Indonesia as one the biggest tea producer (in numbers) before World War II? When I read this in one of The Devotea’s posts, I was quite puzzled and I started to dig into this topic.
According to Wikipedia and the FAO, Indonesia was in 2011, the 8th producer of tea in the world with a production just over 140,000 tons.
But this didn’t give me a hint about the situation prior to World War II and its evolution since that time.
I turned out to good old Internet and a good legal resource to find old scientific journals in French and in other languages Persee and after some researches, I found a lot of old French articles from the 20s-30s but with a few from the 80s-90s dealing with this topic (at least in part).
I found quite a lot of information and that these people had already faced a problem I had: that most books or articles on this topic were written in Dutch. (1) If anyone has access to any info and can pass it to me, it would really help.
I won’t go yet into details about the numbers but tea was important to the Dutch East Indies (as they called Indonesia then), not for local consumption but for exportation, the goal of the first European colonies (there were also settlement colonies but Indonesia was not one of these and the Netherlands were never overwhelmed with a big population).
Parts of Indonesia were first dealt with by the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company) until it was nationalised in 1796 by the Batavian Republic (after going bankrupt)
During the Napoleonic Wars, most of the possessions of the former VOC were occupied or controlled by the British before being given back to the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands following the Congress of Vienna and the Anglo-Dutch peace treaty that followed.
What had the VOC achieved? A lot but I didn’t find a lot regarding tea in Indonesia (tea trade is another topic). The only exception was the land ownership, which was quite complex and in a way became more complex thanks to the VOC because of the different treaties it made with the local powers and the differences in what both parties understood from the terms and the concepts used. (2)
Following two wars in the area against local people and the Belgian Revolution in 1830, the Netherlands was in need of money as they were facing bankruptcy. Rhis is when they decided to get the most of their colonies. The new Dutch East Indies governor Johannes Van den Bosch’s priority reflected that new policy with a peculiar focus given to the increase of the resources (and therefore the money) drawn from the territory he was appointed to
To do this, he implemented (among other things) the Cultivation System in which the local peasants had to dedicate 20% of all lands to exportation crops or to work 60 days every year on government owned plantations. (3)
This system that slowly turned Indonesia into a huge plantation with sales going through a whole network of middlemen gave enough cash to the Netherlands but faced opposition because of famines and epidemics created by the priority to export crops, because of independent merchants that preferred free trade and because of the publication of Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company.
The public opinion in the Netherlands forced the government to change its politics with first a “Liberal Period” focusing on free trade, free investments by anyone willing to do it, which saw an increase in the number of big plantations (owned by European and American companies) and in the exportations. (4)
Obviously, this led to a focus on plantations being optimised when it comes to crops thanks to the work of the different specialised or not garden stations that tested, implemented and improved the different cultures, following what could be defined as the British model implemented in India and probably elsewhere in the world. (5) (6)
This policy was followed by an “Ethical Policy” (starting in 1901) with a focus on the local people and the civilisation mission focus in the colonies. However, this new approach had to deal with money problems to fund these investments (in infrastructures, education…).
I just went quickly through some general things regarding agriculture in Indonesia that will allow me to introduce tea production and the reason for the sudden changes during and after World War II.
One question however remains to be solved: when was tea introduced in Indonesia?
I found two answers: 1826 with seeds/trees coming directly from China and with the first batches sent to the Netherlands in 1835 (7) but this would mean that it was there before Robert Fortune stole it from China. The other answer is 1898. (4)
(1) Coolhass W. Ph. Outre-Mer néerlandais in Revue d’histoire des colonies t.44 n°156-157, 3e et 4e trimestres 1957
(2) Durand Frédéric, La question foncière aux Indes Néerlandaises, enjeux économiques et luttes politiques (1619-1942) in Archipel Volume 58 1999
(3) Durand Frédéric, Trois siècles dans l’île du teck. Les politiques forestières aux Indes néerlandaises (1602-1942) in Revue française d’histoire d’outre-mer t. 80 n°299, 2e trimestre 1993
(4) Evolution de l’économie indonésienne dans Etudes et conjoncture – Economie mondiale 5e année n°2, 1950
(5) Maas J. G. J. A., La culture et la sélection du Palmier Elaeis aux Indes Néerlandaises dans Revue de botanique appliquée et d’agriculture coloniale, 4e année bulletin n°34, juin 1924
(6) van Haal C. J. J., La sélection des Caféiers aux Indes Néerlandaises dans Revue de botanique appliquée et d’agriculture coloniale, 19e année bulletin n°209, janvier 1939
(7) Robequain Charles Problèmes de colonisation dans les Indes néerlandaises dans Annales de Géographie 1941 t. 50 n°281