The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
IN both Africa and Asia the twentieth century has presented the colonizing nations with new and difficult problems of administration. Black and brown races alike are beginning to feel conscious of their nationality and are making claims to self-government. Perhaps the movement has taken most definite form in the Far East. Holland is struggling with her colonial problems in the Indies just as Britain is doing in India and the United States in the Philippines. Because the "native movement" in the Dutch East Indies has its counterpart in other Asiatic and African colonies and dependencies, and also because of the strategic situation of those islands between the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, the recent developments there carry lessons for both American and European students of international affairs.
The Dutch East Indies are a great archipelago. Indeed, the distance between the easternmost and westernmost islands of the group is greater than the distance from New York to San Francisco, and the population numbers over 50,000,000. There are about 49,000,000 natives of different races, about 1,000,000 Chinese (most of them born in Java) and from 200,000 to 250,000 Dutchmen and other white people. Nearly 70 percent of the so-called Europeans in these islands are really Eurasians, having a native mother and a European father.
Scattered as they are over a vast number of islands, the natives have little mutual intercourse; furthermore, they belong to nearly forty different races and tribes, with different languages and dialects and varying degrees of culture and civilization. So that when advocates of the native movement speak of " the Indonesian nation," they refer to something which does not exist, for not even the three races of Java consider themselves a nation, and certainly the inhabitants of the other islands do not think of the Javanese as compatriots. It is fair to say that the Dutch East Indies are held together by no other bond than the supremacy of Holland, which extends over all the islands of the archipelago. One of the extreme revolutionary nationalists in Java, obliged to admit this fact, put it in a different way when he said: "We are bound together by our common hate of the oppressor!" But the contrary is true. If the natives really hated the white men living among them and considered the representatives of the Dutch Government as oppressors, Dutch sovereignty over the archipelago would have ended years ago, for though the commander of the military force in the colony and the higher officers are recruited from the mother country, most of the common soldiers and many of the lower-rank officers are natives. The policemen also are natives and with few exceptions they are absolutely loyal. In the communistic disturbances of 1926-27 only one European was murdered, but a comparatively large number of natives suffered at the hands of violent revolutionaries of their own race.
All this does not imply that the native movement in the Dutch East Indies or elsewhere in Asia should be considered lightly. In the Dutch East Indies, as in British India, it is a serious phenomenon, even though it may not necessarily become dangerous. Certainly it demands insight and firmness of will on the part of the statesmen responsible for handling it.
The respect of the colored races for the white has been diminishing gradually ever since the beginning of this century. It received its first serious blow in the victory of little Japan over great semi-European Russia in 1905. It received its second and even more weighty blow in the World War, when nearly all the nations of the white race, with the help of colored soldiers from their colonies, were fighting one another.
It would take us too far afield to consider here in detail the origin and development of the native movements in Asia and Africa. But one element in this phenomenon that we cannot pass by is the influence of the instruction given by the ruling governments to their colored subjects. Of course no one who has a right conception of the duties of a colonizing nation toward its native subjects will raise any objection in principle to the education of the natives; the duty of the dominating nation to further the intellectual and moral as well as the economic development of its subjects cannot be denied. However, it is an open question whether the sort of instruction offered by white nations to their brown or black subjects is adapted to the practical wants of the latter. In the Dutch East Indies, for example, the instruction given in the primary schools should be arranged with a more intelligent view to the uses that can be made of it in later life.
Those natives who have received some instruction (which places them on a higher plane in their own eyes as well as in those of their illiterate family and neighbors), but who cannot put their strenuously acquired small fund of knowledge to practical use, are apt to be led astray by the preachings of revolutionary agents. An intellectually "half-baked" proletariat is one of the least desirable and most turbulent elements of any society. It is no secret that revolutionary agents are active continually in every colony in Asia and Africa, nor is anyone duped by the efforts of the Soviet Government to hide itself behind the very transparent camouflage of the Third (Communist) International. The Dutch East Indies are especially favored by the interest of able and unscrupulous Russian communist agents. Aroused by the disturbances of 1926-27, the government of the colony had to deal severely with such communist leaders as it could lay hands on. Many of the native communists were deported to a "delimited district" in New Guinea, controlled originally by a military governor, but later by a director taken from the ranks of the civil service officials.
