The East Indies in the Time of the
Indian Empires

By David Meyler
February 2024

The Dutch expansion into the East Indies has some parallels with the British conquest of India. The initial penetration was not made by outright military domination, but occurred in stages through a complex mix of economic, diplomatic and military pressures, combined with the exploitation of regional disputes to undermine the strength of both native and other European rivals.

In Soldier Emperor: Indian Empires, the Dutch colonial empire in the east is covered by the Java Sea region, where the Dutch control four areas (Java, Sumatra, Johor and Borneo) plus Ceylon in India.

Most of the events described below happen during the War of the Austrian Succession in Europe (1740 to 1748, the Dutch Republic was an active participant from 1745), up to the first part of the Seven Year’s War (1756 to 1763; the Dutch Republic remained neutral for the duration).


The driving force behind the Dutch eastern empire itself was directed not by the home government in the Netherlands but by the United East Indies Company, known as the VOC from its Dutch initials. The VOC was unique, in spite of superficial similarities with its British equivalent. In the 17th century it was much more powerful; the English East India Company controlled only a tenth of the capital held by the VOC. It formed a virtual state within a state.

      The Heren XVII.

While the directors of the company — a board of seventeen patricians who sat in Amsterdam, called the Heren XVII — wanted to follow a policy of cooperation with the regional native powers, the VOC leaders on the scene had considerable discretion due to the vast distances between the Indies and Amsterdam and the resulting long delays in communications.

Thus in 1619 the VOC gained, almost by accident, what would be the nerve center of its operations when the governor general, Joan Coen, took the small Javanese port of Jacatra (now Jakarta) by force, and upon its ruins built the town of Batavia — although the small territory in question was technically a fief of the powerful Sultanate of Bantam.

By 1684, the VOC had conquered Bantam itself after a three-year war and reduced it to a dependency. The VOC had become the predominant power in the region: The English had been effectively driven out of the competition by 1630, the Portuguese were definitively shut out with the capture of Ceylon in 1665, the Sultanate of Makassar was subjugated 1667 and the Spanish forced to give up their stronghold at Ternate.

By the first decades of the 1700s the strongest native powers in the region were the Sultanate of Mataram — which, outside of the VOC enclave around Batavia, controlled most of Java with its capital at Kartasura — and, at the eastern end of the island, the Sultanate of Madura.

Enter Van Imhoff

The dominant Dutch figure during the early part of this period was Baron Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff. Born in the German province of East Frisia, just across the border from the Dutch province of Groningen, Van Imhoff made a rapid rise in the VOC, from a junior merchant based in Batavia in 1725 to governor of Ceylon in 1736. There he built up a good reputation, both with the VOC and the native ruler, Narendra Simha, king of the Singhalese realm of Kandy. Among his varied activities he established a press and had religious works translated into Singhalese, some of the first printed literature in this language. He also began the cultivation of the coconut palm on the island.

Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff.

Based on his record he was promoted again, this time to the top position of governor general of the East Indies in December 1740. But Van Imhoff had already arrived in Batavia earlier in the year, where a serious crisis was developing. Much of the land around Batavia was used to produce sugar cane, and most of the plantations were owned or worked by Chinese immigrants. (Chinese merchant colonies had been active in the region long before the Europeans had arrived.) Sugar prices in Europe had collapsed that year, resulting in widespread economic hardship, unemployment and unrest.

Governor General Valckenier, to reduce the number of unemployed Chinese, began a systematic transportation to other VOC colonies, in particular Cape Colony and Ceylon. Among the Chinese community, however, stories spread that once out to sea, the hapless passengers were dumped overboard. The mutual distrust finally erupted into open rebellion, and on October 7, 1740, a Chinese mob attacked Europeans outside of Batavia. Valckenier reacted harshly and two days later ordered a mass slaughter of the Chinese in Batavia. The sometimes-quoted figure of 10,000 victims might be high, but it is known the dead numbered in the thousands. VOC forces pillaged the Chinese quarter for the better part of a week.

Meanwhile Van Imhoff had arrived. He objected to Valckenier’s policies, especially his extreme measures against the Chinese. Valckenier in turn feared his rival was actively working to undermine his authority. On December 6, he had Van Imhoff arrested and put aboard ship for Holland. Unknown to Valckenier, the Heren XVII had already appointed Van Imhoff as his successor.

