Dutch Mennonite Industrial Pioneers in Java

From: Being “Dutch” in the Indies: A History of Creolisation and Empire, 1500–1920, by Ulbe Bosma and Remco Raben, tr. by Wendie Shaffer (National U. Singapore Press, 2008), pp. 125-126, 134:

The story of the [Karel] Holles and the [Eduard and Rudolf] Kerkhovens in Priangan would appear to bear little resemblance to that of the aristocratic lifestyle of the landed gentry of West Java or the leaseholders in the Principalities. In Dutch historiography they are described as hard-working Dutch Mennonites who started growing tea in primitive circumstances and were proud of their social involvement. Their style of entrepreneurship however, was not essentially different from that of the paternalistic rule of the powerful landowners of West Java or the leaseholders of the Principalities. The Holles and the Kerkhovens were, like the first generation of planters in the Principalities, forced to move between various cultures and lifestyles in order to acquire the necessary knowledge capital and labour force. Just as in the Principalities, contacts with a British trading house were crucial; in this case it was the firm of John Peer & Co. in Batavia. This firm introduced the Holles and their Kerkhoven nephews to tea cultivation in British India, which was at that time far more highly developed than in the Dutch East Indies.

Holle earned fame as an expert in the Sundanese language and as a promoter of local agriculture. He published many articles on both these subjects, and his brochures were translated into Javanese by the Wilkens and Winter families. In acknowledgment for his groundbreaking recommendations about rice cultivation and his contributions to the reform of government-directed coffee production in Priangan, in 1871 Holle was decorated with the title of Honorary Adviser for Native Affairs. An intriguing aspect of the Holle story is his well-known friendship with Muhammad Musa, chief penghulu (Islamic religious leader) of Garut, whose sister he was to marry. More mundane, but equally important, was the fact that without his knowledge of Sundanese, Holle would never have been able to grow a single row of tea bushes. Whereas in the Principalities (unpaid) labour of the Javanese peasantry was generally included, as it were, with the lease of land, in Priangan Holle had to recruit his workers himself. Hence he set up small shops and provided housing for his loyal employees — which included the women tea pickers. Incidentally, other landholders in West Java had already done the same thing. Like the legendary Major Jantji, Holle too created his own image; he was wont to wear a turban and flaunt precious rings on his fingers. In this way he demonstrated that — notwithstanding his simple lifestyle and approachability — he was also the tuan besar, the great lord. Although his business collapsed in the great crisis of 1884, the image of him as a benevolent landlord survived after his death, and a monument was unveiled in his memory This too, fitted into the tradition of the Indies, where similar monuments had been put up for other memorable landlords.

Such monuments suggest the specific manner in which certain landlords wished to be remembered in Sundanese history — that is, as development workers avant la lettre [i.e., before the term existed]….

The sugar barons of the 19th century have received scant applause from historians. They gained their wealth from exploiting slave labour (as in the Caribbean) or corvée labour (as in the Principalities). Easily won wealth turned them into bloated and reactionary bosses, a picture that continues to persist. Leaseholders are still seen as a curb on the development of modern production methods. But in fact, the Creole sugar planters in both the New World and the Old were usually forward looking and up-to-date with the latest technology of steam and steel. The planters and commercial entrepreneurs in Central Java who built a railroad track to transport goods to the coast had been preceded by the Cuban sugar producers. Both groups understood the political and technological signs of the times. In 1870 the leaseholders of the Principalities went ahead and founded the Indisch Landbouwgenootschap (Agricultural Society of the Indies), which had its headquarters in Surakarta and by 1874 already numbered 669 members throughout Java. It published its own newsletter run by Frederik Adriaan Enklaar van Lericke, an indigo planter in Surakarta. We shall meet him later in the role of a propagandist for agricultural colonies for the benefit of impoverished (Indo-)Europeans. The newspaper DeVorstenlanden started in 1870 in Surakarta, advocated the interests of the planters. It was no coincidence that these initiatives appeared at roughly the same time: they evidenced a growing self-awareness and the increasing role of science in agricultural industry.

I suppose one could make a similar case for the sugar barons of Hawai‘i—if they hadn’t taken over the government as well.

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Filed under economics, Indonesia, industry, labor, language, migration

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