The Java War and Cultivation System

The Java War and Cultivation System

During the VOC period, the Dutch depended on the compliance of the Javanese aristocratic class, which allowed them to rule in an indirect manner. The regents' role of expropriating cash crops from the peasants to deliver to the VOC gave them a comfortable income, since they also continued to tax their subjects for rice and labor. Variations on this pattern were found throughout Java, with local adaptations. But the reforms of Daendels and Raffles threatened this arrangement. Moreover, the elite in Central Java were humiliated by a British occupation and partition of Yogyakarta in 1812. Many of the elite found themselves short of funds and indebted as Dutch demands for tax revenues expanded after 1816. The common people also suffered from years of war, disruption, and the exploitation of Chinese farmers employed by the British and the Dutch.

The Java War of 1825-30 constituted the last resistance of the Javanese aristocracy to Dutch rule. Its central figure was Pangeran Diponegoro (ca. 1785-1855), eldest son of the sultan of Yogyakarta. His education and disposition combined both Islamic and mystical elements: he was well acquainted with the teachings of the traditional Islamic schools (pesantren) in the rural village where he lived as a child with his grandmother, but he also experienced a vision in which the Goddess of the Southern Ocean promised that he was a future king. According to M.C. Ricklefs, Diponegoro was in a unique position to mobilize both the elite and the common people against the colonialists: "as a senior prince, he had access to the aristocracy, as a mystic to the religious community, and as a rural dweller to the masses in the countryside."

The immediate cause of Diponegoro's revolt in 1825 was the Dutch decision to build a road across a piece of his property that contained a sacred tomb. Thereupon ensued the Java War, a bitter guerrilla conflict in which as many as 200,000 Javanese died in fighting or from indirect causes (the population of Java at the end of the eighteenth century was only 3 million). Although the revolt was led by Diponegoro and other aristocrats, its considerable popular appeal, based on Islam and Javanese mysticism, created a scenario similar to twentieth-century wars in Southeast Asia. Insurgency was suppressed only after the Dutch adopted the "fortress system": the posting of small units of mobile troops in forts scattered through the contested territory. Diponegoro was arrested in 1830 and exiled for a short time to Manado in northern Sulawesi and then to Makassar where he died. The territories of Yogyakarta and Surakarta were substantially reduced, although the sultans were paid compensation.

The Java War was not a modern anticolonial movement. Diponegoro and his followers probably did not want to restore an idealized, precolonial past. Nor did they envision an independent, modern nation. Rather they sought a Javanese heartland free of Dutch rule. Because of his anti-Dutch role, Diponegoro is one of modern Indonesia's national heroes.

The Java War gave considerable impetus to a conservative trend in Dutch colonial policy. Rather than reforming their regime in the spirit of Daendels and Raffles, the Dutch continued the old VOC system of indirect rule. As it evolved during the nineteenth century, the Dutch regime consisted of a hierarchy in which the top levels were occupied by European civil servants and a native administration occupied the lower levels. The latter was drawn from the priyayi class, an aristocracy defined both by descent from ancient Javanese royal families and by the vocation of government service. The centerpiece of the system was the bupati, or regents. Java was divided into a number of residencies, each headed by a Dutch chief administrator; each of these was further subdivided into a number of regencies that were formally headed by a Javanese regent assisted by a Dutch official. The regency was subdivided into districts and subdistricts and included several hundred villages. The states of Surakarta and Yogyakarta remained outside this system. However, both they and the local regents lost any remnant of political independence they had enjoyed before the Java War. The sultanates played an important cultural role as preservers of Java's traditional courtly arts, but had little or no impact on politics.

Starting in 1830, a set of policies known as the Cultivation System (cultuurstelsel in Dutch) was implemented as a means of covering the high cost of colonial administration in Java and bolstering the Netherlands' weak financial condition following the Napoleonic Wars and a civil war with Belgium, with which the Dutch had united in 1815. Governor General Johannes van den Bosch (served 1830-34), the system's proposer, argued that the Cultivation System would benefit both colonizer and colonized. In fact, it brought the Netherlands handsome profits, increased the conspicuous consumption of the indigenous elite, enriched European officials and Chinese middlemen, but was a terrible burden for Javanese villagers.

The Cultivation System in theory required that participating villages grow export crops to raise funds sufficient to meet their land-tax commitment, which was based on rice production. Export crops--the most profitable being coffee, sugar, indigo, tea, cinnamon, pepper, tobacco, cotton, silk, and cochineal--were sold to the government at fixed prices. A balance was supposed to be established between rice production and export crops and both the village and the colonial economy--and the Netherlands--would enjoy the benefits.

In practice, however, as some historians have pointed out, there was not a "system." Wide local and regional variations in applying van den Bosch's theory occurred and, instead, colonial exploitation took place. The growth of export crops became compulsory. The crops themselves were shipped to the Netherlands by the Netherlands Trading Company (NHM), which held a monopoly over Cultivation System trade until 1872, and Amsterdam regained its seventeenth-century status as the primary European market for tropical products. Profits from the system constituted between 19 and 32 percent of the Netherlands' state revenues between the 1830s and 1860. These profits erased the colonial government's deficits, retired old VOC debts, financed the building of the Netherlands state railroad, funded the compensation of slaveholders after the abolition of slavery in the colony of Suriname, and paid for Dutch expansion into Sumatra and the eastern archipelago. The success attributed to the Cultivation System inspired a Briton, aptly named James William Bayley Money, to publish a book entitled Java, or, How to Manage a Colony in 1861.

A year earlier, however, a former Dutch colonial official, Eduard Douwes Dekker, using the pen name Multatuli, wrote another book, Max Havelaar: or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, that exposed the oppression of Javanese peasants by corrupt and greedy officials, both Dutch and Javanese. Max Havelaar eventually had an impact on liberal opinion in the Netherlands and, through translations, in other countries similar to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in the United States. Some twentieth-century historians, such as Bernard Hubertus Maria Vlekke, claimed that the Cultivation System benefited rural Javanese, pointing to the rapid increase of the population from 7 to 16.2 million between 1830 and 1870. But most evidence supports Douwes Dekker's images of harsh exploitation. Even if the compulsory growing of export crops--particularly coffee, which remained the most profitable--did not divert much land from the cultivation of rice, the labor requirements were so great that farmers had little time or energy to devote to staple crops. Moreover, as the prices paid by the government for export crops increased, the Dutch used this as justification to raise the land tax assessment. More effort and organization had to be applied to export-crop production to offset the land-tax increases. By the 1840s, rice shortages appeared and famines and epidemics occurred, resulting in dislocation of some segments of the rural population seeking more profitable land. Nevertheless, profits increased but so too had the cost of maintaining the colonial military establishment, and that, in turn, applied pressure for more export- crop development. The colonial government did little to curb corruption and abuses, which made what was in fact a highly organized system of forced labor even more unendurable.

During the early 1860s, a liberal Dutch government began dismantling the Cultivation System, abolishing government monopolies over spices, indigo, tea, tobacco, and cochineal (the spice monopoly had been in effect since the early seventeenth century). In 1870 the Sugar Law provided for government withdrawal from sugar cultivation over twelve years, beginning in 1878. The Agrarian Law, also passed in 1870, enabled foreigners to lease land from the government for as long as seventy-five years, opening Java up to foreign private enterprise. These developments marked the gradual replacement of the Cultivation System and the beginning of an era of relatively free trade, although compulsory cultivation of coffee continued until 1917.


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