Gillen D’Arcy Wood. Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies. Volume 8, Issue 2. Fall 2008.
Stamford Raffles, lieutenant-governor of Java (1811-16), student of Montesquieu, and self-appointed promoter of East Asian monsoon climate, positioned himself as a revisionary reader of The Spirit of the Laws (1748). He accepted Montesquieu’s progressive understanding of the link between social systems and their material conditions, but, as a self-styled visionary bureaucrat of empire, Raffles upheld government, not climate, as the nurse of culture. In his two-volume History of Java (1817), he attacked Dutch, Chinese, and Arab influences in Southeast Asia as the proper cause of its underdevelopment, despotism, and slave culture. This argument supposed a liberal, materialist view of history consistent with almost two centuries of mainstream academic historiography, from Raffles’s own deeply imperialist text to postcolonial critiques of such texts. That said, his History of Java is never fully anthropocentric. It shows an abiding, if incomplete, ecological appreciation for the relations between Javan climate, agriculture, and social history. As part of the spirit of new ecological historiography animating this special issue, my essay critically examines Montesquieu’s theories of climate in the context of the British Interregnum in Java. Taking Raffles’s History of Java as both object and model, I treat ecology, culture, and government in the Dutch East Indies as a set of dynamic, historical interrelations, an approach that self-consciously looks beyond the climatic determinism of Montesquieu and its racist assumptions.
The opportunities for eco-historical scholarship are particularly rich in the case of Raffles’s History of Java, since his colonial tenure in Java coincided with a short-term ecological catastrophe unequalled in the historical record: the massive eruption of Mt. Tambora on the island of Sumbawa, just east of Java and Bali, in April 1815. In both its climatic and human impact, Tambora’s eruption was an order of magnitude greater than the better-known Krakatoa event seventy years later. Ten thousand people died from the immediate explosion and another 100,000 from famine in its aftermath, while tens of thousands became refugees and were sold, or sold themselves, into slavery. My eco-historical interest in Java in 1815 lies in the matrix of Enlightenment climate theory, colonial policy, and the slave trade as necessary contexts by which to measure the British administration’s response to, and responsibility for, the human catastrophe that followed Tambora’s eruption. In The History of Java, Raffles writes as a European governor putatively seeking to embody in his governance the “mildness” of his native climate. Raffles’s problem in 1815 was to adapt his hothouse liberal-capitalist ideals of free trade and political liberty to a wholly different cultural ecology, one in which everything-from the fertile soil beneath his feet, to the omnipresent mountains set against the sky, to the matter of that sky itself-was volcanic; whose inhabitants measured history by the remembered cataclysm of periodic eruptions; and who opposed to his promise of economic freedom a complex system of social bondage designed, among other things, to provide security in times of natural disaster.
Raffles of Java
British forces led by Raffles and his mentor, the governor of India, Lord Minto, wrested control of the island of Java in the Dutch East Indies from the French in September 1811. The military victory was swift. But more formidable enemies to British possession of Java than the French garrison and their nominal allies, the Dutch, were the directors of the East India Company in London, who showed outright hostility to Raffles’s ambitious plans to establish “one great insular commonwealth” (1: 79) in the East Indies under British control, with Java “the metropolis, the granary, and the centre of civilization to the vast regions between the coast of China and the Bay of Bengal” (1: 180). The act of war with which Raffles was established as lieutenant- governor of Java thus quickly evolved into a long-distance sales campaign against tough odds. Raffles was to lose this battle. The Company men in Calcutta were unconvinced that the “rhetoric of mutual enrichment” that had justified their increasingly expensive presence in Bengal should be applied to the East Indian archipelago (Markley 5). Java had long served as a dumping ground for opium, and had little for the Company to sell to China to offset their enormous deficits in purchasing tea (Assey 20). In 1814, with Napoleon facing defeat on the Continent and Holland’s independence regained, the British government agreed in principle to restoration of Dutch rule in Java. By the end of 1816, less than five years after taking office in Batavia (now Djakarta), Raffles was relieved of his post.
The British Interregnum in Java, a footnote to Southeast Asian history in many respects, nevertheless looms large in the history of British colonialism as an example of an administrative reform agenda emerging from factions within India House and the East India Company in the generation after the Hastings trial. With an eye to his own career, Raffles was anxious to prove Java’s economic viability as a British interest. He thus promoted the East Indian archipelago and his progressive agenda to his skeptical superiors with unflagging energy. The Dutch East India Company had been the dominant European presence since the late seventeenth century-there “to buy the corn of Europe with the spices of the Moluccas” (1: 210)—but none of its officers had produced anything remotely of the order of Raffles’s two-volume History. The implicit political purpose of the book, which offered a rich mix of scholarly historiography, travelogue propaganda, natural philosophy, anti-Dutch polemic, and reformist colonial policy, was to argue the case for continued British administration of Java. Raffles’s posterity is as an empire builder—the “founder” of Singapore. But his failure as such in Java nevertheless produced its literary monument, what John Bastin has called “one of the classics of East Asian historiography” (History 7).
