Food, Famine, and the End of Empire in Indonesia, 1940-1950

While an estimated 2.4 million people died during the famine in Java in 1944-45, hardly anything is known about the famine’s impact on the Indonesian War of Independence. Similarly, the occurrence of regional famines throughout the Indonesian archipelago during the revolutionary period 1945-49 has not yet been the focus of scholarly research.

This NWO Veni project examines the relationship between food distribution and warfare in Indonesia, hypothesising that widespread hunger both catalysed and accelerated the process of decolonisation. Through extensive archival research, and using a wide range of sources that have not previously been investigated for this type of research, this study seeks to analyse the role of food and famine in the discourses and policies that eventually led to recognition of Indonesia’s independence in 1949. The scientific innovation of this project is fourfold: 1) to map the chronology, geography and magnitude of famines in wartime Indonesia; 2) to offer a within-country analysis of the causes and consequences of famine beyond the traditional focus on Java; 3) to examine the functioning of food and hunger as weapons of warfare during the War of Independence; 4) to analyse the multiple possible associations between widespread hunger and revolution. The key objective of this project is to further our understanding of the dynamics between hunger and decolonisation, thereby opening up possibilities for transnational comparative research on the relationship between famine and the ‘end of Empire’ in the twentieth century. This will ultimately help us to better understand complex processes of decolonisation and postcolonial state formation. In addition, the project aims for high-impact knowledge utilisation through a two-fold strategy. Firstly, it will reintegrate Indonesia’s wartime famines into national and international public consciousnesses. Secondly, it will educate next generations across the world about these catastrophic events, thereby increasing knowledge and stimulating transnational debate about these famine pasts.