The severe attitude of the government against communist agitators resulted in their disappearance; soon, however, they appeared again under a clever disguise -- that of extreme nationalists. This change did not occur only in the Dutch East Indies; for the revolutionary teachers in Moscow advocated it as a method of spreading bolshevist propaganda all through the Far East and especially in the colonies there. Consequently one notices in nearly all Asiatic countries a deceptive disappearance of bolshevism and a growing movement that can best be characterized as national bolshevism or bolshevist nationalism.
In the East Indies it is very difficult to distinguish this revolutionary nationalism from loyal and legal nationalism which attempts to advance the rights of the natives and to bring them to self-government within the scope of the Dutch Kingdom. Accordingly, the police allow all sorts of revolutionary speeches at so-called nationalist meetings. Such an attitude does not constitute an immediate danger, but it induces a feeling of insecurity among some of the white inhabitants which is just as understandable as is the reluctance of the government to make martyrs of the agitators.
As a result of having governed Java for centuries through the medium of prominent natives belonging to the nobility, the Dutch Government adopted the same course when the other islands came under their real domination. This is an outstanding fact to be remembered in examining the political administration of the Dutch East Indies. In some districts of Java and the other islands native sultans continued to rule. But all these dignitaries are subject to the commands of the Dutch authorities, and it is remarkable how these officials have learned to impose the will of the government without hurting their feelings.
But from the beginning of the present century, and especially since the World War, democracy has extended its influence even to these remote parts of the world. The movement might have improved the welfare of the colony and aided the native population if, in its attempt to democratize Oriental political conditions, the government had not been influenced by Parliament to adopt a policy of grafting western institutions onto Oriental conditions. The average Oriental native wants to be governed by, or at least through, his own noblemen; he understands that he is protected by the Dutch Government against vexations from his own rulers, but he does not understand that his rulers should be criticized by representative bodies in which people of the lower classes can bully those who are their superiors by birth. Despite this fact, western democrats have insisted on the establishment in the Dutch East Indies of different representative bodies, the members of which cannot resist indulging in violent criticism of those whom the people as a whole have been accustomed to think of as their superiors. The result is that democracy has succeeded in lessening the authority of the hereditary native rulers without really creating a democratic spirit in the educated element of the population. The great problem that will soon face the government will be how to save the newly created representative bodies and at the same time strengthen the diminished authority of the hereditary native rulers. Given the respect that the population intuitively feels for its own nobility, the stabilization of the Dutch sovereignty over its colonies in the Far East largely depends on how tactfully these two objects are pursued and how far they are attained.
On the whole, social and economic conditions in the Dutch East Indies can be considered as exemplary, but they differ in different regions. In Java, for example, the population is extremely dense, and this has marked consequences. The labor supply there is sufficient not only for native and Chinese agriculture, commerce and industry, but also for the large western enterprises; furthermore, the density of population makes overpopulation and unemployment a serious problem for the government. Nevertheless, the rate of mortality has been reduced to a very satisfactory level. Several hygienic and prophylactic measures have been undertaken by the government, in spite of the opposition of the native population, which did not and does not understand their importance, and as a result pest, cholera, typhus and other contagious diseases are now confined mostly to individual cases. Although this result is primarily due to governmental initiative, it would be unjust to forget the private hygienic and prophylactic work which has been done. Several western enterprises in Java have built and are financing modern hospitals, which are not reserved for the use of their working people exclusively but are open to the whole native population of the district as well. Sumatra also boasts interesting examples of hygienic and medical measures undertaken by the owners of large agricultural estates.
When western agricultural enterprises, especially those concerned with the growing of tobacco, began their work in Sumatra more than half a century ago they did not find any laborers in the island, and therefore they had to import them from Java and China. Now, as they were at great expense in this connection, they naturally wanted to be sure that the men would not be allowed to desert the plantation but would be forced to fulfil the work which they, of their own accord, had agreed to do. However, so many abuses were reported to the government that in 1879 an ordinance was issued which laid down a number of rules regarding the treatment of the coolies by their employers. Punishment was provided for any infraction of the rules. The ordinance also introduced a penal sanction to be applied to laborers who refused to work as contracted, and to those who deserted; both were to be brought by the police before the judge competent in these matters. Though the ordinance concerning this famous penal sanction has been modified, the main provisions concerning the liability of both employers and workers to fines and imprisonment have remained as they were fifty years ago. But the coolies have been guaranteed more humane treatment, especially since the introduction of a regular official labor inspection.
