The Black Dutchmen:
A Preliminary Study of the Colonial Roots of South Moluccan Terrorism

Dieter Bartels

South Moluccan Terrorism in the Netherlands

In the late summer of 1970, young South Moluccan extremists occupied the Indonesian Embassy in the Hague, killing a Dutch policeman. This was the same day President Suharto of Indonesia was scheduled to leave Jakarta for an historical visit to the Netherlands, which had been the colonial power in Indonesia for three and a half centuries. Since, bloody stains splattered over Holland's map, commemorating other acts of terrorism, culminating, thus far, in the kidnaping of school children and the 20-day occupation of a train near Assen. These stains are reminders of one of the many unresolved problems concerning minority groups in Africa and Asia, left behind in the wake of the retreating colonial power.

During the colonial period, the European powers often made use of the aid of small ethnic groups in their domination of larger ones. Yet when the majorities rose to power at the end of the colonial period, the collaborating minorities were abandoned by their former masters who now tried to salvage whatever political and economic influence they could still exert. The South Moluccans, or Ambonese, were one such group thus sacrificed and their fate would be rather ignored. But, by a quirk of history, they are still able daily to remind the former overlords of their existence since about 35,000 of them live right in Holland.

Originally, about 12,500 Ambonese refugees arrived in the Netherlands in 1951. The majority of them were soldiers of the then dissolving Dutch colonial army (KNIL) in Indonesia and their dependents. They were stationed outside the Moluccas during the Indonesian independence struggle but they had sympathized with the establishment of an independent state in the South Moluccas and they had fought alongside the Dutch in the futile attempt to stop Indonesia from becoming independent. Fearing reprisals from the newly established Indonesian government, they opted for exile in Holland where their numbers have tripled.

Soon after their arrival, they were joined by part of the leadership from Ambon who had attempted to set up the independent state of the Republic of the South Moluccas (RMS) in 1950 but were defeated by Sukarno's forces after several months of a blockade around the islands and fierce resistance when the Indonesian troops landed. Doggedly, Ambonese guerrillas fought on for another 14 years and only gave up after the capture of their leader, Dr. Christian Soumokil. In Holland, a government in exile was established which tried to free their islands by political means but now, their sons and daughters, mostly Dutch born, have taken up the struggle with impatience and violence of which we have not seen the end.

In this presentation, I will try to expose the colonial roots of this seemingly senseless struggle which has brought the Ambonese mostly indignation and contempt. My aims are first to analyze the changes Ambonese society and culture underwent during the colonial period and then to discuss these changes in terms of socio-cultural adaptation. It will be shown how the collaboration with the Dutch led to a radical metamorphosis of Ambonese cultural identity during which the Ambonese acquired an urban outlook on life, while simultaneously, through a persistence on the continuation of traditional values and beliefs, they remained essentially a rural community. The implications of these developments during and after the colonial period will be discussed.

The Ambonese and Their Homeland

Before we proceed to an analysis of Ambonese history, a short introduction to the region and its people is needed. The present-day province of Maluku consists mainly of ocean interspersed with about 1000 islands, many of which are tiny and uninhabited. The total population is about 1.1 million people, or less than 1% of the population of Indonesia. Culturally and ethnically we find a great diversity throughout the islands but the Moluccans usually divide the region into three main areas. The Central Moluccas is the area of the Ambonese proper who took their name from the small, but main island of Ambon on which the provincial capital, Ambon City, is located. The RMS also included the South Moluccas which is economically the least developed. Not included were the North Moluccas, the seats of the once powerful Moslem sultantes of Ternate and Tidore which became more and more insignificant in late colonial history.

The Central Moluccas are the most populous of the region with more than half a million people who are about evenly divided into Christians and Moslems. Circa 80,000 people live in Ambon City, but a considerable number of them are non-Ambonese and even many of the Ambonese living there are only semi-permanent residents who frequently move back and forth between the city and their home villages in which they often own houses and have rights to land and/or spice trees. The overwhelming majority lives in villages located directly on the coast along the islands. In size, they range from a few hundred to several thousand inhabitants.

