In Indonesian education, it is often emphasized that the Dutch took advantage of "divide and conquer" tactics (and superior technology) to keep ruling Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) despite being very outnumbered. At its peak, how many Dutch people lived in Indonesia during the colonial period? And how outnumbered was this compared to the native population?

2 Answers 2


This Wikipedia article shows the results of the 1930 Dutch East Indies census (in the Social History section), listing 240,417 Europeans out of a total population of over 60.7MM.

Calculating this as 0.4% European (with an additional 2.2%, or 1.35MM, Chinese and other foreign orientals), the European population was outnumbered 250-1 and the non-indigenous population was out-numbered 39-1.

While the absolute numbers would have increased between 1930 and 1941, it seems unlikely that any substantial change in ratio occurred in that 11 years, as there was no event to precipitate such a change until the Japanese invasion.

  • 2
    But what about pre-1930? I am not sure the same ratio can be extrapolated backwards. Aug 17, 2013 at 8:12
  • 2
    @FelixGoldberg: IMHO, the 1930 figures represent a good "first pass." The earlier figures may have differed, but the takeaway is that the number of Europeans were very small.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 1, 2015 at 13:56
  • This reminds me of a childhood friend who believed that the Americans would win the Vietnam War because "one American soldier is worth 1,000 Vietnamese soldiers." He was wrong, of course, but may have been thinking in terms of ratios like this one.
    – Tom Au
    Oct 1, 2015 at 13:58
  • Also from Wikipedia, 'In the 1890s, there were 62,000 civilian 'Europeans' in the Dutch East Indies, most of them Eurasians, making up less than half of one per cent of the population." So it seems safe to say the peak, whenever it was, fell well below 1%, especially if we mean Dutch-born.
    – Brian Z
    Oct 9, 2019 at 2:04

In my experience of Indonesian historical education, which could often be described as 'propaganda', there is an emphasis on describing the Dutch as controlling Indonesia for 350 years. This is of course false, because the Dutch controlled Indonesia for just a few decades, and the modern day Indonesia is the continuation of the state that the Dutch created, whose form was by no means certain at the time they first arrived.

For example if one reads the 1823 book, Mission to the East Coast of Sumatra (the area now called North Sumatra), then it is quite evident that there was no Dutch control or influence at all. The book describes the fact that there were many feuding sultans such that one upstream would have their produce taxed by the one downstream.

These Sultans in the area were Malay, and controlled the area of a modern day regency or less.

Besides them there were various Batak tribes whose various 'kings' influence stretched no more than a village or so.

When the Dutch plantation law was passed in the mid-19th century the Dutch worked to eliminate conflict between the Sultans, elevating certain Sultans to control an area, and plantation leases were granted to foreign capital startups with rent paid to the Sultan.

The mini kings of the Batak were placed under control of the Malay Sultans and princes, presumably because it was simply more efficacious to do so given the inherently larger existing areas of influence of the Sultan - there were separate hierarchies of entirely native government and European, so the European Residency was for European, while there was a parallel Kejuruan for native administration.

Therefore the question has a number of incorrect presumptions, in my view:

  1. That there was inevitably a shared consciousness among the entire native population that they were being colonized by foreigners
  2. That in fact the entire modern-day nation of Indonesia was governed as a country for any significant period of time by the Dutch
  3. That for example the relatively homogenous ethnic groups, each with their own religion, culture, homogenous settlements, etc. would necessarily instinctively reject colonization from Europeans as being any different, to say, being taxed by a neighbouring sultanate on their exports.
  4. That in fact raw numbers of Europeans are particularly relevant - in this sense for example it's clear from history that Europeans setup for example plantations, but equally there were Chinese entrepreneurs who were disproportionately likely to be merchants and traders. However many people would have lived in rural areas where they had no contact with Europeans at all, so it's not particularly clear why these people should be expected to rebel against colonizers whom they had no contact with.

Clearly in cities where the colonial power structures were most evident, native Indonesians could and eventually did organize into independence movements, because there was a clear structure to rebel against. But prior to that it's not particularly clear how the Dutch employing native soldiers from specific tribes is significantly different from, say, the Malay Sultans employing soldiers from other tribes. Insofar as they were paid, there doesn't seem a particularly stronger reason why they should turn on their Dutch employers than they did on the previous native employers .

  • 1
    This would benefit from the inclusion of some additional sources.
    – Steve Bird
    Dec 19, 2021 at 11:20
  • That's true, although my main objection is to the ? itself, which starts under the burden of a legacy of teaching towards an end in Indonesian education. I had a discussion recently with an Indonesian on their claim that Borneo in its entirety formed a part of Indonesia. They would not yield on what they had been taught, which was that this 'was always part of Indonesia'. Which Indonesia would that be? I do not know, but the cognitive dissonance between Dutch colonizing an 'Indonesia' of disparate cultures and yet the borders of Indonesia necessarily including certain bits of land is obvious.
    – thelawnet
    Dec 19, 2021 at 11:29
  • There are some sources for specific parts of this, e.g. the 1930 census is available on Delpher.nl delpher.nl/nl/boeken/view?identifier=MMKIT03:000135211:00059 but there are several volumes. One can see the native, European and 'other Asiatic' populations listed for each area and there is quite a bit of difference depending on e.g. whether there were plantation companies there. And of course the plantation entrepreneurs were often German, American, etc. so a coolie in the Goodyear plantation was 'ruled' by Americans, not really Dutch at all - the plantations were self-sustaining
    – thelawnet
    Dec 19, 2021 at 11:34

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