Slavery by Another Name in the East: Jacob T. Cremer and Racial Capitalism in the Dutch East Indies

Jacob Boersema, New York University

Recent literature on racial capitalism and colonial modernity has focused on Atlantic slavery and settler colonialism, overlooking the history of European empires in Asia. This article addresses this oversight by analyzing the Dutch plantation history on the east coast of Sumatra in the Indonesian archipelago through the writings of its most prominent advocate, planter and politician, Jacob Theodoor Cremer. I argue that Cremer’s vision of a new plantation economy in Sumatra rejected slavery and Java’s forced crop system yet remained racialized in its conception of capital, labor, and value. After the abolishment of slavery in 1860, Cremer in Sumatra set up large-scale agricultural operations for capitalist production. As the indigenous population in Sumatra was both insufficient and unwilling to work on plantations, the Dutch imported labor from the Straits Settlements, China, and Java. Cremer elaborated the “Coolie Ordinance”, a labor regime of temporary contract labor that restricted workers from changing employers and allowed corporal punishment. This regime revamped the terms of colonization by representing Sumatra as overstocked with capital but vacant of labor and skill that only imported labor could provide. This article concludes with the wider implications of a global analytic framework for writing connected histories of racial capitalism after slavery and colonial modernity in the Atlantic and Indian Ocean.

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 Presented in Session 139. Building the Racial Nation