The region now known as Indonesia was colonized in phases by the Dutch from 1814 onwards. The aim was to maximise the exploitation of its natural resources to swell the Dutch state coffers. The colony was subdivided into districts known as ‘residencies’ under Dutch administration.
Poverty and famine
Javanese farmers were required to convert one fifth of their rice paddy fields to grow coffee, sugar and indigo. In addition, they were required to pay land tax and provide statutory labour. The onerous duties imposed on the local population spawned poverty and famine. Hundreds of thousands of Javanese died in the period from 1845 to 1850.
Trade gained a huge impulse with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869. Thanks to the industrial revolution in Europe and the United States, these markets were clamouring for products. The Netherlands looked to its so-called outlying provinces. The explosive economic growth in North Sumatra required a massive influx of labourers. Hundreds of thousands of contract labourers were press-ganged from Java and Southern China. The heavy work and poor treatment and housing for the labourers led to rising tensions. Workers who failed to follow the rules ran the risk of severe corporal punishment.
Investigations into these excesses led to the publication of the ‘Rhemrev report’ in 1904. The report offered detailed proof of widespread ill-treatment on the plantations. Nothing was done with its conclusions, however. After being annotated with a brief response by the minister for the Colonies, the report disappeared into a drawer. It only saw the light of day in 1987 when it was unearthed by Jan Breman, an academic at the University of Amsterdam. Extracts from the report feature in the exhibition.