Famine in a Land of Plenty: Plight of a Rice-Growing Community in Java, 1883-84

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Explaining the economic underpinnings of peasant rebellion in colonial Southeast Asia, lames Scott argues that, with the possible exception of the Dutch East Indies, especially lava, where the Dutch colonial state seemingly preserved, or rather 'fossilised', the agrarian community and ensured its subsistence needs, the colonial era in Southeast Asia was 'marked by an almost total absence of any provisions for the maintenance of a minimal income while, at the same time, the commercialisation of the agrarian economy was steadily stripping away most of the traditional forms of social insurance'. (1) Consequently, Scott seems to argue, there were no severe shortages of food let alone famines in lava, and other Indonesian islands, under colonial rule, even if localised instances of erosion in subsistence guarantees provoked peasant rebellion. (2) Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, says Scott, 'the spectre of hunger and dearth, and occasionally famine' were brought to the 'gates of every village' as a result of 'lilliputian plots, traditional techniques, the vagaries of weather and the tribute in cash, labor, and kind exacted by the state' under colonial rule. (3)

Indeed, a senior Dutch official writing an account of the improved well-being of indigenous people in Java under the liberal colonial economic policy in the early 1920s proudly claimed that Java had been free of famines, which plagued India under the British colonial rule, as a result of safeguards to ensure the food supply. (4) Famines do not appear in the annals of Indonesian economic history after 1870, in striking contrast to the famines, scarcity of food and the low standard of living, which allegedly affected the Javanese in the previous four decades. (5) The famines in east Indramayu (west Java) in 1843-44 and in Demak and Grobogan (central Java) in 1849-50 are notorious events as pernicious consequences of state enterprise in commercial agriculture in Java in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. (6) The known episodes of famine in the Dutch East Indies after 1870 occurred on the island of Lombok in 1891-99, just after Lombok came under colonial rule, and during 1938-40, with devastating consequences for the local population. (7) Those famines were insignificant, to judge by Scott's remarks made in the context of major devastating famines in Indochina in the 1940s, which was a terrible subsistence crisis even in comparison with the 'Great Bengal famine' of 1943. (8)

Curiously enough, all known episodes of famine in the Dutch East Indies occurred in primary rice-growing regions and in times of great pressure on peasants imposed by the colonial state or its agents. The famine in east Indramayu (west Java) in 1843-44 was, for instance, precipitated by a sudden change in the existing arrangements for peasants to dispose of their rice for sale, disrupting arrangements of credit and food supplies. The local peasants were accustomed to sell an increasing portion of the rice crop to satiate the demand for rice in coastal towns from the 1820s onwards. A group of Chinese rice traders had built a network of credit supply to procure rice from the peasants, which served the needs of peasants and supplied local markets with a large amount of rice for over two decades, when a Dutch entrepreneur secured a monopoly of the rice crop in east Indramayu through his close association with the colonial administration. The peasants faced a serious problem because much of their rice crop was taken away from them, disrupting food supplies until the next harvest through credit from the Chinese traders, who were replaced by the new rice mill owner, causing sudden starvation and depopulation of considerable magnitude. (9) The Demak-Grobogan (central Java) famine in 1848-49 was precipitated by assiduous collection of land rent from peasants against the background of increasing landlessness, and shortage of cattle and money income. It was a rice-exporting region into the early 1830s, where the local indigenous supra-village elite had curtailed land available for peasants, causing landlessness among people, who had no other source of income to buy rice. …