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Cultuur-stelsel (1830-1870)

"To implement this idea, Van den Bosch took advantage traditional feudal ties between regents and their society to avoid the same failures of land tax system as the previous government."

The defeat and low bargaining power of Holland during European crisis after Nepoleonic War, worsened by the Padri War West Sumatra and the resistance of The Prince of Dipenogoro in Yogyakarta, had triggered the new economy colonial policy which was targeted to increase the countrys income.

Johannes Van den Bosch was able to convince the government to save their financial situation by increasing the number of the crops in the colony for the export market. The idea was known as Cultuur-stelsel (Cultivation System) that put Johannes Van den Bosch as General Governor (1830-1835) replacing Van der Capellen.

The idea of Cultuur-stelsel was adopted from the cooperation between VOC and the regents of Priangan known as Preanger-stelsel. If Preanger-stelsel was only limited for Priangan area, Cultuur-stelsel covered the whole of Java island and Sumatera with a wider range of commodities, with coffee remained as a mandatory crop. This marked the spread out of the coffee crop to the most parts of Java island.

To implement this idea, Van den Bosch took advantage traditional feudal ties between regents and their society to avoid the same failures of land tax system as the previous government. The first step wash to approach the regents, by showing the respects and giving privileges that could get rid of their dissastifaction about the previous government. In the other words, the role and power of the regents that was eliminated during the previous administration was to be restored during the administration of Johannes Van den Bosch (Hardjasaputra 2004: 53).

General Governor also issued a letter advising the residents to be polite and considerate to their regents. Officials who did not comply with the rule was reprimanded. By this political option, Van den Bosch was able to gain the sympathy from the regents. The regents began to mobilize their people to plant commodities required by the government.

The idea of Cultuur-stelsel was a new economic and political policy for the colonial government, under the assumption that the villages in Java owed the rent to the government which according to calculation worthed of 40% of the village main crop. The following was regulation in Cultuur-stelsel:

  1. Each people in Java island should provide farm land for Cultuur-stelsel not exceended 20% or one-fifth part of the land for growing export crops.
  2. Land reserved for Cultuur-stelsel was tax-free, because their crops were considered as tax payments.
  3. People who did not own farm land could replace the tax by working on far 66 days or one fifth year without any payment in lieu of taxes.
  4. The time to grow the commodity in the land for the Cultuur-stelsel should not exceed the time of planting rice or less than 3 (three) months.
  5. The excess of commodity would be returned to the people.
  6. Any damages or losses as a result of failure in harvesting crops which were not under farmerss control such as natural disasters and pests would be covered by the government.
  7. The enforcement of technical procedure of this forced cultivation system was handed over to the head of the villages.

This was a form of colonial governments mobilization starting from the exploitation of farm land, buffaloes or cows, farm equipments and free labor. In other words, Cultuur-stelsel was executed by the involuantary mobilization in the form of labor force of local community for the commercialization interest of colonial government in the agricultural sector. That was why the Cultuur-stelsel was translated as “Forced Cultivation System”.

This commercialization created economic surplus immediately. The colonial government did not have to provide necessary prime capital, such as farm lands and labors in Java island since it could be acquired for free (Aribowo, 2009).

The whole operation Cultuur-stelsel was run by an organization called Nederlandsche Handel Maatchappij (NHM) which was a reincarnation of the VOC, the Dutch trading company that went bankrupt and then was a closed in 1799.


            Since the demand of coffee in the world market kept increasing, the one of Johannes Van den Bosch ambition during his administration as General Governor of the Dutch East Indies was planting coffee trees as many as 50 million seeds in the first year, and 40 million seeds in the second year of his time.

Consequently, each local family was required to plant 650 coffee trees in the field owned by the village, then handed over 40% of the crops which had been sorted to the government warehouses. In 1840, It was reported that there were approximately 330 million coffee trees growing in Java island (Elson 1994: 63-69). It was consistent with the explosion of Java Coffee production until around 1840 (Merennage Radin Fernando, William Gervase Clarence-Smith 2003: 157-172).

In 1834 the coffee production from Java island was about 28,662 tons, then increased to about 64,201 tons in 1842 (Belbeck at all 1998: 150). For the first time, Java island in 1840 was capable to produce more than one million sacks of coffee (Mawardi 1999: 3).

In 1845 the demand of coffee in the world was around 209,100 tons, and Java coffee export reach close to 56,940 tons. It meant that 27 percent of coffee in the world was from coffee plantations in Java island (See Table). 


During the execution of Cultuur-stelsel, the Dutch government let happen several misconduct that ended up in the suffering of the local people. For instance, dedicated land actually exceeded 20% and it was still compulsory for the land owner to pay the taxes. Moreover, labors were forced to work for 66 days per year, and might continue for up to one year. And when the crop failed, the loss was borne by farmers. Because many farmers were forced to work taking care of mandatory plants, in some areas the production of rice hard fallen sharply. The price of rice soared so high until it was unaffordable and was followed by the famine, as happened in Cirebon (1840), Demak (1848) and Grobogan (18490, and by the death of the local population.

This situation had became disturbing news during the booming of production and export of coffee from Java island to the world market. On one hand, the export of coffee from Java was able to generate money for the Dutch Government during the practice of Cultuur-stelsel, on the other hand it lad to the famine among the local community. This situation then triggered a strong reaction, from both local and Dutch people.

From humanist group emerged Eduard Dauwes Dekker, a Dutch colonial official who worked in Lebak-Banten, protested to the Cultuur-stelsel practice by publishing a book in 1860 under the pseudonym Multatuli. The books title was Max Havelaar, of the Koffie-veilingen der Nederlandsche Handelsmaatschappij or “Max Havelaar, and the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company”.

The book had a tremendous impact, because it could stir public opinion in the Netherlands about the practice of Cultuur-stelsel in the Dutch East Indies. The Dutch used to believe that Cultuur-stelsel was a form of mutually beneficial trade cooperation between the government and local farmers, but the book by Max Havelaar showed some fraudulent practices by the government to farmers, causing proverty, tragedy and even death to local farmers.

Meanwhile, from the liberal group, Fransen van Putte published the article “Suiker Contracten” (Sugar agreement) which stated that Cultuur-stelsel had destroyed private plantation in the Dutch East Indies.

The wave of protests demanding the elimination of the Cultuur-stelsel practice in the Dutch East Indies in 1870, had forced the government to issue Agrarian Act (Agrische Wet) instead of Cultuur-stelsel. The Agrarian Act allowed private and individual parties to have the right to run the plantation for 75 years throughout the Dutch East Indies (Abdoellah 2003: 147).

A member of the Road van Indie, C. Th van Deventer in 1899 wrote a script with the title Een Ereschuld, which revealed the proverty in colonial Dutch East Indies. This publication then triggered the rise of Ethical politic or Pay Back Politic which stated that the colonial government hold moral responsibility for the welfare of the local people.

Then, the coffee plantations in the Dutch East Indies was controlled by private sector, taking advantage of the Ethical politic for their interests. The rapid expansion of the private plantations forced the Dutch government to pull out their business in coffee plantation in Java island in 1905 and in Sumatera in 1908. Cultuur-stelsel or Forced Cultivation System, remains as a dark part of the history of Dutch ruler in Indonesia.

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