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The road to an empire: organisation and technology of road construction in the Dutch East Indies, 1800-1940.

From travel journals and reports dating from the end of the eighteenth century one can deduce that, generally speaking, the roads were either badly maintained or not maintained at all in the Dutch East Indies. Footpaths through woods were overgrown, various stretches of road were accessible only in the dry season and any kinds of cross-river links were completely lacking. Alongside the old locally created routes, the Dutch United East India Company constructed a number of roads between important posts and in areas where such connections were perceived as being strategic. Connections were created between, for instance, Batavia, Bantam and Buitenzorg. (1) However, like the indigenous ones, these routes were not always completely passable for people and horses. They were grassed-over roads, unsurfaced cart tracks or footpaths. It thus took eight days to travel from Batavia to Tjipanas, high in the mountains of the Preanger Regencies, partly by buffalo cart and partly on buffalo-back. The isolation of Tjipanas led to it becoming a convalescent home for sick Company servants.

Colonial road building in the Dutch East Indies took off after 1800 when the Dutch East Indies state was established. Governor General H. W. Daendels's early nineteenth-century 'Great Post Road' (between the west and east coasts of Java) is a case in point, but it was just one step in the formation of an extensive road network in Java and the Outer Regions, especially Sumatra. We will analyse the history of colonial road construction in the Dutch East Indies in the 1800-1950 period in this article, focusing on the organisation and the technology involved. We will also draw comparisons with developments in the 'mother country', the Netherlands, and other colonies. We have chosen a periodisation which rests on the process of state formation in the Dutch East Indies between 1800 and 1950. This process was essentially one of modernisation, and manifested itself in the foundation and transformation of a Public Works agency which provided the colony with a series of infrastructural networks, including an elaborate system of roads. Before going on to describe in detail how this road system was created we sketch the changing context of policy, state and technology and give an oversight of the civil engineering works which have been accomplished in the Dutch East Indies.

Colonial management

Colonial state formation and modernisation

The end of the eighteenth century was a restless time in the Netherlands and elsewhere. (2) The United Provinces republic had been dissolved and in the year 1795 a central state had been created. With the help of the French, who were determined to export their revolution of 1789, patriots had managed to establish the Batavian Republic. As the United East India Company (VOC) had just gone into liquidation, and as its possessions had been requisitioned by the Dutch state, the republic was rewarded with the East Indies.

The establishment of a satellite state in the East Indies and its transformation into a modern colonial state took place in the framework of the integration of the Indies in the developing world trade network. This happened through the imperialist creation of colonial empires by European powers for political and economic reasons. (3) The East Indian state was the local agent of Dutch imperialism. (4) This state underwent a slow transformation in which exploitation (through colonial cultures) and administrative maintenance of order made way for entrepreneurial and welfare support with the help of a diversified and specialised government bureaucracy. Three distinct phases are usually identified: the early colonial state (1800-70), the modernising colonial state (1870-1920) and the modern colonial state (1920-1945/49). (5)

The heart of the modernisation process of the colonial state was the penetration of the 'Van Hogendorp doctrine' into colonial policy. Dirk van Hogendorp, a former VOC partner, recognised the East Indian population's right to a sovereign state but recommended that the Netherlands should not relinquish its colony, considering the 'imperfect state' view of East Indian civilisation. The contrast between 'a right to' and 'the inability to' was something that he resolved in a way that would come to characterise Dutch colonial rule permanently and which, even now, gives historians grounds to view the Netherlands as a positive exception when compared with other colonial powers. With his influential view that the Dutch had a moral obligation to protect and develop the East Indies and its inhabitants, Van Hogendorp paved the way for the Ethical Policy introduced in 1901. (6) As will be made clear below, this had consequences for the scope and scale of road construction.

Science, technology and empire

When, in 1942, the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies, an area at least as big as Europe, the extensive civil public works included significant transport infrastructure. There was a 7,500 km long network of railway lines in Java and Sumatra. The road network comprised 12,000 km of asphalted surface, 41,000 km of metalled road area and 16,000 km of unimproved surfaces, largely on Java and Sumatra. International harbours existed in places like Medan, Batavia and Surabaya. These installations were part of wider state investment that included 'technological' irrigation on 1.5 million ha of agricultural land-1.3 million ha in Java and Madoera-and 140 public-particularly urban-drinking water facilities, largely in Java. (7)


These public works formed and still form the material substrate of the Dutch East Indian and Indonesian state. The infrastructural networks involved were, in fact, coherent wholes of technical and social elements, like the network of irrigation facilities, water division arrangements, management systems and water legislation. Consequently, they can be considered as 'socio-technical systems'. (8) These public works systems were constructed in the period 1800-1945/49 under the reign of the Dutch East Indies colonial state, both through 'technology transfer' and local technology development. The processes of globalisation and localisation of technology in the Dutch East Indies reflected similar processes in other colonial empires. (9)

Science and technology have played an important role in the relations between European countries and non-Western areas in each and every phase of the European expansion (discovering areas and establishing trading posts, penetrating the hinterland, establishing colonial empires), though in different forms and measures. (10) Modern science and technology were strong contributing factors in the change from (state) colonialism to (free-trade) imperialism, particularly in the form of the construction of infrastructural networks. (11)

All this is visible in the history of the Dutch East Indies, where technology was used to assist discovery, trade, penetration, exploitation and development. In the VOC period (1600-1800) ships and firearms were of crucial importance, and they stayed important in the subsequent colonial state period. Roads, shipping lines, irrigation and drainage canals, and sanitary provision were to a limited degree constructed or established by the VOC. (12) It was only under the colonial state that the Dutch really made a point of constructing networks of roads, railroads, irrigation and drainage works, harbours, sanitary works and other infrastructures. (13)


