Dutch Colonial Empire

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The foundations of the Dutch Empire were laid in the seventeenth century by trading companies operating in Asia and the Atlantic. Business was, in all periods, the primary motive of Dutch colonialism, engendering a utilitarian colonial discourse. Despite commercial leanings, however, Dutch imperial drives were essentially ambiguous, and scholars argue about whether the Netherlands had an imperial drive similar to that of the larger European powers. Whereas in the last decades of the nineteenth century Britain and France embarked on imperial programs of annexation and conquest, the Dutch kingdom seemed to be more committed to concentration than expansion. As late as 1873, the Netherlands handed over its unprofitable African possessions on the Gold Coast to Great Britain. At the same time, the Dutch colonial state in the Dutch East Indies showed a marked urge toward securing colonial borders and extending its authority. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Dutch fought protracted wars in Aceh, the northern tip of Sumatra, and many other areas of the Indonesian archipelago in order to subdue indigenous states that were considered disobedient to Dutch hegemony. If by the mid-nineteenth century colonial rule was still limited to Java and to isolated pockets in other areas, by 1910 it extended over almost the entire archipelago. The Dutch imperialist drive remained limited to its Asian colonies, however. In contrast, the Netherlands' small possessions in the Americas—Surinam on the Guyana coast and the six small Caribbean islands of the Antilles—hardly attracted attention in the Netherlands. Demographically, they were negligible: the six small islands of the Antilles had about 55,000 inhabitants in 1910 and Surinam around 100,000, compared to about 45 million in the Dutch East Indies.


By the turn of the twentieth century, Dutch colonialism developed its own brand of the "white man's burden," called the ethical policy. Its ethics consisted of a mixture of Christian philanthropy, an increasing awareness of state responsibilities toward the poor, and feelings of superiority packaged in a rhetoric of development and uplifting of indigenous peoples. As a consequence, in the popular press and even in official publications, terms such as ereschuld (debt of honor)—the moral duty of the Netherlands to return the profits of colonial exploitation to the Indies—appeared next to disparaging stories about the backwardness of the colonized.

The new imperialist atmosphere was tangible in the Netherlands, where the colonies became an instrument of national propaganda. Statues, friezes, monuments, and exhibitions extolled Dutch overseas exploits, military victories, and technological progress but also proudly showed the cultures of the colonized peoples. Despite this short-lived episode of imperial pomp, colonial rule remained in essence a technocratic affair. The colonies were scarcely the subject of political debate and figured only marginally in party programs and at political meetings. The Dutch East Indies were a place for investment and development. Even in socialist circles, only a few voices advocated the immediate end of colonial rule.

In the colonies, the beginning of the twentieth century was marked by the emergence of public opinion and political associations. The first Indonesian organization, Boedi Oetomo (Noble Endeavour), was established in 1908 and aimed primarily at protecting the interests of the Javanese administrative elite. An explicit call for autonomy was raised only a few years later by the Indische Partij (1912; Indies party), which was then banned by the government. In the following years, numerous other associations sprang up, stimulating the desire for a representative government. In 1918 a People's Council was established, although it was chosen by a very small constituency and invested with limited powers.

Due both to growing concerns in government circles about the nationalist movement's radicalization and to the conservative direction of the Netherlands after an abortive socialist revolution, political reform in the Indies stalled after 1918. Colonial government became increasingly repressive toward Indonesian movements, particularly after a violently repressed communist uprising in 1926. After that, radical opposition was silenced, and nationalist leaders were arrested and exiled.

Dutch colonialism in the 1930s was complacent and politically conservative. Independence was generally acknowledged as the ultimate aim, but the moment of its realization put off to an undefined future. But behind the facade of rust en orde (peace and order), the old structures were increasingly becoming unbalanced. The rise of western-educated indigenous elites eroded the boundaries between the separate elements of colonial society, which had once been separated by law and labeled native, foreign oriental, and European. The access of Indonesians and Indonesian-Chinese subjects to modern education and their entry into the colonial establishment stimulated their political ambitions and led to demands for constitutional reform. These changes were clearly visible to the Dutch regime, but reform was obstructed by Dutch economic interests in the colony and the conviction that the Dutch were indispensable for guiding the Indonesians to political maturity and prosperity. Despite the rapid changes in Indies' society, a redrawing of its political relationships proved to be impossible.

Eloquent radicals such as the engineer Sukarno and the lawyer Mohammad Hatta spent years in and out of prison or exile. Even pleas by such moderate Indonesian nationalists as Mas Soetardjo and Muhammad Thamrin for autonomy were turned down. Throughout the world, it was becoming clear that the colonial system was unsustainable. Other colonies, including India and Ceylon, went through a process of institutional and constitutional change, augmenting representative government and the participation of indigenous officials in the country's administration, and the Philippines were preparing for independence. But in the Netherlands, few advocated autonomy or even constitutional reform. Only on the brink of Pacific involvement in World War II, in September 1940, did a commission for political reform, the Visman Commission, present ambiguous proposals for reforms, which would in no way have granted autonomy and were in any case not implemented.


