The Colonial Economy in the Netherlands Indies. Part 1: The Commission to Investigate the Sugar Manufactories on Java, 1854-1857
Short background In the early 1830s the Dutch introduced the
“cultuurstelsel” (cultivation system) into their East Indies colony of Java. This system amounted to forcing the native Indonesians to cultivate various cash crops, in particular sugar and coffee, to be paid to the colonial government, which would then sell them on the world market through the Dutch Trading Company (
Nederlandsch handelmaatschappij) set up in 1824 under royal patronage. By 1840 the first famines provoked by increased exploitation were reported. By mid-century the system had brought great wealth to the colonial power, but was coming under more and more criticism both in Indonesia and the Netherlands. The constitutional reforms in the Netherlands in 1848 brought a measure of parliamentary control over colonial affairs and by the early 1850s circumstances such as new famines and decreasing sugar prices and increasing beet-sugar production led the minister of the Colonies to order an extensive investigation into the system of government sugar cultivation in Java. A commission headed by the former inspector of cultivations, G. Umbgrove, was appointed by the governor-general to accomplish that task by a decision of 8 December 1853. After nearly four years of continuous work, which met with resistance from various quarters among the “residents” (district governors) whose cooperation was necessary to carry out the research, they produced a voluminous report with many appendices on 14 September 1857. The commission was disbanded in February 1858. The report and accompanying documentation were then sent to the director of cultivations and later the Council of the Indies for their advice and was submitted to the minister in The Hague by the governor-general in February 1859. In June 1860 he issued new principles for the government’s sugar cultivations and in 1862 the report and appendices were also sent to Parliament as background information for the debate on the ministry’s budget for 1863. Parliament decided to have the report and some of the appendices printed for its own use (only a few copies are extant in the Netherlands). Dissatisfaction with the cultivation system remained and it was gradually abolished. The Agrarian Law of 1870, which made the establishment of private enterprises in the Indies possible, was a decisive moment in the process. A more extensive history of the Commission and its activities in Dutch by archivist H.B.N.B. Adam can be found below on pages 11-18. It also includes lists of the colonial officials of this period, the vagaries of the documents in the ensuing years, including details of what was printed by parliament, and the principles he followed in compiling his inventory.
The collection Besides the report itself (inventory number 1 below, in clear-hand manuscript), the collection contains a major series of descriptions and statistics (called “monographs” by the Commission) for all the sugar manufactories in 13 residencies on Java. These documents contain a wealth of information, not only on sugar cultivation itself, but also on the social situation of the native population in the sugar-producing areas and form the core of this archive. They were never printed and are available only in manuscript (see inventory numbers 10-197 below). They are arranged by residency and divided by Adam into two sections, the monograph itself (inv. nos. 10-103) and the answers by the residents to the so-called “twelve questions” about the cultivations posed by the governor-general (inv. nos. 104-197).
In addition to these, other appendices cover objections to and complaints about the system (
bezwaren) from the indigenous population, colonial officials and holders of the government sugar-cultivation contracts (Appendix S, inv. nos. 199-211). These are also arranged by residency and are extant in both the printed and manuscript versions (indicated by
handschrift). Other appendices concern the Commission’s conclusions (inv. nos. 212-214), proposals (nos. 215-227, also never printed), and summaries of the situation in each residency (nos. 228-240). Various numbers reproduce circulars, model contracts, models for the research to be carried out, and overviews and tables concerning surface area cultivated, yields and other matters (nos. 2-9, 198, 241). The availability of this valuable, but insufficiently known source material on microfiche will excite broad interest among historians of colonialism and other scholars.