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G. Teitler, Op het koloniale oorlogspad; De strijd tegen Moslim-fundamentalisten ter Westkust van Sumatra (1817-1838), vergeleken met de Russische verovering van Tjetsjenie en Dagestan (1817-1859).

G. Teitler, Op het koloniale oorlogspad; De strijd tegen Moslim-fundamentalisten ter Westkust van Sumatra (1817-1838), vergeleken met de Russische verovering van Tjetsjenie en Dagestan (1817-1859). Amsterdam: De Bataafsche Leeuw, 2010, 171 pp. ISBN 9789067076524. Price EUR 15.00 (paperback).

The Padri War in West Sumatra (1817-1838) marked a critical turning point in the history of the Netherlands East Indies, a moment in which Dutch soldiers not only defeated an Islamic-inspired resistance movement, but also began the process of consolidating control beyond Java in what they called the Buitenbezittingen, or 'Outer Possessions'. As an early example of conflict between Muslims and Europeans, the Padri War has commanded considerable attention in the extant historiography. Scholars including Christine Dobbin (1983), Nikki Keddie (1994) and Jeffrey Hadler (2008) have all done excellent work describing the internal dynamics of local Minangkabau society that gave rise to war in West Sumatra, demonstrating how the advent of coffee cultivation upended traditional social relations rooted in matriarchy and fueled the rise of the Padri movement as a vehicle for protest and religious purification. This local struggle, tantamount to a civil war, in turn provided the Dutch regime with an opportunity to intervene. By 1838, colonial troops had vanquished most of the resistance and established West Sumatra as their preeminent foothold in the greater Sumatran region.

While the extant literature commendably emphasizes the internal dynamics within Minangkabau society that drove conflict, this emphasis has also had the side effect of relegating the Dutch military in the Indies, which was officially reorganized as the Royal Netherlands Indies Army in 1830, to the background. Much about the conduct of battle during the Padri War remains understudied. For example, what tactics did Dutch soldiers employ to combat Padri rebels and to what extent did it welcome indigenous soldiers into its ranks? How did the Padris and other Minangkabau manage to fend off a presumably better-trained, better-equipped colonial foe for two decades? What sort of challenges stymied the Indies Army on their path to victory? Into this lacunae steps Gerke Teitler, a prominent Dutch military historian, with his fine-grained study Op het koloniale oorlogpad. Drawing upon a wealth of archival material from the National Archives of the Netherlands, Teitler provides a comprehensive account of the battles and personalities involved in fighting the war, as well as the attendant logistical considerations and decision-making processes. Additionally, Teitler breaks new ground by situating the Padri War in the context of another struggle which pit European expansionists against Muslim rebels, the Russian war of conquest in Chechnya and Dagestan (1817-1859).

One of the greatest strengths of this book is its description of the sheer enormity of the logistical obstacles confronting the Dutch when staging a war far removed from their colonial base in Java. As Teitler explains, Dutch military planners faced a daunting array of practical challenges, from supplying a sufficient number of troops to finding enough ships to transport those soldiers from Java to Sumatra. Overlapping conflicts, such as the Java War of 1825-30 and the Belgian Revolution of 1831, required significant resources. After the Java War concluded, moreover, the empire needed sufficient strength to secure Java from rival European powers like the British. At a more basic level, Teitler reveals how the Dutch also struggled to move troops across the seas. The preponderance of Dutch naval ships was designed mainly for offensive naval manoeuvres and lacked substantial capacity for carrying troops. To the extent that specialized transport ships did exist in the fleet, they were limited. As a result, the Dutch had to rely heavily on expensive private ships.

Once these troops arrived in West Sumatra, as Teitler illustrates, the logistical problems only multiplied. To reach the highland centre of Padri resistance from the coastal plain, Dutch troops needed to scale very steep mountain passes and clear dense tracts of forest to build roads that could facilitate heavy artillery. This infrastructure, in turn, required an extensive amount of corvee labor--a tactic which further alienated the local population. The transportation of military supplies further distracted soldiers from their main job of fighting. In addition to transport needs, Teitler also points out that Dutch soldiers struggled not only to fend off illness and tropical diseases with rudimentary medical facilities, but also to bring the injured back from the battle field to medic stations. All of these complications, Teitler argues, substantially hindered Dutch military progress.

