The Dutch in Indonesia were primarily concerned with earning profits from cash crops. They did little to develop manufacturing or build an infrastructure. Only in the last years of their rule did they try to build a trained public service sector and legal and educational systems. The first university was not opened until 1920. Even in the 1940s only about 4 percent of the Indonesian population could read.

The population of Java grew from around 2 million in 1775 to 29 million in 1900. The courts of Solo and Yogyakarta for the most part remained loyal to the Dutch but ordinary Indonesians were becoming more and more unhappy under Dutch rule. Being a Dutch colony would not help Indonesia out much later on. The Dutch language was not spoken anywhere except the Netherlands and among Afrikaners in South Africa and some people in Suriname. By contrast the colonies of France and Britain would pick languages that would help them in the global economy. One Indonesians government spokesman told Newsweek, “We didn’t come away like India with 100 years of British administrative tradition and functioning institutions.”

During the Liberal Period, which began in the 1860s as a response to reports of suffering by Indonesians at the hands of the colonel government, an effort was made to right injustices created by the Cultivation System. Agrarian reforms ended some requirement to produce export crops and permitted local aristocrats to establish large private plantations. During this period sugar production doubled; rubber was introduced but and numbers of people continued to die in famines because large amounts of land was used to grow cash crops rather than food crops.

During the Ethical Period, launched in 1901 to improve the welfare of Indonesians, an effort was made to bring modern health care, education and social programs to Indonesia. Irrigation projects were started; transmigration policies were initiated to relieve population pressures in Java; and plans for improving roads, communications, flood control were launched. To set up these programs a stronger government presence was established in areas that had been largely independent before and this lead to revolts. Many of the projects had little impact largely because ambitions far exceeded funding.

In 1916, the Netherlands gave the East Indies a degree of self rule. A partly-elected parliament was opened in 1918 but ultimate power was held by the governor-general of the Netherlands. A more egalitarian social system evolved in the 20th century and some upward mobility could be achieved. The Indonesians who benefitted the most from education opportunities presented by the Ethical Period were the children of the Indonesian elite. They received a Western-style education in part to train them to work in the increasingly large bureaucracy. But exposure to Western ideas about freedom and democracy gave rise to a sense of nationalism and calls for independence among the educated Indonesian elite. At the same times Islamic organizations like Sarekat Islam were leaders in the early nationalist movement but they were inspired more by Islamic and Javanese mysticism than by ideas of democracy and self rule. In any case these movements unified Indonesians and to a large degree it unified them under Islam.

Books: This Earth of Mankind, Child of All Nations, Footsteps and House of Glass, know collectively as the Buru Quartet by Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Indonesia's best known novelist.

Ethical Policy in Indonesia

A new approach to colonial government, commonly referred to by historians as the Ethical Policy, was introduced 1899 and shaped Dutch policy in Indonesia in the early 1900s. The priorities of both the VOC and the Netherlands Indies state after 1816 were overwhelmingly commercial. Not even in British India was the ledger book such a weighty consideration. But opinion in the Netherlands was changing. In 1899 a liberal lawyer named Conrad Théodoor van Deventer published a polemical essay, "A Debt of Honor," the Dutch journal De Gids. Van Deventer, who had long experience in the Indies, argued that the Netherlands had a moral responsibility to return to the colony all the profits that had been made from the sale of cash crops following the Dutch Staten-Generaal's assumption of fiscal responsibility for the islands in 1867. He estimated that this amount totaled almost 200 million guilders, which should be invested in welfare and educational facilities. When a liberal government was elected in the Netherlands in 1901, these ideas became the basis for what was known as the Ethical Policy. Its scope included expansion of educational opportunities for the population as a whole, improvements in agriculture, especially irrigation, and the settlement of villagers from overpopulated Java onto some of the Outer Islands. *

In 1901 Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands announced the government’s acceptance of the idea that it owed a “debt of honor” to the East Indies because of the profits generated by the Cultivation System, and its intention of henceforth basing its colonial policies on a “moral duty” to them. The Ethical Policy, called for new and extensive government initiatives to expand public schooling, improve health care, modernize infrastructure (communications, transportation, and irrigation), and reduce poverty. The administrative system was to be overhauled in favor of a more modern, efficient structure. Colonial authorities began decentralizing fiscal and administrative responsibilities (in 1903 and 1922, respectively), forming local and colony-wide semirepresentative political bodies (among them the Peoples’ Council, or Volksraad, in 1918), and ending, or at least modifying, the dualism inherent in the interior administrative service with its parallel lines of European and indigenous officials. In addition, for the first time, the colonial state attempted to simplify and standardize the administrative features of its rule in the Outer Islands, using what was being done on Java (and Madura and Bali) as a rough template. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Filled with good intentions, the proponents of the Ethical Policy, like Daendels and Raffles before them, generally ignored the "feudal" political traditions that had bound together Dutch officials and Indonesian subordinates since the early days of the VOC. The rationalization and bureaucratization of the colonial government that occurred in the wake of new welfare policies alienated many members of the priyayi elite without necessarily improving the lot of the common people. Whereas Sumatra and the eastern archipelago were thinly inhabited, Java at the beginning of the twentieth century had serious population and health problems. In 1902 the government began a resettlement program to relieve population pressures by encouraging settlement on other islands; the program was the beginning of the Transmigration Program (transmigrasi) that the Republic of Indonesia would pursue more aggressively after 1950. *

