Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Modernity and Cultural Citizenship in the Netherlands Indies: An Illustrated Hypothesis

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Modernity and Cultural Citizenship in the Netherlands Indies: An Illustrated Hypothesis

Article excerpt

The Ethical Policy, which the colonial administration in the Netherlands Indies adopted as a guideline at the beginning of the twentieth century, was not only aimed at uplifting and developing 'native' society: it went hand in hand with large-scale military expeditions. The Dutch mission to bring 'modern civilisation' to the archipelago was based on the idea that the 'uplifting' of the population could only be achieved by establishing firm colonial control. Therefore, the Dutch 'white man's burden', or mission civilisatrice, was in large parts of the archipelago accompanied by intimidating violence, creating a regime of fear that resonated in local memory for years to come. (1)

Most historians have considered the late-colonial state that the Dutch established in the Indonesian archipelago after 1900 as self-evident, needing no further explanation. Yet, it is amazing that such a vast archipelago, populated by more than 60 million people in 1930, could be governed by only a handful of Europeans. At that time the European population consisted of 240,000 people and formed only 0.4 per cent of the total population, while the heart of the colonial state consisted of a Civil Service of approximately 100,000 people, 15 per cent of whom at the most were European. (2)

The establishment of a state of violence is not the principal explanation for the relative ease with which a small European minority controlled the archipelago. More important was the efficient way in which the colonial administration employed a system of indirect rule both on Java and in most parts of the so-called Outer Islands. As Heather Sutherland explained in her study on the indigenous administrative elite (Pangreh Pradja) on Java, an incorporated aristocracy provided colonial authority a 'traditional' face. (3) Although indirect rule gave the impression of maintaining the status quo, sociologist J.A.A. van Doorn emphasised the interventionist and innovative capacity of the late-colonial state. In his book De laatste eeuw van Indie [The last century of the Indies], he outlined the colonial administration as a technocratic project, in which agricultural extension, expansion of irrigation, railways, education, healthcare and credit banking formed key elements. Moreover, the colonial administration aimed at systematically rearranging social relations through a paternalistic form of social engineering. According to Van Doom, the innovative engineer eager to implement developmental blueprints, and not the conservative administrator wanting to maintain the traditional forms of authority, was the role model for the ambitions of the late-colonial state. (4)

Taken together, violence, indirect rule and an interventionist technocracy may seem to provide a sufficient explanation for the degree to which the Dutch succeeded in maintaining their hold on the 'Tropical Netherlands' until 1942. Central to this approach is that the success of the colonial state is exclusively attributed to the administrative agency of the Dutch authorities. However, such a top-down perspective fails to consider the essential role played by indigenous (lower) middle classes in sustaining the colonial system.

The political importance of these middle classes has been emphasised because they were seen as the breeding ground of the nationalist movement. Prefiguring an idea launched by Benedict Anderson, Dutch anthropologist Jan van Baal described how the rise of the nationalist movement, originating from the urban middle classes, developed within the confines of the colonial state. (5) Already in 1976, Van Baal emphasised that for the nationalist movement the colonial boundaries formed the natural borders of the new nation. These middle classes consisted of lower civil servants, teachers, medical personnel, railway employees, clerks of European companies and journalists. By leaving their former, local surroundings, the colonial state was becoming their new habitat. …

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