The Dutch and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) began shifting towards establishing colonial rule with the decline of the Mataram kingdom on Java after the death of the powerful Mataram leader Sultan Agung (1613-46). Employing superior weapons and technology, namely the musket and cannon, and using divide and rule strategies among Indonesia’s multitude of ethnic groups and political bodies, they kept the Muslim sultans and tribal chiefs from uniting against the Dutch by pitting them against each other and backing ambitious challengers in return for land and other concessions. The Dutch won some local princes over to Christianity by giving them cannons to use on their rivals.

According to Lonely Planet: “Unwillingly at first, but later in leaps and bounds, the VOC progressed from being a trading company to being a colonial master. From the late 1600s Java was beset by wars as the Mataram kingdom fragmented. The VOC was only too willing to lend military support to contenders for the throne, in return for compensation and land concessions. The Third Javanese War of Succession (1746–57) saw Prince Mangkubumi and Mas Said contest the throne of Mataram’s King Pakubuwono II. This spelled the end for Mataram, largely because of Pakubuwono II’s concessions and capitulation to VOC demands. [Source: Lonely Planet ++]

“In 1755 the VOC divided the Mataram kingdom into two states: Yogyakarta and Surakarta (Solo). These and other smaller Javanese states were only nominally sovereign; in reality they were dominated by the VOC. Fighting among the princes was halted, and peace was brought to East Java by the forced cessation of invasions and raids from Bali. Thus Java was finally united under a foreign trading company whose army comprised only 1000 Europeans and 2000 Asians.” ++

Despite their successes in the Javanese wars (See Below), the fortunes of the VOC began to decline not long after wards. The Dutch–English War of 1780, broke the VOC’s spice-trade monopoly with the Treaty of Paris, which permitted free trade in the East. In addition, trade shifted from spices to Chinese silk and Japanese copper, as well as coffee, tea and sugar, over which it was impossible to establish a monopoly. Dutch trading interests became focused on Batavia, where the Dutch were becoming more dependent on taxes, duties and tolls that were being circumvented by smuggling, illicit trade by company employees and tax dodging, On op of this the VOC was burdened by the expenses of wars in Java and the high cost of administering a far flung possession such a long way from home. The company turned to the Dutch government at home for support. After an investigation of VOC affairs revealed corruption, mismanagement and bankruptcy, the VOC was formally shut down, wound up, its territorial possessions seized by the Dutch government, and the trading empire became a colonial empire. ++

After the Dutch took over Jakarta large numbers of Chinese seeking to make their fortine emigrated there. The Dutch tried to stem the migration but with little success. As times passed the Chinese became more numerous and Chinese gangs made trouble. In October 1740, the local population had enough and decided it was payback time. More than 5,000 Chinese were massacred.

Javanese Wars of Succession

Infighting within the the Mataram Empire resulted in the First and Second Javanese Wars of Succession in the early 18th century. In the Third Javanese War of Succession (1746-57) the Dutch was able to finish off the Mataram by backing one of two claimants to the throne and dividing Mataram into two weaker and competing states—Yogyakarta and Solo. While the courts of Mataram survived Java became united under the rule of the Dutch East India Company, which at this time employed 1000 Europeans and 2000 Asians.

In the eighteenth century, Mataram experienced continued struggles for power among royal contenders. The First Javanese War of Succession (1704-08) resulted in Pakubuwona I (reigned 1705-19) assuming the throne with Dutch aid; in return, he gave the VOC the privilege of building forts anywhere it wished in Java, the right to station a VOC garrison at the royal court paid for by the royal treasury, an annual grant to Batavia of a large amount of rice for twenty-five years, and the promise that Javanese ships would not sail east of the island of Lombok or beyond the bounds of the Java Sea. The Second Javanese War of Succession (1719-23) resulted in the installation of Amangkurat IV (reigned 1719-26) as king, and further concessions were made to the VOC. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The Third Javanese War of Succession (1746-55) was decisive because it resulted in the division of Mataram into the states of Surakarta and Yogyakarta, each with its own sultan. Two years after Pakubuwona II (reigned 1725-49) had agreed to lease the north coast of Java to the VOC, Javanese princes led by Mangkubumi rebelled in 1745 precipitating war against the Dutch. The war dragged on until 1755, when the Treaty of Giyanti was ratified, recognizing Pakubuwona III (reigned 1749-55) as ruler of Surakarta and Mangkubumi (who took the title of sultan and the name Hamengkubuwono) as ruler of Yogyakarta. In 1757 a new state, Mangkunegaran, was carved from Surakarta territory. Banten, meanwhile, had become a territory of the VOC in 1753. The policy of divide and rule brought a measure of peace to Java thereafter, but the VOC had little time to enjoy the fruits of its many decades of involvement in court politics. *

