up a colony on the western end of the island, near present-day Kaimana, but it only lasted until 1836. If you know anything about New Guinea, you can guess why: the hot, wet climate, diseases, isolation, unfriendly natives, and risk all around. Thus, the Dutch waited until the nineteenth century was nearly over to try again, and then they were motivated to act because Britain and Germany had taken an interest in eastern New Guinea. In 1881 they staked their claim by sending a steamship, the Batavia, from Ternate to the south coast of New Guinea, and at Longitude 141 East the crew planted a sign that showed the Dutch coat of arms and declared this was the border of “Netherlands New Guinea.” With the same thoughts in mind, the first successful Dutch outposts were founded in 1898 and 1902, at the points on the northern and southern coasts where the border met the sea.

Most of the outer islands were conquered without much resistance. The main exceptions were Bali and Aceh. I’ll admit Bali surprised me, because of its reputation as a real-life paradise; it was one before the 2002 terrorist attack on it, anyway. It took three campaigns, in 1846, 1848 and 1849, to subjugate northern Bali. The first two expeditions were defeated, and when the third succeeded, one of the local rajahs and 400 of his retainers committed ritual suicide, or as the natives called it, puputan. In 1894 the Dutch intervened in a local war between the rajahs of southern Bali and the neighboring island of Lombok, and that gave then an excuse to conquer Lombok. The Dutch waited until 1906 to move against southern Bali; they brought modern warships and launched a naval bombardment before landing their troops, so the natives had no chance of winning. The battle ended with another puputan, as another rajah and 4,000 men, women and children either killed themselves or each other, choosing death instead of surrender.

As you might expect, the news of the puputan raised a big stink when the outside world heard about it. Some believe that the last king of the mighty Majapahit empire fled to Bali when Majapahit was overthrown in the early sixteenth century, so if that is true, the Majapahit dynasty was wiped out not by Indonesian sultans, but by the Dutch invasions of Bali. For that reason, a member of the Dutch Upper House of Parliament labeled the mass suicide (quote) the “extermination of a heroic race” (end quote), and public opinion became increasingly critical of the colonial administration. To other Western nations, the Netherlands no longer looked like a responsible and evenhanded colonial power. That was a major motivator in the so-called “Ethical Policy” which was introduced in the early twentieth century to replace the Liberal Program; we’ll talk more about that in a future episode.

However, the was one independent rajah left on Bali, and there would be one more puputan when Dutch troops went for him in 1908. The rajah came out to meet them armed only with a kris, a wavy-bladed dagger that was believed to have magic powers. He was brought down with one bullet, and when his six wives saw this, they killed themselves, too, and then their retainers followed them in death. Although the Dutch had finally won, it was a hollow, morally empty victory, and the Dutch governors who took charge after that felt it was best to leave the culture of Bali alone.

As violent as the conquest of Bali was, one struggle in the Indies was even more destructive: the Aceh War. Other names for this conflict are the Dutch War or the Infidel War. Longtime listeners will remember that Aceh was a kingdom in northwestern Sumatra. In the thirteenth century, Aceh was the first Southeast Asian state to convert to Islam, and as long as the Portuguese held the Moslem city of Malacca, Aceh was their implacable opponent. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Aceh moved to extend its control over the minor rajahs on Sumatra, and Aceh’s expansion down the island ran into Dutch expansion coming up from the Sunda Strait. By now the Dutch considered the whole island to be theirs, and were encouraged by two treaties signed with Britain in 1824 and 1871; the first treaty gave them Bencoolen, and in the second treaty Britain promised to stay out of Sumatra. In 1873 the Dutch heard that the Acehnese were negotiating with United States diplomats in Singapore, possibly to become a US protectorate, and they decided it was time to conquer Aceh; the Dutch feared that if Aceh and the United States signed a treaty, even a simple trade agreement, it would get the Americans involved on Sumatra.

At first the Dutch strategy was simple. The navy would bombard the capital, Kutaradja, or as it called today, Banda Aceh. Then the army would come ashore and capture the sultan’s palace. They reasoned that once the sultan was taken out, conquering the rest of the sultanate would be easy. However, the Acehnese had sent requests for help to Italy, Britain, and the United States. We know Washington rejected the request, but it’s not clear how the others responded; all we know is that the natives got up-to-date rifles from somebody. The Dutch commander, Major General Johan Harmen Rudolf Köhler, was killed in a skirmish during the first attempt to take the palace; what an upset that must have been, in an age when the colonial powers thought they were unstoppable! The palace was taken one year later, in 1874, and the sultan died soon after he surrendered. Military operations stopped, a new sultan was crowned, and he signed a treaty that recognized the Dutch as the ultimate rulers of Aceh. The war is now over, right?

