Indonesia – From Colonization to Independence

Pinkerton’s incredibly detailed 1818 map of the East Indies. (Wikimedia Commons)

The end of the 19th century was a tumultuous time in Southeast Asian history. Many colonial nations developed strong nationalist movements and, eventually, overthrew their colonial masters. Unlike Africa – recently colonized during the “Scramble for Africa” in the 1880s and 1890s – much of the region had been under European control for centuries. Between the end of the 19th century and the Allied victory in WWII, most of the colonies underwent dramatic transitions to independence. In this article we’ll look at the Southeast Asian example of Dutch East Indies, AKA Indonesia: its early conquest, later cultural reforms, and the eventual nationalist movement that resulted in its freedom.

Early Colonial Indonesia

A painting depicting the 1830 victory of the Dutch over Javanese rebels. (Public Domain)

Indonesia was initially colonized by the Portuguese in the 16th century, followed by the well-financed forces of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). European forces quickly removed local Indonesian political leaders beginning in Srivijaya, a Sumatran centre of Buddhism. The existing sultanates of Indonesia were toppled swiftly and their sultans forced into exile. As with the Philippines (and most other European colonies), local power structures were thrown into upheaval and traditional Islamic dynasties replaced by Dutch leaders. As a large and resource-rich part of Southeast Asia, Indonesia was a crucial point in the Dutch colonial empire up until its independence in 1949; Dutch efforts to increase their hold on the Indies – and the sprawling rubber and coffee plantations there – reflected the importance of the colony.

With the arrival of new religious institutions like Protestantism, Indonesian culture and practices were suppressed by European authorities. The Dutch efforts to stamp out Islam coupled with colonial efforts to ram Protestantism down Indonesians’ throats lead to a decline in the importance of scripture for many; by the time of the Indonesian independence movement, many leaders had eschewed religion altogether. Religious persecution became widespread, and many families and ethnic groups were forced to travel elsewhere within Indonesia to survive. Improved infrastructure and travel networks that facilitated VOC trade helped Indonesians move throughout the region, connecting with other Indonesians and beginning to form a national identity and vernacular.

Cultural Exchange & Reform

The colonial administrator’s residence on the Indies. (Wikimedia Commons)

With the publication of Max Havelaar in 1860 – a novel about the corruption faced by a colonial coffee salesman – many Dutch began to realize that conditions in their Indonesian colony were unliveable. The resulting reforms of the Dutch “Ethical Policy” led to an improved education system, and by the early 20th century, many wealthy young Indonesians studied abroad. By the 1940s, a majority of Indonesian nationalists espoused strongly leftist beliefs; US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was admired by some in the movement for his “socialist” New Deal policies, while others preferred to emulate Russia’s Vladimir Lenin. Much like how the Filipinos had initially capitalized on American attacks on their Spanish colonial rulers, Indonesian nationalists readily accepted (covert) assistance from Soviet forces who saw an opportunity to subvert the Western imperial hegemony.

Sukarno, Indonesia’s first free leader, in the late 1940s. (ThoughtCo)

While charismatic, educated nationalist leaders like Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta used all available technologies and platforms to spread their nationalist messages, their work was in some ways easier than that of their Filipino counterparts; Indonesians were, by and large, better-educated and more politically conscious because of the improved education system granted them by the “Ethical Policy”. As with other colonies, improved education (as demanded by progressives back home in Europe) had actually helped the nationalist movement and enabled the independence of Indonesia. 

A young Indonesian celebrates his nation’s independence day, decades after the end of WWII and the ensuing wave of decolonisation. (What’s New Indonesia)

Indonesian nationalists made full use of the political confusion of WWII, battling first the Japanese – who wanted Indonesian oil reserves – then holding off Dutch and American forces who hoped to resume colonial-era control of the country. After an initial declaration of freedom in 1945, and Holland’s official recognition of Indonesian independence in 1949, the “Dutch East Indies” ceased to exist. In the ensuing decades, Indonesia grew to become one of the strongest regional powers with a democratic system of governance. Despite Dutch religious reforms, Indonesia is currently the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. Although Dutch rule forever altered the course of Indonesian history – or suspended it, according to some – the country has largely regained its own national character and cultural autonomy.

Further Reading & Citations

Here are a couple useful sources for further reading or using to flesh out an essay. Remember to cite everything properly!

  • Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso, 1983.
  • Multatuli.”Max Havelaar”. Rotterdam: J. v.d. Hoeven, 1876.
  • Kahin, George McTurnan. “Southeast Asia: A Testament”. London: Routledge Curzon, 2003.
  • Kahn, Joel S. 1998. Southeast Asian identities: culture and the politics of representation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
  • Furnivall, J. S. 1974. Experiment in independence: the Philippines. Manila: Solidaridad Pub. House.
  • Harskamp, Jacob Teunis. 2001. The Indonesian question: the Dutch/Western response to the struggle for independence in Indonesia, 1945-1950 : an annotated catalogue of primary materials held in the British Library. Boston Spa: British Library.

This article is a revised version of an essay submitted for academic credit at the University of Toronto.

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