After two centuries beneath the “feudal” yoke of a Dutch monopoly and forced cultivation, Java languished undercultivated and underpopulated (Raffles 2: xcii [appendix]). Raffles, historian of Java, figures the island as a nation without history, an Eden of agricultural possibility, ripe for a European narrative of development:
Nothing can be conceived more beautiful to the eye, or more gratifying to the imagination, than the prospect of the rich variety of hill and dale, of rich plantations and fruit trees or forests, of natural streams and artificial currents … it is difficult to say whether the admirer of landscape, or the cultivator of the ground, will be most gratified by the view. The whole country, as seen from mountains of considerable elevation, appears a rich, diversified, and well watered garden. (1: 119)
Clearly, Raffles believed the way to a company merchant’s heart lay through his romantic eye. The “admirer of the landscape” and “the cultivator of the ground”-the picturesque tourist and the investor-developer-are one, with Raffles himself as the ocular embodiment of the union, marshaling its prospect view. Adam Smith, whom Raffles frequently quotes, abominated the Dutch colonial monopoly system, to which the above description is attributable only as the blessings of neglect. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith advised colonial administrators to defy the Dutch example and “open the most extensive market for the produce of his country, to allow the most perfect freedom of commerce, in order to increase as much as possible the number and competition of buyers; and, upon this account to abolish … all monopolies” (602). Java was thus not a lost cause, Raffles argued, but a natural laboratory for a progressive colonial power to enrich both itself and its subjects through the establishment of a monetarized economy, modern bureaucracy, free cultivation, and free trade.
The polemical agenda of The History of Java is notable for controversies over climate. Raffles takes pains to discredit existing prejudices against the Javan climate as fatal to both European health and European ideas of industry. Batavia’s shocking mortality rate was proverbially attributed to its swampy situation, stagnant canals, and bad air. On taking office, Raffles directed his medical officers to testify that the unhealthfulness of Batavia did not extend beyond the city: “Java need no longer be held up as the grave of Europeans, for except in the immediate neighborhood of salt marshes and forests, as in the city of Batavia … it may be safely affirmed that no tropical climate is superior to it in salubrity” (2: xvi [appendix]). The second climatic issue Raffles faced was more insidious even than the miasmatic atmosphere of Batavia. The popular pseudo-anthropological theories of Montesquieu equated tropical climate with “natural laziness” and despotic government (237). With arguments borrowed from The Wealth of Nations, Raffles shifted the blame for Javan unproductivity to “bad government”: a rapacious Dutch colonial system that “secured neither person nor property,” and thus provided no incentive for Javan farmers to produce beyond their subsistence needs (1: 72).
More challenging for Raffles, however, was to dispute Montesquieu’s equation of slavery and climate, in those regions where “the heat enervates the body and weakens the courage so much that men come to perform an arduous duty only from fear of chastisement” (251). As a would-be abolitionist, Raffles faced not only the highly visible slave-owning legacy of the Dutch in Batavia, but also a vast and entrenched indigenous slave trade that constituted a principal commerce of busy ports such as Batavia, Sulu, and Macassar (van der Kraan 330). The brutal work of slave-trading “pirates” and their Chinese brokers annually de-populated entire regions of the Indonesian islands. In a regional economy whose principal “problem” was shortage of labor, mass kidnapping and enslavement served a commercial end for the sultans of the Sulu Archipelago in their battle with the Europeans over trade with China. Most slaves ended up working to produce luxury goods for the Chinese market.
