The latest podcast episode continues our narrative on Southeast Asia in the early twentieth century, by looking at Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies, from 1901 to 1941 (A.D.). First we will learn how oil was discovered in the islands, and how it replaced spices as Indonesia’s most important product. Then we will see how the Dutch administered the islands during that time. Finally we will follow the development of Indonesian nationalism, and meet Sukarno, the first leader of modern Indonesia.
(Transcript, added 07/04/2020.)
This episode is dedicated to Daniel P., who made a generous donation two weeks ago. Daniel, we’ve come a long way since the podcast was launched, as I have said before, but we still have a long way to go before this story is finished, so thank you for doing your part to help us reach that goal. And since the narrative is now up to the twentieth century, upcoming episodes will discuss events that many listeners may have experienced, or they may have relatives who experienced them. Daniel, thank you for helping us relive those memories, too.
Episode 33: Nationalism in the Dutch East Indies
Greetings, dear listeners! Before we begin today’s episode, I have an announcement about how the podcast continues to spread. Just before the previous episode went online, I was informed that the podcast has been added to the website History-Podcasts.com. I have wanted to belong to a podcasting club, besides the two Facebook groups I am already in, but when I tried to join one last year, they wrote back that they weren’t accepting new members. Therefore the History of Southeast Asia Podcast is now available on ten websites that I know of: Blubrry, Acast, Google Play, iTunes, MyTuner, Player.fm, Podbean, Podfanatic, Stitcher, and now History Podcasts!
Now about this episode’s subject matter. It has been quite a while since we last talked about Indonesia. That was in Episode 22, five and a half months ago in real time. Therefore, if you listened to that episode when it was first uploaded, you may want to listen again, to refresh your memory. Heck, you should listen to it anyway, if you haven’t done so, so you will know what led up to the events we are talking about today.
In a quick recap of Episode 22, we saw the British temporarily occupy Java during the Napoleonic Wars, and though they gave Java back to the Dutch after Napoleon was defeated, the Dutch did not have an easy time of it. For about twenty years after Java was returned to them, the Dutch were busy putting down native revolts on Java and Sumatra. This may have been one of the reasons why the Dutch embarked on campaigns to conquer the so-called “Outer Islands,” after their position on Java and Sumatra was secure. The other reason was colonial rivalry; the Dutch felt that if they did not claim and grab surrounding islands like Borneo and New Guinea, the British, French, Germans, or even the Americans would have beaten them to those islands. The bloodiest campaigns were the last ones, against Bali and against Aceh, the state on the northwestern tip of Sumatra; in both places resistance continued into the first decade of the twentieth century. The Aceh War was especially long and costly; it lasted for more than thirty years, and though it suppressed piracy in the Malacca Strait, at least for the rest of the time that the Dutch were in charge, it also spent the treasury surpluses that the Dutch government had enjoyed earlier in the nineteenth century. From now on, part of the cost of administering the Dutch East Indies would have to be covered by Dutch taxpayers at home.
We are going to divide today’s narrative into two parts. The first part will describe how the Dutch ran the Indonesian islands in the early twentieth century, up to the beginning of World War II. Then for the second part we will look at the development of nationalist movements at the same time, because the Dutch, like the British in Burma and the French in Vietnam, were invaders who were not welcomed when they took over.
But first, let’s talk about a discovery that changed the economy of the entire Far East. Today Indonesia exports more oil than any other nation east of Iran, and that oil was discovered while the Dutch were in charge. This happened in the late nineteenth century, but because the internal combustion engine was in a primitive, experimental stage at this point, not many people paid attention to the discovery. That is why I didn’t mention oil in the last Indonesian episode, but after the twentieth century began, those oil reserves would become critically important.
In the past, there were a few places where petroleum, sometimes called “rock oil,” would seep up from the ground and form pools. One of those places was Azerbaijan, and in medieval times the oil pools gave Azerbaijan a creepy reputation, because when an oil pool caught on fire, the fire never went out. Another place with oil pools was Indonesia, so when the Dutch took over, they knew the islands had oil, but at first they did not know how much there was, nor did they care.
Before 1800, most people did not find “rock oil” very useful; in North America, for example, the main users of oil were Native American tribes, who made war paint out of it. But over the course of the nineteenth century, scientists learned to refine oil into products that were more useful, like kerosene, and when the supply in surface pools ran out, they learned how to drill into the ground for more oil. The first experimental drilling for oil in Indonesia was done in 1884, by a Dutch plantation manager on East Java. However, it was an oil well drilled on northern Sumatra in 1885 that first produced enough oil to sell for a profit. More oilfields were discovered on East Java in 1887, southern Sumatra in 1896, and Borneo in 1897. With the invention of the automobile, the Dutch realized that they had a vast supply of the fuel of the future. A new product had replaced spices as Indonesia’s leading export.
