Hunger, philanthropy and the state in colonial Indonesia

The case of the c. 1900-1904 famine

Sander Tetteroo

The turn of the century was characterized by severe famines in many European colonies, most infamously British India. This paper presents a study of the famine that struck large parts of colonial Indonesia, principally Java and some of the Outer Islands, during the timeframe of roughly 1900-1904. Though demographic evidence is inconclusive regarding death tolls, conservative estimates would be in the tens of thousands. The severity of the Indonesian crisis is further demonstrated by the volume of state relief funds, which totaled over fl. 4.000.000, a massive sum for the time.

Focusing primarily on the Residency Semarang (Java), I argue that for colonial Indonesia food shortages and famine were common experiences. Using the concept of ‘vulnerability’, the long-term and direct causes will be identified: previous famines, chronic indebtedness, deficient infrastructure, lack of employment and capital and epidemics affecting humans, cattle and crops all contributed to the weakening of societal resilience to calamities. The breaking point was reached after successive years of epidemics and erratic – likely El Niño-related – weather patterns, which caused droughts, excessive rainfall and floods. Losses of food crops and income led to starvation, illness, forced migration, crime and much personal tragedy. Despite large-scale market response through massive rice imports, loss of purchasing power rendered even cheap rice unaffordable to the destitute.

The crisis triggered missionary aid, private philanthropy and state relief. Missionaries provided the poor with food, employment or healthcare at their mission posts. Chinese merchants donated large quantities of rice for food doles. Formal aid organizations included the ‘Semarang committee for the sick and needy natives’, spearheaded by famous publicist Pieter Brooshooft. Philanthropy attracted attention at all levels of Indonesian and Dutch society, including the royal family.

In the meantime, after much bureaucratic delay, the colonial state had intervened at the end of 1900. Similar to the famine policies of British India and French Indochina around the same time, the core of the state’s efforts were so-called relief works: public employment at work sites where heavy physical labour was demanded in exchange for a minimal wage. These works included the building or repairing of roads or canals. Other measures included provisions of foods and crop seeds, erecting sick lodges, supply of credit to farmers and (small-scale) interventions in the rice market.

Finally, the colonial state’s interpretation of famine will be discussed. In particular, I present the official inquiry into the Semarang famine, which was published in 1903. While it exhibits many of much typical colonial racism and biases, its analytical framework is strikingly similar to modern models of disaster analysis: it constructs famine as an event triggered by experience of natural disasters (‘rampen’, in modern terminology: hazards), to which a society may develop varying degrees of resilience (‘weerstandsvermogen’). While the key factors the state report identifies as determining resilience differ from modern views, there is a striking overlap between early twentieth- century colonial discourse and modern rhetoric on poverty and hunger.