During the first decades of the twentieth century, the economy of the East Indies was transformed. The economic center of gravity shifted from Java's plantations, which were primarily sugar estates, to the outer islands, in particular Sumatra and Borneo, where rubber and oil were the dominant exports. The economic boom in the outer islands was led by large, Dutch-based corporations with little intervention by the colonial government. In several regions, local smallholder enterprises, especially those producing rubber and copra, were successful in the 1920s, but they failed to generate growth outside the export sector. In contrast to the British colonies, the commercial ties between the Netherlands and the East Indies became weaker during the 1930s. The destination of exports gradually shifted from the Netherlands to other parts of the world, especially Japan and the United States. In the late 1940s, this eased the Dutch economy's adjustment to the loss of its colonies. According to economists of the period, the Dutch East Indies represented 13.7 percent of the Netherlands' gross national product in 1938.

Parallel statistics are not available for the Caribbean colonies, but they would make a bleak contrast. Only a handful of large Dutch companies operated in the west. Surinam and the Antilles attracted few investments from the Netherlands. Just before the abolition of slavery in 1863, Surinam had 245 plantations; by 1937 this number had dwindled to 42. Sugar cultivation, which had made Dutch entrepreneurs rich in the eighteenth century, had not disappeared but production had become concentrated on two plantations, one of which was run by the large Dutch company Nederlandsche Handel Maatschappij. During the 1910s and 1920s, Dutch governors initiated a program to stimulate small agriculture, which met with marked success: Surinam became an exporter of food products instead of an importer. But in colonial terms, the western colonies had little to offer to the Netherlands. The two exceptions were that Koninklijke Olie/Shell established refineries on Curaçao in 1915 and in Aruba in 1924 and that bauxite mining was started in Surinam in 1922 by the Surinaamse Bauxiet Maatschappij. These industrial complexes were a boost to the listless economies of Surinam and the Antilles, but they created lopsided economies, dependent on these single sources of income.


World War II brought radical changes throughout the Dutch Empire. With the outbreak of the war in the Pacific on 7 December 1941, following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia, the Dutch colonial state fell like a house of cards. The colonial government sought refuge in Australia and had to bide its time until the Allied Powers would reconquer Indonesia. Most white and many Eurasian Dutch citizens were imprisoned by the Japanese army.

In the meantime, and largely out of sight of the Dutch government-in-exile, the Indonesian landscape changed fundamentally. Nationalist leaders were freed from exile and detention and assumed a leading role in government and mass organizations created to support the Japanese war efforts. Also important were the generation of young Indonesians, who now had the opportunity to assume public roles as journalists, artists, and administrators, and the military training the Japanese provided to Indonesian youth, whom they organized into an Indonesian military corps under Japanese command. These three developments were crucial in postwar period.

On 17 August 1945, two days after the Japanese capitulation, the Indonesian nationalist leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed the independent Indonesian Republic, which became a clarion call for revolution. Although the Dutch had discussed the possibilities of reform and autonomy, they were not prepared for confrontation. They made three mistakes: First, most Dutch politicians saw Sukarno as an agitator and a Japanese collaborator and were not aware that he embodied a wish for independence that was common to many educated and politically active Indonesians. Second, they misjudged nationalism's support among the Indonesian population. Third, they did not anticipate international opposition, in particular that of the United Nations and the United States, to armed conflict. It was this international pressure that eventually forced the Netherlands to a negotiated agreement in 1949.

During the Indonesian War of Independence, the Netherlands dispatched about 135,000 troops to Indonesia, in addition to 70,000 members of the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army. The war lasted four years, took the lives of about 4,500 Dutch troops, several thousand Dutch civilians, and an unknown number of Indonesians (the number 100,000 is often mentioned but remains a wild guess). Twice, in July 1947 and December 1948, the Dutch army launched large-scale offensives aimed at securing the main production areas of colonial businesses (the first attack was called Operation Product) and weakening the position of the Indonesian Republic. At the same time, outside Republican areas, the Dutch East Indies government started building the framework of a federal state. By 1949 sixteen states had been created, all of which were invested with democratic and administrative institutions of their own.

What the Dutch called the Indonesian question led to heated debates in the Netherlands. The conflict in Indonesia was not fought over the principle of independence—this had by and large been accepted by the main protagonists by mid-1946, but about the form it would take. Under pressure from the United States and the United Nations, talks were resumed between the Indonesian Republic, the newly created local governments, and the Netherlands. In the negotiations leading to the transfer of sovereignty on 27 December 1949, four issues were paramount: the protection of Dutch business interests in postcolonial Indonesia; the establishment of a United States of Indonesia, of which Sukarno's republic would be only one part; the construction of an Indonesian-Dutch Union; and the continuance of Dutch rule over New Guinea.