Decline of the VOC

By the mid-eighteenth century, the VOC and the court of Mataram, at the same time rivals and allies, were exhausted by war. The dying ruler, Pakubuwana II (r. 1726–49), with his kingdom still threatened by rebellion from within and his court deeply divided over the proper course for the future, ceded Mataram to the company, perhaps thinking in this way to save it. The treaty was of little importance because it could not be enforced and the VOC was incapable of ruling Java, but it was followed in 1755 by the Treaty of Giyanti, which imposed a different solution. Mataram was to be ruled by two royal courts, one at Surakarta (also known as Solo) and one at Yogyakarta, out of which the junior courts of Mangkunegaran (1757) and Pakualaman (1812), respectively, later evolved by apportioning appanage rights among them. This division produced an extended period of peace lasting well into the nineteenth century, from which the Javanese populace benefited economically. The courts, particularly that of Yogyakarta, made use of their considerable autonomy and grew in prosperity and power, while the VOC consolidated its control over the Pasisir and pursued its commercial ventures. Although clearly recognized (and often resented) as the paramount power, the company interested itself in the courts’ affairs and played a role in choosing who reigned but refrained from meddling too deeply. It was a strange conquest. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The peace was in many respects also strange, for rather than settling Java into a calm “traditional” existence, it provided the setting for ongoing social and cultural ferment as Javanese reassessed not only their past but also their present. The literary reflections of this crisis have been insufficiently studied, but works ascribed to the Surakarta court poets Yasadipura I (1729–1803) and his son Yasadipura II (? –1844), for example, suggest that efforts to reexamine and revitalize old histories failed, not least because the ability to read them accurately had been lost, and that attempts to understand the Java—and, we might say, “Javaneseness”—of their own day led frequently to searing critiques of their own social hierarchy and customs, as well as those of foreigners and Islam. This sort of questioning and restlessness was not necessarily fatal, however, and might under different circumstances have permitted a continuation of the equilibrium already achieved or even conceivably have led to a kind of Javanese renaissance and a different, more advantageous relationship with the Dutch. But changes in the larger world determined otherwise. *

Not only continuous wars on Java but also the VOC's own greed and shortsightedness led to its undoing by the end of the eighteenth century. Its personnel were extraordinarily corrupt, determined to "shake the pagoda tree" of the Indies, to use a phrase popular with its eighteenth-century British contemporaries, to get rich quick. Although the VOC preserved its monopoly over the spice trade, it could not prevent foreign rivals, especially the British and French, from growing spices on their own territories in the West Indies and elsewhere. Thus, European markets were assured a cheap supply. Moreover, the development in Europe of winter forage in the late seventeenth century made spices less of a necessity, since livestock did not have to be slaughtered in autumn and its meat preserved with spices over the cold season. War between the Netherlands and Britain in 1780-84 also prevented the VOC from shipping its goods. *

The VOC turned to new cash crops and products: pepper and textiles from Sumatra, and coffee and tea grown in the mountainous Priangan Districts. In Priangan, inhabited by people of the Sundanese ethnic group, the local rulers collected coffee from cultivators and delivered it to the VOC. Coffee became Java's most profitable crop from the early eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century. But despite such diversification, the Dutch StatenGeneraal in 1789 discovered the company had a deficit of some 74 million guilders. *

Dutch Government Takes Over Dutch East India Company

In 1799, the Dutch India Company was liquidated and the Dutch government took control of its possessions. A similar move occurred with the British in India around the same time. The Dutch India Company had been on the decline since the mid 18th century and was deeply hurt by the ending their monopoly on the spice trade with the Treaty of Paris in 1780. At that time the British were moving into China and had established themselves in India and the major trading goods had switches from spices to things like Chinese silk, Japanese copper, tea, opium and sugar.