Subsistence is based on a combination of horticulture and fishing. The Ambonese grow a variety of tuber plants (e.g. taro, yams) and vegetables in gardens cleared by the slash and burn method. They also own tracts of land with mixed growth, all perennials such as a variety of fruit and nut trees, as well as cloves and nutmeg. The latter are an important source of cash income used to buy clothing, jewelry and electronic luxuries, etc.

Although there is a serious population growth problem which is reflected in an increasing scarcity of land and in perpetual fighting between neighboring villages, there is plenty of food grown with little effort and the specter of hunger prevalent in overpopulated Java has not reached Ambon's shores. The land fights are not about food-growing areas, but about the control over spice trees whose growing potential has become limited everywhere but on the large island of Seram.

Sketch of the Early History of the Spice Islands

Spices were both the blessing and the curse of the Ambonese. They brought riches to the islands, but they also brought sorrow. People from everywhere in the Archipelago, from China, from India and from the Arab lands, traded in the region long before the arrival of the Europeans. Spices brought fabulous prices in Europe and the “Age of Exploration” was set in motion by the desire of European powers to eclipse the Arab monopoly on the westward trade. It was the Moluccas which Columbus set out to discover when he accidently stumbled onto America and which were finally “discovered” in 1511 by the Portuguese D'Abreu.

The arrival of the Portuguese marks a very decisive change in the Moluccan history: The tremendous expansion of Islam in the region came to a halt and Christianity, in the form of Roman-Catholicism was successfully spread among those who had not yet embraced Islam but were engaged in a syncretic religion made up of native beliefs and Hinduism.

The Portuguese reign of terror lasted for almost a century and was marked by almost unceasing wars and uprising among both Moslems and Christians, who often fought side-by-side. When the first Dutch vessels sailed into Ambonese waters, the native population saw their chance to throw off the shackles of Portuguese domination and they entered an alliance with the Dutch who replaced the Portuguese in 1605 as the colonial power.

The advent of the Dutch, however, did not bring freedom but even greater tyranny, to both Moslems and Christians. The Dutch demanded a complete monopoly of the spice trade and ruthlessly pursued this goal between 1614 and 1656. This goal was accomplished in 1656 by Admiral Arnold de Vlaming, but only after killing thousands of people, deportation of uncounted others and the extirpation of hundred thousands of clove trees.

The following 150 years were marked by oppression and exploitation and Ambos resistance was mostly passive. After the second British Interregnum, (1810-1916), the last large scale rebellion, involving both Christians and Moslems, broke out, but was quickly crushed by the Dutch.

The Later Colonial Period

Soon afterwards, gradual but very decisive changes occurred in Dutch-Ambonese relations. The Dutch, in expanding their operations in the western part of the Indies, needed an ever-increasing administrative and military apparatus. Economically, their interests had shifted away from the Moluccas, but now they returned not for spices but for personnel. The Ambonese Christians, along side other Christian groups, were considered most trustworthy for a variety of reasons. First, as a minority, the Ambonese were not considered as a potential threat to the Dutch colonial administration. But Christianity was one of the most important reasons. Just at the time when the need for colonial officers arose, the Ambonese Christians were undergoing a strong spiritual revival, mainly due to the efforts of Joseph Kam, later to be known as “The Apostle of the Moluccas” (G. Enclaar, 1963). The Moluccan church was completely in the hands of the Dutch Reformed Church and the Dutch felt that their common religion would draw the Ambonese closer to them than to the Moslem populations elsewhere.

Because of the early policy of the Dutch East-Indies Company (VOC) of operating schools only in Christian areas and limiting attendance only to Christian pupils, the Ambonese had a head start long before the Dutch eventually made education more generally available in the second part of the 19th Century. The overwhelming advantage can be extrapolated from the following figures of the VOC school population in Indonesia at the end of the 19th Century:

Region/City Pupils

Batavia (Jakarta) 638
Bantam (Java) 5
Cheribon (Java) 6
Semarang (Java) 327
Makassar (Sulawesi) 50
Timor (West) 593
Padang (Sumatra) 50
Maluku 5,032
Total: 6,689

By the middle of the 19th Century schools were opened in other regions including special schools to train Javanese for government jobs. The main emphasis was still on Christian regions and the Ambonese were still ahead, now closely followed by the Menadonese.