Wrong. Most of the sultan’s people refused to give up. The supposedly victorious Dutch found themselves waging a guerrilla war in the countryside, against enemies that fought back fanatically. For most of the next three decades the Dutch had no results to show for their efforts, because the “pacified” natives of any given area would revolt as soon as the Dutch troops moved elsewhere. Naval blockades, negotiations, and bringing in Christian soldiers from the island of Amboina all failed to win the war, too. In the end the winning strategy was devised by Johannes Benedictus van Heutsz, the general who became military governor of Aceh in 1898. Van Heutsz weakened enemy leadership by exploiting tensions between the aristocracy and the religious authorities, the ulama. For the fighting, he introduced small, rapidly moving troop units that could beat the guerrillas at their own game. Finally, he kept the land he took by setting up impregnable forts all over Aceh.

In 1903 the last sultan abdicated, but resistance continued for a while longer. As you have probably figured out by now, the mountains and jungles make Southeast Asia an ideal place for guerrilla warfare, and guerrilla wars don’t have definite end dates. My sources disagree on whether the Aceh War ended in 1904, 1907, or 1908. And even after that, there were isolated attacks on Dutch citizens in the area, right up until World War II. Estimates of the final number of casualties are 37,000 Dutch killed, and anywhere from 60,000-100,000 Acehnese killed, with a lot of the deaths caused by cholera. What’s more, the war had cost 15 to 20 million guilders a year, a drain that absorbed the profits produced by the other islands and even led to a deficit in the budget of the Netherlands.

I will finish by reminding you of some natural events that happened during this time. Back in Episode 1, I began the narrative by talking about the discovery of Java Man, and that happened here in 1891. Also, this was the time of two enormous volcanic eruptions. Indonesia is part of the famous “Ring of Fire,” so it has 130 active volcanoes, more than any other nation. One of them, Mt. Tambora, is located on Sumbawa, an eastern island between Lombok and Flores. In 1815 Mt. Tambora exploded, and this may have been the greatest eruption in recorded history. Tambora spewed so much ash into the atmosphere that it temporarily cooled the world, making 1816 the “year without a summer.” The eruption also wiped out the Tambora tribe living on the island, which was incidentally the westernmost Melanesian tribe. Within a few years Tambora was a dead language, and only one list of Tamboran words was collected before the eruption. The present-day inhabitants of Sumbawa speak a Malay language, like most other Indonesians.

The other volcano that blew its top was Krakatoa, located in the Sunda Strait, between Java and Sumatra. When I was a kid, a movie was made about the eruption named “Krakatoa, East of Java,” but obviously the name is incorrect, since the Sunda Strait is west of Java. Anyway, when the eruption happened in 1883, two thirds of the island was destroyed, the sound of the explosion was heard 3,000 miles away, and 36,000 people were killed by the tsunamis generated. The ash from the volcano also went into the skies around the world, causing unusually red sunsets for the next few years. And we might not have heard the last from Krakatoa. In 1927 a new volcano appeared in the waters where the old island had been; it was named Anak Krakatoa, meaning Child of Krakatoa. Since then it has grown steadily to a height of 1,300 feet, so nobody will be surprised if it is the site of a major eruption in the future.

Finally, we believe that Lake Toba, on northern Sumatra, is the caldera of a supervolcano, like the one under Yellowstone National Park. Toba has not had a major eruption within historical times, but there is a theory that it erupted during the ice age, and that eruption caused a “nuclear winter” that killed off most of the human race. And several earthquakes have occurred in the neighborhood since the 1890s, letting us know that the volcano is sleeping, but not dead. One thing is sure, if Toba erupts in our lifetime like it supposedly did thousands of years ago, the earth will be cooled so much that nobody will worry about global warming again!

Okay, that takes care of Indonesia in the nineteenth century. When we get to talking about the Dutch East Indies in the early twentieth century, we will not only cover how the Dutch ran the islands after the colonial wars ended, but also witness the rise of the modern nationalist movement that would end Dutch rule after World War II. But first we need to see what else was happening in the nineteenth century, so the next episode will cover Britain’s entry into the region as a colonial empire. We will see the British found modern Singapore, take control of Malaya, and establish themselves as the rulers of Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei, in northern Borneo. I’m sure you will want to hear those stories, so if you’re listening in real time, tune in sometime in the middle of June. As they used to say fifty years ago on the Batman TV show, “Same bat-time, same bat-channel!”

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