According to Lonely Planet: New policies were implemented, including the transmigrasi (transmigration) of farmers from heavily populated Java to lightly populated islands. There were also plans for improved communications, agriculture, industrialisation and the protection of native industry. Other policies aimed to give greater autonomy to the colonial government and lessen control from the Netherlands, as well as give more power to local governments within the archipelago. Direct government control was exerted on the outer islands. Minor rebellions broke out everywhere, from Sumatra to Timor, but these were easily crushed and the Dutch took control from traditional leaders, thus establishing a true Indies empire for the first time. [Source: Lonely Planet ++]

Shortcomings of the Ethical Policy in Indonesia

Although Ethicists, as supporters of the policy were called, may sometimes have been seen as arguing for a weakening of colonial rule and lessening of European influence, this was not the case. They aimed at modernizing the imperial state, which also meant Europeanizing, or at least Westernizing, it. It is fair to say that in technical matters the Ethicists were more successful than with social and political questions: food production generally kept pace with population growth, and distribution improved; efforts to combat the plague and other diseases were moderately effective; and irrigation and transportation facilities (roads, railroads, and shipping lines) grew rapidly. The problem of administrative dualism could not be resolved, however, largely because European officialdom was unwilling to surrender its position. Political decentralization and the introduction of some form of representation for Europeans and indigenes educated in Europe were limited by, among other things, the central government’s reluctance to surrender its ultimate control of budgetary and legal affairs. Likewise, legal standardization foundered on the increasingly heated debate over whether non-Europeans should be subject to Western law or to other legal principles such as those of local unwritten custom ( adat) or the sharia, Islamic law, called syariah in Bahasa Indonesia. *

In the end there just wasn’t enough money to produce significant changes. Health care improved but the benefits didn’t reach most Indonesians. Education opportunities for some upper and middle class Indonesians increased, but the vast majority remained illiterate. Though primary schools were established and education was theoretically open to all, by 1930 only 8 percent of school-age children received an education. Industrialization was never seriously implemented and Indonesia remained an agricultural colony. ++

The Ethical Policy was at best modestly reformist and tinged with an often condescending paternalism. Few Dutch liberals imagined that the islands would ever be independent. Most assumed a permanent, and subordinate, relationship with the Netherlands which was in striking contrast to American "Philippines for the Filipinos" policies after 1900. Thus the Indies' political evolution was extremely tardy. The Decentralization Law of 1903 created residency councils with advisory capacities, which were composed of Europeans, Indonesians, and Chinese; in 1925 such councils were also established on the regency level. In 1918 the People's Council (Volksraad), a largely advisory body to the governor general consisting of elected and appointed European and Indonesian members, met for the first time. Although it approved the colonial budget and could propose legislation, the People's Council lacked effective political power and remained a stronghold of the colonial establishment.

Efforts to Improve Education Under the Ethical Policy

One Ethical Policy goal was improvement of education. In contrast to British (or pre-British) Burma and the Philippines under both the Spanish and Americans, the islands were poorly endowed with schools, and literacy rates were low. In 1900 there were only 1,500 elementary schools in the entire archipelago for a population of more than 36 million. In Christian areas such as Ambon, some Batak communities in Sumatra, and Manado in Sulawesi, conditions were better than average because missionaries established their own schools. In Sumatra there were a large number of village-level Islamic schools. But public education was virtually nonexistent until the government established a system of village schools in 1906. By 1913 these schools numbered 3,500 and by 1940, 18,000. Many local people, however, resented having to pay teacher salaries and other school expenses. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Even members of the Javanese elite, the priyayi, had limited educational opportunities at the beginning of the century. A school for the training of indigenous medical assistants had been established at Batavia as early as 1851, and there were three "chiefs' schools" for the education of the higher priyayi after 1880. A handful of the elite, some 1,545 in 1900, studied alongside Dutch students in modern schools. But government policy maintained an essentially segregated system on all school levels. Dutch-Language Native Schools (Hollandsche Inlandsche Scholen), with 20,000 students in 1915 and 45,000 on the eve of World War II, have been described by the historian John R.W. Smail as "perhaps the most important single institution in twentieth century Indies history." Through the medium of Dutch, graduates were introduced to the modern world; being "natives," however, their subsequent careers were limited by racial bars, an injustice that stoked future nationalism. *

In 1900 the old medical school became the School for Training Native Doctors, whose students also played a major role in emergent nationalism. A technical college was established at Bandung in 1920, and four years later a law faculty was set up at Batavia. A very small but highly influential group of graduates matriculated at universities in the Netherlands, especially the University of Leiden and the economics faculty at Rotterdam. *

Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1905) was a Javanese princess who fought for the freedom of Indonesian women. The daughter of the regent of Jepara on Java, she was one of the first women to receive a Dutch language education. In her time women had to marry at a very young age in their teens and often as the second, third or fourth wife. Kartini fought for a better life for women. Her birthday is celebrated on April 21 every year. In letters written to Dutch friends, published in 1911 as Door duisternis tot licht: gedachten over en voor het Javanese volk (From Darkness to Light: Thoughts About and on Behalf of the Javanese People) and later translated into English as Letters of a Javanese Princess, Kartini called for the modern education of Indonesian women and their emancipation from the oppressive weight of tradition. These letters were published for the purpose of gaining friends for the Ethical Policy, which was losing popularity. As a result, a number of Kartini schools for girls were established on Java in 1913 from private contributions. *

