Indonesia as a French colony: a history trivia

The history class in Indonesia’s school list our former colonizers as : Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, England, and Japan. A little known fact and interesting trivia is that France is also a member of this list. It ruled Indonesia for some period, mostly indirectly (as master of our Dutch rulers), but for at least one year Indonesia was a titular French colony.

The story began with the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon which saw a lot of wars and changes in Europe. Anyway, in the War of the First Coalition (one of a lot of wars that happened after the French Revolution) the Dutch Republic joined the coalition against the French Republic. The war went badly for the Dutch, and in 1795 the French conquered the Netherlands, and founded the “Batavian Republic[2]” (Bataafse Republiek) to rule the Dutch. The Treaty of Den Haag in the same year formalized the relationship between this new Republic and the French Republic. Basically the Batavian Republic became subordinate to the French, locking the Dutch in alliance with the French, requiring them to pay a lot of money to France and allowing France to maintain an army of occupation in the Netherlands.

This began the indirect rule of the French. Indonesia was still a VOC (Dutch East India Company) colony and the Dutch retains the rule of this colony, but the Netherlands itself isn’t exactly independent. Also note that in 1800, the VOC was dissolved and its possessions (including its territories in Indonesia) nationalized.

Louis Bonaparte
Louis Bonaparte (Koning Lodewijk), Napoleon’s brother and the King of Holland (1806-1810)

In 1810, in an attempt to have even more control over the Dutch, Napoleon Bonaparte (who had become the Emperor of the French since 1804) forced the Dutch to become a kingdom – with his brother Louis Bonaparte as king. This kingdom was called the Kingdom of Holland (Koninkrijk Holland), and Louis become also known as “Koning Lodewijk” (Dutch for King Louis).

It is during this time that King Louis made Herman Willem Daendels the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. HW Daendels wasinfamous in Indonesian history, due to his institution of forced labor (kerja rodi) in Java for various projects (best known of which was the Great Post Road), which resulted in the deaths of thousands of native laborers.

Herman Willem Daendels, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, on behalf of France

Interestingly, Daendels was known for being pro-French, in fact he was the general of the Dutch contingent in the French army that conquered the Netherlands in 1795. Part of his task was to defend the Dutch East Indies against a possible British invasion (the British was one of France main enemy), and this is part of the reasons for his projects.

Meanwhile in Europe, even with his brother on the Dutch throne, Napoleon still felt dissatisfied about his control over the Dutch. In 1810 he forced his brother to abdicate, dissolved the Kingdom of Holland, and annexed its territories to the French Empire. Now the Dutch no longer have their own state, and the French become, in title, the direct master of Indonesia.

The administration and defense of the colony was still done primarily by Dutch personnel. Daendels originally stayed as governor-general until in 1811 he was appointed a general in the Napoleon’s army that was about to invade Russia and was replaced by Jan Willem Janssens, another Dutchman. Janssens didn’t stay long in his position though, for the British invasion troops invaded Java (the center of the colonial power in Indonesia) in the same year and captured the island from the France.

The colony remained in British hands for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. They returned the colony to the Dutch in 1814, after Napoleon was defeated[3] and the Dutch regained its independence. This time the Netherlands became a monarchy, which would later be known as Kingdom of the Netherlands (Koninkrijk der Nederlanden), which continued to exist until today. They held their territories in Indonesia, until defeated by the Japanese in World War II. 

[1] Technically, in 1811 the sovereign state was the United Kingdom. England was just a country inside the UK after the Acts of Union, but Indonesian language text seem to rarely recognize this difference and refer to everything as “Inggris” (England/ the English)

[2] Batavia was also the former name of Jakarta, but it was not the reason the Republic is named this. Both Batavia the city and the Batavian Republic was named after the Batavi, a Germanic tribe believed to be the ancestors of the Dutch.

[3] This was not his final defeat. He would in 1815 return from exile, led another campaign that ended in his final defeat at the famed Battle of Waterloo.

Indonesia as a French colony: a history trivia

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