Colonial Systems: Schizophrenic Systems and Social Engineering Timothy J. Sipp 2008

HIST – 480 Western Impacts on Asia: Christians and Spices     Dr. Jonathan Porter              4/10/08

Colonial Systems: Schizophrenic Systems and Social Engineering Timothy J. Sipp

The colonial experience in Java was unique from that of other colonies, especially India. The lack of European understanding of indigenous cultures and social structures regarding village leadership, supra-village hierarchies and their relationships to land and labor led to grossly inaccurate assessments of actualities, possibilities and profit. These false perceptions and the ongoing European conflicts rendered sustainable colonial development implausible and led to the subsequent mis-application of schizophrenic“systems” to fix the problems of profit and power. This resulted in the virtual enslavement of the Javanese in a plantation economy.

The Napoleonic Wars of Europe greatly contributed to the failings of the Javanese colony by disrupting the flow of international trade. When the Dutch fell under French influence, Marshal Daendels introduced the liberal ideals of laissez faire production and free market pressures to the Dutch East India Company in 1808.(Van Niel. pp. 26-27) The Dutch East India Company, whose charter expired in 1799, had already failed as an enterprise due to corruption, mismanagement, and poor investments.(Van Niel. p. 26) The “Company System”, as it was known, was no longer seen as viable. This meant a reassessment of the ownership of monopoly by force. Not only was monopoly regarded as inefficient financially, but also inappropriate philosophically. This move towards economic modernization necessarily required the Javanese colony to suffer a more direct rule. This direct rule required a restructuring of the native populations to fit into the current European philosophical frameworks. In essence, it was preferable to reinvent Javanese society to fit European systems than to discover what worked within the indigenous social constructs of authority, land and labor.

Meanwhile, the opium trade in the 19th century was a unique success in terms of a heavily regulated monopoly that was simultaneously profitable and powerful. This system expressed British colonial control of domestic Indian sub-cultures and social engineering and sought to reclaim the immense outflow of British specie to China for the English consumption of tea. The British system was founded on the principles of social stability and loss prevention.(Richards. p.59) The existence of highly segregated complex social structures in India lent themselves to ready acceptance of the conditions necessary to engender and maintain the British monopoly on opium cultivation and distribution. The use of specific castes, determined to be of superior gardening skills, the strict limitations on growing acreages and growing licenses, and the apparent cultural willingness to produce export crops for money were key to the success of this venture. Additionally, in India, there was never a concern of having a famine because too much opium was being grown.

European influences that had traction along the Javanese coasts and major cities did not find their way into the heart of Java until the mid 19th century. European contact with Javanese peasants was rare and as such the nature of rural and remote village life was greatly misunderstood.(Van Niel. p. 28) “However, the central function of the village in the production process of Java made it necessary for every system to develop a conception of what the village had ideally been and what it might possibly become again.”(Van Niel. p. 29)  

When the British took Java from the French in 1811, the new Lt.-Governor, T.S. Raffles, set about improving on the liberal changes that Marshal Daendels had begun instituting in 1810.(Van Niel. p. 27) Raffles’ Landrent system , inspired by the zamindari and ryotwari systems employed in India, was intended to be an honest attempt at improving life for the peasantry while enriching the colonial power. Interestingly enough, since the British intended to fully return the Dutch possession after defeating Napoleon, it is conceivable that more altruism was involved than commonly perceived. This altruism was, however, misguided and misinformed and as a result led to a further decline of the Javanese peasants quality of life.

The Europeans were under the impression (arguably a self-imposed delusion) that all villages were independent entities that controlled  their land and the manner in which it was divided between members of the village. In reality, most villages in central and eastern Java employed a communal landholding scheme with either permanent, fixed shares or rotating shares for its community members. Not everyone in the village had equal rights to land.(Van Niel. p. 30) There was an extensive patron-client system that was island wide. This system of internal village patronage in combination with the tribute and corvee paid to supra-village indigenous authorities constituted this native socio-economic structure.  This tribute and corvee was intended to allow the villages to attend to their own internal affairs without outside interference. This was, however, not often the case.

Raffles loathed the supra-village system and viewed these authorities as “despotic, tyrannical, arbitrary and corrupt”(Van Niel. p. 33) Because these supra-village authorities did no work of their own, yet remained the wealthiest of the Javanese, they could be a great burden on the villages that supported them. Raffles was a firm believer in the liberal ideals of justice, individual liberty and economic freedom and hoped to do away with the supra-village system while employing these newly disenfranchised Javanese as policemen and administrators. This move was intended to relieve the pressure felt by the average villager in the pursuits of honest labor and self-enrichment. By instituting these changes and removing these middlemen, Raffles permanently altered the indigenous culture of Java.(Van Niel. p.33)

The main aspect of the ‘Landrent System’ was replacing the tribute deliveries with an equitably assessed rent for the now British sovereign lands that the peasantry worked. This amount was determined by estimating the value of principle crops that were grown on each parcel of land. This system was supposed to encourage the peasantry to produce the valuable export commodities of coffee and sugar, as well as indigo, cotton and pepper to a lesser degree. The monies earned for this export cultivation were, the Europeans thought, sufficient incentive to continue to grow these particular crops. The truth, however, was that given the opportunity, the local preference was for growing their staple crop, rice. The British landrent amounted to approximately 40% of the value of this crop annually.(Van Niel. p.34) 

Because most villagers and their headmen didn’t understand money the way that the local elites and/or European, Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs did, many villages simply entrusted themselves to these individuals for guaranteed payment of their landrent in exchange for a portion of the crops, sometimes as high as 50%, and the return of corvee. This reality, effectively undid all that Raffles was attempting to do. Though this practice of buying a village was strictly illegal, there were loopholes to exploit.

