Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Dutch Expansion in the Indonesian Archipelago around 1900 and the Imperialism Debate

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Dutch Expansion in the Indonesian Archipelago around 1900 and the Imperialism Debate

Article excerpt

Few works on modern imperialism (1880-1914) include Dutch political and military behaviour in the Indonesian archipelago. Theories concerning colonial expansion in this period have been based almost exclusively on the activities of the big powers, scrambling for new territories in Africa. The small country of the Netherlands, expanding its colonial frontiers within its nominal sphere of interest, did not arouse much interest, the less so as its history and sources are not easily accessible due to an internationally little known language.(2)

Even Dutch historians did not show a burning interest in acquiring a place under the imperialist sun. For nearly three quarters of a century, until about 1970, the Dutch public and Dutch historiography considered Dutch expansion to be different from that of other colonial powers, because this expansion under the so-called Ethical Policy had the high minded goals of "pacifying" and developing the indigenous population. The close connections between this policy and the expansion of Dutch administrative power into the Outer Regions of the archipelago were rarely recognized. The Dutch self-image as a peaceful, neutrality-loving nation did not allow for imperialism, which was identified with greed and power games. In the following pages, however, I want to argue that there are a number of reasons to include Dutch policy with regard to the Outer Regions of the East Indies around 1900 as a case of modern imperialism. Analysis of the official correspondence between the Indies government in Batavia (now Jakarta) and the Ministry of Colonies in The Hague on the decision-making preceding military expeditions brings to light an array of motives behind Dutch expansion in the Indies that fits in with theories of modern imperialism.

The Debate on Modern Imperialism

Whether or not one wishes to include Dutch expansion in Indonesia around the turn of the century in the debate on modern imperialism depends largely on how this term is defined. Imperialism has been called a "masked word", an ambivalent and emotional notion with a large range of uses: some 17 definitions of the word imperialism have been noted.(3) The term can be used in a historical or a political sense. In the former, more appropriate to a historical analysis, modern imperialism serves as a label for the historical process of the apportioning of the non-western world by the western powers between 1870 and 1914, and the motives and preconditions associated with this process.

It is only since the 1970s, after a conference of the Dutch Historical Association(4), that Dutch historians have started to discuss the question whether or not Dutch colonial policy in the Outer Regions can be regarded as modern imperialism. The debate has raised new interest in this aspect of colonial history; it has led to new archival research and started a lively polemic among Dutch scholars.(5)

Following in the footsteps of American scholar R.E Betts, Utrecht historian M. Kuitenbrouwer identifies two general characteristics of modern imperialism as relevant for the Indies: "contiguity", the outward extension of authority from older settlements, and "preemption", preventive occupation motivated by economic and nationalist rivalries with other countries(6). Rejecting his stance, Leiden historian H.L. Wesseling contends that "preemption" should be interpreted as "pegging out claims for the future", or as a paper partition, and should not be applied to the process of realizing old claims as the Dutch did around the turn of the century. Moreover, contrary to the views of Betts and Kuitenbrouwer, Wesseling considers "contiguity" an invalid criterion, since modern imperialism was a historically new phenomenon that reached out for completely new areas of the world. Dutch expansion, on the contrary, was "more of the same": it continued existing colonial policies and was precipitated by international processes instead of by its own motives. …

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