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The Dutch East Indies during the First World War and the birth of colonial radio.

It is a well-known fact that communication technology was a vital part of the history of modern imperialism. In the late nineteenth century the telegraphy service of the Dutch empire depended on British submarine cables. It took a large crisis to convince the Dutch government to grant money to develop an independent connection via the wireless: that crisis was the First World War. This brings us to a topic that is often overlooked in historiography: the disruption of the lines of communication between the Netherlands and its most important colony, the Dutch East Indies. Although the Netherlands remained neutral during the First World War in the sense that it did not partake in the military conflict between the great powers in Europe escaping the slaughter of the Western front and retaining its territorial integrity--the conflict had a significant impact on the colonial regime in the Indies because it was largely cut off from Europe when shipping and telegraphy largely came to a halt. The Netherlands, as a small power, could not change this situation on its own accord between 1914 and 1918 because it lacked a solid intercontinental infrastructure and depended on foreign networks to keep in contact with the colony in the East. Subsequently, the Dutch government started to invest in the construction of a wireless radio-connection in order to prevent blockades in the future. Therefore, the birth of the Dutch colonial radio-service in the 1920s must be seen as a direct result of the First World War.

This contribution highlights this history. I start by giving a short overview of the colonial lines of communication before and during the First World War. Then I describe how the radio connection between the Netherlands and the Indies came into being. Here I also pay attention to the symbolic meaning of the wireless. In the 1920s opinion-makers often referred to the situation during the First World War when the Dutch colonial regime in the Indonesian archipelago literally depended on a 'thin red line'--the British submarine cable that connected Asia and Europe. This was a traumatic experience indeed and it indicates that Dutch neutrality during the First World War was not as self-evident as might seem at first sight. Behind the seemingly calm image of the Netherlands as an island in an ocean of violence, there lurks a sea of contradictions connected to the complex status of the Netherlands as a small power in Europe with a huge colonial empire in Southeast Asia. On the one hand there was pride about the 'great' achievements of the Dutch in the East. On the other hand there were worries about threats to colonial rule both externally and internally--respectively colonial rivals and Indonesian nationalists. During the First World War, these ambivalent feelings led to a true colonial crisis in the Indies.

A Colony in Crisis

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries colonial expansion and technology were intertwined. In his classic study Daniel Headrick provides a fascinating overview of the inventions that the Western powers used as Tools of Empire. (1) Like other Western empire-builders, the Dutch greatly profited from technological innovations in their conquest of the "outer islands" of the Indonesian archipelago between 1870 and 1910. New means of communication were vital for this colonial project. Steam-power facilitated a great increase in the transport of people, goods and information. More and more ships reached islands that had previous been isolated from the rest of the world. Big infrastructural projects, such as the construction of the Suez Canal, also had an impact. The route between Europe and Asia was shortened significantly by this waterway and the Netherlands profited fully of this improvement. Shipping to and from the Indonesian archipelago grew enormously and this strengthened the colonial regime. (2) But the Dutch also worried. The navy of the Netherlands was much weaker than those of the great powers, particularly the British, who had a strong naval presence in the region. This made the Dutch East Indies, which was an island empire, vulnerable to invasions by rival colonial powers. Alarmed citizens and opinion-makers founded an organization, Onze Vloot (Our Fleet), that actively lobbied for the expansion of the navy. But this campaign did not have much of an impact. By international standards, the Dutch navy remained a minor force.

The Netherlands also lagged behind in the development of the most remarkable nineteenth century invention in communication technology: the telegraph. In the 1830s, experiments showed that messages could be transferred high-speed by transferring electrical shocks through wires. It proved difficult to construct the necessary infrastructure for this technology, and it took decades to develop a durable technique to sink telegraph-cables to the bottom of the seas to enable intercontinental contact. After 1870 the process accelerated. By 1900 the British had connected all the parts of their empire with telegraph cables: the all red line. This network enabled fast transfer of information: a message from India could reach London within thirty minutes, whereas a letter would take weeks. Some scholars have hailed this system as the "Victorian internet," but this comparison goes too far as the telegraph-network did not enable a free flow of information to the same extent as the world-wide-web does nowadays. (3) In fact, the all red line was a highly controlled media environment, operated by monopolists that charged high rates per word, which meant that many people could not even afford to send telegrams. Moreover, the British authorities kept a close watch on the telegraph-cables and installed stations at places where different lines came together. Censors there could stop all information that they considered to be unwanted.