By tradition, no Javan might be sold as a slave. The slaves in the Dutch houses in Batavia were imported from Bali, Sulawesi, and elsewhere. But more subtle forms of bondage were endemic. In a mostly cashless economy, without a public treasury, individual Javans were perpetually vulnerable to the system of “vertical bonding” (Reid 6) whereby debt, according to the broadest possible definition of that term-from a single meal at a patron’s house, to the payment of wedding or funeral costs-implied a perpetual obligation of service for which no wages would be paid and, regardless of which, no payment in money or labor was considered sufficient to expiate. No greater obstacle stood in the path of Raffles’ capitalization of the Javan economy than the sanctified place of bonded service and a consequent incomprehension and sometimes disgust for the principle of wage labor (Reid 34). Given the pervasiveness of the bondage economy in the Dutch East Indies, Raffles’s delicate task in The History of Java was to transform Java in the British imagination from an alien tropical zone in which tyranny and slavery were climatically inevitable-an index of irreducible latitudinal difference between the local inhabitants and their European trading partners-to one suffering from a history of poor government. The combined historical misfortunes of Islamic cultural infiltration, Chinese exploitation, and an oppressive Dutch cash-crop monopoly-all of which favored bondage-might be alleviated by the enlightened and “mild government” of Britain (1: 82). The practicalities of enforcing abolitionist policy in the context of a long-established indigenous bondage system proved complicated for Raffles, however. Furthermore, in a tragic irony that is the subject of this essay, even the limited anti-slavery measures he did take proved indirectly fatal to perhaps thousands of his subjects for whom liberty was unaffordable in a time of ecological emergency.
The Empire of Climate
In his Voyage to Cochin-China (1806), John Barrow articulated the common European dread of Dutch Batavia:
In making the choice of the city of Batavia, the predilection of the Dutch for a low, swampy situation evidently got the better of their prudence; and the fatal consequences that have invariably attended this choice … demonstrated by the many thousands who have fallen sacrifice to it, have nevertheless been hitherto unavailing to induce the government either altogether to abandon the spot for somewhere more healthy, or to remove the local and immediate causes of a more than ordinary mortality. Never were national prejudices and national taste so injudiciously misapplied, as in the attempt to assimilate those of Holland to the climate and soil of Batavia. (171)
Captain Cook had attributed to Batavia “the death of more Europeans than any other place upon the Globe of the same extent” (364). In The History of Java, Raffles acknowledges Batavia’s wretched reputation as a “storehouse of disease,” but rather than pointing the finger at the monsoonal climate, he blames Dutch “perseverance in the policy of confining the European population within its walls, after so many direful warnings of its insalubrity” (1: 39). By 1811, the Europeans in Java, including the French-installed governor, had largely abandoned Batavia for princely estates in the mountainous hinterland. Some of the local population followed, an event that Raffles accords revelatory power, as a moment when climate and commerce assumed an analogical relation. Free air and free trade united to affirm the liberal-capitalist destiny of the island: “they had not to go above one or two miles beyond the [city] precincts before they found themselves in a different climate. But this indulgence, as it gave the inhabitants a purer air, so it gave them a clearer insight into the resources of the country, and notions of a freer commerce, which, of all things, it was the object of the local government and its officers to limit or suppress” (1: 39).
Raffles fails to acknowledge-and probably did not fully understand—that the agricultural hinterlands themselves were the cause of Batavia’s malarial infestation. The overdevelopment of sugar plantations in the preceding century—a cash crop developed by Chinese entrepreneurs and overseen by the Dutch for the European market-had silted the principal river leading to the port (Abayesekere, “Death” 192). This caused the urban canal system to stagnate and the bay to fill to the extent that the Batavians were obliged to build two stone piers five hundred yards in length in order to service the trading vessels at anchor (Barrow 171). Raffles was thus correct that colonialism, not climate, was responsible for the perennial public health crises faced by Batavia. But he was wrong to lay the blame on Dutch urban planning. It lay rather with cash-crop development-the globalization of the Javan agricultural economy-precisely the cause he champions in The History of Java (Blussé, “Insane” 67-77).
When it comes to the climate of Java, Raffles accentuates the positive. “The climate of many parts of the Island requires the wearing of overclothes,” and the Javanese, a largely untapped market of “four millions and a half of souls,” had already expressed a demand for British cloth and velvet, and would undoubtedly buy much more if “their means” might only be increased (1: 241). The “selling” of Java as a potential market for British textiles is a major object of the History. As we have seen, Raffles reserves his most purple prose for the romantic evocation of atmosphere and scenery and its union with agricultural productivity. Once he has left the inconveniences of Batavia behind him,
The traveller can hardly advance five miles inland without feeling a sensible improvement in the atmosphere and climate. As he proceeds, at every step he breathes a purer air and surveys a brighter scene. At length he reaches the highlands. Here the boldest forms of nature are tempered by the rural arts of man: stupendous mountains clothed with abundant harvest, impetuous cataracts tamed to the peasant’s will. Here is perpetual verdure; here are tints of the brightest hue. In the hottest season, the air retains its freshness; in the driest, the innumerable rills and rivulets preserve much of their water. This the mountain farmer directs in endless conduits and canals to irrigate the land, which he has laid out in terraces for its reception; it then descends to the plains, and spreads fertility wherever it flows, till at last, by numerous outlets, it discharges itself into the sea. (1: 24)
Here, nature-or specifically, the rhetoric of nature-is deployed for the purpose of naturalizing Java in the minds of Raffles’ British readers. The georgic idiom—“the rural arts of man”—is designed to excite the imagination while remaining comfortable and familiar. Raffles elides all manner of climatic and cultural differences within a basking prose of verdure, freshness, and fertility.
