Nederlands / Dutch
Occupation and Bersiap Print

What was ‘Dutch’ about the East Indies? Why were the East Indies occupied by the Japanese? What was the purpose of the camps? What did the bersiap period mean for the various segments of the population of the East Indies? If you want to understand the events in the Dutch East Indies between 1941 and 1949, you need to know about the history of the East Indies. On these pages you will find a history of the Dutch East Indies in a nutshell.

The Dutch East Indies

The Dutch East Indies (DEI), now Indonesia, comprises thousands of islands stretching out over an area that, projected onto a map of Europe, runs from Ireland deep into Russia. In 1596 the first Dutch ships came to this archipelago. In the following two centuries the Dutch East India Company (VOC - Verenigde Oost Indische Compagnie), founded in 1602, built a trade network that stretched from the Cape of Good Hope to Japan. The core of its activities was located in the Indonesian archipelago. The VOC exercised territorial authority over the towns on the northern coast of Java, over West Java, Madura, several of the Moluccan Islands, and some towns on Sumatra and Celebes.

In the second half of the 18th century the VOC faced dire financial straits, mainly as a result of heavy competition from the British East India Company (EIC). In 1796 the VOC was declared bankrupt. Its possessions were taken over by the Dutch state. Over the course of the 19th century Dutch influence gradually expanded in the islands outside Java and Madura, the so-called ‘Outlying Districts’. The Netherlands formally took possession of the areas that had been claimed. This process was concluded around 1900. The borders of present-day Indonesia were reached at that time.

Around 1900 the so-called ‘ethical policy’ appeared. Education and prosperity received more attention. At the local and regional levels Indonesians were given a - for the time being modest - role in government, mainly on Java.

The colony started producing increasingly for the international market. The Dutch East Indies were a major producer of raw materials and foodstuffs for Europe and North America. On the eve of World War II rubber and petroleum were the most important export products: more than one third (37%) of the world’s rubber export came from the Dutch East Indies.


The thriving export market attracted many Dutchmen and other Europeans to the archipelago. The Indonesian population also increased considerably: between 1900 and 1940, for example, the population of Java increased from 28 to 47 million souls.

From a legal point of view the population of the Dutch East Indies consisted of three groups: Europeans, ‘natives’ (Indonesians) and ‘Foreign Orientals’ (Chinese, Arabs, Malays, British Indians, etc.). In 1940 there were approximately 68 million ‘Natives’, of whom 47 million lived on Java and Madura, some 1,250,000 Chinese, 50,000 Arabs, and a little under 20,000 Malays.

The Europeans - most of them Dutch nationals - formed the social upper class. Different legal rules applied to them as compared to the Natives and Foreign Orientals. The European society was formed by the Dutch who only worked in the East Indies for a limited period of time, the so-called ‘movers’ (trekkers), and those who had settled in the colony permanently, the so-called ‘stayers’ (blijvers). A considerable portion of these ‘stayers’ had lived in the East Indies for generations.

Many European men, especially those in the military, had relationships with native women and subsequently had children of mixed origin. From 1892 onwards the descendants of European fathers and native mothers were given the Dutch nationality, on the condition that they had been acknowledged by their father. This group, the Indo-Europeans (also known as Indos), was then automatically classified as European.

In this way a type of intermediate social class developed between the colonial upper class and the Indonesian population, an intermediate class that was sometimes regarded as second-class Dutchmen by the politically conscious Indonesians as well as the Dutch European. An estimated 80,000 Dutch nationals from the Netherlands and over 200,000 Dutch nationals born in the East Indies, lived in the Dutch East Indies during World War II.

Government and nationalism

The general government of the Dutch East Indies was in the hands of the highest representative of the Dutch government in the archipelago, the governor-general (GG), who was appointed for a period of five years. He was the commanding officer of both the Royal Navy in the East Indies and the Royal Netherlands East Indies Army (KNIL).

The European Provincial Government (Binnenlands Bestuur - BB) consisted exclusively of Dutchmen who had all received special training. However, the Dutch East Indies had a dual government system. The Dutch colonizer thought it advisable that the native population was governed as much as possible by their own leaders. That is why, parallel to the Provincial government, there was a native government system that acted as a buffer between the government and the native masses.

In the course of the 20th century a native national movement had developed in the Dutch East Indies. This movement advocated more autonomy and self-government, and sometimes independence from the colony. The best-known nationalist leader was Sukarno, a gifted speaker.

The Dutch authorities tended to underestimate Indonesian nationalism. They kept mostly to their own circle; social contacts with Indonesians were generally limited and superficial. It was inconceivable to them that the Netherlands would ever have to give up the colony. "Indië verloren, rampspoed geboren" (losing the Indies spells disaster) was a slogan endorsed by many.

The lack of understanding of the scope of the social and political developments in Indonesian society led to the misguided assumption that the nationalist movement was popular among the native urban elite only, and that the large majority of simple Indonesians wanted to have little to do with it. The conclusion of the colonial policymakers was that the Netherlands would have to remain in the Dutch East Indies for a long time to come in order to protect the native rural population from exploitation by their own Indonesian urban elite.

Read more: War in the East.