The Portuguese were the first Europeans to control the western entrepôts of Southeast Asia. Like the Muslim empire of Malacca that preceded them, the Portuguese enjoyed only a brief century of ascendancy. The next European wave, the Dutch, replaced the Portuguese as the eminent power in the region. Their staying power was much longer.
Their techniques and motivations were very different from the Catholic countries that preceded them. The Spanish and Portuguese were interested in both profits and conversion to the Catholic Church. To this end, both a bishop and a governor general ruled the Spanish dominated Philippines.
In contrast, the Dutch were only interested in profits. Neither bishops, nor Jesuits, nor priests accompanied their traders and soldiers. Cultural conversion was unimportant. Controlling commerce was their prime motivation. It began with spices.
The first significant interaction between the Dutch and the local population occurred on the island of Java. Let’s establish the political context on this significant island before their arrival.
We left Java’s story as the Majapahit Empire was crumbling in the late 1400s. There were multiple reasons for their decline. Political infighting was certainly a contributing factor. Another factor was the rise of Islam.
The Chinese armada under the Muslim Cheng Ho visited Southeast Asian ports multiple times in the early 1400s. The Chinese navy first rid the ocean of the pirates that were disrupting trade. Due to internal conflicts, the Majapahit court was presumably no longer able to provide secure trade routes, one of their prime responsibilities.
Cheng Ho then established multiple Arab/Chinese ports of predominantly Muslim orientation to augment commerce between the East and West. Many of these ports were located on the northern coast of Java. However, the foremost of these ports was Malacca, strategically located on the straits between Malay Peninsula and Sumatra to dominate trade between East and West.
This move was devastating in many ways to the Majapahit Empire. With the abundant Chinese/Arab trade channeled through their newly created port, Malacca supplanted the Java-based empire as the premiere mercantile and political power in the region. With a major source of the empire’s funding eliminated, their sphere of influence shrunk to the eastern half of Java and Bali.
Due to the new religious orientation of the ports, Muslims were given precedence. Those that hung onto the fading Hindu traditions were excluded, or given secondary status, in the prosperous business arrangement. Perceiving the obvious economic advantages, the ruling class and traders on many of the Southeast Asian ports and islands began converting to Islam. Besides the port of Malacca, Sumatra, Borneo and some of the northern Javanese ports were among the first to embrace the Muslim faith.
The Majapahit court lagged behind these trends and remained Hindu. There had already been a general waning of Hindu influence. The last Sanskrit inscription was from the 13th century. Islam with its egalitarian message was on the rise and Hinduism with its emphasis on divine kings/devarajas was falling. Of all the Indianized kingdoms in Southeast Asia, the former Majapahit Empire was the only Hindu kingdom left. Recoiling from the force of the Islamic wave, their fading kingdom retreated to Eastern Java.
A vassal state to the Demak Sultanate in northern Java broke away to form another sultanate based in Central Java. Because this region was the center of their political mandala, their kingdom is called the Mataram Sultanate. Through force of arms they eventually consolidated and expanded their territory to include the eastern half of the island. Established in 1587, this was the last Javanese-ruled government until modern times.
To add to their prestige and legitimize their reign, the rulers created lineages that connected them with the ancient Mataram kingdom that created both Borobudur and Prambanam. This intentional connection with this legendary Hindu kingdom contributed to the repopulation of the Dieng Plateau. Their rule also saw the development of many classic cultural forms, such as gamelon playing, that have persisted to current times.
Due to internal conflicts, an aggressive Mataram Sultanate, and the erosion of Hinduism, the remnants of the Majapahit court retreated to Bali in the middle of the 16th century. Due to this move, they were able to maintain their independence in the face of the Muslim expansion. Bali with its modified Hinduism is the only Indianized state to survive outside of India.
Although the Javanese had been Muslim for decades, Mataram finally became an official sultanate in 1640. Their Muslim rulers revived and encouraged the ancient cult of ancestors in Java and throughout the Indonesian archipelago. This move served 2 functions. It presumably added to their appeal and neutralized the king worship of Hinduism. Due in part to this strategy, Islam inevitably dethroned the Hindu kings - replacing them with Muslim sultans.
