Dutch East Indies tax system was supposed to elevate the colony, but turned out to be token politics
In the late 19th century, the Dutch government introduced a tax system in the Dutch East Indies, with the intention of transforming the colony into a modern state. PhD student Maarten Manse wrote his thesis on this development and discovered how grandiloquent colonial ideals became bogged down in daily reality. PhD defence on 2 June.
The story behind taxation
In the last 70 years of the colonial occupation of Indonesia, the Dutch government gradually introduced a monetary taxation system. This may seem like a strange development in a country where citizens had almost no say in the administration, and where wages were barely high enough to be taxed at all. But there is a story behind this, says historian and PhD student in Tax Law Maarten Manse.
The European benefactor
‘I think one of the reasons for introducing a tax system in the Dutch East Indies was “token politics”,’ says Manse. ‘In 19th century Europe, taxation was seen as an instrument of enlightened, modern administration: it involved citizens in state activities and gave them an identity and a voice. After the publication of Multatuli’s Max Havelaar and the wave of liberalisation that followed, the Dutch government increasingly felt compelled to better legitimate the colonial state. Taxation was seen as a development tool to this end. By levying taxes, public servants thought they could reform colonised societies from the bottom up. In this way, taxation also served as an instrument of power.’
From pretence to pragmatism
For his research, Manse studied the introduction and effectiveness of the Dutch tax system in various parts of Indonesia. ‘What I discovered is that the Dutch were very pragmatic in introducing the tax system. They used existing indigenous structures and shaped them into a system that worked for them. For example, they leaned on the existing hierarchies of landlords and tribal elders, whom they promoted to ‘village chiefs’ and made responsible for collecting taxes. As a result, the tax system was largely shaped from the bottom up.’
Covered in scribbled calculations
Because of the complexity of the colony, the levying of taxes turned out to be quite a challenge. ‘There was a lot of negotiation,’ says Manse. ‘A dynamic that was already there before colonisation and that also found its way into the taxation system. Farmers negotiated with village chiefs about the amount of tax, and village chiefs in turn negotiated with the Dutch on how much tax had to be paid. Everything was up for negotiation.’
Notes and calculations
These negotiations are clearly visible on two tax forms that Manse discovered during his investigation. The forms are covered in scribbled notes and calculations. ‘What this shows is that the colonial state was continuously interacting with the local population via the appointed village chiefs. And that the local population also tried to come into contact with the state to improve its position. I find this extremely interesting because it refutes the idea of a colonised people as passive outsiders. What I see is that the Indonesians and their systems of social organisation were crucial for the colonisation process and that in this way they helped shape to it.’
The idea that the colonisation process was more nuanced than previously assumed is in line with a current trend within historical research, says Manse. Researchers are increasingly aware of the role of colonised populations in the colonial state-building process. Manse: ‘The interaction between the colonial powers and the local population and the counterweight they represented is one of the most interesting conclusions of my PhD research. Something that is clearly comes to the fore in these simple tax forms.’
Text: Julia Nolet