History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 1981: Q.8

History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 1981: Q.8

Q.8 What was the culture system in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) during the 19th century? Why was it dismantled? [60 marks]


The Dutch government followed a revenue policy for East Indies starting from 1830 called the Culture System or Cultivation System.

It was devised in 1830 by Johannes van den Bosch, then governor-general of the Dutch East Indies to enable the government to tap the resources of the East Indies and make East India Company profitable. This policy came at the time when  Dutch finances had been severely affected.

Under this system, farmers were forced to pay revenue to the treasury of the Netherlands in the form of export crops or compulsory labour. This system was mainly applied in Java.

Cuture system had following main provisions

(1) The villager had to give land rent to the government by setting aside 20% of his rice field for the cultivation export crops suitable for European market such as sugar, coffee, tea, indigo, pepper and cotton.

(2) If the villager had no land, he had to work in a government field for 20% of a year i.e. 66 days without any payment.

(3) Crop failure resulting from any cause other than the fault of the cultivator was debited to the government.

Impact of the Culture System

By the time, the Culture System was abolished, it had brought significant returns to the government exchequer, served the purpose of promoting Dutch commerce and shipping and made the Dutch East Indies self-sufficient and profitable quickly.

The system was burdensome and exploitative for farmers and labours. In case of crop failure, the people were left responsible for the loss. Contrary to van den Bosch’s intention, production was also demanded of the people who had paid taxes by working under the Culture System.

In spite of exploitative in nature, the Culture System had some indirect benefits as its intusiveness broke into series of localised and introspective communities and turned them to outside world. In other words, the Culture System opened Javanese society to the influence and the pressures of the contemporary world which is necessary for modernisation.

Why was the Culture System dismamtled?

Humanitarian Concerns

The exploitative system resulted in sharp criticism even by Dutch people. Many influential Dutch people like former governor general Idenburg strongly began to call for justice.
Famous Dutch writer Multatuli condemned the system in his book Max Havelaar (1860).

New ideas of free trade and entrepreneurship

The system was not compatible with the new ideas of liberal period of free trade and entrepreneurship whereby private enterprise was encouraged.
In 1860s, the system was criticised by private business interest who wished to invest in East India Company and independent merchants who preferred free trade.

Constitutional reform

After constitutional reform of 1848, the Culture System had continuously come under attack. The new reformed Constitution gave the legislature a role in the government of East Indies and six years later legislation was introduced to reduce inequaties in the Culture System. However, genuine reform was slow due to status quo preferred by Dutch merchant community and Javanese landowners having vested interest in the Culture System.

The government gradually started withdrawing from the forced crop cultivation and starting in 1870, private individuals could establish plantations in East Indies.

While the Culture System was gradually modified after 1870 in the favour of free enterprise system, and its worst excess eliminated, it remained in force for sugar untill 1890 and for coffee until 1917.

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