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Two centuries of slavery on Indonesian soil

  • Linawati Sidarto

    The Jakarta Post

Amsterdam | Mon, October 5, 2015 | 04:13 pm
Two centuries of slavery on Indonesian soil Tracing the history: Slaves by the water gate in Batavia by J. Rach, 1767.(Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)" border="0" height="366" width="510">Tracing the history: Slaves by the water gate in Batavia by J. Rach, 1767.(Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

While slavery in Dutch colonies in America is a known historical fact, hardly anyone is aware that up to a million people were bought, sold and had to endure slavery in Holland’s largest possession: Indonesia.

The slave Mono was regularly beaten by her owner. One day she could no longer stand the abuse and tried to run away.

Alas, she was captured. Her owner, seething with rage, tied her to a ladder, whipped and tortured her and left her for dead. Somehow, Mono was able to get hold of a knife and killed herself.

The above may sound like a scene from a Hollywood slavery movie, but it actually took place in Batavia in 1765, according to court archives belonging to the Dutch East India Company or Veerenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC).

Two books published this year in the Netherlands shed light on the widespread existence of slavery in the Indonesian archipelago during Dutch colonial rule.

“I became increasingly dismayed as I did my research: How was it possible that nobody had any idea about this dark history?” says Reggie Baay, author of Daar werd wat gruwelijks verricht: Slavernij in Nederlands-Indie (Gruesome things were committed there: Slavery in the Dutch East Indies).

The Netherlands started spreading its maritime wings in the late 16th century, dividing its global trading posts between the West Indian Company (WIC — West-Indische Compagnie), which overlooked its territories in the Americas and the VOC for Asia. The two companies came to be among the largest Atlantic slave traders between the 17th and the 19th centuries, shipping and trading hundreds of thousands of Africans to the Americas to work on plantations, including in the WIC territories of Surinam and the Antilles. Unknown to many, however, the Dutch were just as active in Asia.

Historian and writer Baay points out in his book that “from the beginning of their activities in Asia, the VOC bought, sold and used slaves.”

In his book Kleurrijke Tragiek: De geschiedenis van Slavernij in Azië onder de VOC (Colorful Tragedy: The history of slavery in Asia under the VOC), historian Matthias van Rossum recounts how VOC vicar Johann Christian Hoffman spoke of the dynamic trade carried out by Europeans and Asians in Batavia in the mid 17th century.

“The most important merchandise was slaves brought here from Ambon, Ternate, Bali, Borneo, Bengal, Madagascar and other countries, who were sold and resold on a daily basis,” Hoffman wrote in his journal.

Matthias van Rossum (Courtesy of Matthias van Rossum/Courtesy of Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum)Matthias van Rossum (Courtesy of Matthias van Rossum/Courtesy of Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum)

Slavery already existed in many places in Asia before the arrival of the Europeans. “In Sulawesi, for example, there were frequent wars between local rulers. Soldiers from the losing faction would be captured and kept or sold as slaves,” Baay explains.

Until then, however, slavery was mostly local and relatively limited in scale. “When the Europeans arrived, the slave trade became a much bigger and more lucrative trade. The VOC needed slaves to build forts and cities, work on plantations, offices and households. Slaves were no longer just sold locally, but across the archipelago and beyond,” he adds.

Van Rossum estimates that between 660,000 and 1,135,000 slaves were shipped into and from VOC territories in Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries — markedly more than between 495,000 and 850,000 in the West Indian colonies.

“There were internal trade routes in the Indonesian archipelago, particularly from the eastern and northern parts of the archipelago toward the more urban areas on Java and the surrounding islands.

“From the Indonesian isles, slaves were transported to India, Sri Lanka and South Africa,” explains Van Rossum, a senior researcher at Amsterdam’s International Institute for Social History.

Slaves were obtained in various ways.

“A great number of men, women and children were shipped off as prisoners of war and coerced into forced labor or sold,” Van Rossum writes. Drought and famine, he continues, also led to bonded labor and slavery, as did “small and large kidnapping operations”.

While slaves in the Americas mostly worked outdoors on plantations, those under the VOC were used in a wider variety of labor. Some were put to work on plantations, but many also worked in cities, burdened with tasks ranging from household work to construction and weapon production.

The notion that household and urban slavery was milder than plantation slavery is not entirely correct. “The close proximity in which slaves and their owners lived and worked often led to tension. The reality, or threat, of physical violence was part of these slaves’ daily lives,” Van Rossum said.

It was not unusual for female slaves to be forced into performing sexual services for their owners, and some were even rented out to earn money for their proprietors.

Reggie Baay (Courtesy of Anouk van Helmond/Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep Publishers)

Tracing the history: Slaves by the water gate in Batavia by J. Rach, 1767.(Courtesy of Rijksmuseum Amsterdam)

While slavery in Dutch colonies in America is a known historical fact, hardly anyone is aware that up to a million people were bought, sold and had to endure slavery in Holland'€™s largest possession: Indonesia.

The slave Mono was regularly beaten by her owner. One day she could no longer stand the abuse and tried to run away.