Racial Issue in Indonesia

The unresolved issue of greatest importance was that of racial classification, which the modern Dutch historian Cees Fasseur has identified as both the “cornerstone and stumbling block” of the colonial state. Under the VOC, people were classified mainly on the basis of religion rather than race, Christianized indigenes generally falling under the same laws as Protestant Europeans. In the early nineteenth century, however, “enlightened” ideas began to emphasize—often on “humanitarian” grounds that sought protection of indigenous peoples—a separation between native and European rights, and the Cultivation System, with its clear distinction between rulers and ruled, emphasized that divide. In practice, if not yet in law, non-Europeans were treated very differently from Europeans in judicial and penal matters, and in 1848 legal and commercial codes appeared that were applicable to Europeans only. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Statutes of 1854 made a formal (but not very specific) distinction between Europeans and natives ( inlanders), at the same time as offering them “equal” protection. Everyday understanding and practice, however, was that “equal” did not mean “the same,” and that, in particular, Europeans and Asians occupied separate legal spheres. Almost immediately, however, there were difficulties. The category of Asians was further divided into “natives” and “foreign orientals,” among whom the Chinese, ostensibly for business reasons, in 1885 were determined to fall under European commercial law. The category “European” did not distinguish between full-blooded Europeans—the so-called totok Dutch—and those of mixed European and indigenous parentage—the Eurasians, or so- called Indos. In 1899, for political reasons, the Japanese were accorded European public and private legal status, and in 1925 the same was done for those whose country of origin adopted Western family laws, such as Turkey and Siam (after 1939, Thailand). “Natives” remained a separate, and lower, category. *

One might think that these circumstances would soon have led to the abandonment of all racial or national distinctions and a unification of colonial law and policy in general, but instead a fundamental dualism—native and European—remained. This outcome is all the more remarkable because it was at odds with important realities in colonial life. In the early twentieth century, Europeans increasingly married across racial categories. In 1905 about 15 percent were in interracial marriages, rising to 27.5 percent by 1925. And, although by the mid-1920s the older mix of dress and sensibilities known as “Indies” ( Indische) culture was rapidly giving way to more modern, urbanized, European- and American-influenced forms, numerous memoirs of Europeans, Eurasians, Chinese, and Indonesians make it clear that, despite obvious racial tensions and divisions, a new sort of Dutch-speaking, racially mixed, and culturally modern society was coming into being, mostly in the largest cities and mostly among the upper and upper-middle economic classes. *

A powerful countercurrent was also developing, however. In part, this was the result of the stubborn refusal of the colonial state either to surrender the formal dualism on which it had been built, or to face squarely the many anomalies created by its insistence on legal classification. Especially as the specters of nationalism and communism came into focus after 1918, the idea of emancipation for all simply could not be accepted, either in the abstract or for practical reasons. Other factors included the greater numbers of newcomer, full-blooded Europeans, including women, arriving in the colony, most of whom had the notion that colonial life there should adjust itself to their standards, not the other way around. The resentment that resulted among Eurasians and indigenes, already chafing against the effects of both formal and informal discrimination, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the approach of World War II (1939– 45) in different ways deepened existing fears. After 1930, racism became more visible in all corners of colonial society. To all of this the colonial government remained strangely cold, taking merely an attitude of watchfulness and determination to “keep the peace.” When, in 1940, the governor general appointed the Visman Commission to determine what the public really thought about issues connected with the constitutional development of the colony, the clearest finding was that discrimination was universally considered a serious problem, and that all other groups wished to hold legal equality with Europeans. The commission’s own suggestions for solving the problem by replacing racial criteria with education, financial, and other measures were unworkable, and in any case time had run out. On December 7, 1941, two days after the commission submitted its report, Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor.

Expansion of the Cash Crop Economy in Indonesia

The dismantling of the Cultivation System on Java, Dutch subjugation of Sumatra and the eastern archipelago, and the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 stimulated the rapid development of a cash-crop, export economy. Another factor was technological change, especially the rise of the automotive industry, which created unforeseen markets for tropical products in Europe and North America. Although palm oil, sugar, cinchona (the source of quinine, used in treating malaria), cocoa, tea, coffee, and tobacco were major revenue earners, they were eclipsed during the early twentieth century by rubber and, especially, petroleum. Sumatra and the eastern archipelago surpassed Java as a source of tropical exports, although sugarcane remained important in East Java. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Rubber plantations were established on a large scale in the early twentieth century, particularly around Medan, Palembang, and Jambi on Sumatra, with British, American, French, and other foreign investment playing a major role. A high-yield variety of rubber tree, discovered in Brazil and proven very profitable in Malaya, was utilized. It was during this period that the emergence of small-holder rubber cultivation, which was to play a major role in the Indonesian economy, took place. *

Tin had long been a major mineral product of the archipelago, especially on the islands of Bangka and Billiton, off the southeast coast of Sumatra. But petroleum was, and remained, Indonesia's most important mineral resource. Oil, extracted from Sumatra after 1884, was first used to light lamps. In 1890, the Royal Dutch Company for Exploration of Petroleum Sources in the Netherlands Indies (Koninklijke Nederlandsche Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van Petroleum-bronnen in Nederlandsche-Indië) was established, and in 1907 it merged with Shell Transport and Trading Company, a British concern, to become Royal Dutch Shell, which controlled around 85 percent of oil production in the islands before World War II. Oil was pumped from wells in Sumatra, Java, and eastern Kalimantan. *