I give this much of the history of the penal sanction connected with labor contracts in the Dutch East Indies (omitting Java, which has a sufficient labor supply), because of the erroneous statements often made about it. Socialists have drawn this economic and juridical question into the sphere of politics, and have even gone so far as to represent the penal sanction as a remnant of slavery, though it has not the least resemblance to slavery and in fact was instituted long after slavery was abolished. The problem is not nearly so simple as most advocates of the abolition of the penal sanction think; otherwise one would not find its counterpart in nearly every colony in the world. For unless our modern society can and will do without the products obtained from the plantations of Sumatra and the other islands (excluding Java) it is essential to safeguard the labor being done there, and no one has yet proposed an adequate substitute for the present system, especially one which is so favorable to the health and welfare of the laborers themselves.
I have made these few remarks on this problem -- which has even been brought before the International Labor Bureau in Geneva -- as a necessary introduction to a description of what has been done in Sumatra for the health of the imported coolies. Before the introduction of the ordinance of 1879, and for a few years thereafter, the death rate of these coolies was very high, as much as 9 or 10 per hundred. The employers soon realized that this condition was inhuman, and also was against their own interests. To put it cynically but clearly: they understood that a dead workman has no value at all and that a sick one generally costs more than he is worth. Therefore, when the law obliged them to care for the health of their coolies, they took this obligation so seriously that the clinics and hospitals they created have become renowned and are now recognized as model institutions by everyone who has studied labor conditions in colonies. The death rate has now diminished to 8 or 9 per thousand -- a rate not higher than that of the most advanced nations in Europe -- and this wonderful result is largely due to the much-calumnied penal-sanction institution, which permitted the employers not only to send their laborers to the clinic of the plantation, and to its hospital when they were so ill that the physician thought special treatment necessary, but also to force the coolies to submit to the treatment of the diseases which they had brought with them from their native villages as well as to the prophylactic measures prescribed by the physicians of the plantations.
In this way the east coast of Sumatra, where the agricultural exploitation of the island started, has become a model of hygienic and medical care. This has certainly not been the result of charity; but it is no less remarkable as a result of well-considered and well-executed self-interest on the part of colonial employers. Would that self-interest could always and everywhere boast of such results! It would not then have to cope with the bad reputation it has acquired, though it remains and will remain the basis of enterprise and social development under every political system, under socialism and communism as well as under capitalism. But to return to our subject.
I have said that the stability and reliability of labor in the Dutch East Indies is a matter of importance not only to the owners of plantations there, to the Dutch colony in general, and to the mother country in Europe, but also to world economy. This is especially true, at least as regards certain products, in the case of the United States. One example will be sufficient to show the importance of the products of the Sumatran plantations to the world market. The world production of rubber in 1928 is estimated to have been 560,000 tons, of which the Dutch East Indies produced about 40 percent, or 240,000 tons. Nearly a quarter of this was produced under the system of the penal-sanction. Everyone familiar with the rubber question will understand the gravity of any steps that would introduce uncertainty into the production of about 60,000 tons of rubber a year.
The production of tea, palm oil, agave, and other commodities under the penal-sanction system is as yet less important than that of rubber, but the world market would suffer seriously if measures taken under the influence of political considerations without due regard to economic consequence were to upset this production and perhaps curtail it drastically.
There is still another consideration which brings this matter into the sphere of international problems. For nearly sixty years the Dutch East Indies have followed with growing success the policy of the open door. The consequences of this policy are less clear in Java, but many of the other islands -- Sumatra, for example -- are economically less Dutch than international. Indeed, what occurs in the Dutch East Indies has an international importance in more than one respect. Some of the Great Powers would probably not remain passive onlookers if the activities of bolshevist-nationalist agitators resulted in serious troubles in the archipelago which separates the Indian Ocean from the China Sea and the Pacific.
We Dutchmen are proud of our colonial production not only and not primarily because of its importance in the world market, but also and especially because of the close coöperation between science and practice in our colony. This coöperation finds its highest expression in the production of sugar; the sugar plantations can without exaggeration be compared to enormous botanical, chemical, and industrial laboratories. Nowhere in the world is this coöperation between science and practice so complete and so efficient as it is in the Dutch East Indies.