To manage the production and refining of oil, the Royal Dutch Company was founded in 1890. A British-owned company, Shell Transport and Trading, was set up to do the same thing on Borneo’s east coast; there it found oil and set up a refinery at Balikpapan in 1894. The two companies were merged to form Royal Dutch Shell in 1907. Today Royal Dutch Shell is one of the world’s largest corporations, and the parent company for Shell Oil in the United States. I often fill up my car with Shell gasoline, because there are several Shell stations in my home city. Eventually American oil companies like Texaco, Standard and Mobil were allowed to drill in Indonesia as well, after threats were made to block Dutch companies from doing business in the United States. Just before World War II, a joint venture by Texaco and Standard discovered the two richest oil fields of all, Duri and Minas in central Sumatra. Total oil production reached 62,000 barrels a day in 1924, and 170,000 barrels a day in 1939; by then more than 75% of the crude oil produced in the Far East came from Indonesian wells, and 4 percent of the world’s oil was produced by Royal Dutch Shell in Indonesia.
Now back to the narrative! In Episode 22 we saw the Dutch try to manage the Indies in two different ways. From 1830 until the 1860s, the Dutch policy was called the Culture Program, and in a nutshell, it squeezed the native population for whatever the Dutch could get out of them. Then when word got out that the Culture Program was increasing suffering among the natives, it was replaced with free-market capitalism, which the Dutch called the Liberal Program. This brought even more revenue to Amsterdam than the Culture Program did, but it wasn’t perfect either. The main issue was that population grew rapidly in the islands during the nineteenth century, especially on Java, but new land wasn’t being developed fast enough for these additional people to work on it. Finally, there were growing complaints against abuses by private operators, and against lower-level administrators who were not doing enough to improve the lives of the natives.
Because of all this, the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina and her prime minister began the twentieth century by launching a third program for the islands, the Ethical Policy, in 1901. Whereas the first two programs emphasized profit, the Ethical Policy’s first concern would be the social welfare of the Indonesians. Private business was regulated to prevent further peasant exploitation, and the Ethical Policy was described as promoting three projects: irrigation, transmigration, and education.
The irrigation project promoted improved irrigation of the rice fields, of course, but it also introduced banks for the native population, and subsidized native industries and crafts, like batik cloth.
Transmigration meant encouraging people to move from overcrowded Java to Sumatra and Borneo, where new land could be cleared for farming. However, history has shown that you can’t fix an overpopulation problem simply by sending the surplus population somewhere else, because the people who stay in the homeland will still have babies. That is exactly what happened here, as we shall see in a moment.
The education project meant admitting Indonesians into Western-style schools. In 1900, there were already Western schools in the islands, but they were mainly for the children of Europeans who had come there; at that time, the schools had 13,000 European students and only 1,500 native students. However, by 1928 enough schools had been built to give 75,000 Indonesians a primary education, and 6,500 had finished high school. A few Indonesians also got to attend colleges in the Netherlands. Of course these numbers were seen as a sign of success, so keep in mind that with the native population now in the millions, only a tiny fraction had been educated so far.
The education project had one far-reaching side effect. By teaching a small group of natives how to think like Westerners, it gave them the ability to express their opinions and their objections to colonial rule. It also exposed them to Western political ideas like democracy and socialism. Finally, educated natives developed a national consciousness. Instead of seeing themselves as East Javans or Sumatrans or Balinese or whatever, from now on they would see themselves first and foremost as “Indonesians.”
Among the Dutch, the Ethical Policy was understandably less popular than previous programs. Officials carrying out the Ethical Policy faced an uphill struggle against both native apathy and opposition from Dutch businesses. And in one way the Ethical Policy worked too well; improved food supplies and modern medicine meant that Java’s population would continue to grow rapidly, increasing from 28 million people in 1900 to 45 million by 1940. That growth ate up all the economic gains made by the natives, but the Dutch were not alarmed; they saw the growth as proof that they were doing the right thing.