Considering the telegraph-connection with the Indies, the Dutch completely depended on the British network. In the 1870s there had been no willingness amongst Dutch politicians and entrepreneurs to invest large amounts of money in constructing an independent cable to the Indies. Therefore, the government granted a concession to the British to connect the Indonesian archipelago to the all red route. Financially this was an efficient solution. But from a geostrategic point of view it was problematic because all Dutch messages to and from the colony in the East had to pass the British-controlled stations. In peacetime, this was no problem per se, but in times of war the situation could lead to communication-troubles. During the South African War (1899-1902), the Dutch were confronted with this problem for the first time. Although the Netherlands officially remained neutral, many people sympathized with the Boers in their war against the British. The British government controlled all telegraph lines in the warzone, but feared that couriers would travel from South Africa to the Indies to wire secret messages to Boer diplomats in Europe. Therefore British censors severely restricted telegrams coming from the archipelago: for example, it was forbidden to send coded messages. (4) This situation came as a shock to the Dutch government that in 1905 made a deal with a German company to construct an alternative telegraph route to Shanghai, where it tapped into the American Pacific network. This alleviated the situation somewhat, but it did not address the main problem: the Netherlands depended on foreign powers for its colonial telegraph connection.

The problem became urgent again during the First World War. The British imposed many restrictions on the Netherlands to try to prevent Germany from being supplied with goods and information. There was a blockade of all Dutch ports (both in Europe and Asia) imposed by a British fleet, which stopped every vessel coming in and out of the harbors. The British compiled a list of goods they considered to be contraband and that they commandeered. Although the Dutch tried to find a modus vivendi, the authorities in The Hague and Batavia were powerless against these measures because they did not want (and were not able) to violate their neutrality towards Great Britain. (5) In the Indies, the naval blockade led to severe economic problems as the trade volume (both import and export) dropped drastically. The result was that the income from colonial exports withered away, while food- and fuel-prizes became much higher as a result of scarcity. (6) All across the archipelago the indigenous population suffered from the economic crisis, which led to increasing protests against colonial rule. In this tense atmosphere the call for independence became stronger and Indonesian nationalist organizations grew.

Policymakers in Batavia worried about this situation and their anxiety was aggravated by the fact that the British blockade made all consultation with the government in The Hague impossible. The Royal Navy not only seized contraband, but also censored letters. In 1917 it even banned all Dutch ships from carrying mail. (7) In addition, the telegraph lines came under strict British military control. At the start of the war, in 1914, the German lines in Asia were cut and so the Netherlands again depended on the all red line. And this cable-route was heavily censored. Although it was technically possible to transmit messages, it was always uncertain if the British would allow the telegraphs to come through or not. As a result of these censorship-measures, the authorities in Batavia did not receive any instructions from The Hague. The sense of being isolated caused Governor-General J.P. Graaf van Limburg Stirum to suffer from severe bouts of depression during the first years of his term of office (he started his tenure in 1916). His biographers contribute his despair in large part to the British blockades that had "cut off the umbilical cord between the motherland and the colony." (8) Also in the Netherlands the colonial communication crisis was considered to be a problem, as it threatened the very existence of the colonial empire in Southeast Asia. The situation forced the Dutch government to be more proactive in finding alternatives to the British telegraph lines.

The Birth of Dutch Colonial Radio

The quest for an independent telegraph connection resulted in the birth of colonial radio. Looking at the situation before the First World War, however, this was not as straightforward as it seems with hindsight. Although the Dutch colonial regime in the Indies did experiment with wireless telegraphy after the pioneering work of G. Marconi in the 1890s, radio-technology in the Indies was quite embryonic. In the 1910s several stations were set up near busy shipping routes in order to contact passing vessels. There even were plans for a network to facilitate radio-communication within the archipelago, but this proved to be complicated. Considering the rudimentary state of the Dutch technology, a direct radio-connection between the Netherlands and the Indies, bridging a distance of approximately 12.000 kilometers, seemed impossible to many. As a result, the Dutch authorities did not invest much money in these radio-experiments. During the First World War, however, the official qualms melted away. In 1916 a colonial engineer on leave in the Netherlands, C.J. de Groot, obtained his PhD at the University of Delft with a thesis on long-wave transmissions in the tropics in which he presented the bold statement that a direct radio-connection between the Netherland and its colonies was 'a political necessity and technically possible'. (9) To his own surprise De Groot was invited by the minister of Colonies, who told him that the government was willing to grant him the substantial sum of fl. 5,000,000 to build a station in the Indies that would be capable of intercontinental radio traffic. In January 1917 De Groot arrived in the Indies, and managed to import a German Telefunken receiver and an American Poulsen transmitter. (10)