The Ambonese thus had the necessary background for government service. They also had a reputation as fierce and daring soldiers who, when committed, were highly reliable and unswervingly loyal. This reputation was acquired already in the 17th Century when Ambonese mercenaries were employed by the Dutch as far as Bantam and even Ceylon.

The Rise of the Ambonese in the Colonial Structure

The Central Moluccas proved indeed to be a fertile recruiting ground for the Dutch. The importance of the spice trade had long since declined and the region was economically destitute. When the Dutch finally abolished the forced delivery of spices in 1863-64, their price fell even more on the free market. Conditions of hunger, already widespread under the old system, worsened even more and attempts by the Dutch to introduce wet rice, coffee and cacao as substitute crops generally failed. Between 1874 and 1881 the price of cloves rose temporarily, giving the population a short reprieve, but then a reversal set in and economic conditions remained poor into the 20th Century.

These economic conditions certainly played an important role in the decisions of the many Ambonese who willingly took the Dutch bait and enrolled in their services. However, the ease with which the Ambonese followed the colonial piedpipers cannot be explained away simply in terms of economics. men trade not only in material commodities but they also buy and sell more ephemeral goods. The Ambonese were not only after economic improvement, but they also wanted to regain a sense of destiny, a sense of self-respect and of respect by others; in short, they wanted to recapture their prestige and status, both socially and individually -- as it will become more apparent during the later discussion of the cultural transformation of Ambonese identity.

The turnabout in history which followed was truly amazing. For 200 years the Ambonese had been bitter enemies of the Dutch. They had been beaten and trampled on again and again. Then, in a few decades, they were transformed into the most loyal collaborators of the Dutch who willingly and quite consciously became the instruments of Dutch colonial rule.

Ambonese were to be found in government offices from tip to tip of the archipelago. They were telegraphers, sailors, railroad conductors, oil workers, teachers and missionaries. Above all, they were military men. The Dutch Colonial Army (KNIL) had at times to be closed to enlistments because of an oversupply of volunteers, especially during the times when the Javanese caught up in education and increasingly took over the administrative jobs. The Christian Ambonese became the mainstay of the Dutch colonial army who fought savage battles in the Dutch conquests from Lombock to Ajeh, quelling local uprisings whenever they occurred.

Ambonese Moslems

Before we go on with our analysis of the Ambonese Christian community in colonial times, let us pause briefly and ask what happened to the Moslems. It is hardly exaggerated to state that the Ambonese Moslems simply faded out of history. Largely left to themselves by the Dutch government, they continued to adhere strongly to their traditional way of life. In contrast to the Christians, they did not demand schools until the turn of the century when there were some stirrings of Pan-Islamism. The children of village chiefs (raja) had access to schools and these raja knew that their status within their own villages was enhanced by this access and had little interest in making education available to everyone. while the Christians then became the pampered darlings of both government and church, the Moslems preferred to be neglected and thus helped to create and perpetuate the illusion of their non-existence (cf. Kraemer, 1958:14). As far as Christian-Moslem relationships are concerned, these two groups continued to remain on excellent terms despite the meteoric rise of the Christians and the ever-widening gap in social status.

Radical Metamorphosis of Ambonese Cultural Identity

The rise of the Ambonese to the top of the indigenous hierarchy in the late colonial period led to quite dramatic change in cultural identity. The cooperation with the Dutch brought an increasingly close identification with the Dutch and the Dutch cause in Indonesia. A basis for this cooperation had to be created and especially from the 1920s right up to the '50s, i.e. during the time of a rising national consciousness in Java and other parts of the regions, Ambonese write prolifically in defense of their collaboration with the Dutch.

Reinterpretation of History

The Ambonese, consciously and unconsciously, used history as the justification of their close relations with the Dutch. History becomes interpreted very selectively, stressing the positive rather than the negative aspects. Two hundred years of antagonism seemed to be blocked from memory and instead these writers stress mutual friendship and cooperation ever since the Dutch arrived (e.g. Pattipeilohy 19 : ). Dutch Ambonese relations are described as a “350 year bond” (e.g. Manusama 19 : ) which is marked by “Eternal loyalty to the House of Oranje” by the Ambonese.