Trekkers, Chinese and Social Changes in Indonesia

Rapid economic development during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries profoundly changed the lives of both European residents and indigenous peoples. By 1930 Batavia had a population of more than 500,000 people. Surabaya had nearly 300,000 people and other large cities--Semarang, Bandung, Yogyakarta, and Surakarta-- had populations between 100,000 and 300,000. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Always conscious of its ethnic and cultural diversity, Indonesian society grew more so as the number of Dutch and other Western residents--especially white women--increased and chose to live European-style lives in special urban areas with wide streets or on plantations. There also were increasing numbers of Indonesians who lived in these Western-style urban areas. Nevertheless, the European trekkers, as they were known in Dutch, were often not much different from their British counterparts described by George Orwell in Burmese Days, longing for the home country and looking on the native world around them with suspicion and hostility. An early twentieth century work described Batavia's European quarter as "well planned, it is kept scrupulously clean, and while the natives in their bright colored clothes, quietly making their way hither and thither, give the required picturesque touch to the life in the streets, the absence of the crowded native dwelling houses prevents the occurrence of those objectionable features which so often destroy the charm of the towns in the Orient." *

The trekkers contrasted with an earlier generation of Dutch colonists, the blijvers (sojourners), who lived most or all of their lives in the islands and adopted a special Indisch (Indies) style of life blending Indonesian and European elements. The rijsttafel (rice table), a meal of rice with spicy side dishes, is one of the best-known aspects of this mixed IndonesianEuropean culture. Eurasians, usually the children of European fathers and Indonesian mothers, were legally classified as European under Netherlands Indies law and played an important role in colonial society; but as trekkers outnumbered blijvers, the Eurasians found themselves increasingly discriminated against and marginalized. It is significant that a strand of Indonesian nationalism first emerged among Eurasians who argued that "the Indies [were] for those who make their home there." *

The Chinese minority in Indonesia had long played a major economic role in the archipelago as merchants, artisans, and indispensable middlemen in the collection of crops and taxes from native populations. They encountered considerable hostility from both Indonesians and Europeans, largely because of the economic threat they seemed to pose. In 1740, for example, as many as 10,000 Chinese were massacred in Batavia, apparently with the complicity of the Dutch governor general. In the late nineteenth century, emigration from China's southern provinces to Indonesia increased apace with economic development. Between 1870 and 1930, the Chinese population expanded from around 250,000 to 1,250,000, the latter being about 2 percent of the archipelago's total population. Chinese were divided into totok, first-generation, fullblooded emigrants, and peranakan, native-born Chinese with some Indonesian ancestry who, like blijvers and Eurasians, had a distinct Indies life-style. Overseas Chinese lived for the most part in segregated communities. During the early twentieth century, the identity of overseas Chinese was deeply influenced by revolutionary developments in their homeland. *

Rise of Education and Student Associations in the Early 1900s

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the young daughter of a Javanese pangreh praja, Raden Ajeng (R. A.) Kartini (1879–1904), expressed in letters to Dutch friends her enthusiasm for the “Spirit of the Age ... [before which] solid ancient structures tottered,” and her joy at witnessing the “transition from old to new” that was going on around her. Her main concern, however, was how her own people, whom she described as “grown-up children,” might progress—not precisely on a European model, but certainly with Dutch assistance— and concluded that the only way forward was through Dutch education. Kartini was only in part echoing ideas close to the hearts of the Ethicists who befriended and later lionized her and her efforts to promote modern education for women as splendid examples of their cause; it is clear that she rebelled against her traditional environment early on, and also did not always agree with her Ethicist friends. She was not alone. [Source: Library of Congress *]

At roughly the same time, young male contemporaries from the Javanese privileged classes who attended government schools were coming to similar conclusions, and were in a better position to take more public, activist positions. Like Minke, the hero of the 1980 novel set in Kartini’s day by Pramudya Ananta Tur (1925– 2006) in his Bumi Manusia (This Earth of Mankind), they were alienated from their parents’ generation, saw no future in aristocratic status or careers as pangreh praja, and felt drawn to all that was new, scientific, and modern. They did not yet have the idea of a nation in mind, but they were busy trying to imagine a modern society of their own, and how to make it a reality. In the process, they began to coalesce as a new priyayi class—a class based on achievement rather than birth, devotion to modernity rather than tradition—that would determine the course of their country’s history for the remainder of the century. *

That was not, of course, exactly what the Ethicists had in mind when they promoted Western education. They had hoped to create a broad new priyayi class, which, thanks to a modern Western education, would take a cooperative, associationist path. Such was the goal behind the extensive education reforms that, beginning in 1900, overhauled the limited training available for medical personnel, vernacular primary school teachers, and prospective pangreh praja. The most important institutions to appear were the School for Training Native Government Officials (OSVIA) and the School for Training Native Doctors (STOVIA), both established in 1900, and the Dutch–Native Schools (HIS), established in 1914, which were Dutch-language primary schools for the upper classes. There was also a significant expansion of vernacular primary village schools ( sekolah desa). *

Looking at the colony as a whole, these advances may seem negligible. As late as 1930, about 10,000 sekolah desa enrolled roughly 1.6 million students, or 2.8 percent of a population estimated at 60 million. Dutch-language education enrolled far fewer indigenous students: about 85,000 or roughly 0.14 percent of the total population. General literacy was estimated at 7.5 percent and in Dutch, about 0.3 percent. The Dutch-language schools with Western-style curricula created a small but motivated group, however, who emerged with a changed outlook. The schools were located principally on Java, where they gathered together students from all over the archipelago and gave them a shared experience. More convinced than ever of the power of Western education, they also grew dissatisfied. Although Dutch-language schools above the HIS enrolled Europeans as well as indigenes, the latter were a comparatively small minority, and they often felt the sting of prejudice, both real and perceived. Equal in education, indigenous students began to chafe under obvious inequalities: legal, economic, and social. They also quickly became aware of what a tiny minority they were in their own society, and that the demand for Dutch-language education, widely seen as key to social and economic advancement, was far beyond the colonial government’s ability or willingness to provide. Rather than generations of grateful and subservient graduates, the colonial schools quickly produced a significant number of malcontents, whose most common message was not that the colonial state was modernizing indigenous society too quickly, but precisely the opposite. They believed they could, and had the duty to, do better. *