Many of the mountains from which water flowed to the fertile plains were, of course, active volcanoes. The “constitution” of Java itself, Raffles writes, “may be considered as the first of a series of volcanicislands, which extend nearly eastward from the Straits of Sunda for about twenty-five degrees” (1: 28). He readily attributes the richness of the Javan soil to its “exclusively volcanic constitution” (1: 117). The happy geological consequence of Javan volcanism was to render it “a great agricultural country,” its farmland comparable to “the richest garden-mould of Europe,” (1: 33-34) conducive even to the planting of vineyards, the soil being reminiscent of Italy (1: 49). Throughout The History of Java, Raffles domesticates Javan ecology according to European models, just as he would westernize Java’s government and economy. Agriculture, he argues, is the seed-bed of civilization: “the arts of civilized life, seem to be directly as the fertility of the soil” (1: 65). Making constructive use of Montesquieu, he holds out the comparative sophistication of Javan culture as proof of the direct positive links between soil, climate, and civilization: “Java having become populous from its natural fertility, and having, by its wealth and the salubrity of its climate, invited the visits of more enlightened strangers, soon made great progress in arts and knowledge” (1: 66). Life expectancy, too, “is not much shorter than in the best climates of Europe” (1: 77). When analogies with European climate and agriculture strain credulity, Raffles settles for comparison “with the healthiest parts of British India” (1: 36).
The rich volcanic soil might have been Java’s strongest selling point, but volcanism likewise marked a fault-line of difference between the Dutch East Indies and the British imperial imagination, as the unassimilable disaster of the 1815 eruption of Tambora showed. Even for the Javans themselves, the magnitude of the Tambora eruption stood beyond ready comprehension, outside the terms of their own “volcanic” history. “All reports concur,” wrote one of Raffles’s officers, “that so violent and extensive an Eruption has not happened within the memory of the oldest inhabitants, nor within tradition” (Ross 9). In The History of Java, Raffles relegates his narrative of Tambora to a lengthy footnote, as a natural curiosity that “may not be uninteresting” to his readers. He attached to reports of the disaster a long technical essay on Javan volcanic mineralogy by the American naturalist Thomas Horsfield (1: 26). For the Javanese, volcanism served as a symbol of dynamic political power. Sultans and chiefs represented themselves as manifestations of the mountain god, Siva (Kathirithamby-Wells 27). Volcanic eruptions were accordingly viewed as a mirror of human affairs, as punishment and portent of social crisis and the maladministration of their rulers. Raffles, by contrast, makes no specific acknowledgment of the devastating human impact of the Tambora eruption in his History of Java, especially its social, economic, and public health dimensions. To have explored in detail the regional impact of ecological destruction, crop failure, famine, disease, death, homelessness, and enslavement within the British colonial domain that were a direct consequence of Tambora would have been to concede the vulnerability of his tropico-georgic paradise to volcanic disaster, and of the Southeast Asian economy to drastic short-term climate change.
“The Horrid Traffic in Slaves”
When the eruption of Tambora began in earnest on April 10, the explosions could be heard up to a thousand miles distant, from Sumatra in the west to the Spice Islands (Moluccas) to the east. On Java itself, three hundred miles west, the effects were “awfully present” in the trembling of the earth and artillery- like rumbles from the sky (Raffles 1: 29). Most terrifying of all, the earthquakes and booming noises disturbed a profound darkness that ought to have been day: “The sky was overcast at noon-day,” writes Raffles, “with clouds of ashes, the sun was enveloped in an atmosphere, whose ‘palpable’ density he was unable to penetrate … and amid this darkness explosions were heard” (1: 29). In the ensuing year-the so-called “Year Without a Summer”—countries and communities across the globe faced starvation, disease, and social unrest as a direct result of the drastic climate deterioration produced by the more than fifty cubic kilometers of magma ejected by Tambora into the atmosphere (Sigurdsson 16). A year later, when Tambora’s tropospheric ejecta of sulphur, chlorine, and fluorine gases had reached the European landmass and plunged that continent into a devastatingly cold summer, Lord Byron versified about the day at the Villa Diodati near Geneva when the sun never rose:
The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came, and went-and came, and brought no day,
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation. (2-8)
Byron’s “Darkness” has been routinely misread as an apocalyptic allegory. Actually, it is a literary speculation on a literal event, a profoundly ecological poem in its intuition of both the human impact of natural disaster-a famine in which “no love was left” (41)—and its harrowing images of an environmentally degraded world: “Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless-/ A lump of death-a chaos of hard clay” (71-72). The crop failures of 1816 precipitated what one historian has called “the last great subsistence crisis in the Western world” (Post). In Europe, Switzerland was hardest hit. Linking Byron’s “Darkness,” from that direful Swiss summer of 1816, with Raffles’s account of Tambora, written at a distance of twelve months and more than twelve thousand kilometers, marks the outline of a global ecological narrative surrounding Tambora that the historical archive renders only in trace form and that remains to be fully reconstructed on its proper global scale.