Symbolic changes also occur in the military field. Not Pattimura, the last Ambonese hero to resist the Dutch, is the most admired hero, but the early mercenary Jonker who had fought with the Dutch in the middle of the 17th Century, at a time when the Ambonese still were trying to rid themselves of their colonial masters. Jonker's grave became the center of worship of Ambonese soldiers who went there to make offerings to receive magical powers in return. Jonker's spirit was accompanying them in their battles and there are many stories about his appearance in times of misfortune, saving embattled Ambonese soldiers from annihilation.


The common religion was the strongest point of identification between the Ambonese and the Dutch. The Ambonese saw Christianity as one of the secrets of Dutch power and superiority and the people commonly believed that this power could be transferred through the holy communion dispersed by Dutch ministers. Thus, when after 1917, Ambonese pastors were allowed to administer the sacraments, there was great resistance in the community. The host out of a brown hand was considered to lack the magical powers which only the Dutch could tap from God (G. Tutuarima 1960: 155).

Christianity became one of the central factors in shaping Ambonese cultural identity. The Ambonese were well aware that their being Christians was intimately tied up with their high status in the colonial hierarchy. Their religion not only symbolized their closeness to the Dutch but set them apart and above other Indonesians as civilized among barbarians. They actually spoke of their status as pangkat Serani, i.e. rank of Christian, which was conceptualized somewhat below European, but higher than Moslem, Chinese, etc. (Kraemer 1958: ). This rank was attained ideally by receiving instruction in confirmation classes in Dutch language and only the poor were instructed in Malay. Being baptized but not confirmed meant that one merely was considered as a half-Christian (setengali Kristen).

Since Christianity was seen as a special privilege, it had to be protected against other groups who were seen as a potential threat to their status. Thus, Christian Chinese who attempted to worship in the main church of Ambon were, at times, turned away with the argument that this was an Ambonese church--implying that not being Ambonese (or Dutch) was equivalent to not being a true Christian (Kraemer 1958: 20). Indeed, Christianity and being Ambonese became synonymous as it is reflected in the term agama Ambon, Ambonese religion, which was used interchangeably with Christianity.

Certain concepts of Calvinism were also used occasionally to justify their higher status in relation to other ethnic and religious groups. Thus, Dutch colonial domination could be explained as “God's will” and it was also in God's pre-destined plan that the Dutch were to bring Christianity to the Ambonese who came to perceive themselves as being among the select of God.


In conjunction with Christianity, Western-style education also had a profound impact. Education became the key which opened the door to the Dutch world. Like Christianity, it was perceived as one of the secrets behind Dutch power, both in concrete and magical terms. In the 1920s, there was already an abundance of Dutch schools in Ambon City, but they could not cope with the “catastrophic rage for learning Dutch” (Kraemer, 1958: 18).

The Dutch trained the Ambonese in subjects which prepared them for careers in the administration and the military, but were totally foreign to the environment in which the school children lived after school hours (Kraemer, 1958: 25). The jobs they were seeking were mostly far beyond the shores of their islands and thus the Ambonese needed the rest of Indonesia as their “timberland” and thus were as interested as the Dutch in the continuation of the colonial system.

Education led to feelings of intellectual superiority and they looked upon menial work as despicable and below their station in life. Thus, when they could not find the jobs for which they were trained, they returned to Ambon where they could be found idly strolling around in their best suits, enjoying their high position, but refusing to work with their hands.

Dutch-Ambonese Symbiosis

The metamorphosis of Ambonese cultural identity can perhaps be best illustrated through a short quote from an eyewitness account of a Dutch clergyman, Hendrik Kraemer who visited Ambon in 1926:

Especially since the general political awakening as a result of wide contacts with the outer world they [the Ambonese] came to be very much conscious of their great value as instruments for the maintenance and expansion of Dutch rule. They feel at least half European and they want to be Europeans. Since van Heutz's policy of opening up the territory of the Indies, they feel pacifiers and conquerors of the archipelago. Among the usual pictures displayed in the schools for instance, the children like the picture of the conquest of Tjakranegara best of all, for they feel that those inhabitants of Lombok are their enemies, just as if they, the Ambonese, were unalloyed Dutch colonials. All these peoples and tribes of the Indies which rebelled with armed force or had to be subdued by the sword they consider 'their enemies,' just like the average Dutchman.(Kraemer 1958: 13-14).