The other branches of tropical agriculture are not so far advanced as is the sugar industry, but they are following the same lines of development. In the rubber industry particularly remarkable scientific progress has been made in the past ten years and will certainly be continued in the next decade. The selection of plants is in its first stage only, and it is certain that improvements will be made in the chemical and industrial process that the latex has to undergo before being marketable. I am convinced that the production price of rubber will go down appreciably during the next ten years, and that the market price will follow; the rubber growers will then make very satisfactory profits at a much lower price level than that prevailing at present.
This will mean a revolution for several branches of industry which can make widespread use of rubber, as soon as the price becomes sufficiently stabilized to enable growers and manufacturers to agree upon a regular offer. But it will take some time to achieve this. For, as far as I can see, the rubber growers are not yet ready for a combination similar to that of the selling organization of the Dutch-India sugar. Their losses in the rubber market have not yet been sufficiently severe; probably a new and still more severe crisis will be necessary before they will agree to give up some of their individual freedom in order to bring stabilization of prices by a sellers' combination as strong as the combination of American rubber buyers. It would be interesting to go further into this question and to speculate on how an economic policy of this sort on the part of the rubber growers might effect the production of native rubber. But this would lead us too far afield.
It is evident that the importance of the Dutch East Indies is still much greater for the mother country in Europe than for the world in general. This can easily be illustrated. The tonnage of Holland's commercial fleet holds one of the first places among European commercial fleets proportionally to the population of the country. Now, although from the beginning of this century Holland has had a remarkable industrial development, its most important sources of income, after agriculture, are navigation and overseas trade. And half of the tonnage of the Dutch commercial fleet is employed in trade with or in the Dutch East Indies. Without this traffic the port of Amsterdam would become one of the Dead Cities of the Zuyder Zee. Our Far Eastern colony, indeed, is giving work to a great many laborers not only in the ship building and ship chandlering trades but also in several industries that apparently have only a remote connection with the Dutch East Indies and its inhabitants.
But the economic side of the question, however important it may be, is not the only one to be considered. For the fact that a nation of seven million inhabitants has the advantage and the responsibility of governing a territory on the other side of the world, with an area nearly as large as that of Europe, leads to other no less important considerations. In the first place, the administration of so large a domain demands a considerable importation of students of law and administration. This provides employment for many university and high-school graduates. Western agriculture, trade, navigation, and industry in the colony require another contingent of educated young men. But however vital the maintenance of Dutch supremacy over the Dutch East Indies may be for Holland, that is not the most important aspect of the question when we view it from the standpoint of world security and peace.
But before considering that, I wish to discuss a very widespread argument against colonization in general. All colonies demand capital. It would certainly be more profitable for them if they possessed the capital necessary to exploit their own natural resources, but since they do not possess that capital it is better, both for the development of the country itself and its native inhabitants and for the welfare of the mother country and the world in general, to make use of those natural resources, the necessary costs to be paid by the nations that can afford it. But naturally the investment of capital is not and cannot be an act of charity. The capital invested abroad must be made to pay. The interest of the capital invested in the Dutch East Indies, which goes to the shareholders and bondholders elsewhere, is estimated at from $150,000,000 to $200,000,000 a year.
The argument of the adversaries of colonization is that by paying out such large sums in interest the colony is impoverishing itself. If this were true, colonization would be condemned on economic grounds. But the argument cannot stand against even the most elementary critic. A person or a colony might be said to be being drained of its resources if more were taken from it than was given to it, if after the transaction he or it were poorer than before; but if the transaction is profitable to both sides, so that the borrower (in this case, the colony) is richer not only after but also because of the borrowing, then there is cooperation and participation instead of exploitation. In the case of the Dutch East Indies, it has been calculated that the foreign capital invested in the colony brings into the country every year in the form of wages, land hire, taxes, etc., about twice as much as it takes out in interest, dividends and royalties.
Even the most fervent opponents of colonization must admit that in the Dutch East Indies the advancement of the natives through the building of public schools and public roads, and through the establishment of a system of irrigation for their rice fields, could not have been achieved to anything like the same degree without the direct and indirect contribution of western enterprises. If this be true -- and it is true -- it proves that the argument of pretended "draining" is utterly fallacious and that it serves merely as a demagogic means of agitation to impress the masses, who are unable to comprehend its falseness.
