Lawmaking & Land Rights in Colonial East Indies


A review of Subjects, Lawmaking and Land Rights: Agrarian Regime and State Formation in Late Colonial Netherlands East Indies, by Upik Wira Marlin Djalins.

In this dissertation, Upik Djalins examines colonial state formation in the Netherlands East Indies through several lenses. She looks at legal training provided to Native jurists and its results, as well as the agrarian regime implemented by the Dutch in Java. Case studies centre on the areas of the Oosthoek in East Java, the Principalities of Surakarta and Jogjakarta and demands for land by Indo-Europeans. As Djalins notes, this is a dissertation constructed upon a series of vignettes (p. 6), vignettes with which she demonstrates ‘the complex interlacing between subjects and lawmaking in the constitution of the colonial agrarian regime’. At first the issues of legal training, Native jurists and struggles over land might seem unconnected, but Djalins shows that the creation of a new indigenous group of legal practitioners, however tied to the Dutch administration this group was, opened up new possibilities and brought forth new ideas and legal argumentation about land, agrarian arrangements and race. She then, through the case studies, examines the intricacies of Dutch law in operation and the possibilities of challenging these laws, including by the Native jurists who had been trained within the system and sometimes continued to work in the system. Her study demonstrates the level of individual autonomy, agency and capacity for transformation, and therefore the lack of total power possessed by the colonial administration.

Djalins demonstrates that rather than a totalizing exercise, the process of colonial subject formation does not erase the agency of the subject, in this case Native jurists. She uses the term Native and Indonesian interchangeably, arguing that the term Native in the historical context she deals with was not a pejorative term as it might be today. Therefore this review will follow the same practice. She examines how these jurists, educated under the Dutch colonial regime, implemented and responded to colonial laws, for example through looking at their rhetoric as expressed through speeches and writings. Djalins is concerned with the question of Native agency in the process of colonial state and subject formation. She deploys Foucault in understanding how the subject is constituted and the extent of the autonomy and capacity for critical reflection and for conscious self-transformation that the subject possesses. The subjects in this case are Native jurists as well as members of the colonial society more broadly. This is an innovative study, and highly sophisticated in its approach and execution.

The period covered by the dissertation is from the late 19th century (1870s) to the pre-Second World War period (approximately 1939). The turn of the century was a period of optimism in the Netherlands East Indies, driven by relative peace in the colony and advances in technology, as well as an economic boom centred on agricultural commodities and the beginnings of exploration for natural resources. It was also a period of rapid change in the agricultural sector and the demand for a legal regime that could respond to developments in the sector, such as the growth in plantations and the increasing shortage of land for all those who wanted to cultivate it. The setting, theoretical framework and case studies are outlined in the Introduction.

In chapter 1, Djalins outlines the framework for legal education in the Indies and the Netherlands for Native students. She argues that legal training did not however negate the effects of indigenous upbringing for the young men who graduated from these training programs. Adat law for example continued to play a role in connecting them to indigenous life.

Chapter 2 introduces the case study of Wadoeng West Agricultural Estate, located in Banjoewangi [Banyuwangi] District. She looks at how this case illustrates that the struggles over land by a range of social actors such as plantation estate owners, managers, government figures and local peasants shaped the law that governs land use and ownership. She shows that while the law commodified land, the colonial agrarian regime was unable to provide secure guarantees on property relations, thus inviting contestation by those with a stake in agriculture over how the land was to be used.

In Chapter 3, Djalins looks in detail at a dissertation criticizing the agrarian reorganization undertaken by the Dutch in the Surakarta area. The dissertation’s writer, Soepomo, was a Surakarta man of noble birth who enjoyed a European education, ‘an epitome of a Javanese gentleman’ (p. 133). Through examining his ideas, Djalins argues that Supomo’s autonomy and transformative capacity are evident in spite of his state as a colonized subject. Supomo showed he possessed a combination of Javanese ethics and the values he received from his European education of native jurists, such as independence, impartiality and integrity.

Chapter 4 moves on to examine the discursive interventions of Indonesian scholars and judges about native land rights in the Indisch Tijdschrift van het Recht, a publication of the Netherlands Indies Lawyers’ Association. Their interventions also challenged Eurocentric understandings of indigenous land ownership. Their work, she argues, creates a body of legal knowledge through the unique lens that these indigenous scholars and judges possessed. Here again she shows that the Native jurist was in many ways a hybrid, not merely a Dutch colonial creation; they brought their own perspectives and ideas into the role.

In Chapter 5, Djalins discusses the demands for land by Indo-Europeans and responses to these demands by the Dutch administration and Indonesian leaders in the Indies. By claiming that they too were ‘children of the land’ (landskinderen), Indo-Europeans were challenging the Dutch racial classification and the professions usually open to each race. Therefore it is evident that the laws on racial classification and the agrarian regime were contested by the subjects.

In Chapter 6, Djalins returns to Soepomo’s writings, drawing upon an essay he had written to influence the debate in the 1930s on the Alienation Prohibition of 1875. He appraises the genuineness of Dutch protestations that this prohibition aimed to protect Native land rights. Therefore, Djalins argues, this case ‘brings the argument to full circle’ (p. 36), involving a Dutch trained, Native legal scholar and colonial official who attempts to influence the colonial the agrarian regime through bringing both Dutch and indigenous knowledge and practices to his arguments.

In her conclusion, Djalins reflects on the difficulties of bringing out the voices of her subjects, due to problems with the availability of sources and the period of time which has lapsed. In spite of their ‘faintness’, she argues that these voices, which constitute discursive interventions by colonial subjects, illustrate the complexities of state formation. She likens the process of state formation to a pulse that expands and contracts, rather than a ‘steady stream of power’ (p. 321).

The dissertation is highly evocative, in spite of what may at first appear to be rather dry subject matter, namely legal discourse. Herein lies the appeal of this dissertation, which is meticulously crafted and carefully written. Djalins cares deeply about the subjects of her research, whose faint voices she amplifies and brings back to life in this dissertation. Debates in the Volksraad, for example, the indigenous advisory body to the colonial regime, resonate in the pages of this dissertation. Djalins’s work is highly innovative in combining a history of legal education in the Indies with a history of the struggles in Java over land use and ownership to examine, following Foucault, how the colonial subject was constituted in approximately the first 40 years of the 20th century.

Vannessa Hearman
Department of Indonesian Studies
The University of Sydney

Primary Sources

Arsip Nasional Republik Indonesia (National Archives of the Republic of Indonesia)
Dutch National Archive
Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia (National Library of the Republic of Indonesia)
Indisch Tijdschrift van het Recht (periodical)
Verslag Commissie voor het grondbezit van Indo-Europeanen (Report of the Commission on Landownership of Indo-Europeans)

Dissertation Information

Cornell University. 2012. 346 pp. Primary Advisor: Shelley Feldman, Chuck Geisler, and Eric Tagliacozzo.


Image: Dominee Bakker met studenten tijdens een les aan de opleidingsschool voor inlandse predikanten in Jogjakarta. Photo by Isidor Arras Ochse, 1930-40. Wikimedia Commons.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like