The Ethical Policy’s strongest advocate was a Dutch scholar with a name that will sound odd to those of you who don’t speak Dutch: Christiaan Snouck Hurgronje. In 1881, when Hurgronje was only in his twenties, he became a professor at the Leiden School for Colonial Servants because he was already fluent in the Arabic language, and he knew so much about Islam that in 1885 he was able to go to Mecca, and spend six months in Islam’s holiest city. Of course Mecca is supposed to be off-limits to anyone who isn’t Moslem, and this ban is strictly enforced even by today’s Saudis. My sources disagree on how he got into the city without being detected as an infidel. Wikipedia suggests that he converted to Islam shortly before arrival, while my older books claim he fooled the authorities into thinking he was a Moslem, by passing an exam in the nearby city of Jeddah, given to him by scholars from Mecca.
In 1889 Snouck Hurgronje became an official advisor to the Dutch government on colonial affairs, and worked closely with Johannes van Heutsz, the commanding general in the Aceh War. In this position he managed to gain the confidence of many Acehnese leaders and gathered valuable intelligence for the Dutch government. His works in this regard remained an official secret for many years. According to Hurgronje, the sultan of Aceh was no longer relevant, and the hereditary chiefs were the local officials most likely to cooperate with the Dutch. On the other hand, the religious leaders of this area, the ulema, could not be trusted or persuaded to cooperate, so they would have to be destroyed. His advice helped General van Heutsz devise a strategy that not only won the war, but also prevented new revolts after it was all over.
Snouck Hurgronje also noted that because there was no place for the chiefs in a modern, Western-style government, the Dutch would have to retire them or pay them off with pensions after the war. However, the war showed that Islam was as popular as ever, so Hurgronje asserted that the Dutch could generate support from the Indonesian people by bringing Moslems into the civil service, and by discouraging Christian missionary activity. His proposal was put into action, but like the rest of the Ethical Policy, it was never popular among the Dutch. Gradually the Ethical Policy was phased out in the 1920s. In its place the Dutch offered no new program; henceforth their main interest would be perpetuating their rule over the world’s largest archipelago. Meanwhile, the first stirrings of modern Indonesian nationalism appeared, and they came from the very same Moslems Hurgronje had befriended, because they now felt that they deserved much more than the Dutch were willing to give them.
The Indonesian Nationalists
It was in 1908, right when armed resistance to Dutch rule was ending on Sumatra, that the first modern Indonesian nationalist movement got started. It was called Budi Utomo, meaning Beautiful Endeavor or Noble Endeavor, and the founder was Wahidin Sudirohusodo, a pensioned government doctor. The doctor felt that native intellectuals could modernize Javan culture without imitating the West, and called for more education and more jobs for Indonesians. However, within a few months he stepped down and let younger members of the organization take charge. In the next decade, Budi Utomo managed to get its voice heard in the Volksraad, a parliamentary body we will be talking about in a few minutes, but it didn’t speak for all Indonesians–only upper-class East and Central Javans belonged to the movement. In fact, the Dutch did not see Budi Utomo as a threat precisely BECAUSE it never had a large following. After World War I it lost its influence to more radical groups that made it look conservative by comparison. Finally in 1935 it merged with Sukarno’s nationalist party, which we will also hear about shortly.
More important than Budi Utomo was another group, Sarekat Islam. My sources disagree on when the movement was founded, either in 1905 or 1911. It was started as a trade union, by a Moslem batik merchant named Hadji Samanhudi. Originally the organization was called Sarekat Dagang Islam, meaning the Islamic Trade Union, and its first members wanted to compete against Chinese merchants in the batik-cloth trade. However, membership was open to all Moslems, no matter what their profession was, and the organization grew so rapidly that in 1912 “Dagang” was dropped from the name, so it became simply Sarekat Islam, the Islamic Association. At this point it had 93,000 members, and by 1916 membership had grown to 350,000 members; the organization’s interest had also switched from business to politics.
All this political activity convinced the Dutch that the natives would be more cooperative if they were put in charge of local affairs, and to give some natives experience in self-government, local councils were set up. A national council called the Volksraad was authorized in 1916 for the same reason, with both elected and appointed members, and its first session convened in 1918. In practice, however, the Dutch never let these governing bodies have real power; the governor in Batavia claimed that he knew what was best for all Indonesians, and retained the power to veto any council’s resolutions. As a result the Volksraad was not a real decision-making body but merely a group of advisors. And until 1929, Dutch members in the Volksraad outnumbered Indonesian members. One local comedian remarked that the Volksraad was the only successful multiracial club in prewar Southeast Asia! Although the Volksraad membership included some nationalists, most nationalists saw it as a useless organization. The last election for the Volksraad was held in 1939; and the Japanese dissolved it after they took over in 1942.