The Chinese War

The military situation continued to deteriorate. Chinese who had escaped from Batavia organized and captured Bekasi, and from here rebellion spread into central Java, at Tanjung, Pati, Grobogan and Kaliwungu. In May 1741, the rebels took Juwana. The Javanese forces of Mataram at first sided with the VOC. A combined VOC-Mataram army, including mercenaries from the island of Bali, marched out of the city of Semarang to defend the outlying position of Tugu. The Chinese rebel army lured them into an ambush in a narrow mountain road, inflicting a significant defeat.

By July the rebels had cut off Semarang, occupying Kaligawe, to the south, and Rembang, while Jepara was put under siege. The VOC did not have the strength to reconquer and hold the mountainous heartland, and while the Dutch could place some reliance on the sultan of Madura, Cakraningkrat, to hold east Java, decisive would be the attitude of Pakubuwana II, the Susuhunan (sultan or king) of Mataram.

While the susuhunan was not unhappy to see the VOC weakened, he wished to avoid an open breach. Semarang’s artillery, the VOC’s key advantage over the poorly-armed rebels, could keep the city safe for now, and in the meantime Pakubuwana had one of his chief ministers, the Patih Natakusuma, lead the anti-Dutch campaign. A number of the king’s vassals were allowed to aid the Chinese in their siege of Semarang, while Natakusuma attacked the VOC garrison in Kartasura. The garrison was finally starved into submission in August. At its peak the rebel army comprised 20,000 Javanese and 3,500 Chinese with 30 cannon.

VOC reinforcements were arriving and being concentrated at Semarang. The Dutch attacked Kaligawe in November and inflicted a sharp defeat on the rebels. They and their Javanese allies had occupied four fortresses, but failed to support each other. In the east, the Maduran army continued its slow but deliberate conquest of east Java.

Van Imhoff had in the meantime reached the Netherlands where he found he had powerful supporters among the Heren XVII. Instead of prosecuting Van Imhoff, they officially removed Valckenier from office in 1741 and replaced him in the interim with Johannes Thedens. Van Imhoff left the Netherlands in 1742. After a stop in the Cape Colony he finally returned to Batavia and took over his post as governor general on May 28, 1743.

The Civil War

While the VOC thus sorted out its leadership its leadership issues, the crisis in Java continued to unfold. Following the defeat outside of Semarang, Pakubuwana attempted to come to terms with the VOC, offering up Natakusuma up as a scapegoat. The chief result, however, at this attempt to avoid an open break with the Dutch was to turn a good portion of his own people against Pakubuwana, and the combined Javanese-Chinese rebel army now vented its main rage against the sultan. The rebellion had turned into a Javanese civil war.

Pakubuwana retained only the loyalty of his eastern fiefs, but the VOC in May decided to support the sultan. The rebels, however, controlled the only road between Semarang and Kartasura, and had further captured Salatiga. The VOC army under generals G. Mom and N. Steinmets left Kartasura to its fate and concentrated on freeing the north coast from rebel forces, clearing the towns Demak, Welahan, Jepara, Kudus and Rembang by October 1742.

The loyal Javanese princes, meanwhile, attacked the rebels but were defeated. Kartasura fell on June 30, 1742, and Pakubuwana had to make an ignomious flight, escaping on the back of a VOC official. While the VOC cleared the north coast, Cakraningkrat conquered eastern Java and slowly pushed west, defeating the rebels at Kartasura in November, and plundering the city.

The VOC convinced Cakraningkrat to pull his Maduran and Balinese troops out of the Mataram capital, and Pakubuwana was reinstated on December 14, 1742. This date officially marked the end of what was called the Chinese War. By October of the following year most of the rebel leaders left in the field had made their peace.

While Cakraningkrat was allowed to keep his plunder, he was not satisfied with the re-establishment of Mataram. He began to make plans of alliance with the city of Surabaya, and hired more Balinese mercenaries. In 1744, he stopped paying tribute to the VOC. Van Imhoff responded with force, invading itself Madura in 1745. Cakraningkrat surrendered, and was banished to the Cape Colony in South Africa the following year.