Within twelve years after the transfer of sovereignty, the Dutch lost on all four issues. The political arrangements were the first to fall. The federal structure was annulled by August 1950, when all states joined the unitary Indonesian Republic. A year later, Indonesia left the Indonesian-Dutch Union. In the following years, national leaders used labor unions to put pressure on Dutch companies, which had been a source of concern for the Indonesian government. In December 1957 Dutch business enterprises were occupied by Indonesian unions and the military and the last vestiges of Dutch colonialism were cleared away. By 1962 the Dutch were forced, again under U.S. pressure, to leave New Guinea and to hand it over first to the United Nations and in 1963 to Indonesia.


The years after 1950 saw the advent of the concept of development, which in many senses represented a stronger version of the old ethical policy. In order to legitimize the Dutch hold on New Guinea, which had been largely neglected before the war, the island became the testing ground for development. In a few years, many schools, roads, and settlements were built and local civil servants trained. Until well into the 1960s, most of the budget for development aid went to the Netherlands' own colonies. The same was true in Surinam and the Antilles, although they took an entirely different political path. Surinam and the Antilles had seen very little nationalist activity before World War II. In contrast to Europe and Southeast Asia, World War II brought not hardship to the Dutch Caribbean and South American colonies but an economic boom thanks to a heightened Allied demand for their oil and bauxite industries.

Promises of autonomy made by the Dutch government-in-exile during the war triggered political consciousness, in particular in Surinam. In the immediate postwar years, political parties sprang up and organized along community lines. In the first general elections in 1949, the National Party of Surinam, which was dominated by Creoles (the descendants of African slaves), won two-thirds of the seats in parliament, and it dictated internal politics for decades. Surinam and the Antilles gradually gained greater autonomy. Talks begun in 1948 resulted in a Charter of the Kingdom in 1954. According to the charter, Surinam, the Antilles, and the Netherlands were equal partners within the kingdom. The Netherlands would refrain from intervention in interior affairs, but in practice the colonies would become more financially dependent on the Dutch government than ever before.

A revolt of oil workers in Curaçao, in the Antilles, on 31 May 1969 over payment and racial inequality was quelled by the Dutch army, recalling the armed interventions in Indonesia twenty years earlier. The violent clashes caused the governments in the Netherlands, the Antilles, and Surinam to reassess their relationship. In 1973 a center-left government took office in The Hague under Prime Minister Joop den Uyl, a Social Democrat, and it accelerated the decolonization process. This concerned only Surinam; Antillean politicians unanimously considered the Antilles still unripe for independence. Although the self-determination of Surinam was the public justification for the move, the swelling stream of Surinamese immigrants to the Netherlands was the primary source of Dutch concern. Above all, after their experiences in Indonesia and New Guinea, the Dutch wanted a "clean" decolonization in Surinam. Surinam became independent on 25 November 1975, within two years of the opening of talks. Surinam received a promise for 3.5 billion guilders of financial help from the Dutch government. Aid was stopped in December 1982, however, after the murder of fifteen critics of the military regime.

By the 1980s empire had given way to postcolonial diaspora. In the aftermath of the decolonization of Indonesia and New Guinea, about 300,000 Europeans, most of them born in the Indies, came to the Netherlands, followed in the 1960s by several thousand Indonesian Chinese and political refugees from the terror that besieged Indonesian society since the violent advent of General Suharto in 1965. In the 1960s migration from the Caribbean increased. In 2005 the Surinamese community in the Netherlands includes roughly 330,000 people and is almost equal to the total population of Surinam. Similarly, 130,000 Antilleans migrated to the Netherlands since the 1960s.

Empire also left its traces in the awareness of both the Netherlands and its former colonies. Dutch business interests in Asia have for a long time been concentrated on former Dutch colonies, as has much of the Dutch tourist industry. Political relations between the Netherlands and its former colonies have often been strained, and Dutch criticism of Indonesia's human rights record angered the Indonesian government enough that it canceled development relations in 1992; they were resumed only after the fall of Suharto in 1998. Relations with Surinam are even more turbulent. Apart from recurrent bickering over the resumption of financial aid, former coup leader Desi Bouterse was convicted before a Dutch court to a sentence of eleven years' imprisonment on a charge of drug trafficking in 1999. As Surinam does not extradite its citizens, the case continued to hamper relations between the two states into the twenty-first century.

See alsoColonialism; Decolonization; Netherlands.


Jong, J. J. P. de. De waaier van het fortuin: Van handelscompagnie tot koloniaal imperium: De Nederlanders in Azië en de Indonesische Archipel, 1595–1950. The Hague, 1998.

Oostindie, Gert. Paradise Overseas: The Dutch Caribbean: Colonialism and Its Transatlantic Legacies. London, 2004.

Oostindie, Gert, and Inge Klinkers. Decolonising the Caribbean: Dutch Policies in a Comparative Perspective. Amsterdam, 2003.

Ricklefs, M. C. A History of Modern Indonesia since c. 1200. 3rd ed. London, 2001.

Remco Raben