At first, no one in Java suspected Tambora as the source of the eruption. From the seeming nearness of the explosions, the Javanese imagined Mount Agung on neighboring Bali was erupting, as it had seven years previously. The British governors, meanwhile, mistook the explosions for gunfire, and dispatched their navy and militia in search of pirates (Ross 3-4, 13). If we accept volcanism as a metaphor for endemic violence and de-population in the Dutch East Indies, their confusion was natural. But the connection between volcanoes and pirates was, I wish to argue, material as well as metaphorical. While Javawas a largely self-sufficient agricultural economy-a population of subsistence farmers rather than seagoing traders-vast portions of the mountainous Indonesian islands, not so readily brought under the plow, were dominated by maritime raiding communities. The principal object of much maritime raiding was not treasure, but people. That is, “piracy” served as the basic machinery of the Southeast Asian slave trade. And slavery, as Montesquieu maintains, bears some relation to climate. Given the inadequate treatment of the subject in The Spirit of the Laws, however, even to a well-disposed reader such as Raffles, the true texture of the relation between climate and slavery in the Tambora event remains to be articulated.
Raffles’s vaunted abolitionism, which he brought to Batavia in the form of a ban on slave trading, and expressed in a military raid against a slavetrading prince of Bali in 1814, should be seen in light of its convergence with the wished-for suppression of “the horrible system of piracy” and the advancement of British trading interests (1: 249). Raffles’s record on slavery is, in fact, decidedly mixed. In The History of Java, he blends standard abolitionist rhetoric “this abomination … the horrid traffic in slaves”—with nuanced apologies for his gradualist approach to the problem: “we could not, consistently with those rights of property which were admitted by the laws that we professed to administer, emancipate them at once from servitude, [so] we enacted regulations, as far as we were authorized, to ameliorate their present lot, and lead to their ultimate freedom” (1: 85). Raffles’s argument describes a perfect circle: he, a reformer of laws, is obliged to administer existing laws; as the ultimate authority in Java, he might only curb the slave trade to the extent he is authorized.
To give Raffles, for the moment, the benefit of the doubt, a distinction should be made between his abolitionist ambitions for Java and his view of the East Indian archipelago at large. In the case of the latter, he reluctantly bowed to military reality: his small fleet of gunboats was no match, in speed or number, for the hundreds of prows, with a seaborne force of seven thousand armed men, that annually made their way south from the raider strongholds of Sulu and Borneo to comb the eastern islands for slaves and transport them to the slave markets of Jolo and Macassar (Assey 13-14). Between 1768 and 1848, the Iranun raiders of the southern Phillipines transported several hundred thousand people from coastal villages across the East Indies to these markets (Warren, “Tale” 133). “The real strength of the British Government in the Eastern Islands,” Raffles wrote to Lord Minto in June, 1812, “is that of a mere handful of men in comparison with the military and marine which the European powers which preceded us possessed … it is by political management only which may check mischief in the bud” (qtd. in Wurtzburg 268). Britain was not a true colonial power in these waters but rather a trading consortium battling for market share among better-established competitors-the Dutch, Chinese, Arabs, and local sultans. With the Royal Navy a token presence, Raffles was in no position to police the sea lanes. His several early raids against “pirate” strongholds in Borneo, and recommendations to his superiors in Penang and Calcutta that a concerted naval campaign be brought against the Sulu raiders and their trade in stolen goods and people, met with stony disapproval from company officials who had, only recently, suborned these same groups against the Dutch. Raffles’s plans were accordingly dismissed as “chimerical and impracticable” (Wurtzburg 321).