This trend was very appealing to the Austronesian-speaking islanders of Southeast Asia with their tribal background. Their earliest animist societies had no place for a monarch. Leadership began and ended at the clan or village level. Instead of worshipping a king or a state, the Southeast Asians had worshipped their forebears. This ancestor worship was a return to their roots. Due to the obvious economic advantages combined with an affinity with the principles of this new religion, most Southeast Asian islanders decided to join the Muslim religion. Despite its recent appearance on the Southeast Asian scene, Islam had almost completely replaced Hinduism as the religion of the Austronesian-speaking islanders by the advent of the Europeans.
But let’s not get too dogmatic about this. The Javanese certainly don’t. From the earliest until the last Indianized state, the Javanese called themselves Hindu/Buddhists. After the Muslim conversions and then Christian incursions, the Javanese simply added these to their religious soup with ancestor worship included as a spice. The Javanese even have a name for this mixture of religions – kejawen.
Consumed with their own internal struggles, the Javanese paid little mind to the rising power of the Portuguese in the region. After conquering key ports in Africa, India, Ceylon, and the Malay Peninsula, including the international port of Malacca, Portugal’s Albuquerque turned his attention to Java. The kingdom of Sunda, which ruled Western Java, was known for its fine pepper, one of the premiere spices. Sunda Kelapa was their primary port. After conquering Malacca, the Portuguese sailed into this port in 1512, presumably looking to take over a spice center.
Afraid of the rising power of the Sultanate of Demak in northern Java, the Kingdom of Sunda allowed the Portuguese to establish a port on Eastern Java in 1522. To defend themselves, the Portuguese built a cannon with a hand on the end. The hand was clenched into a fist with the thumb sticking out through the fingers. For the Portuguese, it was an aggressive gesture meaning ‘up yours’ or ‘fuck you’.
Despite this bravado, the Portuguese were defeated in battle by Fatahillah, a Javanese general from Demak in 1527. Due to this victory, the city was renamed Jayakerta (Sundanese for Glorious Fortress). This was the official beginning of the city of Jakarta. The obnoxious Portuguese cannon became a symbol of fertility for the local women. Touching the fist presumably brought pregnancy.
Because of infighting amongst the many small kingdoms of Java, a small number of ships from the Dutch East India Company were allowed into Javanese ports in 1596. The Netherlands originally set up the Dutch East India Company to assist in its War of Independence from Spain, hoping this company would undermine the commercial power of the Spanish in the East Indies. Because of its distance from the homeland, the company was given almost unlimited autonomy, as long as allegiance was pledged to the Netherlands. To this end, they raised armies, printed money, and even pursued wars of aggression. While their original enemy was Spain, the Dutch company immediately broadened its focus to include the Portuguese and then the native populations. ‘Going for the gold’, or spices in this case, the Company quickly became a commercial shipping power in its own right.
The Dutch called themselves the VOC – an acronym for the Dutch East India Company. The VOC eventually employed their private armies to ‘persuade’ entire countries to do their bidding. The Company’s money – was even embossed not with symbols of their homeland, but with its own initials – VOC. These were but a few of the many indications of its autonomy from their parent country, the Netherlands.
Due to their ‘connection with’ and yet their ‘autonomy from’ their native country, it could be said that the Dutch East India Trading Company was the first significant international corporation. They even had a board of directors led by the equivalent of a CEO that responded to the needs of anonymous stockholders. The VOC established some significant precedents that have continued to the present day.
Underestimating the political intentions of the Dutch, the Javanese ruling class immediately stepped onto the slippery slope. One of the imperial factions sought the assistance of these European traders to give them the advantage in an internal power struggle. It quickly became apparent that a wolf was in the chicken coop. The Javanese attempted to drive the Dutch out. But it was too late.
The Javanese had the same experience as many other cultures have had before and since. Because they couldn’t cooperate peacefully amongst themselves, a civil war broke out. Exploiting this internal fracture, the Dutch VOC conquered and razed Jakarta in 1619. With the capture of this trading town on the northwest coast, the Dutch became the first Europeans to control Javanese soil.
The Dutch East India Company established their capitol on the site. The walled township was renamed Batavia. When the Indonesians declared their independence in 1945, the city remained the capitol and returned to its original name, Jakarta.