Modernisation and the rise of the engineering profession

Infrastructural works in the Dutch East Indies were constructed by the Department of Civil Public Works (BOW), founded in 1854. (14) Other main government services involved were the civil service and the Department of Agriculture. Civil engineers, (administrative) civil servants and agricultural experts (in relation to irrigation works) co-operated in the final stage of colonial state formation, but before that they were involved in a power struggle. Perceptions and evaluations of endogenous technologies constituted part of this struggle: civil servants and agriculturalists had a high regard for local achievements whereas civil engineers often considered them as sloppy works. While civil servants lost ground, civil engineers and agricultural experts became dominant through a process of professionalisation and emancipation. They learned from native ways, but civil engineers also set the tone for the Dutch science- and technology-based modernising or civilising mission, which accompanied the 1901 Ethical Policy aimed at improving the conditions of the population. (15)

Civil engineers were educated at the predecessor of Delft University of Technology, founded in 1842, and later in Bandung at the predecessor of the present Institute of Technology, founded in 1920 (as an offshoot of the Delft engineering school). Civil servants were educated in Delft, first in the engineering school and then at a separate institute ('the Indian Institution'), and in Leiden at the university. The agriculturalists were trained at the agricultural school (now also a university) in Wageningen, founded in 1874.

The rise of BOW resulted from the modernisation process of the colonial state, but the agency also gave that process an impetus. The BOW engineers not only implemented the modernisation mission of the state that developed over the course of time but also shaped it. The creation of the road system in the Dutch East Indies shows the development of civil engineering and its impact in colonial society.

The early colonial state, 1800-1870


The coming into office, in 1808, of Governor General H. W Daendels heralded a change in Javanese road building policy. The reasons were military and economic. Java, the political and economic centre of gravity within the Dutch East Indies, had to be prepared to defend itself against the British, which meant that it had to be possible to move and supply the relevant troops rapidly. Others to benefit from the good road networks were the civil servants and the cultures entrepreneurs. Whilst journeying through Java in May 1808, Daendels drew up a plan to construct a road between Buitenzorg and Karangsemboeng (in Cheribon). Several days later he decided to extend the west-east connection to Anjer and Panaroekan.

As existing local roads were improved and linked up to the network, so large sections of the various routes were rapidly completed. By contrast, road building in desolate mountainous area, coastal marshland and across inland seas was laborious, made many ill and claimed a number of lives. The roads in the Preanger Regencies, for example, had to cross the slopes of the Goenoeng (mountain) Megamendoeng and the Goenoeng Masigit (between Tjiandjoer and Bandoeng); in Cheribon there was the swampy area to be negotiated. According to the Governor General's resolution, work on the road between Buitenzorg and Soemedang should commence in the 'coming dry season as soon as the inhabitants' had 'finished the coffee picking, transporting and rice harvesting'. (16)

It was the head of the engineering corps who was put in charge of the entire project. He was able to call upon a number of military engineers. With the exception of the structural works and a few complex parts of the route, most of the construction workers deployed were unpaid labourers. For the toughest sections of the route, around Soemedang and Cheribon, the road workers were paid in money as well as in rice. A percentage of the workers were 'boeijangers': labourers without a family, paid in rice and salt. The supervisory work was done by a number of European 'invalids'. (17)

By mid-1809 some 1,000 km of road or '300 hours of travelling time' had been completed. The travelling time from Batavia to Surabaja had been considerably reduced, both for postal services and for passengers. Before all the road building was undertaken it took three weeks in the wet season and two weeks in the dry season for letters to reach their destination. Passengers had to allow a month's travelling time in the dry season. (In the wet season travelling was deemed impossible for white people.) Once the new road connection had been created, regular postal services were established, with stagecoaches leaving from Batavia and Surabaja twice a week. Letters arrived within six to seven days and passengers were able to travel the distance in nine to ten days, depending on the time of year. Express post could be delivered within four to five days.

In various respects Daendels proved to be a supporter of French methods. Apart from getting the idea to create road connections from the French, he also copied the French system of changing horses. Postal route 'stations' were created at 8-9 km intervals where horses were stabled. Not only the stagecoaches but also people using horse-drawn carriages or travelling on horseback could hire horses or change them there.

Apart from the 'Great Post Road', a coastal route was created between Batavia and Cheribon, a connecting north-south military road was built (to Surakarta and Djokjakarta) as well as various major inland routes. Horses were also stationed along the sections where roads had been improved so that carriages drawn by teams of four or six horses could comfortably reach their main town destinations. It was not, however, easy to negotiate every incline in the mountainous regions. Not infrequently the rise would be 1 : 7 or 1 : 8. At such junctures two, four or as many as eight buffalos would be hitched up just to get the coach up the hill, and invariably the coachman and passengers would have to walk alongside. Going downhill things went 'at a terrifying speed even with the brake blocks on' and the coachman would need all his skill to avoid an accident. Otherwise the roads were, according to Daendels, 'comparable in their sheer perfection to French roads' whilst according to yet others they were comparable to 'kolf courts' (i.e. very flat). (18)

Daendels reported that apart from being used for military purposes these roads were also open to civilian traffic. Stagecoaches, private carriages and civil servants all made regular use of them. The ordinary Javanese population, though, were not allowed to use them, either for moving cattle or for their oxcarts (i.e. tjikars). Cattle and buffalo-drawn carts would severely damage the road, which was primarily meant for military use. For local traffic separate cart tracks were created alongside the post routes which were unsurfaced and did not provide bridges.