De Groot believed that only long-wave technology was suitable to establish long distance radio connections. Such technology required large machines that could generate huge amounts of electricity. Hence, he devised a plan for a high-powered station. He found the ideal location for this structure at the Malabar gorge in the mountains surrounding the city Bandung in Java. This place was literally in the middle of nowhere (even the nearest road was ten kilometers away) which meant that there was virtually no interference. An army of Indonesian workers cleared the grounds of the lush brushwood that was growing there and chased away the wildlife (including panthers that roamed the area). Within a matter of months the first station was built. The most impressive feat of engineering was a huge antenna spanning the full two-kilometer gorge. (11) The Malabar station became a powerful symbol of colonial engineering and attracted many tourists who wanted to marvel at the wonders of Dutch radio technology from inside and outside the Indonesian archipelago. (12)

The Malabar station was operational from the start, although it was not yet as powerful as De Groot wanted it to be and the connection was quite unstable. Early in 1917 the Malabar station was already receiving signals coming from Europe for several hours a day. In November, De Groot even succeeded in sending messages back on several occasions. In the Netherlands, however, no big radio-stations existed, so the ultimate goal of setting up a colonial radio-connection was not met. Frustrated with the lack of progress, De Groot sent a receiver to the Netherlands with instructions for the construction of a station in November 1918. In 1919 first contact was made via an improvisational antenna. (13) But it was only in 1923 when a permanent station was finished at Kootwijk in the nature-reserve of the Hoge Veluwe--another desolated place. The main building of the Kootwijk station was an impressive concrete structure, resembling a cathedral, housing enormous turbines. In the meantime, De Groot had improved the power supply of the Malabar station. With these stations ready in the colonial center and periphery, it seemed the moment had come to inaugurate a regular radiotelegraphy service between the Indies and the Netherlands.

The date was set on 5 May 1923 and Governor-General Dirk Fock agreed to send the first telegram to officially start the telegraphy service. A few days before the occasion, there was a big explosion at Malabar that damaged the transmitter, but De Groot decided not to cancel the opening. Fock arrived according to schedule. He solemnly dictated a text that was to be wired to Queen Wilhelmina in the Netherlands. After a respectful greeting, he explicitly referred to the communication crisis during the First World War and emphasized the importance of an independent Dutch colonial radio connection. After he said these words he pressed a button, which set the generators in motion. The audience in attendance was greatly impressed by the hissing noises of these machines. Then the audience waited for a message from the Netherlands that Fock's telegram had been received. After several hours of silence, Fock left while the engineers frantically tried to establish a connection with Kootwijk. The next day it became clear that engineers in the Netherlands had not received any signal from the Indies. To make the humiliation complete, Fock's words were sent to the Netherlands via the British telegraph cables. (14)

Despite this failure, the Dutch authorities allowed De Groot to continue with his long-wave radio experiments at Malabar and he managed to establish a regular long-wave connection with Kootwijk in the years that followed. In the meantime, however, other engineers started experimenting with short-wave technology. As this technique required less powerful and smaller devices, it proved far more efficient. Radio amateurs in the Netherlands managed to make contact with the Indies in 1925. Soon after, the Philips company in Eindhoven established a radio-telegraphy connection via the short-wave that was far more reliable than the official connection by De Groot. In March 1927 Philips engineers achieved an even more important milestone. One evening, they broadcasted the sound of a gramophone record they were playing. To their great surprise they received a telegram from Bandung that their signal had been received by an amateur there. This was the first time ever that sound had been transmitted via the wireless across such a distance. (15) Soon after the first colonial radiotelephone connection was inaugurated, this time by the royal family itself.

On 1 June 1927 Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana for the first time directly address their subjects in the colonies from the Philips factory in Eindhoven. The Queen started her speech with a "greeting from heart to heart," emphasizing the close bonds between the people in the Netherlands and the people in the Indies. Radio-technology, she continued, would improve the unity of the Dutch empire. Journalists in the Dutch mainstream media repeated these words with great enthusiasm. They also quoted the Minister of Colonies, who emphasized the geo-strategic importance of an independent Dutch colonial radio-connection. (16) Finally, the communication crisis of the First World War seemed to have been overcome. One gratifying bit of news was that in the Summer of 1927 the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) asked Philips to transmit its signals to the far-flung reaches of the British Empire because their own radio-stations were not capable of doing that. Although this situation did not last long, several Dutch opinion-makers noticed that the tables had turned: the British depended on the Dutch information network for a change. One paper referred to an editorial in the Daily Mail that compared the situation with the "Golden Age" of the Dutch mercantile empire in seventeenth century: back then Dutch ships ruled the seas, this time around Dutch engineers ruled the airwaves. (17)


The euphoric reactions to the birth of Dutch colonial radio in 1927 cannot be understood without considering the context of the First World War. Although the Netherlands was not directly affected by military violence, the conflict did lead to a colonial crisis. The British blockade of naval routes and telegraph lines to the Indonesian archipelago brought to light the great deficiencies in the information infrastructure of the Dutch empire, which completely depended on British tools of empire in this respect. As a reaction, the Dutch government heavily invested in the development of wireless technology in order to set up and independent radio-connection with its colony in the East. This financial impulse facilitated the construction of the enormous stations at Malabar and Kootwijk that could generate enough power for long-wave frequencies. Eventually it became apparent that short-wave technology was far more efficient. Also in this field Dutch engineers, encouraged by the government and applauded by the press, fulfilled a pioneering role as they set up the first intercontinental telephone connection.