Kraemer seems to have captured well the self-image of the Ambonese during that period. The reference of the Dutch flag and the pictures of the Royal Family which could be found inevitably in every Ambonese house, are further examples of the closeness they felt with the Dutch. However, it would have been more correct if Kraemer had stated: “They feel at least half equal to the Europeans and they want to be like Europeans,” rather than “they feel half European and they want to be Europeans.” For the Ambonese never wanted to become Europeans but aspired to become as powerful as Europeans.

In order to achieve this goal, they had to sacrifice some of their cultural heritage and change their cultural identity, but they never changed their ethnic identity. The Queen of Holland was referred because she was a source of this power but the center of their world always remained in Ambon. This becomes abundantly clear from their writings in the first half of the 20th Century as well as from their traditional cosmology in which Mt. Nunusaku their sacred mountain on Seram, was always seen as the place of origin not only of the Ambonese but all mankind. It is also expressed in their sentimental songs among whose most recurring themes are the love for their islands and the homesickness they experience in diaspora. They were always proud of their physical characteristics and the motto “black is sweet” (hitam manis) was a cultural premise throughout the days of the “love-affair” with the Dutch. This insistence on a separate ethnic identity seems also to have been an important factor in the persistent resistance of Ambonese refugees in Holland against Dutch efforts to integrate them into Dutch society.

The Ambonese then did not merely imitate the Dutch; they were not carbon copies of them but they were able to hold their own. As pointed out by Kraemer, they were well aware of their value to the Dutch, and one has to add, they were also conscious of the value of the Dutch to them. They knew they were used, but they also used the Dutch. When they called the Moluccas proudly the “Twelfth Province of Holland” and referred to themselves as “Black Dutchmen,” they symbolized both their closeness to the Dutch and their separate existence. Perhaps, the Ambonese-Dutch relationship could be best described as a sort of Machiavellian marriage of convenience, or, if I am allowed to borrow a term from biology, as a relationship of symbiosis, i.e. a relationship of intimate living together of two dissimilar “organisms” to their mutual benefit.

On the other hand, the closer the Ambonese cooperated with the Dutch, the wider the gap opened in terms of social distance between them and other ethnic groups of the archipelago. Not only were the Ambonese widely hated and feared, but they, in reverse, looked down on their fellow Indonesians. Particularly, they despised the culturally refined Javanese whose seemingly humble and submissive appearance was diametrically opposed to their own ethos characterized by straightforwardness and boldness on bordering on abrasiveness (e.g. Pattipeilohy 19 : ).

The Ambonese Christians eventually had come to see themselves as an elite which was intellectually and morally superior to every other ethnic group in the region. Religion, education and superior fighting skills were seen as the basis of this superiority. They were the “master race” of the archipelago, second to none but the Dutch.

Continuity of the Rural Tradition

The Ambonese Christians had become an “urban” people whose economic opportunities were in the cities of the Indies. Their outlook on life had become cosmopolitan, having expanded far beyond the shorelines of their slumbering islands. Yet, the life style at home remained essentially rural. Besides the aversion to working the land, the changes which had occurred were essentially superficial, e.g. concerning the tastes in food or clothing. Most of these changes were related to status and prestige, e.g. the newly acquired taste for rice had little to do with gastronomical fashions but rice was a status symbol of officials and soldiers.

In general, the village had changed very little in physical appearance since the pre-collaboration period and people went fishing or hunting, harvested sago, fruits, nuts and spices as they had done for centuries. The lush tropical fauna and flora provided these foods for free without too much work or effort on the part of the beneficiaries.

Other aspects of their life style also remained unaltered. Ambonese religion continued to include not only Christianity but a veneration of the ancestors and belief in spirits and other supernatural powers. Black Magic was still considered as powerful as the modern weapons they carried for the Dutch. Ethics stayed the same and traditional customary law (adat) continued to regulate social relationships.