It was Daendels who had given the go-ahead for the construction and improvement of the road network. Subsequently the job continued to be pursued with such verve and on such an extensive scale that, in 1835, the Governor General decided to put a stop to all road-building activity and declared that no new roads were to be built without his prior written consent. (19) Some twenty years later, in 1853, it was decided that no more separate roads for the carriage of goods should be constructed, and in 1857 the government decided that the post routes should be opened to all traffic, provided the vehicles met certain requirements. Nevertheless, since there were already cart tracks running parallel to most of the post roads, people continued to make use of them, including the fords across rivers.

Midway through the nineteenth century all the cultures activities were blossoming with a growing need for transport facilities as a consequence. At the various agricultural enterprises a combination of fully surfaced and unsurfaced roads was used to transport and distribute their products. When it came to the matter of public road transport, endeavours were made to expand the range of draught modes by introducing camels, donkeys and elephants, but without great success. In 1862 one Dutch parliamentarian even asked why lamas had not been tried! (20) At that same period people were also forced to concede that the Great Post Road of which Daendels had been so proud did not meet the latest military requirements. It was therefore decided that 'Java should be provided with a road that was strategically better positioned and more suited to military purposes.' (21) The road would follow a southerly route and would pass through such places as Djokjakarta and Surakarta. In 1854 a start was made and twenty years later various parts of it had been completed.

On the other islands road networks were created later than that of Java. Generally speaking, it was military operations and the 'increasing dominance of the inland areas' that gave rise to such road-building projects. In the Outer Regions the 1840-70 period was marked by political restraint but on the island of Java road building simply continued apace.


Although Daendels had determined that the bigger roads should be around 7.5 m wide they often expanded to between 10 m and 12 m. One important requirement was that the road should also be passable in the wet season by carriages and other vehicles alike. That meant proper surfacing. Rubble, gravel or a combination were used for the surface. Only in the built-up areas of larger cities was paving used. The roads were given no subsurface because until 1857 no heavy traffic was allowed on to the main post roads. Small dikes were raised alongside to mark them off from the surrounding landscape. (22) Daendels determined that at regular intervals of 400 Rhineland measuring rods (about 1.5 km) there would be a roadside milepost to indicate distance and to identify maintenance sections. (23)

Road building in Java in the first part of the nineteenth century was based on the French model and done by military engineers. They had no knowledge of or experience in this activity and proceeded by trial and error. But they knew very well how to survey and to triangulate, so plotting the course of a road was no problem at all.

Roads were built in some of the British colonies but they were the exception. In Australia roads were constructed in all the states in the first half of the nineteenth century. Military engineers brought over the technology, convicted labourers did the building. The condition of the roads, however, was very poor. In British India systematic construction began after 1845. The few roads built before then were of military importance. Here too British engineers were sent out to do the job. (24)

In the Netherlands, in the same period, road building was an important issue as well. It was Napoleon who decided to build roads from Paris to all the corners of his empire, of which the Netherlands were part. After 1815 King William adapted the plan and started constructing a network of main roads. He wanted to connect the industrial regions with the ports and harbours. Up to 1840 many roads were built and surfaced. From then on waterways and railways took over the attention of the government.

The modernising colonial state, 1870-1920


After 1870 roads started to appear in the Outer Regions of the Dutch East Indies, again with multi-purpose goals. Political and military interests took precedence. As the engineers F. G. Dumas and J. H. Blok of the Bridges and Roads division of BOW put it, 'in order to retain power it [was] imperative for the inland areas to be easily accessible'. In the second place economic interests were important: people wanted agriculture to flourish and transport facilities to be available. Finally there was the consideration of freeing regions from their isolation. (25) In many places the new roads provided connections between industry and the newly developed railways while in other places they made it possible for companies to be set up in areas that would otherwise have been difficult to access. The rise of tin mining on the islands of Banka and Billiton, for instance, made roads essential. On the other hand, in the old East Coast Residence in Sumatra road building did not start until a relatively late stage because the rivers there were perfectly navigable and alternative transport facilities sufficed.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century the roads in Java were divided into various categories: the large post roads, the large inland roads and the less important inland and desa roads maintained by unpaid labourers. Sometimes, however, roads were categorised by whether or not they were maintained by unpaid labour and sometimes the criterion was whether or not they were surfaced.

On the island of Java freight transport was of major importance. Often transport came in the form of two-wheeled carts pulled by water buffalo. Especially in the rainy seasons the roads would be badly damaged by such carts and would thus become unusable. At such times everything possible would be done locally to restore things to 'normality'. It clearly emerges from the ordinances of 1901 and 1905 that the damage caused by freight carts was considerable. The ordinances prescribed that companies causing damage to roads or to structural works had to pay for it 'provided that such damage was greater than that which, in view of the local conditions, would have been caused anyway by normal vehicular traffic'. (26) This instantly gave rise to debate as to what constituted normal traffic. The ordinance was annulled in 1906. Still, the question remained of who should pay for the damage done to roads built by unpaid labourers and the notion of what could be seen as 'normal' traffic remained unresolved.

The introduction of bicycles and cars to the East Indies towards the end of the nineteenth century gave a whole new dimension to the 'good roads' concept. It also made it necessary for road traffic to be regulated. Locally, certain stipulations were introduced in relation to traffic and it confirmed the custom of driving on the left. The first rulings designed to regulate vehicular traffic, from maximum speeds to driving licences, were introduced in 1900; in 1910 came rulings pertaining to bicycles. Both sets of rulings were to constitute the beginnings of road traffic legislation. (27)

Compared with the mother country that was early. In the Netherlands road building was not a major topic on the national agenda until the end of the 1920s. However, motoring organisations did their utmost to make it clear that the construction of new roads and the improvement of old ones were essential. But no action was taken by the national government. The first regulation for motor vehicles and bicycles in the Netherlands dates from 1905. This law was limited to a minimum qualification of vehicles and bicycles and the obligation to register cars. Its main purpose was to integrate local and provincial bye-laws. Further rulings followed in later years until in 1924 an extensive law laid down the rules for cars and bicycles.