Raffles’s abolitionist measures in the ports of Java itself, however, were more successful. On January 1, 1813, he abolished the thriving slave market in Batavia. In addition, he forbade company employees and British officers from owning slaves, introduced regulation of the existing slave population, and established a Javan Benevolent Society as a forum for abolitionist charity work and literature. He also took measures to clamp down on slave kidnapping in the port of Macassar, a horrific account of which he appended to his History. These restrictions appear to have had some impact. The 1816 slave register in Batavia, itself an example of Raffles’s determination to control the trade, shows an incipient decline in numbers (Abeyasekere, “Slaves” 289).
In attempting to enforce the Slave Felony Act of 1811 within the Javan domain, Raffles was embarking upon the reformist colonialist course exemplified by Lord Minto in Bengal-a “humanitarian” form of patronal overlordship that viewed conspicuous benevolence as a tool for more active and wide-reaching political administration, conducted under the aegis of civilization. Raffles instructed his staff that his “Government should consider the inhabitants without reference to bare mercantile profits and to connect the sources of the revenues with the general prosperity of the Colony” (qtd. in Wurtzburg 236). In technocratic terms, his goal was to “apply … the received maxims of the most eminent political economists and the mild spirit of the British Legislature to practice in our oriental possessions” (qtd. in Wurtzburg 243), or in the more pungent phraseology of his Dedication to the Prince of Wales, “to uphold the weak, to put down lawless force, to lighten the chain of the slave … to promote the arts, sciences, and literature, to establish humane institutions” (Raffles 1: iv).
“Civilization,” for Raffles, depended on the extinction of both piracy and slavery, here linked in conspicuous sequence. But the moral imperatives of the new colonialism converged usefully with the pure profit motive of the old. As Montesquieu observes, “countries are not cultivated in proportion to their fertility, but in proportion to their liberty” (286). Finding Java ”without money, credit, or resources,” Raffles sought to break down the Javan bondage economy and its political structures and to encourage agricultural entrepreneurship; in short, to bring a “modern,” centralized government to the people, dismantling traditional hierarchies in the process (qtd. in Wurtzburg 244). The Dutch, with no manufactures of their own to sell, had exploited Java solely as a source of goods for trade to Europe, suppressing its labor force, in both spirit and numbers, with an in-kind tribute system they employed the Chinese and local chiefs to exact. The new Java, as Raffles saw it, would be integrated within a global economy centered on China, as both a producer and consumer of goods. This required the introduction of a cash economy founded on peasant land tenure and wage labor: “the Colony,” he wrote, “contains at present neither capital nor capitalists enough” (qtd. in Wurtzburg 310). The capitalization of Java and its dependencies was impossible with the local population in bondage and general economic insecurity in the region due to maritime raiding.
The sincerity of Raffles’s humanitarianism regarding slavery is an open question, but his abolitionist policies are thus perfectly consistent with his liberal economic program. According to Raffles’s estimate, a full seveneighths of Java remained undeveloped, and the developed portion remained in the grip of a subsistence culture, a great waste of potential profit when “during one half the year the lands yield a rich and abundant crop of grain, more than sufficient for the ordinary food of the population” (1: 233). To realize the country’s growth potential would require local capital and a general incentivization of the economy. “The cultivation of the land requires money” (292), Montesquieu had written, while East Indian slavery “was a bottomless pit, into which not only large numbers of people disappeared, but also large amounts of capital” (Boomgaard, “Introducing” 9). In Raffles’s dream of a modern, globally integrated economic system for Java, slavery, and all the degrees of bondage just beneath it, had no place.
In reality, however, the customs of bondage and subsistence farming Raffles sought to undermine would not yield so easily, and his grand schemes remained mostly on the page (Fernando 173). With the collapse of export markets in pepper and coffee on account of the longstanding British blockade against the French and only a skeleton bureaucracy, it was impossible for him to enact large-scale reform (Bastin, Essays 34). More problematic still was his own desperate lack of capital to finance the small government he had (Boomgaard, Children 32-34). Raffles expressed his ambitions for Java in a stream of gaudy promises to the Company about the large profits very soon to be had from collecting land taxes and selling cash crops from Java. As it turned out, Raffles’s answer to the dilemma of capitalizing an economy with a cash-poor treasury only outraged London the more. Having declared his government’s sovereignty over the land-on the basis of mostly specious arguments he rehearses in his History (1: 150-59)-he proceeded to sell large portions of it to raise cash. Unfortunately, the sole viable buyers were the Dutch and Chinese, who resorted to their usual practices of bondage and forced cultivation in managing their labor force. As Raffles acknowledged, “when [the Chinese] acquire grants of land, they generally contrive to reduce the peasants speedily to the condition of slaves” (1: 250). In May 1813, anti-Chinese riots on several of the eastern estates sold by Raffles further discredited his policies.
