Colonial Indonesia’s sugar industry, developed under Dutch and Sino-Indonesian auspices over a period of almost three centuries, beginning c. 1650, evolved into one which exhibited a unique configuration in which an industrialized sugar complex became embedded within much larger “peasant” economy of the farming of rice and “second” crops. It was on this agrarian and largely self-financed basis that Indonesia’s colonial sugar industry, located exclusively in the island of Java, became one of the leading sectors of the international sugar economy of the late colonial era, eventually even rivaling Cuba—the nonpareil of such producers—as an exporter to world markets. During the interwar Depression of the 1930s and subsequent decade of war and revolution, it lost much (and eventually all) of its international standing—yet managed to survive into Indonesia’s postcolonial era, albeit in an attenuated form. There were four main phases to the industry’s colonial-era history. The first, foundational phase, which saw the establishment of modern industrialized manufacture extended from the 1830s through to the 1880s. The second phase, from the 1880s to 1930, was the period of sugar’s peak expansion. The third phase, beginning in 1931 and ending in 1942, was one of retrenchment and (partial) recovery prior to the spread of the Second World War into Southeast Asia. The fourth phase, 1945–1958, was one of postwar reconstruction.
Southeast Asian polities were destined to play an active role in the world economy because of their location at the crossroads of East Asian maritime routes and their richness in commodities that were in demand in the whole of Eurasia. For a long time, historians restricted their role to examination of regional peddling trade carried out in small ships. Research on ships and trade networks in the past few decades, however, has returned considerable agency to local societies, particularly to Austronesian speakers of insular Southeast Asia, from proto-historic to early modern times. As far in the past as two thousand years ago, following locally developed shipbuilding technologies and navigational practices, they built large and sophisticated ships that plied South China Sea and Indian Ocean routes, as documented by 1st-millennium Chinese and later Portuguese sources and now confirmed by nautical archaeology. Textual sources also confirm that local shipmasters played a prominent part in locally and internationally run trade networks, which firmly places their operations into the mainstream of Asian global maritime history.