The introduction of administrative decentralisation in the East Indies, established under the Decentralisation Act of 1903 and the 1905 Decentralisation Resolution, led to the creation of town councils and regional councils. At that point the responsibility for managing and maintaining the post roads and inland roads was transferred from the central power to the lower authorities. It was simultaneously determined that new roads 'and all the accompanying works' such as milestones and bridges would be funded by the regional or local authorities. For the first few years after the introduction of decentralisation it was still possible to make use of unpaid labour except in some leading cities and in the Residence of Batavia. Gradually though, in Java, the phenomenon of unpaid labour was phased out until, in 1916, it was completely abolished. On all the other islands where the mutual relations in the population were strongly traditional, road maintenance continued to be predominantly based upon unpaid manpower.

At the beginning of the twentieth century road-building activity intensified due to the demands cars made upon the roads. In order to establish some sort of unity in the plans for road construction the Road Traffic Inspectorate was established in 1908. This move also involved appointing a traffic routes inspector for the Outer Regions. In 1912 the inspectorate became the Bridges and Roads division of BOW.

The Road Traffic Inspectorate was given the task of drawing up road plans for Java and Sumatra. In the Javanese road network several important links and a number of bridges were needed. BOW designed a general road plan for Java and then the heads of all the regional administrations were asked to provide detailed road plans for their particular regions. The total cost involved of executing the general plan was estimated at around 8 million guilders and another 35 million for the various regional road plans. In Sumatra there were a number of separate local and regional road net works. The challenge there was to link those networks by creating a number of large interregional connections. The result would be one interconnecting and virtually entirely surfaced road between Kota Radja and Padang, and from there a connection with the South Sumatra road network. The cost of this was an estimated 60 million guilders. (28) Funds to pay for the road building came partly from taxes. In 1908 the existing taxes already being paid for petroleum were extended to include petrol. The actual implementation of the Javanese road plan commenced in 1914. In that same year the Sumatra plans were produced and very soon afterwards work also commenced there. A road plan was also to ensue for several of the other islands. In this the mother country was far behind. Only in 1927 was the first national road plan published.


At the end of the nineteenth century (in 1893) the road network of Java comprised 3,300 km of large post roads and 6,600 km of main inland roads. The 10,500 km of minor inland roads were maintained by unpaid labourers and there was an unrecorded length of minor inland roads known as desa roads. (29) Ten years later the annual report published by BOW made mention of some 23,793 km of post and inland roads in Java. The BOW records of 1903 mentioned almost 13,000 km of roads in the Outer Regions. (30)

The most common road width in Java in the nineteenth century was 10-12 m, some 5-6 m of which would be surfaced. The gradual lessening in the use of unpaid labour in Java was something that slowly made construction and maintenance considerably more expensive. This resulted in a decrease in the quality of surface and narrowing of the roads. For that reason the director of BOW proposed in 1887--by means of a circular letter (No. 8030A, 15 September)--that there should be three standard road widths: 5.5 m for the main post roads, 4 m for less important roads and 3 m for mountain roads and other inland routes. 'In the interests of safety' it was decided that the carriageway should still be flanked by small embankments.

Until 1920 use was made, where necessary, of natural stone for the substrate, as it was a commodity that was readily available. Alternatively coral or river stones were used. On the whole, however, it was concluded that the underlying surface was solid enough. On top of the under layer or on the cleared route the road surface would then be cambered. Outside the cities such surfacing consisted of hardcore or gravel which might or might not be bound with cement. Within the various cities asphalt was often used. (31) As far as maintenance was concerned, the director of BOW had stipulated in his 1872 circular precisely how that was to take place. Each day a number of 'conscripts' would be responsible for checking their respective stretches of road. Any potholes that appeared in the surface or grooves that were created by carriage wheels had to be filled in immediately. It was also important to make sure that rainwater could easily drain away. Major maintenance work would be carried out 'in the usual fashion', (32) in other words, by means of the annual resurfacing programme.

The BOW engineers were trained in civil engineering at Delft Polytechnic. Working in the tropics was no part of their education; they had to find out for themselves what to do and how to do it. Even the handbooks on road building used in the Netherlands did not mention the particular requirements of roads in the East Indies. The examples they cited came from the Netherlands or from Great Britain or the United States. It looks as if the Dutch engineers did not know what was happening in the East Indies. On the other hand, as the physiological situation differed immensely from that in the Netherlands, consulting colleagues in the other part of the kingdom made no sense. The BOW engineers worked in a world of their own and made the best of things.

By 1912 BOW had its own Materials Research Laboratory where, for instance, the material used for surfacing roads was investigated. Tests were carried out to establish just how great the load created by freight traffic was. Similarly, various types of asphalt were examined. (33) In the East Indies naturally occurring asphalt could be found in Palembang, Cheribon and on Boeton. On the other hand, from 1895 onward asphalt was used that actually constituted a by-product of the local oil industry.