Beyond illuminating these logistical issues, another important strength of this book lies in its dismantling of the notion that the Dutch colonial and military regime constituted a monolithic entity. Teitler deftly demonstrates how the range of competing interests, agendas, and personalities produced friction in the Dutch establishment. Although ultimate civil and military authority in West Sumatra was vested in the Office of the Resident in the capital city of Padang, military commanders on the ground often pursued their own strategies with little regard for orders from above. In particular, officers in the field often chafed at the preference of the residents for caution and negotiation over more aggressive offensive action. Resident C.P.J. Elout, the high-born son of a former Minister of the Colonies, clashed repeatedly on this issue with one of his leading battle commanders, Vermeulen Krieger, an officer without formal schooling whom he regarded as a vechtersbaas (hooligan) (p. 81). A few years later, the Governor-General in Batavia openly wondered whether another commander, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer, would even seek the consent of the Elout's successor, E. Francis, before making an attack. Sometimes, moreover, civilian and military authorities reversed their positions with respect to aggressive action. In 1836, Lieutenant Colonel Bauer warned that a frontal assault on Padris of Bondjol was hopeless, as the enemy would simply decamp to one of the innumerable other kampong villages in the region. In opposition to the Resident who wanted to accelerate offensive action, Bauer thus despaired of the possibility that any military campaign could be successful. These rifts, according to Teitler, impeded the ability of the Dutch to mount a consistent and sustained policy against the Padri rebels.

Even more striking than divisions among leading Dutch administrators, however, was the inclusion of a diverse range of indigenous Indonesian inhabitants within the rank-and-file of the 'colonial' Indies Army. Throughout the Padri struggle, Teitler reminds his readers that the number of Indonesian auxiliary troops vastly exceeded the number of Dutch or other European regulars, sometimes by a ratio of as much as four to one, or twelve thousand versus three thousand in mid-1833. The composition of these supporting indigenous troops, moreover, exhibited tremendous variegation. In addition to recruits from the Minangkabau villages that had opposed the Padris, Teitler shows how these auxiliary corps also drew upon Batak ex-slaves liberated from their Padri captors, non-Muslims from Nias or Ambon, and Muslim communities in Java. Among these Javanese Muslims, Dutch authorities even permitted former antagonists from the Java War who had since made peace with colonial rulers, such as the Legion of Sentot, to join their forces during the West Sumatran struggle. While these Indonesian auxiliary troops sometimes caused problems for Dutch commanders, as when liberated slaves sought revenge against their erstwhile captors or Muslims from Java threatened to make common cause with Padri co-religionists, there was no denying their integral contribution to the war-effort. Teitler thus does an excellent job of showing how even midst the crucible of battle, the boundaries between European colonizers and the indigenous colonized could be quite permeable.

The one place that Teitler perhaps could go further is in exploring the racial dimension of the encounter with indigenous troops in the Indies Army. Although Teitler does acknowledge that military commanders exaggerated the shortcomings of their Indonesian auxiliaries, he also sometimes echoes their complaints about the propensity of indigenous soldiers to abandon the battlefield too early, allow corruption in their ranks, and indulge in vengeful looting or arson. It would have been interesting for Teitler to subject these claims to further scrutiny and interrogate how discourses of race may have mediated these assessments of Indonesian capabilities, perhaps affecting the ability of a diverse Indies Army to function as a coherent fighting entity.

These minor shortcomings notwithstanding, Teitler makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of the Padri War, helping to elucidate the complexities and challenges involved in waging a war on such a distant place. Teitler adds immeasurably both to our awareness of disputes within the Dutch decision-making apparatus and to incredible racial and ethnic diversity within the lower ranks. Beyond what was mentioned in this review, Teitler also provides myriad details about the strategies employed in individual battles, the types of weapons deployed, and the nature of defensive fortifications used by the Padris. Furthermore, Teitler devotes a significant amount of time to comparing the Padri War with Russian military campaigns in the Caucasus borderlands, demonstrating, among other things, how the physical proximity of the battle theater to the Russian heartlands prevented Czarist troops from needing to rely on local recruits as much as the Indies Army did. In sum, Teitler's Op het koloniale oorlogspad offers an important addition to the study of West Sumatran history and comparative colonial warfare.


Dobbin, Christine E. 1983 Islamic revivalism in a changing peasant economy: Central Sumatra, 1784

1847. London: Curzon Press.

Hadler, Jeffrey 2008 Muslims and matriarchs: Cultural resilience in Indonesia through Jihad and colonialism. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Keddie, Nikkie 1994 'The revolt of Islam, 1700 to 1993: Comparative considerations and relations to imperialism', Comparative Studies in Society and History 36-3:46387.


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Author:Gedacht, Joshua
Publication:Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences of Southeast Asia and Oceania
Article Type:Book review
Date:Oct 1, 2012
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