In the early 1780s, the last in a series of wars with the British cost the Netherlands, including the VOC and its far-flung interests, dearly. Nearly half the company’s ships were lost, and much of their valuable cargoes; enormous debts accumulated, which, despite state loans, could not be repaid. While the company certainly was burdened with other fiscal and administrative problems, among them a high level of corruption among its employees, the British war seems to have been the critical factor in its fiscal collapse.

The Netherlands was occupied by French troops in 1795, and a French protectorate established. The new government abolished the VOC by allowing its charter to lapse. In 1796 the VOC was placed under the direction of a national committee until the end of 1799, when the charter lapsed and it was liquidated, its debts and possessions absorbed by the Dutch government. VOC territories became the property of the Dutch government. [Source: Library of Congress]

Brief British Occupation of Indonesia in the Early 1800s

In 1811, during the Napoleonic War when Holland was occupied by France, the British took over several Dutch East Indies posts, including Java. Control was restored to the Dutch in 1816, and a a treaty was signed in which the British exchanged their holdings in Central Asia for Dutch holdings in India and the Malay peninsula.

After the Napoleonic wars had brought the Netherlands under French control, in rapid succession the former VOC territories fell under the direction of leaders appointed by France—the military officer Herman Willem Daendels from 1808 to 1811—and, after Napoleon’s defeat, by Britain, which appointed an East India Company official, Thomas Stamford Raffles, for the period 1811–16.

In 1808 Louis Bonaparte, who had been made king of the Netherlands by his brother Napoleon, appointed Herman Willem Daendels as governor general of the Dutch possessions. Daendels, imbued with the ideas of the French Revolution, had scant patience for the intricacies of Java's "feudal" political system and introduced a comprehensive set of reforms. In doing so, he earned the hostility of the Javanese nobility who had benefited from the old system of indirect rule. But in 1811, a year after the Netherlands had been incorporated into the French empire, the British occupied Java. In August 1811, they seized Batavia and a month later received the surrender of French forces. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Thomas Stamford Raffles was appointed lieutenant governor of Java (1811-16) and its dependencies by the British East India Company in Calcutta. Raffles, best known for being the founder of Singapore in 1819, attempted, like Daendels, comprehensive reform. Many of his ideas were enlightened: abolition of forced labor and fixed quotas for cash crops, peasants' free choice of which crops to grow, salaries for government officials, abolition of the slave trade in the archipelago, and improvement of the lot of slaves (his goal of total opposition to slavery was deemed impractical). Raffles also sponsored the establishment of a subsidiary court, Pakualaman, in Yogyakarta in 1812, further dividing the authority of the Yogyakarta sultanate. But there was little time for these efforts to take root. At the outset of the Napoleonic Wars, the British government had promised the Dutch government-in-exile that at the end of the war occupied territories would be returned to the Netherlands. Over the objections of Raffles, Dutch authority was reestablished in 1816. *

Daendels and Raffles saw themselves as liberal reformers, enemies of feudal privilege and practices such as forced labor and delivery of produce, proponents of the welfare of the common folk, and opponents of corruption and inefficiency. Raffles sought to “free” Javanese laborers by instituting a system of land rent, in which farmers grew cash crops and sold them in order to pay the government for the use of the land. But the sharpest break with VOC practice lay in the assumption by the new powers of sovereign rights over the Javanese courts, treating rulers and courtiers not as allies but as clear subordinates, and their representatives not as local lords but as mere bureaucratic officeholders. Both men interfered directly in court affairs. Daendels replaced Yogyakarta’s ruler (on suspicion of rebellion) and annexed territory by force of arms. Raffles actually bombarded and looted the Yogyakarta court (for the same reason), establishing the Pakualaman from some of its appanage lands, and exiled an unruly Surakarta prince. These acts, and the attitudes behind them, foreshadowed nothing less than a new age for the archipelago, an age of Dutch colonial rule. *