In the same period road building started in British India. British engineers did not go unprepared. Span's Information for Colonial Engineers: India (1877) gave invaluable information on the geography, the building materials and roads, railways, etc. Other volumes described Ceylon, Southern Africa and the West Indies and British Guyana. (34)

The modern state: after 1920


After the First World War vast numbers of American trucks started being imported into the East Indies for the purposes of transporting the products generated by the various enterprises (agriculture, industry). It became urgent to adapt the roads to the new traffic requirements and so the road issue was placed on the East Indies agenda. But, just as in the Netherlands, the shortage of funds for road maintenance proved to be a problem. It gave rise to questions about whether the road issue should be centralised or decentralised and whether it should be just the government that involved itself in such matters or whether private parties should also be brought in.

With its Bridges and Roads division and its Materials Research Laboratory, BOW seemed to be well equipped to execute the road plans. In addition, the directors of regional or municipal works in larger areas and bigger cities who were expected to be involved in road construction and maintenance were engineers trained in Delft. The co-operation and division of tasks between BOW and local services was not always perfect. In 1920 a Technical College opened in Bandung and provided courses in surveying and in road and water engineering. Four years later the first civil engineers graduated from Bandung. The Materials Research Laboratory was moved to the grounds of the college in 1921 and the laboratory director was made professor extraordinary.

At the instigation of the Technical College a Dutch East Indies Road Congress was held there in 1924. It was decided that during the congress only technological and 'technological-economic' matters should be addressed 'so that laymen (civil servants, members of local councils, etc.) would also be able to benefit from the event'. (35) The kinds of issues on the agenda were construction and maintenance, administrative and financial control, draining and surfacing, and urban roads. One of the results of the congress was that a battery of road-related nomenclature was established. It was, however, more difficult to get the participants thinking along the same lines, for their terrains were so divergent that they were forced to employ different methods and to use different materials. (36)

One concrete consequence of the congress was the establishment of the Dutch East Indian Road Association. This body employed engineers who carried out research, did experiments and published various findings relevant to the field of road construction. The Association's committee, known as the Road Council, was broad-based; it included all parties concerned. The Association had its own independent sources of funding, so that every five years it was able to organise a road congress. (37)

When, as of the mid-1920s, the regions were converted into provinces, all the roads that had been under the control of the regions fell under provincial administration. Each province was given its own public works service which, in turn, comprised a number of smaller district services. The responsibility for bridges and roads was passed on to the district services. At the same time, the less important roads remained under the control of municipalities and desas.

The sharp rise in traffic in the post-1920 period made it necessary to adapt all the legislation relating to traffic. Until then land, water, rail and tram routes had been dealt with separately as if they were all unrelated. In the early 1920s, though, the authorities began to realise that the sharp rise in vehicular traffic was having repercussions on the railways and tram routes and that the 'traffic issue' needed to be viewed in a broader context. A Motor Traffic Committee was established in 1925 to draw up an inventory of the numbers of lorries and buses on the roads, to advise the government on the matter of how trucks, buses, trains and trams could best meet the transport demands, to see how the safety of passengers could be protected and to decide how users of public roads might contribute to the financial costs. The committee brought out its report in January 1928. (38)

One of the consequences was a Road Traffic Ordinance drawn up in 1933. Almost everything to do with road transport became organised, from traffic rules, vehicle requirements and driving licences to public transport and regulations concerning the actual roads themselves. Licensing systems were introduced for private transport and for freight transport that were issued at both local and regional levels as the licences were granted for relatively short sections. Passenger transport by road was organised on a small scale and was chiefly in the hands of locals. (39)

As a result of the Road Ordinance of 1933 a number of Transport Committees was set up in conjunction with freight transport. It was possible for the Governor General to set up transport committees for each of the various regions. Apart from having to remain up to date on developments in the goods haulage sector it was also their task to draw up recommendations on the granting of permits and all related official objections and, furthermore, to mediate between the different transport companies. (40)

In 1939 new road traffic legislation became effective in which all kinds of definitions were laid down such as: for public transport vehicles, for parking-linked terms and for road maintenance authorities. Rulings were drawn up concerning driving licences, duty and off-duty stipulations for lorry drivers, the withdrawal or confiscation of registration numbers and driving licences, and uniform traffic regulations were introduced. All the committees and regulations were meant to steer the ever increasing traffic in the right direction and to make rules uniform for all the islands.

In the same year records started to be kept relating to such matters as traffic accidents, the numbers of bicycles and vehicles and of individuals (broken down according to country of origin) in possession of bicycles, vehicles, lorries and handcarts. In the case of motor vehicles it was possible to trace the statistics back as far as 1917, as ever since that date registration numbers had been issued. (41) In the Netherlands Rijkswaterstaat (the Department of Public Works) started counting the different forms of traffic in 1908. In that year only a few cars were on the road but quite a number of bicycles and carts. The number of cars as well as bicycles increased enormously, and this mixture of traffic made roads risky. From 1925 statistics were kept on road accidents so the most dangerous stretches could be traced. But road planning and improving started only in the late 1920s after much pressure from the public.

When it came to the matter of financing construction and improvements, taxation still proved to be a good source of income in the Netherlands as well as in the Dutch East Indies. In the East Indies in 1921 a differentiation was made between petroleum and petrol, which culminated in a sharp increase in taxes on the latter. The first motor vehicle taxes were imposed in 1932 in the Outer Regions and in 1933 in Java and Madoera. At the end of 1934 a new motor vehicle tax regulation was implemented that applied to the whole of the East Indies. (42) Other sources of income for the central state derived from the import duty paid on cars, the legal dues for driving and other kinds of permits and all the local taxes paid on bikes, cars and so on. In the Netherlands road tax was introduced in 1925 for cars but a considerable sum of money was raised by the annual tax on bicycles. Excise on petrol followed later.