Important Leaders and Political Groups in the Early 1900s

Students from Dutch-language schools founded the first indigenous groups organized along Western-influenced lines and aimed at modernization and education. Probably the first person to do this was the pangreh praja son, ex-STOVIA student, and pioneer journalist Raden Mas Tirtoadisuryo (1880–1918), who in 1906 established the Serikat Priyayi (Priyayi Association), aimed at convincing the colonial authorities to expand educational opportunities for priyayi. The best-known and officially recognized organization, however, was Budi Utomo (Noble Endeavor), founded in 1908 by Wahidin Sudirohusodo (1857–1917), also a pangreh praja son, graduate of a STOVIA predecessor school, and journalist. Wahidin’s goal was to organize financial support that would allow more priyayi to attend Dutch-medium schools; he discovered his most enthusiastic supporters were found among STOVIA students, who formed the core of Budi Utomo.

In 1909 a Surakarta batik merchant, Samanhudi (1868– 1956), asked Tirtoadisuryo to organize native businessmen, apparently in response to Chinese competition in the trade. The result was the Sarekat Dagang Islam (Islamic Trade Association), which in 1912 became the Sarekat Islam (Islamic Association). Now under the leadership of Haji Umar Said (H. U. S.) Cokroaminoto (1882–1934), an OSVIA graduate who had left government service, the Sarekat Islam had as one of its major goals the expansion of education of, especially, lower priyayi, and as a result the colonial government initially reacted approvingly, as it had done with Budi Utomo. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Cokroaminoto’s personal charisma, and his ability to use religion to attract wide public interest, helped the organization expand rap-idly—perhaps to 2 million members in 1919—and this mass base in turn attracted those with quite different political interests. Founded in 1913 by the Dutch radical socialist Hendrik Sneevliet (1883– 1942), the Indies Social-Democratic Association (ISDV), a small leftist party that had at first sought an audience in Eurasian groups and among laborers in modern industries, turned to Sarekat Islam. The young Javanese railway worker Semaun (1899–1971) and the Minangkabau journalist Abdul Muis (1890–1959) propagated radical Marxist ideas among followers of Sarekat Islam, which eventually split over political issues. The ISDV in 1920 became the Communist Association of the Indies (PKH), which after 1924 was known as the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI). The Muslim organization Muhammadiyah (Followers of Muhammad) was founded in Yogyakarta in 1912 by Kiyai Haji Muhammad Dahlan (1869–1933), a reforming “modernist” who had joined Budi Utomo three years earlier and had been encouraged by its members to establish modern Muslim schools. Muhammadiyah, and its “traditionalist” counterpart Nahdlatul Ulama, founded in Surabaya in 1926 by Kiyai Haji Hasyim Asyari (1871–1947), became very large and important associations, but their focus was primarily on educational and social affairs. *

Revolts and Tensions in Indonesia in the Early 1900s

It has become customary to describe Indonesia’s formative nationalist discourse in terms of three distinct streams of thought ( aliran), and to emphasize the discord among the “secular” or “territorial,” Marxist, and Muslim streams; a further division sometimes referred to is between “radical” and “moderate” followers. This sort of categorization is not entirely beside the point, for it indeed reflects many of the tensions and debates that filled the air. The colonial state, which founded the Political Intelligence Service (PID) in 1916 in an effort to understand the burgeoning political activity among Indonesians, borrowed these categories from the writings and speeches of those whom they watched and used them to organize their reports. The separation, however, was in some respects artificial. [Source: Library of Congress *]

For one thing, Indonesians began rather early to speak of the movement ( pergerakan), by which they meant all efforts that aimed at or presupposed obtaining freedom ( merdeka, kemerdekaan) from Dutch rule. Among both sophisticates and more ordinary folk, membership in two or more organizations that straddled categories was not uncommon, and leaders made a variety of attempts to bridge them, for example Muslim and Marxist ideas by the Javanese “Red Haji,” Mohamad Misbach (?–1926), or Marxist and nationalist principles by the Minangkabau Tan Malaka (1897–1949). Still, there was something thrilling about both the discord and the struggle to find a way out of it, something that suggested not just an intellectual world in motion but physical action. *

Already, in 1919 bloody uprisings in Tolitoli, Manado (northern Sulawesi), and Cimareme, Garut (western Java), Sarekat Islam had been implicated and the specter of a radical, activist Islam raised. The colonial state moved in quickly with investigations and arrests. In 1925 PKI labor organizers led strikes in the principalities and in the cities of Semarang and Surabaya, and in 1926 and 1927 local PKI leaders prompted sabotage and rebellion in western Java and western Sumatra, respectively. The colonial state responded by arresting more than 13,000 people, of whom 4,500 were given prison sentences, and nearly one-third of these were sent to a newly constructed prison camp in remote Boven Digul known as Tanah Merah (Red Earth), in Papua. *

Growth of an Indonesian National Consciousness

Despite efforts by the Dutch to suppress it the nationalist movement became stronger. In 1928, the All Indonesia Youth Congress proclaimed Indonesian to be a national identity unfiled under one language (Bahasa Indonesian). In 1927 Achmed Sukarno founded the Partai National Indonesia (PNI). It was banned a few years later and Sukarno was arrested. Even after Nazi Germany invaded the Netherlands, the Dutch colonial government in Central Asia was determined to hang on to power.