Undervaluing the military power of the Dutch, the Javanese assumed that it would be easy to reassert control once they resolved their internal differences. In 1628, the Javanese kingdoms joined forces to expel this foreign invader, but the Dutch repelled their attack. The Javanese naively assumed that this was just another temporary setback. Little did they know that the Europeans had become entrenched on their soil for over 300 years.
After establishing a foothold at Batavia, the VOC expanded their influence to neighboring ports to better control the spice trade. Anthony van Diemen was a key player in the expansion. Joining the Dutch East India Company in 1618, he was eventually promoted to become Governor General in 1636. After becoming the leader of the VOC, Van Diemen consolidated and expanded the Dutch encroachment onto Java. He also seized many of the surrounding islands. Much to the Javanese chagrin, the European cancer was metastasizing and spreading.
Like the Portuguese before him, he secured a good relationship with an Indian kingdom by signing a non-aggression treaty with a sultan. This freed the Company for a war of conquest that eventually resulted in a spice monopoly. With their back covered, they first invaded Ceylon to erode Portuguese influence in the area. Then in 1641 they seized Malacca to control trade in the East Indies. Moving on, they took Formosa from the Spanish in 1642. The Company eventually signed treaties with East India, Vietnam, and Japan. In 1645 the Company under Van Diemen even initiated expeditions to explore the islands of Tasmania, New Zealand, Fiji, and Australia. Van Dieman’s Land was even the original European name for Tasmania.
The 17th century belonged to the Dutch in the form of their East India Company. The VOC asserted control over trade in rice, indigo, sugar, pepper and coffee. By the middle of the 17th century, the VOC controlled all the major trading ports and territories of Southeast Asia with few exceptions.
However, these exceptions were highly significant. The Spanish continued to control the Philippines, and the Portuguese retained control of East Timor, along with their port of Macao. East Timor was one of the only places that the Catholic priests had been somewhat successful in converting the local population. This resulted in severe consequences for the unsuspecting Timorese in the 20th century.
Another place the Catholics were successful was on the island of Ambon in the South Moluccas, where the Portuguese influence was greater. The hundreds of islands belonging to the Celebes, New Guinea and the Moluccas archipelagos are referred to collectively as the famous Spice Islands. However, Ternate and Tidore, the two most productive of the Spice Islands, are located the South Moluccas. The most valuable spices, including nutmeg, cloves and pepper, could be obtained here in huge quantities. Sailors were led to these islands by the scent of cloves, which wafted over the ocean, carried by gentle breezes. In close proximity, Ambon was the hub of the spice trade, as it was the collecting center for these islands.
Because of the importance of Ambon as the spice entrepôt, the Dutch assumed control of the island when the Portuguese influence dwindled. Further they convinced the inhabitants of this small island to convert to Calvinism from Catholicism. This was an anomaly as the Dutch were almost exclusively interested in trade - not conversion. They didn’t want Southeast Asia’s islanders to join their game; they just wanted to exploit their resources: mineral, plant, and human. Ambon’s unique connection to the Biblical religions was to have fateful results for these islanders.
Like Southeast Asia’s maritime empires, the VOC was not interested controlling the interior. However the warring factions appealed to the Dutch for assistance to gain the upper hand on their opponents. These Javanese alliances drew the Company inexorably into the politics of the interior.
The limitations of the game led to unique solutions. Due to the irregular terrain and lack of manpower, the Dutch could not control the interior without the assistance of the Javanese. In other words, they could not conquer Java as the Spanish had conquered the Philippines and Mexico. Whichever Javanese faction the Dutch sided with became dominant, but the Company always wanted to control the alliance. In other words, the Javanese sultanates could not become the supreme power on the island unless they relinquished their independence to the Dutch.
Despite these implicit stipulations, the royal families of the Mataram Sultanate continued to align themselves with the Dutch VOC in order to dominate their rivals. Perhaps they believed that they could extricate themselves from the unpleasant relationship any time they so desired. Indeed many factions rebelled from time to time. But the Dutch could always find some claimant to the throne who would side with them against the others.