Whereas in 1915 the traffic routes inspector for the Outer Regions had asserted that car traffic should adapt to the existing road network, the BOW director presumed in 1920 that it was time to make all the roads suitable for car and freight traffic. In his guest presentation that same year to the Dutch Road Congress he remarked that in the East Indies it was really necessary to create new road profiles. The points that needed to be addressed most urgently were widening, the easing of bends and the reducing of the number of bends. The biggest problem, though, was the quality of the material used for surfacing.

As far as road-building technology went, the East Indies saw a major turning point around 1920. Around that time the rapid growth of car and freight traffic necessitated rapid improvement: roads needed to be made more even and, for freight traffic, the metalled surface needed to be reinforced. In the case of Java this largely involved improving existing roads but in the Outer Regions it often involved the building of new ones. Thanks to the availability of new knowledge and new materials such as asphalt, it was possible to meet this growing demand for infrastructure. The conclusions drawn during the Dutch East Indies Road Congress did lend a degree of unity to the construction process.

As surveyors or engineers were not always available, the Bridges and Roads division of BOW compiled a special instruction manual for 'a civil servant or a cultures employee'. This manual for laymen listed the requisite equipment, detailed the preferred work method and provided important calculations. A careful estimate of the road's dimensions was important for knowing precisely how much land had to be acquired and also for making concrete construction plans and budgeting.

Around 1920 the substantial demands being made upon road surfaces by freight traffic were soon translated into new road profiles. That meant that only roads in raised areas or alongside gorges would be given small embankments on the down side but elsewhere such structures had to be removed to improve drainage. The removal of the characteristic dykes constituted a major operation. Along both sides of the road ditches were dug to take the excess water that flowed off the metalled surface. With the introduction of asphalt, cambering became dangerous because of the slip factor in wet weather and so consequently the verges and ditches became a hazard. Such roads thus started to be constructed with a lower crown. (43)

In general, the minimum radius for bends was tighter in the East Indies than in the Netherlands in the period around 1920. The Dutch East Indies Road Congress determined that minimum radii should be standardised for level terrain, in hilly regions, in mountainous areas and in 'extremely mountainous' parts. The adapting of the road profile and notably the reducing of the number of bends in any one route was an expensive business.

As of roughly 1920, investigations were carried out to see which roads required a heavier substratum consisting of large stones and where an under layer or foundation could be created in an alternative way. Along the roads where less traffic was expected the typical substrate would consist of sand, clay and possibly other locally available materials such as coral chalkstone (or karang). On top of it was laid the hard surface and/or the final covering layer. From the 1930s onward more attention was paid to the steamrolling of the under layer, and tests were carried out in which an asphalt emulsion was used as a 'soil stabiliser'. (44)

After 1920 asphalt was the form of surfacing used on most outlying roads on a massive scale. As a by-product of the East Indies' own oil industry 'petroleum-based asphalt' was experimented with at quite an early stage in the history of road building. Natural asphalt was used to only a limited degree and even then was often mixed with petroleum asphalt. In various areas test strips were subsequently laid where different foundation layers and surfacing materials were experimented with. (45)

The kinds of road frequently constructed in the Netherlands with clinker or cobbles and the new-style cement-concreted roads were hardly ever seen in the East Indies. The types of stone that occurred there naturally were insufficiently 'durable', and clinker could not be fired at high enough temperatures. So again transfer of knowledge or technology between mother country and colony did not work, either way. The Dutch East Indies Road Congress proposed that it would be wise to continue with the testing of different surfaces provided that the 'subsurfacing was adequate'. Because of the type of stone, cement-concrete surfacing could not be made durable enough. Portland cement would have produced a better type of cement-concrete but was very expensive in the East Indies.

At the end of the 1930s the desirable 'driving surface features' of a modern road were described as even, anti-slip and 'sufficiently light-diffusing to make good visibility possible in artificial light'. (46) In the East Indies the anti-slip feature of road surfacing was emphasised. There was still discussion about the desired degree of evenness on any road surface. The requirement regarding 'the light-diffusing factor' was viewed as less important, as there was very little evening or night-time traffic in the East Indies. (47) The engineers were convinced that they were well on the way to resolving all the issues thanks to the great changes in road-building practice. Even though estimates pointed towards a predicted 50 per cent traffic volume increase, it seemed that continuing in the same fashion, whilst differentiating between slow and fast traffic, was the best policy. By 1938 the 1913 road plan for Java had almost reached completion: some 23,000 km of surfaced roads had been built. By then the Sumatran road network was 10,000 km long. The total extent of surfaced road in the whole of the East Indies was estimated at some 70,000 km. (48) By East Indies standards the roads in Deli were particularly good. The main roads were flanked on either side by cycle paths. Eighty-four per cent of all the roads had hard surfacing as opposed to 50-70 per cent of the provincial roads in Java. (49) The Royal Institution of Engineers in the Netherlands concluded that the East Indies had a road system that compared very favourably with almost all other countries in the tropics.

How did they know? There is not much information on road building in countries outside Europe or the United States in that period. And the road congresses dealt only with local topics and problems; the occasional guest from the other part of the kingdom was seen as someone special with a fascinating story. A 1930 Times publication on India stated that there were four through roads in British India running closely along the four sides of the country. These roads were well metalled and had bridges where needed. Inside the country was a network of roads, varying in quality from well kept main roads to unmetalled tracks. All roads were the responsibility of the provincial and local governments. (50)

The creation of main roads in Australia commenced in the 1920s but as the number of heavy vehicles increased during and after the Second World War the surfaces had to be made stronger. In the 1939-45 period roads were constructed for defence purposes. After the war long-distance road haulage became important for the Australian economy. (51) But after the war everything changed for the Dutch East Indies too.