While Mataram was technically an independent state, Pakubuwana’s mishandling of the Chinese War had seriously comprised his hold on the sultanate. A number of princes led by Raden Mas Said continued an armed rebellion against the sultan. He, meanwhile, moved his palace from Kartasura to a newly-built fortress, or kraton, at Surakarta. Mangkubumi, the sultan’s brother, defeated Mas Raid in 1746, but Pakubuwana then reneged on the promised reward of a large tract of land.

The Java War

With the establishment of a general peace in 1746, Van Imhoff began a grand tour of the newly-conquered territories, which now included almost the whole of the north coast of Java. The governor instituted a number of administrative and economic reforms, not all of them successful. In the middle of the dynastic dispute Van Imhoff arrived at Pakubuwana’s palace, the first ever VOC official to make a visit to the royal kraton. Here he got Pakubuwana’s confirmation of the VOC conquests from 1743 to 1746. Mangkubumi objected, on the grounds that the sultan had not consulted with any other of the family or great nobles. This led to a public dressing down by Van Imhoff over the prince’s “unseemly” ambitions.

Such a loss of face from the hands of a “barbarian” could not be tolerated, and in May 1746 Mangkubumi was in open rebellion against his brother, with his base in Yogya, in what is called the Third Javanese Succession War. By the end of 1747, with the support of his one-time foe Mas Said, Mangkubumi controlled an army of 10,500 foot and 2,500 cavalry. In 1748, the rebels were strong enough to threaten Surakarta itself. Pakubuwana was now wholly dependent on the VOC, but the company was not strong enough to hold all of Mataram for the king by force. By December 1749, the ailing ruler was close to death, and bequeathed his entire realm to the care of the VOC.

On December 15, the VOC proclaimed Pakubuwana’s son, the crown prince, as the new ruler under the name Pakubuwana III. But the rebels had been quicker, and Mangkubumi had been also crowned Pakubuwana III just three days before, with Mas Said as his patih. As the crisis spiraled out of his control, Van Imhoff asked to be relieved as governor, but the VOC had no immediate successor to take over in the midst of an armed conflict, so he was required to stay on. He died November 1, 1750, and the prosecution of the war was left to his immediate successor, Jacob Mossel.

In the meantime, a rebellion had broken out in Bantam, in West Java, against the VOC-sponsored government of the regentess Ratu Safira (her husband, the sultan, had been deposed by the VOC in 1748, and exiled to Ambon). The VOC defeated the rebels and pacified Bantam in 1751, but the rebel leader, Tapa, continued to raid VOC plantations outside of Batavia for several months. In 1753, Ratu Safira was deposed in favour of her son, Zainul Asyikin. Bantam became a virtual fiefdom of the VOC and had to pay a heavy indemnity.

The market at Batavia.

A Lasting Peace

Back in central Java, neither side could gain a decisive advantage. Mas Said deserted Mangkubumi in 1752 to go it on his own once again, but in the following year the crown prince Pakubuwana III himself deserted the VOC and joined up with his uncle.

By 1754 all the combatants, save Mas Said, had tired of the war and were ready to make peace. In 1755 the peace of Giyanti was signed between the new VOC Governor General Nicolaas Hartingh and Mangkubumi, which led to the permanent division of Mataram into two sultanates. The crown price was confirmed as the Susuhunan Pakubuwana III of Surakarta, while Mangkubumi became the ruler of the new sultanate of Yogya, under the name Sultan Hamenkubuwana I. He built a royal kraton in his capital, now officially renamed Yogyakarta.

Mas Said struck hard, and almost captured Yogyakarta itself in 1756, but against the now-combined forces of the VOC, Surakarta and Yogyakarta, he realized he could not prevail. In 1757 he made his peace with Pakubuwana III, and was awarded a small fiefdom near the city of Surakarta under the title Pangeran Arya Adipati Mangkunegara.

The peace proved effective, lasting until the collapse of the Dutch administration in Java in 1812. In fact, to this day in the modern state of Indonesia there is still a sultan of Yogykarta, a susuhunan of Surakarta and a pangeran of Mangkunegara.

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