In addition to these concrete achievements, the psychological effects were considerable. The information blackout during the First World War had caused great insecurity amongst Dutch colonial officials, who felt isolated because of the growing unrest in the archipelago and the rise of Indonesian nationalism. The 1927 comments on colonial radio reveal an opposite image: the wireless would strengthen the ties between the Netherlands and the Indies and reinforce the unity of the Dutch empire. Such sentiments were widespread in the mainstream media in the Netherlands, which indicates that many people supported the Dutch colonial regime in Southeast Asia. In the Indies the situation was quite different. The tense situation during the First World War had released the spirit of anti-colonial nationalism, which would not be put back in the bottle. In the 1920s and 1930s a growing group of indigenous intellectuals agitated for independence. They saw radio as an important instrument to mobilize the mass of the Indonesians against the colonial regime. In this way the airwaves increasingly became a propagandists battleground between conflicting views on Dutch colonial rule. This war of words climaxed during the decolonization war (1945-9). (18) Although after the colonial communication crisis of the First World War pro-colonial contemporaries considered radio to be an essential tool of empire, it certainly was not an uncontested one.

Vincent Kuitenbrouwer, University of Amsterdam

(1) Daniel R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire. Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (Oxford University Press: Oxford/New York 1981).

(2) J.N.F.M. a Campo, Koninklijke Paketvaart Maatschappij. Stoomvaart en staatsvorming in de Indonesische archipel 1888-1914 (Verloren: Hilversum 1992).

(3) S. Potter, "Webs, Networks, and Systems: Globalization and the Mass Media in the Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century British Empire," in: Journal of British Studies, vol. 46 (2007) 621-646.

(4) V. Kuitenbrouwer, War of Words. Dutch Pro-Boer Propaganda and the South African War (1899-1902Amsterdam University Press: Amsterdam 2012) 107-8.

(5) Samuel Kruizinga, Overlegeconomie in oorlogstijd. De Nederlandsche Overzee Trustmaatschappij en de Eerste Wereldoorlog (Walburg Pers: Zutphen 2012).

(6) K. van Dijk, The Netherlands Indies and the Great War, 1914-1918 (KITLV: Leiden 2007) 353-81.

(7) Ibidem, 408.

(8) 'navelstreng tussen moederland en kolonie [hadden] doorgesneden'. B. de Graaff en E. Locher-Scholten, J.P. Graaf van Limburg-Stirum. Tegendraads landvoogd en diplomaat, 1873-1948 (Waanders: Zwolle 2007) 215.

(9) 'eene politieke noodzakelijkheid en technisch uitvoerbaar.' C.J. de Groot, Radio-telegrafie in de tropen (De Atlas: 's Gravenhage 1916), stelling XXI.

(10) J.G. Visser, 'Groot, Cornelius Johannes de (18831927)', in Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland. URL:http:// grootcj [10-02-2012].

(11) K. Dijkstra, Radio Malabar. Herinneringen aan een boeiende tijd 1914-1945, Arthur Bouer ed. (Emaus: z.p. 2004) 55-7.

(12) R. Mrazek, Engineers of Happy Land. Technology and Nationalism in a Colony (Princeton University Press; Princeton/ Oxford 2002) 170.

(13) Dijkstra, Radio Malabar, 57-9.

(14) Dijkstra, Radio Malabar, 147-52.

(15) H. Vles, Hallo Bandoeng. Nederlandse radiopioniers (1900-1945Walburg Pers: Zwolle 2008).

(16) 'De toespraak van H.M. de Koningin', Het Vaderland, 2 June 1927.

(17) 'Philips in Zuid-Afrika gehoord', Het Vaderland, 14 June 1927.

(18) Colin Wild, 'De radio als vroedvrouw. De rol van de radio in de Indonesische onafhankelijkheidsstrijd', in: K. Dibbets et al. eds, Jaarboek voor mediageschiedenis. Nederlands-Indie, vol. 4 (1992) 71-87; Mrazek, Engineers of Happy Land, 180-90.
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Title Annotation:Special Section: Empire and the Great War
Author:Kuitenbrouwer, Vincent
Publication:World History Bulletin
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:90SOU
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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