Dutch Regain Control of Indonesia

In 1816 the Netherlands regained responsibility for the East Indies—actually a welter of mostly coastal territories, some controlled directly and many others engaged through varying treaties— but the way forward was uncertain. The growth of trade with Sulawesi and the establishment of plantation economies, especially those producing sugar (eastern and central Java) and coffee (western Java and western Sumatra) had begun to loosen customary ties and introduce elites to new sources of both riches and indebtedness. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In Java, the general population increased and grew more prosperous but, on the other hand, fell victim to increasing crime, heavier taxation, and exploitation by local Chinese, especially in their roles of tax farmers, tollkeepers, and leasers of plantation lands. The legitimacy of ruling elites was questioned more widely. Both traditionalists and Muslims felt their ways of life threatened by changes they tended to identify with growing European influence. A Dutch decision in 1823 to end what it viewed as the abusive leasing of land and labor among central Java’s aristocracy alienated many who had begun to adjust to the new circumstances and pushed them to support rebellion. The general atmosphere of restlessness in a time of change that few understood also became charged with superstition and millennial expectations in reaction to crop failures, outbreaks of disease, and, near Yogyakarta, a destructive eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano. *

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. *

Diponegoro and the Java War

The struggle known as the Java War (1825–30) was led by a disaffected prince of the Yogyakarta court, Pangeran Diponegoro (1785–1855). He was a complex figure who opposed rule by both the Dutch and the complicit Javanese ruler and aristocracy, and whose rebellion must therefore be seen as a Javanese civil war—although not one primarily concerned with questions of succession, as in the eighteenth century—at least as much as an anticolonial one. Despite his modern Indonesian status as a national hero, Diponegoro appears to have sought merely to have relations with the Dutch return to the form they had assumed in late VOC times, and certainly had no conception of a broader Indonesian nation. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Diponegoro was the 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 Java War constituted the last resistance of the Javanese aristocracy to Dutch rule. Diponegoro was able to attract, for a time, the loyalty of those who felt the crumbling of the previous order in different ways and had a variety of social and moral expectations. He was seen variously as a protector of the general populace, as both a Muslim and a traditionalist messianic figure, a Ratu Adil (just king), and as an upholder of social hierarchy under a reformed or purified aristocracy. These alliances proved fragile, however. There were obvious internal tensions, for example, disagreements between those who had fought for religious reasons (responding to Diponegoro’s declaration of a Muslim holy war, or jihad) and those, especially among the court elite, who had done so for essentially secular reasons. *

Java War (1825-30)

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. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The difficulty of the war itself, for which the Dutch devised new military strategies and which spread destruction on a scale unseen in generations, was extreme: about two-thirds of Java was affected, a quarter of its cultivated land was laid waste; and approximately 200,000 Javanese and 15,000 government troops (8,000 of whom were Europeans) were killed. Backed initially by about half of Yogyakarta’s ruling elite, by early 1830 Diponegoro had lost most of their support, as well as that of both his chief military commander and his most influential Muslim patron and his followers.

Abandoned by all but a few loyal comrades, Diponegoro attended a peace discussion with the Dutch commander of government forces at which he was arrested and sent into exile 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. *

Outcome of the Java War (1825-30)

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. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The conclusion of the Java War marked the end of Java’s old social and political order. The government in Batavia sharply reduced the lands under the courts’ control, and the fiction of Mataram finally gave way to what were now termed merely the vorstenlanden (principalities) and seen as comparatively minor vestigial powers. The Javanese elites acquiesced, although not without some resentment, in part because another war was inconceivable and in part because they calculated that acquiescence was necessary if they were to retain anything at all of their privileged socioeconomic status. *

At the same time, the end of the war made equally clear that a new era had begun—not only for Java, but for the broader archipelago—an era in which the government of the Netherlands assumed full sovereignty. It began to oversee its territories through the new Ministry of Colonies (established in 1834), and took a strikingly different attitude toward indigenous peoples. As J. C. Baud (1789–1859), the first governor general of the Netherlands East Indies with full executive authority (1834–36), stated succinctly, “We are the rulers and they are the ruled.” The resulting colonial state did not come suddenly into existence, however, but developed in stages, from hybrid arrangements of convenience to a modernizing administrative structure, over the course of more than a century. *

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. *

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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