Even though the Dutch were exploiting their land and people, there was always some Javanese faction that would cooperate with the VOC. An alliance with the Dutch allowed them to maintain their royal privileges, usually at the expense of their subjects – the Javanese. What a comedown from the ancient devaraja tradition, where the king's duty/dharma as Bodhisattva was to provide an environment that would lead the citizenry to enlightenment,
The growing exploitation of the Javanese led to a rebellion by some smaller states against the Mataram dynasty in 1679. To retain power, the old guard aligned with VOC troops to squelch the insurrection – a common story played over and over again. This alliance served to increase the Dutch influence in the region.
The Dutch worked with Chinese businessmen to exploit Java's poorer classes by leasing large tracts of land from impoverished nobles. This joint venture employed this land for international cash crops, such as coffee, sugar cane, and even opium to a lesser extent. This profit-based conversion displaced the peasantry from the rice fields that had provided them regular sustenance and eliminated the small villages they had inhabited for centuries.
Converting to these mono-crops, which could not even sustain one individual for a single day, also disrupted the local ecology. The sugar cane clogged the canals, which resulted in stagnant water, the breeding ground for mosquitoes. This disruption of the Javanese eco-system inevitably led to multiple outbreaks of malaria during the 1700s.
We can’t forget the negative local impact of the inevitable boom-bust cycle of international capitalism. In the middle of the century, the international sugar market collapsed. To quell unrest, the Dutch began deporting Chinese immigrants who had been brought in illegally to tend the sugar cane. Fearing that their countrymen were being drowned in the ocean, the Chinese rebelled in 1740. In response, the VOC massacred 10,000 ethnic Chinese. Let’s hear it for the Dutch.
The Chinese that survived led an organized rebellion in which they seized control of many cities. Their initial successes inspired several Javanese states to join the Chinese against the VOC. This insurrection, possibly the biggest threat to the Dutch occupation, lasted nearly 3 years, from 1741-43. Unfortunately the Chinese and Javanese could not cooperate sufficiently to present a united front. The Mataram royal family inevitably supported the Dutch VOC to suppress the futile call of the Javanese for more humane treatment. After crushing the rebellion, the Javanese rulers offered the Dutch the leadership of their sultanate. Realizing that Javanese politics were too turbulent for them to establish control the island, the VOC instead installed a new sultan who would be amenable to their terms.
How many times has this colonial process occurred from their day to this? Too many.
With the Javanese royal puppets under their control, the Dutch gained control over the islands of the Indonesian archipelago and the Malay Peninsula in order to exploit the natural resources along with the indigenous population. By the end of their conquering spree, they were the paramount commercial and political power in the East Indies. In some ways, it could be said that the propensities of the situation led Dutch to this end. Both the international market and the Javanese ruling class ‘forced’ them into their decisions.
Was there really any difference between Dutch and local rule? Probably not in the beginning. Just like the Southeast Asian maritime empires that preceded them, the Dutch VOC was primarily interested in controlling the trade routes. To this end, they wanted to be in command of the significant ports of the Maritime Spice Road so that they could be the middlemen in the lucrative trade between East and West. In similar fashion to the empires and pirates that preceded them, they had little interest in ruling the interior. There was no money to made there, initially at least.
Two factors changed the attitude of the Dutch East India Company. First, the demands of the global marketplace changed. The VOC eventually became a victim of its own success. As mentioned, part of the perceived value of spice had to do with its status. When spices were expensive or hard to get, only the wealthy could afford them. When spices became readily available to everyone, there was no more status and the price plummeted. The inherent value of the spices didn’t come close to the value conferred by status. To satisfy the craving of their stockholders for continued profits, necessity required that the VOC shift their attentions to a new source of income – the agricultural produce of the interior.
However, the Javanese ruling class had already set the stage for the entry of the Dutch into their interior. In fact, it could easily be argued that the Javanese inadvertently invited the VOC to rule their island. This was the second factor behind their shift in attitude.
Because of infighting between the multitude of factions for supremacy over the island, the Dutch were regularly asked to side with one against the other. In this fashion, the VOC was inexorably drawn into Javanese politics. Because political turbulence is bad for business, the Dutch were eventually ‘forced’ to seize control over the entire island. As rulers of Java, they were able to stabilize the political climate, thereby maximizing the flow of goods from the interior to their international ports.
Reiterating for retention: when the Dutch VOC was only interested in controlling the ports and the spice trade, there was very little difference politically between them and the Southeast Asian Maritime empires that preceded them. However, after they shifted their economic focus from spices to agricultural produce from the interior, the differences in the European and Southeast Asian political mindset became apparent.
