The road to an empire: organisation and technology of road construction in the Dutch East Indies, 1800-1940

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Date: June 2009
From: The Journal of Transport History(Vol. 30, Issue 1)
Publisher: Sage Publications Ltd. (UK)
Document Type: Article
Length: 8,773 words
Lexile Measure: 1410L

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From travel journals and reports dating from the end of the eighteenth century one can deduce that, generally speaking, the roads were either badly maintained or not maintained at all in the Dutch East Indies. Footpaths through woods were overgrown, various stretches of road were accessible only in the dry season and any kinds of cross-river links were completely lacking. Alongside the old locally created routes, the Dutch United East India Company constructed a number of roads between important posts and in areas where such connections were perceived as being strategic. Connections were created between, for instance, Batavia, Bantam and Buitenzorg. (1) However, like the indigenous ones, these routes were not always completely passable for people and horses. They were grassed-over roads, unsurfaced cart tracks or footpaths. It thus took eight days to travel from Batavia to Tjipanas, high in the mountains of the Preanger Regencies, partly by buffalo cart and partly on buffalo-back. The isolation of Tjipanas led to it becoming a convalescent home for sick Company servants.

Colonial road building in the Dutch East Indies took off after 1800 when the Dutch East Indies state was established. Governor General H. W. Daendels's early nineteenth-century 'Great Post Road' (between the west and east coasts of Java) is a case in point, but it was just one step in the formation of an extensive road network in Java and the Outer Regions, especially Sumatra. We will analyse the history of colonial road construction in the Dutch East Indies in the 1800-1950 period in this article, focusing on the organisation and the technology involved. We will also draw comparisons with developments in the 'mother country', the Netherlands, and other colonies. We have chosen a periodisation which rests on the process of state formation in the Dutch East Indies between 1800 and 1950. This process was essentially one of modernisation, and manifested itself in the foundation and transformation of a Public Works agency which provided the colony with a series of infrastructural networks, including an elaborate system of roads. Before going on to describe in detail how this road system was created we sketch the changing context of policy, state and technology and give an oversight of the civil engineering works which have been accomplished in the Dutch East Indies.

Colonial management

Colonial state formation and modernisation

The end of the eighteenth century was a restless time in the Netherlands and elsewhere. (2) The United Provinces republic had been dissolved and in the year 1795 a central state had been created. With the help of the French, who were determined to export their revolution of 1789, patriots had managed to establish the Batavian Republic. As the United East India Company (VOC) had just gone into liquidation, and as its possessions had been requisitioned by the Dutch state, the republic was rewarded with the East Indies.

The establishment of a satellite state in the East Indies and its transformation into a modern colonial state took place in the framework of the integration of...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A381147562