Java, Cultivation System

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Java, Cultivation System

After the Napoleonic Wars, Java and other posts in the East Indian archipelago were returned to the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1816. The Dutch East India Company (Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC) had governed these lands in the eighteenth century. It had extracted products from them—coffee and pepper from Java, spices and tin from the other islands—that were shipped to Europe and sold there at a profit. Coffee was grown in the highlands of West Java under a tribute arrangement known as the Preanger System, which Mason Hoadley has termed a "feudal mode of production." It had become very profitable in the eighteenth century. The VOC was ended in 1800, but the wish to profit from its possessions remained.

The Dutch government hoped in 1816 to apply modern economic concepts to the governance of Java, instead of the outdated mercantile policies of the old trading company. The VOC had obtained products for export by placing itself in the position of the traditional Javanese rulers and by obtaining the desired products in the form of tribute that had previously gone to the rulers. This pattern of indirect rule left Javanese society much as it had been, a hierarchical patriarchal system from top to bottom. The peasantry at the bottom was subject to unlimited corvée (unpaid labor). The European trading company agents were few in number and dealt almost exclusively with the Javanese district heads, called regents, upon whom they imposed quotas of products to be delivered at fixed, low prices. The regents, in turn, were left to their own devices in governing their districts.

This system of control was to be replaced by new liberal concepts of open markets, free trade, private ownership, individual liberty, and responsible bureaucracy. Already before 1816 the Javanese and European administration had been reformed and salaried, and the forced deliveries of products had been replaced by a tax on land, known as landrent. Accepting these changes, the restored Dutch government in Java set about advancing the social and economic life of the Javanese population in the direction of greater personal freedom and economic liberalism. The years from 1816 to 1829 witnessed a variety of problems and missteps in the effort to achieve this goal. Initially, coffee from West Java, where the Preanger System remained unchanged, was the main source of colonial revenue. But when world coffee prices fell after 1820, revenues no longer covered the costs of ruling Java. Efforts to expand production of coffee, indigo, pepper, and sugar into the government lands of Central and East Java, where landrent was being applied, had only limited success because they left the production of these products in the hands of the Javanese, as the new policies dictated. The Javanese villagers showed little interest in growing these export crops, preferring instead to grow their staple food, rice.


By 1829 King William I of the Netherlands was in desperate financial straits. His possession of Java was costing large amounts of money, and conditions at home were reaching crisis proportions. He was therefore highly receptive to the ideas of an innovative socioeconomic thinker, Dr. Johannes van den Bosch. Van den Bosch contended that the products of Java produced under a liberal economic system would never be competitive with similar products produced in the West Indies and South America under a slave economy. The King decided to allow Van den Bosch to try his scheme; he made him governor general and sent him to Java in 1830. Van den Bosch's plan was admittedly a return to some aspects of earlier East India Company control, but with the incorporation of later changes such as tax on land (landrent) and a reformed bureaucracy.


Van den Bosch's system proposed setting aside one-fifth of village land subject to landrent for growing an export crop to be designated by the government. On the remaining four-fifths of its land a village was free to grow whatever crops it wished and to sell them on the open market. The value of the designated export crop would more than cover the amount of the landrent owed by the village. When ripe, this designated export crop would be delivered to government warehouses, or, in the case of sugarcane and indigo, to processing centers. In 1832 coffee became one of the designated crops and soon its production in Central and East Java rivaled the amount produced in West Java under the Preanger System.

The plan then called for the government to export the products so obtained to Europe using the recently established (1824) Netherlands Trading Company and to sell the products on the world markets for a profit. The Javanese administrative hierarchy was strengthened to assist in managing this scheme. Over the life of the system, sugar production became the greatest source of profit. Sugar was produced under contract with European and Chinese entrepreneurs who processed the cane in mills built with government loans. These loans were to be repaid in processed sugar. Such sugar contracts became the source of individual wealth for the entrepreneurs. Indigo production fell off as aniline dyes were developed, and coffee suffered a serious blight in the 1880s and dropped out of production. Overall, however, the Van den Bosch system seemed like a win-win situation.

Not surprisingly the plan did not work as neatly and simply as described here. It was soon apparent that more compulsion was needed to induce the villagers to plant the designated crops. Some crops, especially indigo, not only weakened the soil for later rice-planting but also produced insufficient revenue to cover the landrent. In some cases more than the allotted amount of land was taken for government crops; indeed, in some areas favorable to sugar production, almost all village lands were taken and much of the population conscripted for work in the mill. Robert Elson (1984) has detailed the impact of such development in one East Java district. Crop failures were often not taken into account as the system mandated they should be, and where they occurred little remedial action was taken. Administrators, both European and Javanese, were awarded extra pay calculated on a percentage of the value of the crops produced in their districts. Some of them imposed extra burdens and harsh penalties on the defenseless peasantry in an effort to achieve greater personal gain. These abuses and shortcomings were highlighted in the writing of liberals in Europe opposed to a system of closed government control. Clive Day's book is the English language account reflecting this viewpoint. Van den Bosch's system was, however, highly successful in providing profits for the government of the Netherlands. Its success rather than its shortcomings brought about its end. Liberals gained control of the Dutch parliament and in 1870 passed an agrarian and land reform law that opened Java to free economic enterprise with limited property rights to land. This in effect ended the system, though remnants lingered on into the twentieth century.


Judgments of Van den Bosch's system by twentieth-century historians are less severe than the liberal accounts of the nineteenth century. The classic study of J. S. Furnivall already displays this trend. The most balanced and probably best account of the system is that of Cornelis Fasseur. It seems fair to say that the success of the system enhanced its dark reputation as the prototype of colonial exploitation. The wealth it brought to Europe and the capital infrastructure it created in Java laid the groundwork for future development. Its impact on Javanese society is difficult to assess, however. Clifford Geertz has written of the involution of the Javanese village, leading to "shared poverty"—though this view is now generally discounted. During and after the system, the Javanese village served as the vehicle for adapting Javanese socioeconomic life to the realities of changing market conditions and labor requirements. The peace and organization that the system brought to Java resulted in a rapid population growth that altered the nexus between land and labor that made liberal economic development possible. Robert Elson (1997) sees the stronger state control, growing capitalization, and production for international markets that the system introduced as the start of a trend that would ultimately destroy the small peasant producer.

see also Dutch United East India Company.


Day, Clive. The Policy and Administration of the Dutch in Java. New York: Macmillan, 1904.

Elson, Robert E. Javanese Peasants and the Colonial Sugar Industry: Impact and Change in an East Java Residency, 1830–1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Elson, Robert E. The End of the Peasantry in Southeast Asia: A Social and Economic History of Peasant Livelihood, 1800–1990s. New York: St. Martin's, 1997.

Fasseur, Cornelis. The Politics of Colonial Exploitation: Java, the Dutch, and the Cultivation System. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 1992.

Furnivall, J. S. Netherlands India: A Study of Plural Economy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1939.

Geertz, Clifford. Agricultural Involution: The Process of Ecological Change in Indonesia. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1963.

Hoadley, Mason C. Towards a Feudal Mode of Production: West Java, 1680–1800. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1994.

Van Niel, Robert. Java under the Cultivation System. Leiden, Netherlands: KITLV Press, 1992.

Van Niel, Robert. Java's Northeast Coast, 1740–1840: A Study in Colonial Encroachment and Dominance. Leiden, Netherlands: University Center for Non-Western Studies, 2005.

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