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B.J. Widick

East Indies – A Tender Morsel
for the Imperialist Appetite

(June 1940)

From Labor Action, Vol. 4 No. 8, 3 June 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What tragic irony that it took a Nazi blitzkrieg on Holland to focus world attention on a problem that is 400 years old: the fate of the Dutch East Indies. Once it was Portugal and Holland lighting over the fabulous riches of these islands while the Indonesians struggled for freedom from foreign domination. Today, England, France, America and Japan maneuver for control while 61,000,000 suppressed people want independence.

Situated between the continents of Asia and Australia, the group of islands known as the East Indies is almost as large as the United States. Here is some of the world’s most fertile land, and huge rubber and tin resources. For two centuries great fortunes were made through the notorious Dutch East Indies Co. When the Dutch government took away from the company its absolute right over the colonies a record was kept of the take. Under the regime of Baron van den Bosen, a governor-general, the sum of 166,000,000 pounds sterling ($830,000,000) was paid from 1830 to 1839 in forced tribute by the natives to the government.

Those Who Toil – And Those Who Profit

All things in the Dutch East Indies are divided into two categories: European and native. There are European courts of law for Europeans (i.e. whites) and native “justice” for the natives. Agriculture of the 5,000,000 fertile acres of land is sliced in half. To work the plantations for profit is a right reserved primarily to Europeans with a small scattering of native aristocrats carefully cultivated by the government.

To till the soil for food. This is granted the natives. Of course, all the best lands are owned by the Dutch government which leases them to capitalists on a 75 year basis. The Dupont dynasty, for example, owns 132,000 acres of rubber plantations valued at $18,000,000 and bringing a profit of $40,000,000 in the last decade. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. has holdings as large. Export business is a monopoly of the “foreigners,” while retail trade is largely in the hands of Indonesians. Those who profit and those who toil is another way of dividing society in the East Indies.

Rubber – And Blood

A new chapter in the dark history of the Dutch East Indies began when transplanting of the Hevea Brasileanis tree proved successful early in the 20th century. Rubber, the indispensable material of a machine age, found a new fatherland. Under the ideal climate and the excellent soil of the East Indies, rubber trees bloomed in the millions. Over 98% of the world’s rubber supply comes from the Far East. Of this, about 640,000 tons, or roughly 37% is exported from the Dutch East Indies. New millionaires in Holland rose by the hundreds from the profits of this venture.

Profits in crude rubber come from large scale production, from huge plantations. This means clearing the jungle. It brings malaria. And death. In one province, the death rate rose from 85 per thousand people in 1909 to 195 per 1000 in 1911, while the jungles were being chopped down. Elsewhere the story was the same. Nevertheless, employers fought against establishing hospitals. (It costs money.)

Chinese coolies imported by the thousands died by the thousands. So did the laborers shipped in from India. The terrible story is well told by Howard Wolf in his book, Rubber – A Story of Glory and Greed.

Rubber brought fabulous wealth to the Dutch rulers. It brought more misery to the natives, So, imported labor was used to prevent widespread discontent. Kanganies, or “recruiters of young pigs,” as the Chinese call them, shipped hundreds of thousands of Chinese or Tamils from Southeast India to work on the rubber plantations. The plantation owner paid from $20 to $31 a head. The indentured coolie was supposed to pay back $10 of this as transportation money. His pay was, however, 2½ cents a day and food. Trapped by the impossible demand for repayment, the rubber plantation worker became a virtual slave.

The Speed-Up Comes

In recent years, indentured labor or slavery has been cut down somewhat. But a new form of exploitation has arisen. Before 1927 yield per employee on a plantation was never over 1,000 pounds. Introducing speed-up methods – the rubber industry is notorious for this – production was increased to over 2,300 pounds per man in 1933. Combined with wage cuts and terrible living conditions this situation brought about a strike affecting nearly 500,000 plantation workers two years ago.

Rubber also brought the rise of a new class in the Dutch East Indies, the native producer. Although confined to small holdings, the natives could produce almost twice the present supply of crude rubber obtained from the islands. This development hurt the profit of Dutch plantation owners. so a scheme was worked out by British and Dutch interests to restrict the growth of rubber. Part of it called for cutting down the production of native holders. A heavy export tax on native producers only was proposed by the Dutch governor-general in 1934. The Volksraad, or People’s Council in the East Indies, objected furiously. It meant that thousands of native producers would be driven out of work, facing only starvation. The whole meaning of Dutch “home rule” government for the colonies became clear at that moment when the governor-general overruled the Volksraad and decreed the law into effect.

Freedom for the Islands!

It is, small wonder that a prominent crude rubber brokerage firm in Akron, Ohio recently declared – when asked about the fate of the Dutch East Indies once Hitler took Holland – that rubber circles feared the Dutch East Indies would declare their freedom. This is the main reason why French marines landed at a strategic port of the Dutch East Indies, and a flotilla of British destroyers anchored nearby.

Of course Britain, France and America want to keep this rich colonial plum away from Japan. Rubber and tin are vital war materials.

And Japan, too. would like to grab this area which would bolster a weakening economy. The diplomats of these four imperialist nations are engaged in bickering and bartering for a share in the loot. The American fleet stands at battle station near Hawaii to remind Japan and the other nations that Roosevelt is going to have his say in the matter. However, all four are watching something else very closely, a move of the native people for freedom from domination.

On this, the Big Four are agreed: No freedom for the Indies. It would mean freedom for the British East Indies and a sharpening struggle in Indo-China, and India. It would be a victory for the Third Camp, the camp of the oppressed peoples and the workers throughout the world. It would be a heavy blow to both camps of imperialist war makers. That is why we raise the slogan of “Freedom for the Dutch East Indies!” It is their right to have self-rule, to join other colonial people in a struggle for world emancipation from war and slavery.

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