One significant difference revolved around the notion of private property. The Dutch tended to think in terms of land, while the Javanese rulers tended to think in terms of people. As an example, the king rewarded his loyal subjects with ‘households’, not territory.
Officials or family members could presumably administer their ‘households’ as they saw fit. For instance, they could extract revenue and sustenance. They could also require the households to provide soldiers for their armies, or laborers and craftspeople to build and maintain temples. However, the local ruler did not own the land in the Western sense. Those who inhabited the land possessed it.
Because our Western mindset regarding property is so entrenched, let us examine the concept of ‘household’ in more depth. Could the island of Bali provide us with for a probable, current example of this type of political organization? The government certainly continues to administer the island through its ‘households’.
In this case, each ‘household’ is an extended family compound, where upwards of 70 individuals live, all related in some fashion. Each ‘household’ is required to place an official plaque on the entryway to their compound with the name of their family and the number of people living there.
These family compounds are fairly self-contained. Internally, they contain their own shrines. Extending from the back of each ‘household’ is the land that provides sustenance for the extended family. The primary crop is rice, but their fields also contain many other types of plants, for instance coconut, bamboo, and coffee. In general, the crops are meant to serve local needs, not produce profit.
These ‘households’ are further organized into villages. At the rear of the ‘household’ are their agricultural fields. At the front are roads that connect them with their village. These villages have local leaders who represent the needs and perspective of their community to the next level of political administration.
In general, the center of the village contains the houses and the local temple that is used for religious ceremonies. Agricultural fields, primarily rice, surround the village. This concentric organization is visually apparent from the air. In this way, the village epitomizes the mandala political organization that eventually becomes the mandala empire that typifies Southeast Asia.
Besides providing sustenance and human-power, the villages are also cultural centers. Because of the irregular demands of rice farming, the community might also specialize in dance, music, or some type of craftsmanship. This organization is so integral to the overall region that Southeast Asia has been called the ‘land of small villages’.
Let us compare and contrast the notion of private property that the Dutch brought with them from Europe with the Southeast Asian concept of ‘household’. In both cases, the ruling class has the right to administer the territory. In Southeast Asian case the focus is on the potentials of the humans that inhabit the space, while the European perspective is on the potentials of the physical land. Frequently these two aims coincide. In this case, the inhabitants provide the greatest potential. Historically the farmer has provided that function by providing sustenance for the greater population, whether rice, wheat, corn or beans. This role is essential for the ruling classes that are in charge of the space.
However sometimes the perceived potentials of the land is greater than that of the humans that live there. Under the European mindset of private property, the ‘owner’ can do anything he wants with his possessions, whether objects or land. The modern term ‘landlord’ reflects this historical relationship. The lord of the land can evict ‘his’ tenants even if they and their families have inhabited and tilled the soil for millennia. The implicit assumption behind this perspective is that those that live on the property are mere objects that can be manipulated as the ‘owner’ sees fit. Rather than being worthy of respect, humans are an incidental feature of the land.
Under the Southeast Asian mindset, the ruling class administers ‘households’, but does not own the land. This focus does not objectify humans as property, but instead perceives them as a living family unit that contributes to the greater society. The ruling class certainly has the potential exploit the working class under either perspective. However, the abuse is of a different nature. Southeast Asian rulers might exploit the people, but not the land they live on. In contrast, European owners might exploit the land, independent of its inhabitants. The complex of ideas associated with the European notion of private property enabled the Dutch to justify evacuating the land of its villages to create international cash crops.
Where does this objectification of humans come from? Is this perspective an innate human trait or are the roots in the cultural differentiation of prehistoric humans? Or perhaps was there a modern trend that produced this mindset?
Let us offer one plausible scenario. The nomadic herding cultures of the Central Asian Steppes and their descendants eventually became the rulers of first the Eurasia-African mega-continent and then the world. Traveling from place to place in search of grasslands for their herds, these tribes would claim certain oases as their watering hole. Although they didn’t occupy the land on a permanent basis, they believed the oasis to be theirs. If another tribe occupied the land when they returned from their annual trek, battle would ensue. In this way property was abstracted from the inhabitants of the land. When they invaded the Eurasian-African mega-continent, they treated the subjugated agrarian population in similar fashion.
