A Socialist in the Dutch East Indies

Van Kol on the Way to the East IndiesThe first socialist ever to set foot ashore the Dutch East Indies was Henri Hubertus van Kol (1852-1925). In 1876 Van Kol, who had been an early member of the First International, started his career in Java as a hydraulic engineer. Back in the Netherlands he was to become one of the founders of the Social Democratic Workers Party (1894). But the East Indian Archipelago, the land where he had built his engineering achievements and where he had gotten married and had children, would always remain his favorite. Since his East Indian experience, two souls lived in the heart of Henri van Kol. As a socialist member of parliament in The Hague, he fulminated against the exploitation of 'the poor Javanese people'. As the owner of a coffee plantation in Java, he employed such poor workers himself (but this was known only to a very few people).

Van Kol bought the 'Cayumas' plantation in eastern Java in 1887 with the help of a loan from his political friend Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis. Van Kol unselfishly gave part of the profits generated by the plantation to the Dutch labor movement and its representatives. His friend, Domela Nieuwenhuis, the most venerated socialist in the Netherlands, who had invested 30,000 Dutch guilders in the enterprise, was also able to contribute, as he always did, to the early workers' organizations and friends. The correspondence between Van Kol and Domela predominantly deals with politics and business. In due course a vulgar row developed between the two about payment of dividends. No word was exchanged about the ethical aspects which might have offended socialists with colonial possessions. Nevertheless, they must have experienced some doubts, as they both preferred not to be candid about this enterprise. Possibly Van Kol tried to ease his conscience by choosing a Christian family as plant managers. They introduced Sunday as a day of rest, and established a school and church, and these were considered distinguishing marks of social progress in the eyes of the Dutch.

Back in the Netherlands, Van Kol continually criticized the colonial politics of the government. He did not disagree with the colonialism as such: 'We must lead this people lovingly, augment the riches of the country as benevolent caretakers, and increase the wealth of its inhabitants. In this magnificent country we have to support these good people when they stumble in their suffering path to the Sublime!' These are the concluding words of Van Kol's book Uit Onze Koloniën (From Our Colonies) (1903), the report of a study trip which Van Kol had made the year before. In this book Van Kol characterized himself as a seeker of truth, sympathizing with the original inhabitants, who suffered as others profited from their riches. But his characterization of the indigenous peoples reveals a quite different tale. The 'indolent Javanese', the 'dishonest, self-indulgent Amboinese', the Chinese coolie with his 'revolting [homosexual] habits' are a few examples of Van Kol's descriptions. He traveled across the archipelago for months and ended his journey in Cayumas, where he wrote the draft of his book.

During his journey Van Kol himself took photographs of landscapes, markets, and people, which he intended to 'show to my fellow Parliamentarians as proof of the situation'. Many of these photographs are in his book Uit onze Kolonien. A recent gift (2007) from his heirs included about fifty photos. The original prints are very sharp and unique. This web presentation shows a selection of twelve photos with captions from Van Kol's book Uit Onze Kolonien.

Text and compilation: Margreet Schrevel, Emile Schwidder

- Biographies (in BWSA) of Van Kol and Domela Nieuwenhuis
- Inventory of the archives of Van Kol and Domela Nieuwenhuis
- Kol, Henri Hubert van, Uit onze koloniën. Uitvoerig reisverhaal. Geïllustreerd met vele afbeeldingen en kaarten. Leiden, 1903.
- Erwiza, Miners, managers and the state : A socio-political history of the Ombilin coal-mines, West Sumatra, 1982-1996 (PhD University of Amsterdam 1999).

Read also:
Margreet Schrevel, Links kolonialisme - Het Rijke Rooie Leven, deel 32 in Spanning, jan. 2008, pp. 16-18