In short, Raffles’s vision to modernize the Javan economy, to have government penetrate to the village level of peasant labor organization and create a relationship with individual, cash-rich farmers, remained a fantasy (Bastin, Native 52-71). He might have outlawed the trade in slaves in Batavia, but his reforms had no impact on the more subtle system of bondage and dependency across the colonized areas of theisland at large, by which the Dutch, Chinese, and local chiefs had guaranteed agricultural production for centuries past. Raffles, in effect, only damaged the efficiency of the slave trade at the margins, having no success in transforming the socio-political conditions that sustained it. For the slavemasters of the Dutch East Indies, bondage rationalized and protected the supply of labor. For the slaves themselves, the little compensation they received for their condition was a relative security, in particular against natural calamity, which in 1815 assumed volcanic dimensions not experienced before or since.
The Slave Who Could Not Sell Herself
Raffles’s initial response to the Tambora eruption was in character as both a bureaucrat and scholar: he demanded full written reports of the event from his regional subordinates, including naval officers in the waters off Sumbawa. “The extreme misery to which the inhabitants have been reduced,” recorded Lieutenant Phillips on board the Benares, “is shocking to behold. There were on the roadside the remains of several corpses, and the marks of many others had been interred: the villages almost entirely deserted, and the houses fallen down, the surviving inhabitants having dispersed in search of food” (Raffles 1: 32). These reports, excerpted in the long footnote on Tambora in The History of Java, constitute the only transcribed eyewitness accounts of the disaster.
The full extent of the devastation, however, appears to have dawned slowly on Raffles. It was not until August, on hearing reports of famine on Sumbawa, that he sent a ship laden with rice as a form of disaster aid (Ross 25). Raffles takes pride in this act in his History, though by our modern accounts his humanitarian gesture was pitifully inadequate: a mere few hundred tons of rice, capable of feeding perhaps twenty thousand survivors on Sumbawa for a week. What Raffles’s one ship does symbolize, however inadequately, is an emergent liberal colonial ethos, whereby a new generation of European administrators professed to interest themselves in the welfare of their subjects. But the impact of Western liberal policy in the Dutch East Indies was also felt in unexpected and disastrous ways. In his History, Raffles appends the narrative of the Tambora eruption as a “curiosity,” not the epochal human tragedy it truly was. The humanitarian response of his government to the survivors was strictly limited, and his sense of responsibility for their desperate fate non-existent. With the limited information he had at hand, Raffles probably never deduced that his abolitionist program in Batavia had effectively served as a death warrant for an unknown number of Tambora survivors in those terrible months of mid-1815.
In The Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu declares selling oneself into slavery an impossibility on logical grounds: a transaction requires the seller’s gain, and what might be gained at the price of personal liberty? Following Montesquieu, Raffles took measures against “voluntary” bondage: “the Javan custom of pawning the person for a small sum of money was prohibited” (2: 283). Once again, however, mere executive orders could not penetrate a social system defined by vertical bonding. As historian Anthony Reid relates, “because there was really no ‘free’ wage labourer category to escape to, slaves who were manumitted reportedly sold themselves again at once” (168). Selling oneself was particularly common in times of crisis such as famine. Raffles’ attempts to liberalize labor relations across colonial Java were a resounding failure, but we are able, in examining the aftermath of the Tambora eruption, to take some measure of the impact of his crackdown on the slave trade in Java. The abolition of the slave market at Batavia, which “operated to cause a sudden and complete suspension of the open traffic,” had devastating consequences for Java’s immediate island dependencies to the east-Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa-located at ground zero of the Tambora eruption (2: ciii [appendix]).
Driven west by the beginning monsoons, and on the very cusp of the rice harvest, Tambora’s volcanic cloud of ash consumed Sumbawa and Lombok before descending on Bali, covering the entire island in ash one and two feet deep (Vickers 67; Moor 95). Drinking water contaminated by ash spread disease and, with ninety-five percent of the rice crop in the field at the time of the eruption, the threat of starvation was immediate and universal. Reports later surfaced of thousands of Sumbawans and Balinese selling themselves or their children for a few kilos of rice (Goethals 19). Other reports offered a picture of abjection beyond Montesquieu’s or Raffles’s imagining: starving survivors of Tambora seeking to sell themselves but unable to because of Raffles’s shutdown of the Batavia slave market.