Another more recent scenario links the European enclosure movement with the beginning of the notion of ‘private property’ and the resultant objectification of humans. Beginning about 500 years ago, the ruling classes began enclosing ‘their’ land and evicting the indigenous agrarian population so that the territory would better serve their private purposes. For instance, the Scottish ruling class forcibly removed the peasantry from their property in order to raise sheep for the international market. This was happening at about the same time that the Dutch were converting rice fields to sugar plantations.
Could the European enclosure movement ultimately derive from the objectification of humans that occurred when the Herding cultures conquered and enslaved the indigenous agrarian populations in prehistoric times?
Militaristic herding cultures never became the rulers of the Southeast Asian nations, as they did on the rest of the mega-continent. Could it be that South East Asian never developed the notion of private property because the rice growing population was never conquered and enslaved by militaristic herding cultures? Could this be why the Southeast Asian ruling classes tended to administer and claim ‘households’ rather than land? Could this be why Southeast Asian political power emanates from the mandala’s center rather than defining itself by the borders that characterize property?
Back in Europe far away from the Dutch VOC in the East Indies, the French populace successfully revolted from their ruling military aristocracy. The French Revolution threw the European states into turmoil. This distant event was to have momentous consequences for the island cultures of Southeast Asia in the centuries to come.
Due to political turbulence at home, the Dutch government was no longer able to support their Company. In 1799 the VOC declared bankruptcy. This was due to multiple reasons – including a declining spice trade, the burden of their military presence on the islands, and the widespread corruption and inefficiency, which had been disguised by prosperity.
Then Napoleon conquered the Netherlands. Sensing a power vacuum in Southeast Asia, the British moved in to pick up the reins of control. They seized many Dutch territories including Java. The British wave began picking up momentum.
After England defeated France during Napoleon’s last gasp, the European powers joined to divide maritime Southeast Asia into spheres of influence. This political organization had little to do with Southeast Asian geography and much more to do with European political convenience. They partitioned the Middle East in similar fashion a century later.
Having been conquered by Napoleon, the Dutch were on the losing end of the Anglo Dutch Treaty of 1824. They gave up permanent control of the Straits of Malacca to the British in exchange for the return of their island colonies - the Dutch East Indies. While there had been many long-term rivalries and huge language differences between the islanders - notably Sumatra and Java, but also the Celebes, the Moluccas, and Bali, they were now all united as a Dutch colony. This territory was to turn into Indonesia.
On the winning end, the British assumed control of the Malay Peninsula and North Borneo, where their crucial ports were located. While there is 400 miles of water between the Malay Peninsula and Borneo, they were united as a British colony. This territory eventually became the country of Malaysia. The populations of the former Dutch and English colonies now consider themselves Malaysians or Indonesians - something unheard of in the preceding centuries.
Summarizing the European holdings in the early 19th century: Portugal had long since retracted her claws from Southeast Asia to concentrate her energies on her colonies in Africa and Brazil. The Portuguese only retained control of their island colony of East Timor, which was not a high priority territory to the others. Spain was allowed to retain the Philippines. They had been there so long - and it was off the major trade routes anyway. The island of New Guinea was divided between the Dutch, the Germans and the British.
On the losing side of the battle, the French were given no colonies in Southeast Asia. The exclusion of the French was to have severe ramifications for the cultures that inhabited the eastern part of the mainland - to be called Indochina in the decades to come.
After signing the treaties, the Dutch were free once more to exploit the Javanese. Things got so bad that an insurrection began in 1825, which was to last for 5 years. Of course the ruling class sided with the Dutch to suppress the rebellion. This is yet another example of power and privilege hanging together to exploit the masses - an all too frequent phenomenon.
There was a public referendum in 1890, which acted to curb Dutch abuse of the Javanese. However Dutch businesses continued to exploit the land and the people. Further they maintained their attitude of cultural superiority. For instance - after discovering the great temple of Borobudur in 1896, the Dutch built a teahouse on the 10th level, presumably because of the great view. Further, they raided the magnificent stone sculptures for garden ornamentation – a good example of their respect for the cultural heritage of the Javanese.
Things were not good. Something was going to have to change. But, unfortunately for the Javanese, things were to get much worse before getting any better.