National consciousness emerged gradually in the archipelago during the first decades of the twentieth century, developed rapidly during the contentious 1930s, and flourished, both ideologically and institutionally, during the tumultuous Japanese occupation in the early 1940s, which shattered Dutch colonial authority. As in other parts of colonial Southeast Asia, nationalism was preceded by traditional-style rural resistance. The Java War, joining discontented elites and peasants, was a precursor. Around 1900 the followers of Surantika Samin, a rural messiah who espoused his own religion, the Science of the Prophet Adam, organized passive resistance on Java that included refusal to pay taxes or perform labor service. Militant Islam was another focus of traditional resistance, especially in Sumatra. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Indonesian nationalism reflected trends in other parts of Asia and Europe. Pilgrims and students returning from the Middle East brought modernist Islamic ideas that attempted to adapt the faith to changing times. Other influences included the founding of the Indian National Congress in 1885; the Philippine struggle for independence against both Spain and the United States in 1898-1902; Japan's victory over tsarist Russia in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), a major challenge to the myth of white European supremacy; and the success of Kemal Ataturk in creating a modern, secularized Turkey after World War I on the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. The Russian Revolution of 1917 also had a profound impact, reflected in the growth of a strong communist movement by the late 1920s. National consciousness was not homogeneous but reflected the diversity of Indonesian society. Dutch repression and the shock of war from 1942 to 1945, however, forged diverse groups into something resembling a unified whole. *

Early Political Movements

Centuries of Dutch cooptation made the highest ranking priyayi on Java and their counterparts on other islands politically conservative. But lower ranking members of the elite-- petty officials, impoverished aristocrats, school teachers, native doctors, and others--were less content with the status quo. In 1908 students of the School for Training Native Doctors in Batavia established an association, Budi Utomo (Noble Endeavor), which is considered by many historians to be the first modern political organization in Indonesia. Java-centered and confined largely to students and the lower priyayi, Budi Utomo had little influence on other classes or non-Javanese. Because of its limited appeal and the suspicion of many members of the high-ranking priyayi, the organization did not thrive. Similar eliteoriented groups, however, were established during the 1910s both inside and outside Java. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Significantly, Budi Utomo adopted Malay rather than Javanese as its official language. Malay, the lingua franca of the archipelago, became a symbol of its unity and the basis for the national language of independent Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia. Unlike Javanese, which was laden with honorific language emphasizing status differences, Malay was linguistically democratic as well as free of Java-centeredness, although Bahasa Indonesia itself does not abandon status-conscious forms altogether. *

A more assertive political movement than Budi Utomo appeared with the establishment in 1910 of the Indies Party (Indische Partij) by E.F.E. Douwes Dekker (known after 1946 as Danudirja Setyabuddhi), a Eurasian and descendant of the author of Max Havelaar. A veteran of the Boer War (1899-1902) fighting on the Afrikaaner side and a journalist, Douwes Dekker criticized the Ethical Policy as excessively conservative and advocated selfgovernment for the islands and a kind of "Indies nationalism" that encompassed all the islands' permanent residents but not the racially exclusive trekkers.*

In July 1913, close associates of Douwes Dekker, including physicians Tjipto Mangunkusumo and R.M. Suwardi Surjaningrat (known also as Ki Hadjar Dewantara, later founder of the Taman Siswa or Garden of Pupils school movement), established the Native Committee in Bandung. The committee planned to petition the Dutch crown for an Indies parliament. In 1913 it also published a pamphlet written by Suwardi, "If I were to be a Dutchman," that gained almost instant notoriety. Regarded as subversive by the colonial government and impudent by Dutchmen in general, the pamphlet, which was translated into Malay, led to the exile to the Netherlands of Douwes Dekker and his two Javanese associates. In exile, they worked with liberal Dutchmen and compatriot students. It is believed that the term Indonesia was first used in the name of an organization, the Indonesian Alliance of Students, with which they were associated during the early 1920s. *

Formation of Political Parties in the Early 1900s

All of these organizations, and the myriad student groups that sprang up after 1915 under names such as Young Java (Jong Java), the Young Sumatrans’ Association (Jong Sumatranen Bond), and Minahasa Students’ Association (Studerende Vereniging Minahasa), had similar Western-oriented, upper-class, younger-generation, new priyayi outlooks and expressed similar dissatisfactions with—and sought one or another degree of emancipation from—the colonial state. Initially none of them articulated a national idea. Then one organization ventured down that path: the Indies Party (Indische Partij), founded in 1911 by the radical Eurasian E. F. E. Douwes Dekker (1879–1950), grandson of Multatuli’s brother Jan. The younger Douwes Dekker was later joined by two Javanese, Cipto Mangunkusumo (1886–1943), a STOVIA graduate and charter member of Budi Utomo, and Raden Mas Suwardi Suryaningrat (1889–1959), an aristocrat of the Pakualaman, STOVIA student, and journalist. After 1922, under the name Ki Hajar Dewantara, Suwardi became an important leader in the field of education by establishing the private Taman Siswa (Student Garden) schools. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Douwes Dekker and the Indies Party not only called for independence of the colony but argued, using Austria-Hungary, Switzerland, and the United States as supporting examples, that all those who called the archipelago home should be citizens regardless of race. He called for a nation and nationalism that were modern and multiethnic. In 1913 Suwardi published an article entitled “Als ik eens een Nederlander was” (If I were a Dutchman), which, with famously acid humor, suggested that, if he were a Dutch person celebrating the centennial of liberation from Napoleonic rule in that year, he would not let the natives of the colony know about it, as they might get ideas about freedom, too. This was too much for the colonial government, which promptly banned the party and exiled its three leaders to the Netherlands for six years. *

