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The dark history of slavery and racism in Indonesia during the Dutch colonial period

The anti-racism protest that started in the US has spread to Europe and the world.

Protesters are not only denouncing racism but also condemning slavery in the colonial era by bringing down colonialist statues and slave traders.

In the Netherlands, protesters called for the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen the Governor-General of the Dutch Trade Company (VOC) in the 17th century in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) to be removed.

Slave trading was widely carried out during the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia. Especially in North Sumatra, human trading for plantation workers, known as coolies, was widely practiced around 150 years ago.

Last year, I took some Australian students to Medan, as part of the New Colombo Plan program, to learn about plantation agriculture in North Sumatra. During the trip, I began researching about the soil in North Sumatra. I found out many pieces of research had been carried out in the colonial era on the soils of Deli.

The region near Medan is famous for its Deli tobacco, and colonial planters researched how to boost tobacco production. Behind the golden age and success of Dutch research, I found enormous human casualties that built plantations in North Sumatra. Widespread racism and slavery occurred in plantations managed by colonial companies.

Memorial of slave traders

Although some novels and academic writings have described the life of indentured labour in North Sumatra, the general public rarely discuss the history of slavery.

Even until the end of the 20th century, the Dutch government never acknowledged the violence during colonial times.

Medan, famous as a trading city in the early 20th century, once erected two monuments to commemorate the glory of slave traders. In 1915, a fountain was erected in front of the Medan Post Office to commemorate Jacob Nienhuys as the “pioneer” of the Deli plantation.

Medan Post Office. The Nienhuys fountain erected in 1915 in front of the Medan post office to commemorate Jacob Nienhuys. The fountain was destroyed in 1958.
Tropenmuseum Collection

In 1928, the statue of Jacob Theodoor Cremer was erected in front of the Deli Plantation Association office building (now the Putri Hijau military hospital) with an inscription “Cremer, 1847-1923. The founder of Deli tobacco plantations, the founder of the railway in Deli, a tireless warrior who worked for the benefit of this plantation country”.

The Cremer Kuli statue inaugurated in 1928 in front of the Deli Planters Vereeniging office, now the Putri Hijau Military Hospital in Medan.
Monumenten Colonial Collection

These two monuments no longer exist, but the legacy of coolies from the two colonial figures can still be felt today in North Sumatra.

The history of coolies in Deli

The story goes that Jacob Nienhuys, a Dutch tobacco trader, came to Labuhan Deli in North Sumatra in 1863. Labuhan was a small village near Belawan, inhabited by only 2,000 Malay residents and about 20 Chinese and 100 Indians.

The Dutch colonial government had just abolished the cultuurstelsel (or enforced planting) policy and implemented a “liberal” economic system in the Dutch East Indies, which was open to private companies.

The Sultan of Deli, Sultan Ma’ mun Al Rashid Perkasa Alam (1853-1924), was interested in developing land in Deli as a plantation area. He gave a land concession to Nienhuys to grow tobacco. The first problem faced by Nienhuys was a lack of labour. Local Malays and Bataks did not want to work as plantation labourers.

Nienhuys then sought labour by “importing” 120 Chinese coolies from Penang, Malaysia in 1864. After several years of trials, Nienhuys successfully developed Deli tobacco as a high-quality cigar wrapper sought after by European and American smokers.

With a capital investment from Rotterdam, Nienhuys founded the Deli Maatschappij or Deli Company and developed industrial, large scale tobacco plantations in Deli.

With the rapid development

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