For private estates there was an annual tax of three-quarters of one percent of the purchase price of the land. The owners made these payments by running their plantations as they saw fit. However, the people were free to leave and, therefore, the owners didn’t want to be overbearing causing a mass exodus of their labor force, essentially rendering their investment lost.(Van Niel. pp.33-34)  

Much to Raffles dismay, the British returned Java to the Dutch in 1816, before Raffles could see his project through to profitability. The Landrent System never worked the way it was supposed to because of three main reasons: one, the British weren’t in Java long enough for it to take root and bare fruit; two the international commodity trade was still suffering the effects of the recently concluded European wars; and three, the system was simply incompatible with the Javanese socio-economic structure.(Van Niel. p.34)

Javanese society was far less complex, specialized and driven by economic gain than Indian society. Leisure time was of significant importance to the native population. Before the introduction of European ‘systems’ the Javanese were familiar with growing crops to satisfy their own needs first, followed by the tribute to the supra-village authorities with anything left over to be used as barter for goods and/or services from other villages or for general export. Though money was not unknown, barter for goods and services was preferred in the villages of Java and by the local elites. This fact was to perturb British and later Dutch efforts and foment the forced introduction of copper coinage and paper money in the 1830s in efforts to reform indigenous preferences to fit the export needs of the colonial powers.(Van Niel. p.39) This, in effect, was the monetization of the Javanese village.

By 1822 the production of coffee, still the most profitable export commodity, had fallen so low that the NIE, the new Dutch East India government, had re-introduced forced labor to meet free market demand and increase profits for the colonial government. Private entrepreneurs, however, found it difficult to enforce land and labor contracts with the Javanese villagers. These business people would pay cash advances on proposed deliveries at harvest only to find that time and again the villagers wouldn’t deliver and thus these investors lost the advances as well as the crops. Under the liberal judicial systems that the British introduced and the Dutch maintained, these slighted investors had little or no recourse to these funds as the village lands had been proclaimed ‘inalienable’ and therefore not subject to lien or loss.(Van Niel. p.38) This situation occurred so frequently that a liquidity crises ensued that saw the closure of several prominent trading houses, both Dutch and British.(Van Niel. p.39)   

These financial pressures drove the Dutch King to approve a new system that promised to deliver results. This system was called the ‘Cultivation System’ and was envisaged by Johannes van den Bosch in 1828.(Van Niel. p.40)  This system called for a more creative approach to forced labor by requiring that one fifth of all village lands be planted with government commodity crops. These crops were sold to the government in order to pay the villages landrent. If the crop wasn’t sufficient to pay all of the rent the village had to make up the difference. Conversely, if the crop exceeded the landrent, the government would pay the balance at market rates. If the crop failed with no fault to the village then they would not be assessed, nor reimbursed. (Van Niel. p.42) In order to gain the full cooperation of the villages, additional prestige was given to the supra-village authorities, in the form of the new administrative elites, and the village headmen. The elites were guaranteed hereditary succession rights to their positions and after 1832, were also awarded profit sharing percentages of the export goods that emanated from their respective territories.(Van Niel. p.42)

By the 1840s the focus on marginal government commodity crops, like indigo, had resulted in the neglect of the staple food crop, rice. This led to recurring famines and extensive migration throughout Java.(Van Niel. p.44)  Several instruments were employed to alleviate some of this pressure on the villages. One such instrument was the systematic under-reporting of territorial populations and available land for cultivation in order to reduce the amount of government crops required. Though the government knew this practice occurred they chose to ignore it. Another instrument that developed was that of village specialization, not unlike the caste-specific crop cultivation in India, though not as distinct.(Van Niel. p.45)  More land was being cultivated, requiring more labor, leaving less time for traditional leisure activities.

The need for more labor to prevent these famines and share the work in order to allow for more leisure time was the impetus for the population explosion that followed. From the beginning to the middle of the 19th century Java’s population nearly tripled to 12 million and these peoples now occupied previously unsettled areas.(Van Niel. p.45)

Due to the dynamic difficulties experienced by the Dutch in Java, there was never a grand strategy for development, only reactions to immediate needs and practical forces.(Van Niel. p.46) The monetization of Javanese society in conjunction with the Dutch desire to maintain much of Javanese culture “and the Javanese tendency toward social stasis  combined to keep the vast majority of the Javanese at the level of coolie labor, with or without a money wage.”(Van Niel. p.48) While this ‘Cultivation System’ proved profitable to those private investors who took the risks and the rewards to the Dutch government were undeniable, the lasting effects on the Javanese were indisputable. While the British had colonized India and redefined several facets of the native cultures to suit their needs, they did not turn India into a plantation economy, essentially enslaving a nation. 

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