Januari 31, 2015

Sumatran Sultanate and Colonial State: Jambi and the Rise of Dutch Imperialism, 1830–1907

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in Dutch in 1994, this study examines relations between the Dutch and the Sumatran Sultanate of Jambi between 1830, when negotiations leading to the conclusion of a contract between the two began, and 1907, when, following the death of former Sultan Taha in 1904 and the death or exile of the leaders of the resistance against the Dutch, the sultanate formally came to an end. The arrangement of the book marries a chronological structure with a thematic approach in which each chapter deals with a number of decades when particular issues came to the fore.

The central question addressed in the volume is to what extent events and relationships in Jambi during this period can be construed as an example of “modern imperialism”. Locher-Scholten considers a range of established theories of imperialism, some emphasising economic factors, some international politics and some the domestic (European) social and political balance of power, as well as the approaches of more recent analysts who take more account of factors in the pre-colonial territories themselves or (like Fieldhouse) who integrate these elements in their analyses, recognising a complex of independent factors involved in imperialism and who attempt to temper the Eurocentric nature of western accounts.

In the case of Jambi, Locher-Scholten finds a range of factors at work. The colonial expansion which took place there in the late nineteenth century seems to have resulted from, amongst other factors, a pattern of continuity (being in part the product of earlier trade and colonial relations), a concern with contiguous circumstances (the result of the Dutch seeking to protect their interests in neighbouring Minangkabau and Palembang) and a tendency for pre-emptive action (in this case a concern that American interests might take advantage of newly discovered oil fields).

In considering the degree to which Dutch actions were instigated at the centre, that is in The Hague, Locher-Scholten finds that Dutch actions in Jambi in the 19th century were “a textbook example of peripheral imperialism”. In every case it was the local Dutch administration in Sumatra that took the initiative, usually as a response to administrative problems which LocherScholten blames squarely on the Dutch themselves. But although their proposals for action were “watered down” or “radically altered” by the government of the Dutch East Indies in Batavia before forwarding to the Netherlands, they were in fact in line with policy in The Hague. Locher-Scholten dismisses the argument that Dutch imperialism differed from that of other western powers in that it had an ethical thrust, at least in relation to Jambi. There appears to be little evidence that the Jambian rulers oppressed their people. Dutch imperialism, she argues, was not a special case except that it took place “within existing geographical borders”.

This is a scholarly, elegantly written and detailed account of Dutch actions and intentions at the centre and periphery, with a clear analysis relating it to current debates about colonialism. It will make an invaluable contribution to work in this field. Only the lack of a local perspective detracts from what is otherwise an excellent study, and this is inevitable given the scarcity of Jambian source materials. However, Locher-Scholten’s conclusion that Sultan Taha’s strategy of distancing himself from the Dutch in order to retain a degree of independence was ultimately unsuccessful may reflect too strongly the dominant European viewpoint. Taha retained both his authority in the greater part of Jambi and the allegiance of his people until his death at the age of 88. He was eventually accorded the status of national hero after Indonesian independence suggesting that, by local standards at least, his strategy was indeed seen as successful.[]

Elsbeth Locher-Scholten, translated by Beverley Jackson. Sumatran Sultanate and Colonial State: Jambi and the Rise of Dutch Imperialism, 1830–1907. Cornell Southeast Asia Program Publications, Studies on Southeast Asia No.37, Ithaca, NY, 2004. Timeline. Gloss. Bibliog. Index. pp. 332. Pb. US$19.00. ISBN 0 87727 736 2.


Fiona Kerlogue, “Book Reviews”, Asian Affairs, 36, 2 (2005): 341-342.

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