In 1596, a Dutch fleet consisting of four ships under the command of Cornelis de Houtman and De Keyzer laid anchor before the port of Banten after an exacting voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.
Since the Middle Ages, the Lower Lands had always depended on the trade for their welfare. In 1585 however, with Holland in rebellion against their Spanish overloads, Spain’s King Phillip II ordered all Dutch ships in Spanish ports, seized. The Dutch were now forced to find their own way to the Indies, the source of the spices and other exotic products that were in great demand in Europe.
To put an end to this situation of unbridled competition and to be better equipped to face the rivalry offered by the other seafaring European states such as Portugal, Britain, and Spain, in 1602 a merger was accomplished and the United East India Company – the Vereenigde Oost Indische Compagnie (VOC) – was formed with very special rights accorded to it by the state. It was, in effect, a trading organization with sovereignty rights over the Indies.
Apart from being given an absolute trading monopoly in all the territories between the Cape of Good Hope and the Strait of Magellan, the company was empowered to organize its own armed forces, build fortifications, declare wars and conclude peace, as well as print its own money. Of the four ships that reached Banten, only three returned to their home port Holland, nevertheless it was a cause of jubilation: The sea route to the Indies was now open.
Since then, Dutch ships came ever in ever increasing numbers to buy up spices and other exotic merchandise in the Moluccas (Maluku) and elsewhere in the archipelago. In Holland, one of the company after the other arose to capitalize on the newly opened opportunity.
The formation of the VOC effectively secured Holland’s dominance in the spice trade in the Indies. Only two years after the birth of the Company the Dutch were in firm control of Ambon. The Sultan of Ternate and other rulers in the Moluccas (Maluku) had no choice but to grant the Dutch the trade monopoly, the Company did not shrink from putting the torch to whole crops and villages and from killing their villagers, as occurred on the island of Banda during the 1621 punitive years later, in what is referred to as the Ambon Massacre, all the personal of a British trading post in Ambon were tortured and killed for defying the Dutch monopoly.
Elsewhere in the archipelago, the strongest opposition against the expanding sphere of influence and power of the United East India Company came from the rulers of Mataram in Central Java, Banten in western Java, Aceh in northern Sumatra and Makasar in southern Sulawesi.
For almost two centuries since establishment in 1602, the United East India Company maintained its district trade monopoly in the archipelago. Immeasurable riches were accumulated at the expense of the local population. However, with corruption and mismanagement among its ranks increasing during the later periods of its existence, the government in Holland was forced in 1799 to take over all its assets and liabilities. All its overseas possessions in the East Indies were taken over by the state and Indonesia became formally a colony of the Netherlands.
Among the first to represent the crown was Herman Willem Daendels, who in 1807 was appointed Governor-General of the Netherlands East Indies. In Europe, the Napoleonic Wars were raging and French-ruled Holland needed a man who could not only keep the order in the colonies but defend them against a possible British invasion.
Daendels ruled with an iron hand. In an expedition against Banten, a good part of the Sultanate of Banten was brought under the direct control of the Dutch administration in Batavia (Jakarta). One of his main labors was the construction of a rood spanning almost the entire length of Java, running from Anyer on the island’s western tip, to Panarukan near its easternmost point. To accomplish his ask, the governor-general, nicknamed the Iron Marshal, recruited gangs of forced laborers from among the island’s peasant and village population. Thousands of them died because of illness, undernourishment, and over-exertion. Rebellion arose but was quashed in their bud.
In 1811, Daendels was relieved of his position and was replaced by Jansen. His tenure was a short one. In that same year, the British did invade Java and after some fighting took over control of the East Indies. Under the rule of Thomas Stamford Raffles, the British Lieutenant-Governor of Java and Dependencies, the former Netherlands East Indies saw a number of constructive reforms. It was a period of relative calm, although sporadic resistance did occur, such as the one led by the Sultan of Yogyakarta which, however, was quickly brought under control.
The British interregnum lasted for only five years. In 1816, after Napoleon’s defeat in Europe, the Dutch colonial administration was restored.