Meanwhile with Sarekat Islam, rapid growth turned it into a disorganized party with conservative, modernist, and radical factions pulling in different directions. As with Budi Utomo, the Dutch tried to work with Sarekat Islam at first, but they could not keep it from becoming an anti-colonial movement, so they began trying to repress it after World War I. Three members of Sarekat Islam would go on to become leaders of political parties in the 1920s: Sukarno the Nationalist, Semaun the Communist, and S. M. Kartosuwirjo, the Moslem mystic. We won’t talk about Kartosuwirjo until we do an episode about Indonesia in the late 1940s, but you definitely want to keep an eye on the other two!
A small group of Dutch socialists, led by an exiled Dutchman named Hendricus Sneevliet, formed an organization called the Indies Social Democratic Association, or ISDV, in 1914. This group infiltrated Sarekat Islam, causing a tug of war between religious leaders and the leaders who preferred socialism or communism. Nobody won that struggle, because it ended with the party breaking up into smaller, better organized parties in the 1920s.
The first defection, which was welcomed, was that of the socialists, who by now had absorbed enough Marxist teaching to become outright communists. In 1920 the ISDV changed its name to the PKI, meaning Partai Komunis Indonesia, or Indonesian Communist Party. At first it was still led by Dutchmen, but in 1921 Semaun, the vice-chairman of the ISDV’s Surabaya office, became the party’s first Indonesian leader. In response, Sarekat Islam held a national party congress, and here the party’s religious leaders passed a motion which declared that no member of Sarekat Islam could hold membership in another party at the same time. Thus, the PKI had to leave Sarekat Islam in 1922. Whereas older political parties favored keeping ties with the Netherlands, the PKI was the first party to call for Indonesian independence.
Next, the communists infiltrated Indonesian labor unions and launched a general strike in 1926, which was meant to be the first step in an armed rebellion. It was a disaster. The Dutch put down the rebellion by arresting 13,000, and of these, 4,500 were given prison sentences. We estimate there were just 3,000 communists at the time, so obviously the Dutch used the trouble as an excuse to go after all Indonesian nationalists. Afterwards the Dutch outlawed the PKI; they left communism so crushed that it would not appear in Indonesian politics again until after World War II. This marked the beginning of a pattern: three times in the twentieth century, the Indonesian Communist Party would start some kind of uprising, in a bid for power. The uprisings were approximately twenty years apart, and each was put down with more bloodshed than the uprisings before it.
At this point, the most important Indonesian nationalist, Sukarno, made his appearance on the scene. I will begin our look at Sukarno by explaining his name. Born in the East Javan city of Surabaya in 1901, he was originally named Kusno Sosrodihardjo, but after he survived a serious childhood illness, his parents renamed him Sukarno, following a Javanese custom that suggests giving a child a new name may improve his luck in the future. Two of my sources call him Achmed Sukarno, but it now appears that Achmed was never his real name. Either it was added by a Western reporter who found it confusing that many Javans only have one name, or Indonesians added it to make their leader more appealing in other Moslem countries. My source for this is a paper by Steven Drakeley from the University of Western Sydney, entitled “In Search of Achmad Sukarno.”
In school Sukarno showed he had a photographic memory, and a talent for languages; eventually he would learn to speak ten languages. He majored in engineering, and after his graduation he and a classmate named Anwari set up an architectural firm named Sukarno & Anwari in Bandung, the city on the western end of Java. But just one year later, in 1927, he and his friends got involved in politics instead, by founding the PNI, the Partai Nasional Indonesia, or the Indonesian Nationalist Party. The party’s goal was independence; it combined Javanese, Islamic, democratic and socialist ideas, and it tried to follow the example of Mahatma Gandhi in India, by refusing to cooperate with the Dutch regime. Another goal was uniting the various tribes and ethnic groups of the islands into one nation, largely by promoting the old Malay dialect used by merchants, this time as a language for everybody, called Bahasa Indonesia.
The PNI worked with other nationalist movements and quickly became the most important among them, mainly because Sukarno proved he was a fiery orator. Those speeches also got the government’s attention, and Sukarno was arrested at the end of 1929. After a five-month trial, which was dragged out because Sukarno made sensational speeches against colonialism and imperialism, he was sentenced to four years in the Bandung prison, but his supporters persuaded the authorities to release him, after he had served just one year of the sentence. Press coverage of Sukarno’s speeches had made him popular among liberals in the Netherlands, as well as among Indonesians.
