Brandsteder and leftist politics in the Dutch East Indies
Henk Sneevliet and the ISDV
(click on image for a larger image)
The structure of the European population of the Dutch East Indies was radically different from that of the Netherlands, as was the political situation. In this world, dominated by entrepreneurs and civil servants, the leftist movement was very small. It did exist, though. In 1914, the Indische Sociaal Democratische Vereeniging, predecessor of the Indonesian Communist Party was established. Both Indonesian and Dutch members were admitted.
In those years, Henk Sneevliet was the champion of the ISDV. The small trade union movement was differently organized than in Europe, for its main support came from the civil service. The trade union of sailors serving in the Navy (BMMP) were also part of this movement. The BMMP was the trade union for European personnel in the Dutch Navy in the Atlantic, European, and in the Pacific. The Dutch colonizers did not think much of these sailors, perceiving them as white trash, thugs, or rowdies who lived under a tough regime. The trade union leader Jacob Andries Brandsteder rebelled against this regime.
The BMMP building in Surabaya
Jacob Brandsteder entered the navy at the age of thirteen. He was branch secretary of the BMMP when he was seventeen. In 1913, he became the manager of the Navy Office Building in Surabaia. The following year this building became the property of the BMMP, and from that time Brandsteder was salaried by the trade union. Brandsteder is omnipresent in every domain of the small leftist movement. He was among the pioneer members of the ISDV and was chosen secretary in 1915. He participated in the agitation on behalf of Indonesain journalists, including Mas Marco Kartodikromo in 1915. A Committee against the 63 and 66 Articles (which controlled the press) of the Indian Criminal Code was launched, with Brandsteder as a member. This agitation was directed not only against prosecution, but also against discrimination. Indonesian journalists received much more severe punishment than Dutch people, even if the offence was similar.
In these years, Brandsteder focused his attention on the miserable situation of the naval and army personnel in the East Indies. His agitation was quite remarkable: 400 sailors demonstrated in the streets of Surabaia on May 7, 1916 in a protest against abuse in the Navy hospital. The authorities felt threatened and reacted furiously. Raids with sword, bayonet, and pistols resulted in several wounded.
Brandsteder also protested against the inhumane treatment in the military penal camps, Ngawi and Tjimahi. In Het Vrije Woord
of January 11, 1918 he advised army officers not to carry out corporal punishment. This action was successful in that the punishment by rattan was abolished, but it cost Brandsteder three months of detention. On October 10, 1918 he appealed to a higher court but was interned immediately. He was not allowed to attend to his own personal affairs - which were tragic, as one of his infants had died and another one was about to be born in the same year. His imprisonment led to unrest among the ordinary sailors. In Surabaia 30 men refused to appear at roll call and were arrested. In 1918 Brandsteder was co-founder of the radical union of soldiers (Soldatenbond). This Soldatenbond published the Soldaten- en matrozenkrant, with Brandsteder as one of the editors.
Het Vrije Woord
The colonial government could no longer tolerate the agitation. European society was in upheaval, and German sailors in Kiel had ushered in the end of World War I and the German Kaiser. Just the word 'sailor' itself seemed threatening. In an order dated September 24, 1919 the governor-general officially banished Brandsteder because of his incendiary articles in De Soldaten- en matrozenkrant
from April 1, 1918 to July 1919. Interestingly enough, this order announces - with some astonishment - that Brandsteder "regards it to be his holy duty to stir up order and peace, as he deems this order and peace to be of a capitalist nature." Brandsteder had to leave the East Indies on October 6, 1919. You can read all about it in his brochure Indië een hel
Back in Holland he ended up among the sharply divided factions of the Left. He remained active in the trade union movement, and died at the age of 99 in the seaport town of Rotterdam. Further information on Brandsteder as well as a list of his publications can be found in his biography in the BWSA.