The atrocities commited by the Dutch during it, that the Javanese leader, Pangeran Diponegoro (1785 – 1855), has been proclaimed a great hero even by Dutch historians. He was indeed a charismatic figure-crown prince, Muslim mystic and man of the people-who led a series of uprisings against the Dutch trick; lured to negotiate, Diponegoro was captured and exiled to Sulawesi. The cost of the conflict in human terms was staggering – 200,000 Javanese and 8,000 Europeans lost their lives, many more from starvation and cholera than on the battle-field.
By this time, the Dutch were indeed in desperate economic straits. All efforts at reform had ended in disaster, to put it mildly, and the government debt had reached 30 million guilders!. New ideas were sought, and in 1829, Johannes van den Bosch submitted a proposal to the crown for what he called a cultuursteles or “Cultivation System” of fiscal administration in the colonies. His unoriginal notion was to levy a tax of 20 per cent (later raised to 33 per cent) on all land in Java, but to demand payment not in rice, but in labour or use of the land. This, he pointed out, would permit the Dutch to grow crops that they could sell in Europe.
Van den Bosch soon assumed control of Netherlands India, and in the estimation of many, his Cultivation System was an immediate, unqualified success. In the very first year, 1831, it produced a profit of 3 million guilders and within a decade, more than 22 million guilders were flowing annually into Dutch coffers, largely from the sale of coffee, but also from tea, sugar, indigo, quinine, copra, palm oil and rubber.
With the windfall profits received from the sale of Indonesian products during the rest of the 19th Century, almost a billion guilders in all, the Dutch not only retired their debt, but built new waterways, dikes, roads and a national railway system. Indeed, observes like Englishman J. B. Money whose book Java, or How To Manage A Colony (1861) was received in Holland with a great fanfare, concluded that the system provided a panacea for all colonial woes.
In reality of course, the pernicious effects of the Cultivation System were apparent from the beginning. While in theory the system called for peasants to surrender only a portion of their land and labour, in practice certain lands were worked exclusively for the Dutch by forced labour. The island of Java one earth, was thus transformed into a huge Dutch plantation. As noted by a succession of writers, beginning with Multatuli (nom de plume of a disillusioned Dutch colonial administrator, Douwes Dekker) and his celebrated novel Max Havelaar (1860), the system imposed unimaginable hardships and injustices upon the Javanese.
The long-range effects of the Cultivation System were equally insidious and are still being felt now. The opening up of new lands to cultivation and the ever – increasing Dutch demand for labour resulted in a population explotion on Java. From an estimated total of between 3 and 5 million in 1800 (a figure kept low, it is true, by frequent twas and famines), the population of Java grew to 26 million by 1900. Now the total has topped 110 million (on an island the size of New York State or England!), and the Malthusian time bomb is still ticking.
Another effect is what anthropologist Clifford Geertz has termed the “involution” of Javanese agriculture. Instead of encouraging the growth of an urban economy, as should have occurred under a free market system, Javanese agricultural development only encouraged more agriculture, due to Dutch intervention. This eventually created a twotier colonial economy in which the towns developed apart from the vast majority of rural peasants.
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