It was precisely there and at that time, however, that the idea of Indonesia (from the Greek indos—for India—and nesos—for island) was taking shape. The term was coined by mid-nineteenth-century English observers, who meant it in a general ethnographic or geographic sense. Europeans, including the Dutch, found the word descriptively handy, and it was used in learned circles in the early twentieth century. That is when the small number of indigenous students who came from the Netherlands Indies encountered it. Australian historian Robert E. Elson reports that the first recorded uses of the words “Indonesia” and “Indonesians” by an indigenous speaker were in 1917 public talks by the musicologist Raden Mas Sonder Suryaputra in The Hague and Baginda Dahlan Abdullah in Leiden. They used the phrase “we Indonesians” and spoke of the right of Indonesians “to share in the government of the country.” In 1922 the organization of Indonesian students in the Netherlands changed its name from the Indies Association (Indische Vereniging) to Indonesian Association (Indonesische Vereniging), the first organization to use the word “Indonesia” (in Dutch) in its name. When Suwardi gave a speech at Leiden University using the term a few months later, it was clear that both the idea and name of Indonesia had taken hold, and the struggle to give it intellectual and practical meaning had truly begun. *

Rise of Islamic Parties

The responses of Islamic communities to the new political environment reflected their diversity. Sarekat Islam (SI, Islamic Union) was an early nationalist movement founded in 1909 by Islamic traders initially to combat Chinese influence in the batik trade but soon widening its agenda to take a more radical anticolonial stance. It grew out of the Islamic Traders' Association and was headed by a former government official, Haji Umar Said Cokroaminoto. Sarekat Islam became the first association to gain wide membership among the common people. By early 1914, its membership numbered 360,000. Committed in part to promoting Islamic teaching and community economic prosperity (anti-Chinese sentiment was a major appeal), the organization also drew on traditional Javanese beliefs about the return of the "Just King," and Cokroaminoto went so far as to cast himself in the role of a charismatic, if not divine, figure. Cokroaminoto's advocacy of Indies self-government caused the Dutch some anxiety. By 1916 Sarekat Islam had some eighty branches both on Java and in the Outer Islands. *

The modernist or reformist trend in Islam was represented by Muhammadiyah (Followers of Muhammad), a group established at Yogyakarta in 1912. It was particularly strong among the Sumatran Minangkabau, and a number of modernist schools were established there. Its importance is reflected in the fact that Minangkabau, such as Mohammad Hatta, were surpassed in numbers only by Javanese among the leadership of the Indonesian revolution. In 1926 the Nahdatul Ulama (Revival of the Religious Scholars and sometimes known as the Muslim Scholars' League) was organized as a conservative counterweight to the growing influence of Cokroaminoto's syncretism and modernist ideas among believers. *

Communist Party of Indonesia

The Indonesian Communist Party (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI) was founded in 1920 and quickly found support in the cities and among factory workers. It began as a splinter group within SI and developed the PKI into Indonesia’s first fully fledged pro-independence party inspired by European politics after its members were expelled by SI for their radical ideas. In 1926 the PKI attempted an uprising, carrying out isolated insurrections across Java and West Sumatra. This outraged the Dutch government and led to a brutal crackdown that resulted in the arrest and exile of thousands of communists and effectively shut the party down until the Dutch were kicked out of Indonesia. [Source: Lonely Planet]

In May 1914, Hendricus Sneevliet (alias Maring) established the Indies Social-Democratic Association (ISDV), which became the Communist Association of the Indies (Perserikatan Komunisi di Hindia) in May 1920 and the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1924. Backed by the Communist International (Cominterm) in Moscow, the PKI became active among trade unionists and rural villagers. In 1926 and 1927, despite advice by Tan Malaka, a Comintern agent from Sumatra, to the contrary, local leaders instigated rural insurrections in western Java and Sumatra. The government moved decisively to crush the insurrections and imprison communist leaders. Some, like Tan Malaka, fled into exile. But 1,300 communists were exiled to the grim Boven Digul penal colony in West New Guinea. The PKI all but disappeared, not to be an important actor on the political stage until after independence. [Source: Library of Congress]

Sukarno and the Nationalist Movement

The late 1920s witnessed the rise of Sukarno to a position of prominence among political leaders. He became the country's first truly national figure and served as president from independence until his forced retirement from political life in 1966. The son of a lower priyayi schoolteacher and a Balinese mother, Sukarno associated with leaders of the Indies Party and Sarekat Islam in his youth and was especially close to Cokroaminoto until his divorce from Cokroaminoto's daughter in 1922. A graduate of the technical college at Bandung in July 1927, he, along with members of the General Study Club (Algemene Studieclub) established the Indonesian Nationalist Union (PNI) the following year. Known after May 1928 as the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI), the party stressed mass organization, noncooperation with the colonial authorities, and the ultimate goal of independence. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Unlike most earlier nationalist leaders, Sukarno had a talent for bringing together Javanese tradition (especially the lore of wayang theater with its depictions of the battle between good and evil), Islam, and his own version of Marxism to gain a huge mass following. An important theme was what he called "Marhaenism." Marhaen (meaning farmer in Sundanese) was the name given by Sukarno to a man he claimed to have met in 1930 while cycling through the countryside near Bandung. The mythical Marhaen was made to embody the predicament of the Indonesian masses: not proletarians in the Marxist sense, they suffered from poverty as the result of colonial exploitation and the islands' dependence on European and American markets.

