Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Emergence of Technological Development and the Question of Native Identity in the Netherlands East Indies

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Emergence of Technological Development and the Question of Native Identity in the Netherlands East Indies

Article excerpt

In 1905, the colonial government in the Netherlands East Indies launched a Department of Agriculture, whose primary mission was to improve the welfare of the indigenous people by promoting a process of what many officials in the colony were starting to call 'development'. (1) Technical experts with the Department expected to change indigenous agriculture on Java, and eventually the rest of the East Indies, by bringing up-to-date scientific knowledge about better seeds, fertilizers and cultivation tools to farmers. They confidently predicted that such technological changes would produce development by increasing prosperity in indigenous communities. Endorsing this technically-oriented mission, A. W. F. Idenburg, then Minister of the Colonies, called agriculture 'the single axis around which all prosperity, progress, and development turns'. (2)

Idenburg's seamless link between prosperity, development and directed technical change marked the growing political significance of both technology and the idea of development in the colonial state of the early twentieth century. Development, however, was not intended for all impoverished people; it was specifically defined as a project to help 'Natives', a legally defined category in the Indies. (3) Poor Chinese, or poor Europeans, received no attention from development planners. Development therefore was about more than uplift, it was also intertwined with the question of identity in the colony. As development became technological, technology became a critical site for interpreting Native identity, and for contesting the role of Natives in colonial society. This article explores the politics of development, technology and identity in the Netherlands East Indies by examining how ideas of development emerged from earlier politics of societal improvement in the colony, and investigating the implications of development's technological turn in the early twentieth century.

The idea that technological change is a necessary component of development is common today, thus making it is easy to forget that it is an idea with a history. Raymond Williams explores the term 'development' in his book Keywords, showing how in the nineteenth century its biological meanings came to be extended to economic and industrial systems. (4) Scholars argued that economies (and societies) like biological entities would go through predictable stages of growth, an assumption that characterized socioeconomic change as both linear and subject to a standard of normalcy defined largely by the histories of a few European nations (predominantly Great Britain). (5) Williams urges historical attention to such extensions in meaning, and argues that changes to vocabulary and meaning reflect and constitute changing interpretations of the world. When adopting the vocabulary of development to analyse and capture colonial social problems in the early twentieth century, policymakers in the Indies both defined distinctions between Europeans and Natives, an exercise in identity politics, and implicitly suggested that solving colonial troubles meant changing the attitudes, behaviours and technical practices of Natives, which in the context of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries primarily meant the Javanese people, who were the targets of most early development planning.

Just what was to be changed, however, was the central point of contention that plagued development work in the Netherlands East Indies. Michael Adas has shown how Europeans in colonial settings interpreted technical differences as evidence of the superiority of Western over indigenous culture, and justified projects in technological change based on the notion that indigenous people needed help to change to more 'civilized' ways. (6) It is tempting therefore to interpret technological development as an exercise in Europeanization. Yet we must be cautious before making this assumption. In the Indies, critics and policymakers agreed that Natives needed development, but did not agree that they should become more like Europeans. …

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