One measurable European impact on the capacity of the local population to respond to the Tambora crisis may be calculated in rice, the Southeast Asian dietary staple. A significant cause of the famine following Tambora was the reduction in land dedicated to the growing of rice in favor of cash crop cultivation (Boomgaard, Children 107). Rice shortages, heretofore largely unknown, were reported in six of the years between 1798 and 1809 (Boomgaard, “Introducing” 45). Globalization maximizes large-order trading profits but works against the security of local subsistence economies, such as the rice growers of Southeast Asia. (This is a fact as pertinent to 2008, with its global rice shortage, as to 1815.) But in the figure of the slave who could not sell herself, we are confronted with a tragic human equation of the Tambora disaster beyond easy rational or moral calculus: abolition meant death for possibly thousands of environmental refugees in Bali, Lombok, and Sumbawa. Years later, a European visitor to Bali heard stories of child corpses lining the beach, killed by parents unable to sell themselves or their children and presumably unwilling to watch them suffer the slow starvation they themselves faced (Boers 49).
Montesquieu equivocated on slavery, wondering if varieties of either climate or custom might render it a natural system in some cases. In the slave systems that he viewed as “successful” on these terms, he perceived an essential relation between liberty and security (260). The slave rendered his services and personal freedom in exchange for sustenance and protection. In the Dutch East Indies, with its limited indigenous cash economy and labor more valuable than land, the balance between liberty and security was historically weighted toward bondage. Bondage was, of course, not climatically determined but ideological, an economic system upheld by all the usual apparatus of moral code and mythic tradition. (Much traditional Javan storytelling narrates the complex relations between masters and their bonded dependents.) Most pertinent, from an eco-historical point of view, the massive spike in enslavement across the East Indian archipelago in the aftermath of Tambora demonstrates how ecological crisis worked to reinforce the local bondage economy even as the European powers were seeking to undermine it. Bali’s slave trade witnessed a revival after Tambora and continued mostly unabated until at least 1860, a time also when “almost the whole” slave population of Sumbawa itself was descended from Tambora survivors who had been compelled to sell themselves (Reid 159).
In our era of accelerating anthropogenic climate change, the history of Tambora revives the original paleo-climatological relation between geology and weather, of volcanos as creators of the Earth’s atmosphere. For Raffles in 1815, the Tambora event disrupted his representation of Southeast Asian climate as a monsoonal translation of benign, georgic stability. Java’s rich volcanic soil is celebrated in the main text of his History, while volcanism and the historical fact of cataclysmic volcanic episodes reside massively in the footnotes. The human impact of volcanic weather-as an agent of destructive short-term climate change-is evident in the catastrophic aftermath of Tambora not only in its death toll but also in the fate of its refugees for whom slavery was their sole form of social security.
Montesquieu was, as it were, half right. Climate might not produce slavery, but climate change can. In situations of ecological disaster, personal liberty is worth only the economic security it can purchase. Raffles’s tentative gestures toward humanitarian relief in 1815 did little to alleviate the death and suffering resulting from Tambora, but his failure to do more, combined with his unwitting removal of the slavery “safety net” in the immediate Javan region, does show the extent of responsibility taken on by would-be Western, neo-liberal global overseers (if alive today, Raffles might work for the U.N. or I.M.F.) in managing the large-scale environmental refugee crises predicted for this century. In colonial Southeast Asia, “the lack of legal and financial institutions made a powerful patron the most useful security for the poor” (Reid 157). In undermining this “patronage” system, without installing the modern governmental institutions to take up its vital security and relief functions, the British colonial administration in Java exacerbated the human impact of the Tambora disaster.
One of the principal geo-political impacts of climate change this century will be de-globalization: the increasing cost of energy and its de-stabilizing impact on security will drive countries to trade within regional ambits. This regressive impact of climate deterioration on global neo-liberal capitalism is adumbrated in the example of Tambora, two centuries in the past. Raffles’s tentative abolitionist agenda for the region collapsed entirely as a direct consequence of the eruption of Tambora. This abolitionist policy included a campaign against piracy that was, in turn, integral to Raffles’s plans to westernize Southeast Asian trade practices through the monetarization of local economies, liberalization of their political structures, and encouragement of native markets for British and Indian goods. All this, too, was dealt a stunning blow by the volcanic disaster and subsequent climate deterioration. Piracy and the slave trade both benefited enduringly from the disaster. As a monumental human tragedy, the Tambora eruption of 1815 has been largely forgotten outside Indonesia. It deserves to be better remembered. As an eco-historical case study, Tambora suggests that drastic climate deterioration is inimical to the security and growth of Western consumer capitalism and its proclaimed liberal-democratic ideals, while being favorable to piracy and slavery, both of which Raffles failed to combat effectively in his brief time as colonial overlord of Java.