While Sukarno was locked up, the PNI split into two factions, one that called for violent revolution, and one that called for bringing modern education to all Indonesians first, before making any move towards independence. Both continued to call themselves the PNI, though with the non-violent faction the initials now meant Pendidikan Nasional Indonesia, or Indonesian National Education. After getting out, Sukarno got along best with the two Sumatrans who led the non-violent faction, Sutan Sjahrir and Muhammed Hatta. But their cooperation only led to the imprisonment of all three. This time, Sukarno and his family spent nearly nine years in exile, from 1933 to 1942, first on the eastern island of Flores, and then at Bencoolen on Sumatra. By promptly repressing all but the mildest expressions of nationalism, the Dutch were able to stay in charge until the Japanese invaded during World War II. For the rest of the 1930s, the membership in all nationalist parties was limited to students, and they had to be careful in their activities if they wanted jobs after completing their studies.
Long before World War I began in Europe, the Germans drew up a plan for the war’s first campaign. This plan, the Schlieffen Plan, called for stationing the entire German army on the western frontier, and marching it through most of the Low Countries – the southern Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – in order to strike at France. However, when Helmut von Moltke became commander of the German army, he rewrote the orders so that the army would not pass through the Netherlands. That change meant that the Dutch got to sit out World War I completely. In fact, the Dutch town of Doorn became the German Kaiser’s place of exile after the war.
However, with World War II the Dutch would not be so lucky. In May 1940 Germany invaded the Low Countries, all of them this time, savagely bombed the city of Rotterdam, and conquered the Netherlands in only five days. The Dutch royal family and the Dutch government fled across the English channel to London, where they became a government in exile. Next, the Germans overran Belgium and France, so two of the colonial powers in Southeast Asia, the Dutch and the French, now had their homelands under enemy occupation. The Dutch legislature on Java, the People’s Council in Batavia, declared itself loyal to the government in exile, but because Europe was so far away, the Dutch in the islands were now on their own. Although this was bad news, the local Dutch officials didn’t worry about it as much as you might think; though nationalist sentiments remained strong among the native population, all the nationalist leaders were in jail or exile, so it looked like independence could only come in the distant future. But while the Dutch thought they had everything under control, a new player was entering the game in Southeast Asia – Japan.
By the beginning of the 1940s, Japan had been fighting to conquer China for several years, and to win that war, it needed several critical resources, especially oil. Because the Japanese bought most of their oil from the United States, as Japan does today, they looked for oilfields they could take for themselves, so they would not have to depend on good relations with the Americans to keep the oil flowing. And that wasn’t all Indonesia had to offer; it was the world’s second largest producer of tin, after British Malaya, and it had rich supplies of bauxite, coal, rubber, coconuts, nickel, wood, quinine, sugar, rice, tea and coffee.
In 1940 Japan began to expand their war beyond China by moving its troops into French Indochina, since the French government there, like the Dutch government in Batavia, could not expect to get aid from anyone else. At this time Japan suggested that both French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies should be part of their “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,” instead of being colonies of Europe. Next, the Japanese put pressure on the People’s Council in Batavia to sell them more oil. A Japanese mission led by Ichizo Kobayashi, the Minister of Commerce and Industry, came to Batavia and demanded fixed quantities of oil, bauxite and other resources, which would be sold no matter what other countries like the United States did. The Dutch negotiated, always holding out for smaller amounts of raw materials than what the Japanese wanted, hoping this would give them more time. As long as the Dutch were willing to sell something, the Japanese would buy it, but trade relations deteriorated when the Western nations decided that words alone would not make the Japanese end the war in China. When the United States cut off oil shipments to Japan in August 1941, the Dutch government in exile ordered Batavia to cut off oil shipments, too, and it did. The Japanese started using the term “ABCD Powers” to define the four enemies blocking expansion of the Japanese Empire: A for America, B for Britain, C for China, and D for the Dutch. To get what they wanted – no, to get what their war machines needed – the Japanese prepared to strike southward, and eastward. I’m sure you know what is coming next.
Yes, I can feel it in the air, too. Since the narrative is up to the beginning of World War II in Indonesian history, we are now done with today’s episode. Before we go on to cover that war, though, we have one more part of Southeast Asia to cover during the prewar years: French Indochina, better known today as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. So join me as we look at the development of nationalist movements in those countries in the early twentieth century. In particular we will meet a famous leader you probably heard about long before you started listening to this podcast – Ho Chi Minh. I’m sure those of you who came to learn about the twentieth-century Vietnam War will want to hear his biography. Then after that, we will be ready for the story of the Second World War in Southeast Asia. Wow, we have gone from the stone age to 1941 in 34 episodes!
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