Road construction in the Dutch East Indies exemplifies the local modernisation process of technology and colonial state. In the nineteenth century roads were of strategic and economic importance. The first half of the century saw much activity in the field of road construction. As the century progressed, so the demand for transport and means of transport increased. The rise of the car and especially of commercial vehicles at the start of the twentieth century necessitated a totally different, more systematic approach to road construction. The years between 1915 and 1920 saw a clear turning point, both from the organisational and the technological point of view. Road network plans began to take shape and to be implemented.

Until the mid-1920s road building in the Dutch East Indies was directed by engineers trained in the Netherlands. But as the islands had a geographical structure totally different from that of the Netherlands, the construction of roads differed equally greatly. So the knowledge and technology had to be adapted. In the Netherlands the roads that had been built mostly in the nineteenth century had to be reconstructed for car traffic. However, road planning and construction as well as bridge building started only in the late 1920s. Particularly in the early twentieth century, road-building knowledge and skills in the East Indies were at least a decade ahead of the Netherlands. The road programmes, the test laboratory and the use of asphalt for surfacing were all modern features. There is no hard evidence that the home country learned from the colony in these matters, or that the engineers in the Indies had much contact with colleagues in the tropics. The Dutch engineers working in the colony made a career for themselves in 'the East'. Home on leave, some of them were invited by the Royal Institution of Engineers to give a lecture--with slides--on their work in the tropics. For the engineers working in the Netherlands it was an interesting view of an exotic world, no more, no less.

Address for correspondence

Delft University of Technology, Faculty of Technology, Policy and Management, Department of Technology Dynamics and Sustainable Development, Jaffalaan 5, P.O. box 5015/2600, GA Delft, Netherlands. E-mail

Marie-Louise ten Horn-van Nispen and Wim Ravesteijn

Delft University of Technology


(1) We use colonial names and spelling. See the map (Figure 1) for the main places.

(2) D. S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are so Rich and Some so Poor (New York and London, 1998).

(3) See, for European colonialism and imperialism in general, H. L. Wesseling, Europa's koloniale eeuw (Amsterdam, 2003).

(4) J. N. F. M a Campo, Engines of Empire: Steam Shipping and State Formation in Colonial Indonesia (Hilversum, 2005).

(5) W Ravesteijn, De zegenrijke heren der wateren: irrigatie en staat op Java, 1832-1942 (Delft, 1997); H. W van den Doel, De stille macht: het Europese binnenlands bestuur op Java en Madoera, 1808-1942 (Amsterdam, 1994); Campo, Engines of Empire; E. LocherScholten, Sumatran Sultanate and Colonial State: Jambi and the Rise of Dutch Imperialism, 1830-1907, Cornell University Southeast Asia Program (Ithaca NY, 2004). This state formation process was also perceptible in other colonies (Van den Doel, De stille macht).

(6) J. A. A. van Doorn, Indische lessen (Amsterdam, 1995); M. Kuitenbrouwer, 'Het imperialism-debat in de Nederlandse geschiedschrijving', Bijdragen en mededelingen betreffende de geschiedenis der Nederlanden 113 (1998) 1, 56-73.

(7) W Ravesteijn and J. Kop (eds), For Profit and Prosperity: the Contribution made by Dutch Engineers to Public Works in Indonesia, 1800-2000 (Leiden and Aprilis, 2008); M. L. ten Horn-van Nispen, 'The road to a new empire: road construction organisation and techniques', in Ravesteijn and Kop, For Profit and Prosperity, 69-91.

(8) Ravesteijn and Kop, For Profit and Prosperity; W Ravesteijn, 'Between globalization and localization: the case of Dutch civil engineering in Indonesia, 1800-1950', Comparative Technology Transfer and Society 5 (2007) 1, 32-64.

(9) Ravesteijn, 'Between globalization and localization'.

(10) D. R. Headrick, The Tools of Empire: Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century (New York, 1981), and The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism (New York and Oxford, 1988); M. Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (Ithaca NY and London, 1989).

(11) Headrick, The Tentacles of Progress.

(12) J. J. P. de Jong, De waaier van het fortuin: de Nederlanders in Azie en de Indonesische archipel 1595-1950 (The Hague, 1998).

(13) Ravesteijn and Kop, For Profit and Prosperity; R. Mrazek, Engineers of Happy Land: Technology and Nationalism in a Colony (Princeton NJ, 2002).

(14) Private civil works were also constructed, but are not considered here. BOW started as a bureau, became a department in 1866 and was changed to the Department of Transport and Public Works in 1934.

(15) Ravesteijn and Kop, For Profit and Prosperity; J. A. A. van Doorn, De laatste eeuw van Indie: ontwikkeling en ondergang van een koloniaal project (Amsterdam, 1994); W Ravesteijn, 'Water control and the colonial state: the case of Dutch irrigation engineering in the Indonesian island of Java, 1832-1942', Journal of the International Committee for the History of Technology 11 (2006), 197-211.

(16) Most of the information given in this section derives from: J. E. de Meyier, 'Wegen en bruggen in Nederlansch-Indie', in Gedenkboek Koninklijk Instituut van Ingenieurs 18471897 (The Hague,1897), pp. 301-3, p. 301; D. G. Stibbe and E. M. Uhlenbeck (eds), 'Wegen', in Encyclopedie van Nederlandsch-Indie, Part 4 (The Hague and Leiden, 1921), pp. 743-4; F. W. Stapel, Geschiedenis van Nederlandsch Indie, Part V (Amsterdam, 1940), p. 38.