To give a concrete example of what can really be meant by the draining of a country or a continent, I shall take the much-discussed case of the European countries involved in the World War, which the American reader will easily understand. Let us put aside for the sake of demonstration all political reasons that prompted the Allied nations to compel Germany by the Treaty of Versailles to pay an enormous indemnity; and let us consider only the obligation to pay. In this light, we must own that Germany could, on strictly economic grounds, complain of being drained by having to pay the indemnity. In the same way, all the belligerent nations of Europe, which by continuing the war far beyond their real economic powers contracted economically unproductive debts to America, can be said to be drained by the payment of their war debts. But, on the other hand, certainly one cannot pretend that Germany is also being drained by the capital America is investing in order to help it -- evidently not on a charitable basis -- to rebuild its social and economic system. Here, as in the case of colonial investment, draining is beside question.
I wanted to state this clearly, because of the necessity of justifying the economic basis of colonization; for if it had an economically unsound basis, it would not be worth while to attempt to justify it on a higher plane.
The supremacy of a given country over a certain colony always has a historical background, and this historical background will generally be sound enough not only to justify the relations between the colony and the nation to which it belongs, but also to make this nation responsible for the development of its colony and for the maintenance of order in its territory. But such a historical explanation, though it may justify the colonial power of a certain nation over a special colony, does not justify the relation of supremacy on one side and subjection on the other, for that relation between peoples of different nationality and different race can be justified only on higher motives. It can be justified before the forum of humanity only when the dependent races, and mankind in general, find moral as well as material profit in and through this relation. So long as this profit can be demonstrated, colonization is justified and to a certain degree necessary. This implies that the dominating country is bound to help the inhabitants of the dependent colony develop their moral, intellectual, economic, and political powers, so that they will gradually grow out of their actual dependence and become able to look after their own interests and govern themselves.
There is no great variety of opinion on this theoretical consequence of the relation between a colony and its mother country. But there is a very great difference of opinion as soon as it comes to the question of putting this principle into action. If it is a crime against humanity to hold a people in dependence when it has attained the ability to govern itself, it is no less a crime to leave a people that has been accustomed to the rule of a more advanced nation to its own devices before it is really prepared for self-government.
In former centuries the colonizing nations were inclined to deny their colonies self-government even when it was evident that they had the necessary political abilities. But in our democratic century statesmen do not always give sufficient attention to differences in aptitude between nations and races; these differences cannot be overlooked without causing harm to the race to which are attributed abilities which they have not yet acquired.
Of course a colonizing nation cannot and must not postpone granting independence until there is equality between itself and its colony. For equality does not exist even between the nations of the white race that are governing themselves. On the other hand, the colonizing nation ought not to withdraw its protecting hand until the native inhabitants of the colony have approached equality with the mother country in economic and political abilities. Just as a man is not justified in releasing his protection and his control over the education of a boy or girl of fifteen who is under his guardianship, so a nation is not justified in freeing a colony that history has given into its guardianship at a time when the native population of the colony has not really acquired the abilities necessary for economic and political self-government.
In former centuries it was not necessary to give warnings of this sort; but in our century, with its tendency to search for equality where it does not yet exist, and for economic and political abilities where they can result only from constant and painstaking education, such a warning is, unhappily, not superfluous. In writing this I am, of course, thinking primarily of tendencies in Holland and in the Dutch East Indies; but I am sure that it applies also to the colonies of other countries in Asia and Africa. A policy of idealism may give satisfaction to the heart, but it cannot achieve its purpose if it is not soundly based on fact.
If Holland, led by the highest motives, should give up its supremacy over its colony in the Far East, or if it should be forced out because it lacked confidence in its ability to fulfil its task, it would not only have forsaken its duty toward the native population of the colony as well as toward the inhabitants of the mother country, but it would also endanger the peace of the world. Happily, there is no immediate danger that such a course will be followed by the responsible authorities in Holland and the Dutch East Indies; but it is bad enough that one must deal with the possibility of such a proposal being made in the not distant future, and that one should feel it necessary to point out the great responsibility it would involve.