How did trade and the operations of colonial powers affect economic development and social relations in a region? Pim de Zwart, researcher at the Rural History group (RHI), is trying to find an answer to this question for Southeast Asia in the period 1830 - 1940, the period known as the 'first era of globalisation'.
‘The interest in the colonial past is great - here in the Netherlands, for example, for the role we played in Indonesia. There are also all kinds of views, which are often rather coloured. But what was it really like? That's what I'm trying to map out for Southeast Asia', says Pim de Zwart, who received a VENI grant for his research 'Unfair Trade? Globalisation, Institutions and Inequality in Southeast Asia, 1830-1940'.
It is sometimes monastic work: digging up old colonial sources in search of, for example, the development of the incomes and purchasing power of the local population. With sufficient data, statistical analyses are possible, in other cases Pim de Zwart takes a descriptive approach. ‘This is how I try to unravel mechanisms. For example: to what extent do contextual factors play a role, such as what is produced, for example rubber or sugar? And what role did the attitude of the coloniser play? Did it mainly make use of forced labour? Or did it give the local population room to manoeuvre? Was capital invested or not?
Different style in different places
The position of the coloniser turns out - not unexpectedly - to play a crucial role. ‘If a coloniser offers the local people room to take initiatives, that works in a positive way', says De Zwart. ‘You then see higher incomes among people and a more equal distribution of wealth. For example, I made a comparison between South Vietnam (under French rule), Malaysia (colonised by Great Britain) and Sumatra (under Dutch rule). Rubber was produced in all three of these areas, but while in Vietnam there was great inequality, in Sumatra there was much more prosperity and equality. The British were a bit in-between and you can see that in the more mixed picture in Malaysia'.
The Netherlands, as a coloniser, was not so flexible everywhere. In parts of Sumatra the population was given a bit more freedom, but in Java the Dutch ruled with a hard hand. ‘We often see that the same coloniser adopted a different style in different places. This often had to do with what the government looked like before the arrival of the coloniser. There was already central authoritarian rule in Java. In Sumatra, village councils played an important role in the administration'.
In any case, the image that the Netherlands has brought prosperity to Java via the so-called cultuurstelsel does not hold up, says De Zwart. In that system, the indigenous population had to use 20% of their land for products for the European market by way of a lease. Think of coffee, sugar, tobacco and tea. ‘What you see everywhere is that the more labour the population has to provide to the coloniser, the higher the mortality rate, for example due to malnutrition and the spread of disease on the plantations’.
It is important that we continue to broaden and deepen our knowledge of our (colonial) past, says Pim de Zwart. ‘We must continue to learn from our past and fortunately the public is also very interested in this subject. I am also in regular contact with Museum Bronbeek in Arnhem, the museum of the colonial past of the Netherlands, which is happy to make use of my research results'.
Testing economic theories
Pim de Zwart's research also contributes to a better understanding of the long-term effects of trade and thus to testing economic theories. ‘Personally, I think it is important that my research also sheds a different light on the discussion about globalisation. Reality is often just a little more nuanced and less black and white than people are inclined to think. I think it would be nice if my research could provide a little more depth in that debate'.