The social structure remained essentially intact with its strong emphasis on clan and village ties. Prolonged absence from their villages and life in urban settings did shift the focus of attention exclusively to the immediate nuclear family of an immigrant. Rather, the strong affection and moral obligation to his clan and village remained alive and ties with the home village were seldom cut. Cash flowed back for support of their relatives or for village projects and after decades of absence the soldiers and officials often returned to their villages to live comfortably on their government pensions while enjoying the respect of their compatriots. To the astonishment of Western observers, the returnees experienced no traumatic “re-entry shock” but the transition was imperceptible. They did not seem to miss the conveniences and luxuries of the cities they had become accustomed to during their long absence and, as one observer put it, they blended into village life as if they never had left.

We can then discern two faces of Ambonese society in colonial times: a rural and an urban one. The Ambonese had become urban ruralites, or perhaps more precisely urbane ruralites, in what has to be called a superb socio-cultural adaptation to the realities of colonialism in Indonesia. By not abandoning their rural life style characterized by tightly-knit social ties and a close attachment to the land, as well as by refusing to become up-rooted when immigrating, they were able to retain their ethnic identity and social and economic security. At the same time, through the acquisition of urban skills and occupations, they were not only able to improve their living standard, but also stood high on the colonial status ladder.

When the Dutch empire started to dissolve, the narrow but cozy socio-ecological niche of the Ambonese Christians in colonial society turned out to be a vicious trap. Already in the period of nascent Indonesian nationalism before World War II the Ambonese had realized that their precarious position depended entirely on the presence of the Dutch-which explains, at least in part, the profile writings of Ambonese in support of the Dutch at the time. Their fear of Indonesian nationalism and Javanese and Moslem domination was only magnified by their experience during Japanese occupation when many Christians were killed and tortured and Moslems were used to spy on them.

After the Dutch returned, following the defeat of Japan, most Ambonese joined them in the futile fight against the Indonesian nationalists and even among those who supported Sukarno were some who tried to set up a federal republic in which the Ambonese would have been able to play a major role in an Eastern Indonesian state. When this bubble burst, the Ambonese panicked, according to all accounts, including their own. On April 21, 1950, they declared the independence of the Republik Maluku Selatan (RMS), their last hope to preserve their own identity and to have a structural outlet which could absorb at least part of the former soldiers and officials.

As we already saw in the beginning, this bubble burst too and the Moluccas were forcefully annexed by the Republic of Indonesia. It was then when in terms of adaptation it paid off for the Ambonese to have the rural alternative kept open. Those KNIL soldiers and colonial officials who had not gone to Holland and most of the RMS sympathizers could drift back into their home villages and sit out the storm. They had lost their status and prestige, as well as their main source of income. Yet, having never given up their land, they could economically survive but, more importantly, with their social structure fully intact, they could maintain a strong ethnic identity and survive as an ethnic group.

The Ambonese Christians, however, kept their “urban” ambitions and today they look again to the urban centers of Indonesia for their fields for advancement. Although in the military and in politics their advancement has been severely curtailed, many have found employment in non-political sectors of the Indonesian bureaucracy. Others figure prominently in the Council of Indonesian churches, in the entertainment field and as clerks in certain sections of private enterprise, such as shipping companies. Yet a third group has decided to play for higher stakes and throw in their lot with the Westerners again, as their fathers had done, by working as the trusted servants of western embassies and multi-nationals which in the end could be a precarious undertaking. To be sure, there is resentment of Javenese political domination and the exploitation of their natural resources by the central government. The dreams of independence have not completely died, but again the Ambonese in Indonesia have adapted themselves relatively successfully to the realities of what some quite openly call “neo-colones.”

For the Ambonese refugees in Holland, this option was closed. They found themselves uprooted among strangers. The Dutch had dismissed all the soldiers and few other adequate jobs were available. Being condemned to a life of idleness on Dutch handouts, they felt sold out and responded by sharply separating themselves from the Dutch. They turned the former Nazi concentration camps in which they were housed by the Dutch into villages. There the traditional laws of social interaction were kept alive and Ambonese culture was revitalized to such an extent that it is better alive than at home. They isolated themselves even more through separation of their church from the Dutch mother church. In this tight social situation an atmosphere has been created which is very conducive to keeping the dreams of an Ambonese homeland independent from Indonesia and in which Ambonese radicalism finds its fertile soil.