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Sugar, Steam, and Steel: The Industrial Project in Colonial Java, 1830-1885, Review


Sugar is rather obviously an important commodity: without it whole sectors of the food industry grind to a halt. It is also one which has been carefully studied by historians, interested in the way that it represented the emergence of modern capitalism, commodity production, international trade, and a commercial world order which has developed core regions (the wealthiest areas which benefit from the global economic system) and peripheries (the poorest areas that produce cheap materials which are used by the core). In regards to sugar, this has often been analyzed in the Atlantic economy, where the Caribbean was transformed into a vast region for the production of sugar, to the benefit of Europe, while requiring uncountable numbers of slaves to be procured in Africa - a European core that consumed the riches and produced the industrial goods for it, and other regions that were its periphery.

But sugar has had a longer history than that, and during the 19th century, one region which transformed itself into a major international producer of sugar was Java, in the Dutch East Indies, under the control of the Netherlands. There, as Sugar, Steam, and Steel: The Industrial Project in Colonial Java, 1830-1885, by G. Roger Knight lays out, the production of sugar underwent a dramatic metamorphism from a relatively traditional and undeveloped (as in, pre-industrial, for it matched in sophistication the other East Asian sugar production and was thus not entirely dissimilar to the West Indies) sugar sector to become a highly industrialized one bound up intimately in international trade. The book aims to both explain how this process transpired, and why - what were the factors that enabled it, and why did Java become the unique non-Caribbean cane sugar producer in the 19th century to undergo a dramatic revolution in industrial sugar production.

Various stages of sugar purity and refinement. Part of the industrialization of sugar was producing more refined and higher quality sugar.

Various stages of sugar purity and refinement. Part of the industrialization of sugar was producing more refined and higher quality sugar.

The introduction to the book lays out that Java had a unique industrialization for sugar production in the 19th century, built upon a dramatically different agrarian structure as compared to the West Indies. This has often been missed due to over-reliance on negative reports, but it produced a sugar industry that proved highly capable of development, and reform, growing consistently and surviving multiple shocks. The book wishes to examine how it was possible for it to develop, and why it developed, as compared to several other sugar production sites in East Asia that did not experience a comparative take off.

Part I: Industrial Revolution' in Sugar Manufacture

“Java’s Singular Trajectory: Steam, Steel, and the Industrial Project in Sugar”, lays out a basic history of sugar production and its methods, and then the industrial revolution which occurred in sugar production throughout the 19th century, transforming it into a truly industrial product. There were various initiatives to industrialize sugar throughout the Indian Ocean and East Asia, but they ultimately failed, with only Java having success, becoming an important part of the global sugar economy and one which dominated East Asian markets.

The following chapter, “Creole Prometheus: Steam, Paddle Boats, and Sugar Factories” principally concerns itself with the connections established between Java and Europe, vital to the establishment and propagation of steam power in a creolized colonial context. It uses the example of Alexander Lawson, a British engineer who worked in Java, various localized experts, and the extensive local industrial base (relative to the European Dutch one) to demonstrate the importance and the nodal nature of the Javanese sugar industry, which operated as more than simply a European satellite.

“The Industrial Sugar Factory: Wonopringgo, Thomas Edwards and the Nederlandsche Handel Maatschappij (NHM)” looks in greater depth at an individual sugar factory, Wonopringgo, which evolved from being a run down and poor quality one to a ste of the art and industrialized sugar mill, with the assistance of a highly mobile and seemingly international labor force, exemplied by another Englishman, Wonopringgo, and an indigenous force of peasant workers coerced by the state. In this, it could compare to the best or Cuba’s technology.

Sorting out sugar cane

Sorting out sugar cane

Part II: The 'Peasant' Economy, the Money Trail and the Bourgeoisie

Sugar without Slaves: The Agrarian Basis for the Industrial Project” covers the “Cultuurstelsel” or the cultivation system, which the Dutch used for producing commodity crops for export, relying on requisitioned corvée labo from peasants. The author contends that this system of exploiting an already developed and sophisticated agricultural economy (if not one which as as homogenous in terms of population or geography as has been otherwise claimed) was simultaneously a necessary prerequisite for Javanese sugar production, and had some degree of rooting in traditional Javanese social structures, but it also changed and diversified a countryside, relying on and increasing social divisions to help produce a class of peasants upon which it relied.

“The Money Trail: State, Suikerlords and Bourgeoisie” discusses the role of the bourgeois in the East Indies, and the commercial infrastructure which existed. It suggests that much of the capital which was used in the construction of the Javanese sugar industry was of localized origin, including Chinese capital. But the local bourgeois still fell into connections and relationships with the home country, rather than being isolated as otherwise sometimes suggested.

Part III: Metamorphosis

“Metamorphosis: Machinery, Science and the Manufacture of Sugar in Java on the Eve of the Crisis of the Mid-1880s” launches a revisionist claim to arguments made that the expansion and modernization of the Javanese sugar industry came from 1884, instead claiming that there had been a long process of industrialization and rationalization beforehand. Nevertheless, the 1884 crisis, when prices dropped dramatically, did spur further innovation and efficiency to respond to changing circumstances.

The book's conclusion, entitled "The Future of an Industrial Project: The 1880s and Beyond" summarizes the sugar industry after the 1880s, in how it conserved its strong performance and shifted to Asian markets, until the economic crisis of the 1930s when these markets were cut off. Although the sugar industry has remained in Java up until even the present day, it has ultimately become a relic of the past: in fact Indonesia is now a large scale importer of sugar. But for the time, it was an impressive development of industrial technology, one enabled by and which itself transformed the society of Java.


Overall it makes for an enlightening and useful book, and while it would have been interesting to have some more details, figures, and graphs, it still accomplishes its job in an admirable fashion. 19th century industry and sugar in particular are relevant of course, as well as the history of the Dutch East Indies and the Netherlands. But furthermore it also deals with fascinating networks and relationships which linked together European society and the Dutch colonial possessions in the East Indies, into a transnational network where there seemed to be plentiful numbers of British expatriates in Java working as engineers and skilled technical workers. It was not just machinery that moved across borders, but people too, and the book is intriguing concerning the stories that it tells of individual people involved in this movement.

For a description of the technical aspects of 19th century Java, of the nature of the island’s bourgeois, and of the system of technological development which had transpired over the course of the century, the book makes for a highly useful tome. At the same time, there are certain limitations which are found within, particularly in that there is less in the way of analysis of the population structure in the countryside and of the social relationships which were found there, although it does go somewhat into the nature of the capital-producing classes, such as the relationship of Chinese capital. It does of course mention that the population in the rural region was diverse, that it had a wide variety of different structures, that it was not simply an undifferentiated peasantry that was exploited by the state, and that instead the state found collaborators among it. But it never goes into any serious detail or analysis of this population and how it related to in a more specialized sense, to the cultuurstelsel and to the expansion of sugar.

For those interested in the economic history of sugar, Dutch history, Dutch colonial history, Indonesian history, 19th century capitalism and movement of people, and in that evolving and new history that focuses on networks, The Industrial Project in Colonial Java has much to offer. It both is a book of structural changes and one of tying together the micro histories of the personnages who were intimately involved and linked into the project into a cohesive story, both a history book and storytelling, and in that a great success.

© 2018 Ryan Thomas


Dale Anderson from The High Seas on September 25, 2020:

This is right up my alley so thanks for sharing! I live on a boat and do a lot of reading so this is going on the list.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on October 23, 2018:

This sounds like a very interesting book to read. Sugar is something that is part of our daily lives, but most people know very little about the history of it. Thankyou for posting such an interesting article.