Alas, she was captured. Her owner, seething with rage, tied her to a ladder, whipped and tortured her and left her for dead. Somehow, Mono was able to get hold of a knife and killed herself.

The above may sound like a scene from a Hollywood slavery movie, but it actually took place in Batavia in 1765, according to court archives belonging to the Dutch East India Company or Veerenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (VOC).

Two books published this year in the Netherlands shed light on the widespread existence of slavery in the Indonesian archipelago during Dutch colonial rule.

'€œI became increasingly dismayed as I did my research: How was it possible that nobody had any idea about this dark history?'€ says Reggie Baay, author of Daar werd wat gruwelijks verricht: Slavernij in Nederlands-Indie (Gruesome things were committed there: Slavery in the Dutch East Indies).

The Netherlands started spreading its maritime wings in the late 16th century, dividing its global trading posts between the West Indian Company (WIC '€” West-Indische Compagnie), which overlooked its territories in the Americas and the VOC for Asia. The two companies came to be among the largest Atlantic slave traders between the 17th and the 19th centuries, shipping and trading hundreds of thousands of Africans to the Americas to work on plantations, including in the WIC territories of Surinam and the Antilles. Unknown to many, however, the Dutch were just as active in Asia.

Historian and writer Baay points out in his book that '€œfrom the beginning of their activities in Asia, the VOC bought, sold and used slaves.'€

In his book Kleurrijke Tragiek: De geschiedenis van Slavernij in Azië onder de VOC (Colorful Tragedy: The history of slavery in Asia under the VOC), historian Matthias van Rossum recounts how VOC vicar Johann Christian Hoffman spoke of the dynamic trade carried out by Europeans and Asians in Batavia in the mid 17th century.

'€œThe most important merchandise was slaves brought here from Ambon, Ternate, Bali, Borneo, Bengal, Madagascar and other countries, who were sold and resold on a daily basis,'€ Hoffman wrote in his journal.

Matthias van Rossum (Courtesy of Matthias van Rossum/Courtesy of Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum)Matthias van Rossum (Courtesy of Matthias van Rossum/Courtesy of Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum)

Slavery already existed in many places in Asia before the arrival of the Europeans. '€œIn Sulawesi, for example, there were frequent wars between local rulers. Soldiers from the losing faction would be captured and kept or sold as slaves,'€ Baay explains.

Until then, however, slavery was mostly local and relatively limited in scale. '€œWhen the Europeans arrived, the slave trade became a much bigger and more lucrative trade. The VOC needed slaves to build forts and cities, work on plantations, offices and households. Slaves were no longer just sold locally, but across the archipelago and beyond,'€ he adds.

Van Rossum estimates that between 660,000 and 1,135,000 slaves were shipped into and from VOC territories in Asia during the 17th and 18th centuries '€” markedly more than between 495,000 and 850,000 in the West Indian colonies.

'€œThere were internal trade routes in the Indonesian archipelago, particularly from the eastern and northern parts of the archipelago toward the more urban areas on Java and the surrounding islands.

'€œFrom the Indonesian isles, slaves were transported to India, Sri Lanka and South Africa,'€ explains Van Rossum, a senior researcher at Amsterdam'€™s International Institute for Social History.

Slaves were obtained in various ways.

'€œA great number of men, women and children were shipped off as prisoners of war and coerced into forced labor or sold,'€ Van Rossum writes. Drought and famine, he continues, also led to bonded labor and slavery, as did '€œsmall and large kidnapping operations'€.

While slaves in the Americas mostly worked outdoors on plantations, those under the VOC were used in a wider variety of labor. Some were put to work on plantations, but many also worked in cities, burdened with tasks ranging from household work to construction and weapon production.

The notion that household and urban slavery was milder than plantation slavery is not entirely correct. '€œThe close proximity in which slaves and their owners lived and worked often led to tension. The reality, or threat, of physical violence was part of these slaves'€™ daily lives,'€ Van Rossum said.

It was not unusual for female slaves to be forced into performing sexual services for their owners, and some were even rented out to earn money for their proprietors.

Reggie Baay (Courtesy of Anouk van Helmond/Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep Publishers)Reggie Baay (Courtesy of Anouk van Helmond/Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennep Publishers)

Slaves under the VOC regime had to adhere to strict rules, with severe punishments for violators. '€œMore than half, and at times three-quarters, of Batavia'€™s population in the second half of the 17th century was made up of slaves,'€ Baay says in his book. '€œDue to this imbalance, owners were constantly aware of the potential threat from their slaves.'€

These rules included restrictions on gathering together, carrying weapons or even using fireworks in celebrations. Slaves were to have minimum physical contact with Europeans. If a slave accidentally bumped into a European on the street, Baay writes, '€œthey would immediately be tied to a tree and savagely beaten'€.

At that time, harsh corporal punishments were an integral part of the penal system in Europe and its territories. The VOC regulations allowed owners to hit their slaves with a rattan stick or heavy ropes '€œto reprimand them'€.

Court archives reveal that some of these beatings led to death. While this was a crime under the law, '€œin practice the perpetrators were seldom punished'€.

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