(17) Stapel, Geschiedenis van Nederlandsch Indie, 38; Stibbe, 'Wegen', 744.

(18) Stapel, Geschiedenis van Nederlandsch Indie, 38.

(19) Government Resolution, 11 March 1835, No. 1, in L. M. J. van Sluijters, De Waterstaatsambtenaar in Nederlandsch Oost-Indie: handleiding bevattende alle bepalingen en circulaires betreffende den Waterstaat in Nederlandsch Oost-Indie (Surabaya, 1905), p. 149.

(20) Stapel, Geschiedenis van Nederlandsch Indie, 296. Ultimately the big solution would come in the form of the railways.

(21) De Meyier, 'Wegen en bruggen in Nederlandsch-Indie', 302.

(22) P. J. Boreel, 'Mededeelingen betreffende de gewone wegen in Ned.-Indie en meer in het bijzonder omtrent den aanleg daarvan in de Buitenbezittingen', De Ingenieur 30 (1915), 808-17, p. 809.

(23) Stibbe 'Wegen', 743-4; Stapel, Geschiedenis van Nederlandsch Indie, 38.

(24) M. Chrimes, Civil Engineering, 1839-1889 (Stroud and London, 1991), pp. 94-6; F. C. Danvers, India (London and New York, 1877), pp. 53-7, 113-14.

(25) F. G. Dumas and J. H. Blok, 'Aanleg en onderhoud van wegen in de buitengewesten: prae-advies BOW', in Nederlandsch-Indisch Wegen Congres Bandoeng: prae-adviezen, prae-adviezen van het bestuur, verslagen (Bandung, 1924), pp. 5-6.

(26) S. A. Reitsma, De wegenkwestie op Java en Madoera (Bandung, 1913), p. 4.

(27) D. G. Stibbe, F. J. W. H. Sandbergen and P. A. Tellings (eds), 'Wegverkeer. Wegverkeerswetgeving', in Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch-Indie, Part 8 (The Hague, 1939), pp. 477-93, 477-8.

(28) H. Cramer, 'Het wegennet', in Gedenkboek voor Nederlandsch-Indie ter gelegenheid van het regeeringsjubileum van H.M. de Koningin, 1898-1923 (Batavia, Weltevreden and Leiden, 1923), pp. 463-72, p. 469, p. 470.

(29) De Meyier, 'Wegen en bruggen in Nederlandsch-Indie', 302.

(30) Stibbe, 'Wegen', 746, 749.

(31) Boreel, 'Mededeelingen betreffende de gewone wegen in Ned.-Indie', 816.

(32) Circular document issued by Public Works, 19 April 1872, No. 3705, De Waterstaatsambtenaar in Nederlands Oost-Indie, pp. 467-8.

(33) Ott de Vries, 'Het wegenvraagstuk in Nederlandsch-Indie', 947; D. G. Stibbe, J. Stroomberg and E. M. Uhlenbeck (eds), 'Materiaalonderzoek', in Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch Indie, Part 6 (The Hague, 1932), pp. 252-3.

(34) Spon's Information for Colonial Engineers: India was written by F. C. Danvers and edited by J. T. Hurst (London and New York, 1877).

(35) C. Ortt, 'Verslag van het Ned.-Ind. Wegencongres 23-25 Juni 1924 te Bandoeng', De Ingenieur 39 (1924), 864-7, 892-5, p. 866.

(36) Nederlandsch Indisch Wegen Congres Bandoeng; Ortt, 'Verslag van het Ned.-Ind. Wegencongres', 866-7.

(37) H. van Breen, 'De Nederlandsch-Indische Wegenvereeniging', De Ingenieur 40 (1925), 649.

(38) Stibbe et al., 'Wegverkeerswetgeving', 478.

(39) D. de Iongh Wzn., 'Regeling van het verkeer te land in Ned.-Indie', De Ingenieur 51 (1936), V113-V121, p. V115.

(40) Stibbe et al., 'Wegverkeerswetgeving', 486-7.

(41) De Ingenieur in Nederlandsch-Indie 6 (1939) 1.32.

(42) Stibbe et al., 'Wegverkeerswetgeving', 487-9.

(43) Ortt, 'Verslag van het Ned.-Ind. Wegencongres', 894; Afdeeling Bruggen en Wegen van het Departement B.O.W., Handleiding voor het traceeren van wegen (Bandung, 1928), pp. 68-9.

(44) C. Ortt, 'De ontwikkeling van de Ned.-Indische wegenbouw-techniek. Voordracht gehouden voor de Afdeeling Nederland der Vereeniging van Waterstaatsingenieurs in N.-I. op 26 November 1938 te 's-Gravenhage', De Ingenieur 53 (1938), A.523-A.525, p. A.524.

(45) Ortt, 'De ontwikkeling van de Ned.-Indische wegenbouw-techniek', A.524.

(46) Ibid., A.524.

(47) Ibid., A.524-A.525.

(48) W L. M. E. van Leeuwen, Honderd Jaar Nederland 1848-1948 (Hengelo, 1948), p. 157; P. Bakker, Bali in kleuren (Joure and Utrecht, n.d.), p. 20.

(49) C. Ortt, 'De wegen in Deli', Wegen (1939), 354-5.

(50) India (London, 1930), pp. 235-7.

(51) J. C. Horsfall, Australia (London, 1955), pp. 116-21; H. M. Sherrard, Australian Road Practice: an Introduction to Highway Engineering (Melbourne, 1958), pp. 5-16.
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Author:Nispen, Marie-Louise ten Horn-van; Ravesteijn, Wim
Publication:The Journal of Transport History
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Date:Jun 1, 2009
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