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Colonial Indonesia’s sugar industry, developed under Dutch and Sino-Indonesian auspices over a period of almost three centuries, beginning c. 1650, evolved into one which exhibited a unique configuration in which an industrialized sugar complex became embedded within much larger “peasant” economy of the farming of rice and “second” crops. It was on this agrarian and largely self-financed basis that Indonesia’s colonial sugar industry, located exclusively in the island of Java, became one of the leading sectors of the international sugar economy of the late colonial era, eventually even rivaling Cuba—the nonpareil of such producers—as an exporter to world markets. During the interwar Depression of the 1930s and subsequent decade of war and revolution, it lost much (and eventually all) of its international standing—yet managed to survive into Indonesia’s postcolonial era, albeit in an attenuated form. There were four main phases to the industry’s colonial-era history. The first, foundational phase, which saw the establishment of modern industrialized manufacture extended from the 1830s through to the 1880s. The second phase, from the 1880s to 1930, was the period of sugar’s peak expansion. The third phase, beginning in 1931 and ending in 1942, was one of retrenchment and (partial) recovery prior to the spread of the Second World War into Southeast Asia. The fourth phase, 1945–1958, was one of postwar reconstruction.

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The Dutch East India Company, also known by its historic initials VOC, was a chartered trading company that was active between 1602 and 1795. Formed by a merger of six smaller trading firms that traded in the East Indies and backed by a monopoly of trade, this proto-conglomerate emerged as a driving force in globalization, transregional investment, and early European colonization in Asia and Africa. The VOC operated as a profit-driven shareholder corporation and at the apex of its power, around the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, maintained a series of factories and settlements stretching from Cape Town in Southern Africa, the Malabar and Coromandel coasts of India, Bengal, to insular and mainland Southeast Asia and as far as Taiwan (Formosa) and Japan. Chartered companies possessed considerable investments and infrastructure outside Europe, especially with their administrative apparatus, contacts, business networks, and trading knowledge. This in turn laid the foundations for Dutch imperialism during the 19th century.

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Island Southeast Asia (ISEA) consists of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia, East Timor, and the Philippines and was the midway point in the vibrant East–West international maritime trade route that stretched from Europe, Middle East, East Africa, and South Asia to its west; and China, Ryukyu, Japan, and Korea to its east. The favored stop was along the Straits of Melaka, a calm haven protected from the force of the northeast and southwest monsoon winds. The stream of traders in the Straits enabled local ports to develop into international port cities, whose inhabitants created mixed communities and cultures: commodities were re-fashioned or re-packaged into hybrid forms to accommodate the distinctive tastes of different groups, while frequent and lengthy sojourns by traders resulted in liaisons that produced mixed offspring and cultures. Enhanced economic opportunities encouraged mobility and establishment of diaspora communities in the littoral. More sinister were the forced mobility through wars and slavery that produced reconstituted ethnic communities and new ethnicities and identities in the early modern period (c. 1400– c. 1830s).