Beyond the goal of independence, Sukarno envisioned a future Indonesian society freed from dependence on foreign capital: a community of classless but happy Marhaens, rather than greedy (Western-style) individualists, that would reflect the idealized values of the traditional village, the notion of gotong-royong or mutual self-help. Marhaenism, despite its convenient vagueness, was developed enough that by 1933 nine theses on Marhaenism were developed in which the concept was synonymous with socio-nationalism and the struggle for independence. Mutual self-help in diverse contexts became a centerpiece of Sukarno's ideology after independence and was not abandoned by his successor, Suharto, when the latter established his New Order regime in 1966. Considering himself a Muslim of modernist persuasion, like Ataturk in Turkey, Sukarno advocated the establishment of a secular rather than Islamic state. This understandably diminished his appeal among Islamic conservatives in Java and elsewhere. *

The Minangkabau Sutan Syahrir (1909-66) and Mohammad Hatta became Sukarno's most important political rivals. Graduates of Dutch universities, they were social democrats in outlook and more rational in their political style than Sukarno, whom they criticized for his romanticism and preoccupation with rousing the masses. In December 1931 they established a group officially called Indonesian National Education (PNI-Baru) but often taken to mean New PNI. The use of the term "education" reflected Hatta's gradualist, cadre-driven education process to expand political consciousness. *

By the late 1920s, the colonial government seemed to have moved a long way from the idealistic commitments of the Ethical Policy. Attitudes hardened in the face of growing Indonesian demands for independence. Sukarno was arrested in December 1929 and put on trial for sedition in 1930. Although he made an eloquent speech in his own defense, he was found guilty and sentenced to four years in prison. His sentence was commuted after two years, but he was arrested again and exiled to the island of Flores, later being transferred to the town of Bengkulu in Sumatra. In April 1931, what remained of the PNI was dissolved. To replace the PNI, the Indonesia Party (Partindo) was soon established and, in 1932, Sukarno and thousands of others joined it. Partindo called for independence but was repressed by the Dutch and it dissolved itself in 1934. After Japanese forces occupied the Netherlands Indies in March 1942, however, Sukarno was allowed to reenter the political arena to play a central role in the struggle for independence. *

Dutch Response to Rising Indonesian Nationalism

The colonial government found this new Indonesian nationalism at least as revolutionary, and at least as frightening, as it had the prospects of Muslim or Marxist revolution. In 1927–28 Hatta and several other Perhimpunan Indonesia members were arrested in the Netherlands and charged with fomenting armed rebellion, but acquitted. In the East Indies, after his arrest and trial in 1929–30, Sukarno served two years in prison. Taken into custody again in 1933, he was held under house arrest, first in remote Ende, Flores, then in Bengkulu, western Sumatra, until the Japanese occupation (see The Japanese Occupation, 1942–45). Hatta and Syahrir were arrested in 1934 and sent to Boven Digul, and two years later to Banda Neira, Maluku, also for the remainder of Dutch rule. These and other arrests of leaders, along with ever- tighter political surveillance, crippled noncooperating parties and curbed public anticolonial expression but did not halt the spread of nationalist sentiment. [Source: Library of Congress *]

In 1932 the government, convinced—with some justification— that privately run Indonesian schools (for example, Ki Hajar Dewantara’s Taman Siswa schools and schools supported by Muhammadiyah and by various political parties like the PNI) were nationalist breeding grounds, attempted to subject them to strict state control in a so-called Wild Schools Ordinance. The outcry was so loud and so unequivocal, even among the most cooperative groups, that the ordinance had to be modified, and in the following decade the number of Indonesian-run and -financed private schools grew rapidly. Far more Indonesians, particularly those from an expanding urban middle class, sought a modern education than the colonial government was able or willing to satisfy; the Indonesian intelligentsia took the initiative themselves, and effectively used the opportunity to further a nationalist agenda. History lessons, for example, did not follow the colonial curriculum but emphasized the glories of Majapahit and made national heroes of all those who had fought Dutch forces, such as Diponegoro. These schools had a significant impact. By the end of the 1930s in the city of Surabaya, for instance, they enrolled four times as many students as the government schools. *

The attempts of the colonial government during the 1930s to repress Indonesian nationalism were associated particularly with Governor General B. C. de Jonge (in office 1931–36), infamous for his remark that the Dutch had already ruled the Indies for 350 years and were going to do so for 350 years more. Not everyone in the European community agreed with these hardline views, and some supported greater autonomy from The Hague so that they could run the Indies as they wished. Some voted in favor of the Sutarjo Petition of 1936, which modestly sought approval for a conference to consider dominion status for the Netherlands East Indies in 10 years’ time (it was later rejected by the Dutch government); others complained aloud that the East Indies had become a police state. But the approaching war made the thought of change even less, not more, likely. The Netherlands fell to Hitler’s forces on May 10, 1940, leaving the colony more or less to its own devices. Six months later, the colonial government made it clear that it was unalterably opposed to Indonesia merdeka—a free Indonesia—and therefore to the Indonesian national idea as it had developed to that time; no real accommodation was possible. Little wonder that by that time a great many thoughtful Indonesians, even the most moderate, had concluded that only the shock and dislocation of war in the archipelago might— possibly—bring about changes favorable to them. *

According to Lonely Planet: “Nationalist sentiment remained high during the 1930s, but with many nationalist leaders in jail or exiled, independence seemed a long way off. Even when Germany invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, the colonial government in exile was determined to hold fast. [Source: Lonely Planet]

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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