The Black Dutchmen, african soldiers in Indie (Semarang)


Between 1831 and 1872 some 3,000 African recruits sailed from Elmina to Batavia (now Jakarta). They had been recruited to serve in the Dutch colonial army, which throughout most of the 19th century experienced a chronic shortage of European manpower. After their contracts expired, some returned to the Gold Coast where the majority settled in Elmina. These veterans were allocated plots behind St. George's Castle, on a hill still known today as Java Hill. Their army pensions were paid out in the castle. Others, having established families during their long years of army service, opted to settle in the East Indies. They became the founding fathers of the Indo-African communities in the Javanese towns of Purworedjo, Semarang, Salatiga and Solo.


African soldier with his children,
lithography by Auguste Pers (1851)


On Java, the African soldiers and their descendents became known as 'Belanda Hitam' - Black Dutchmen. An army career became a family tradition, for many sons and grandsons of the African soldiers also served in the Dutch army. After Indonesia's independence, most Indo-Africans opted for repatriation to the Netherlands.


African soldier at Java, water color by
E. Hardouin (circa 1851)


Some background

The shortage of manpower in the Dutch colonial army became particularly acute in the wake of the Java war (1825-1830) which took the lives of 8,000 European soldiers and many more native soldiers, and the secession of Belgium in 1830 which meant that the national reservoir for army recruitment had shrunk considerably.
Like all colonial armies, the East Indian army also recruited native regiments in the Indonesian archipelago. Army policy dictated however that roughly half the troops had to consist of Europeans, who were deemed more reliable and better qualified. The African soldiers were counted as part of the European contingent. Their conditions of service were mostly the same as those of Europeans, and considerably better than those of the indigenous soldiers. In due course, the Indo-Africans became part of Indo-European society: they spoke Dutch as their mother tongue, their children attended Dutch schools and they held Dutch nationality. The largest Indo-African community lived in the garrison town of Purworedjo in central Java, where in 1859 King William III allocated them a plot of land.
Other garrison towns such as Semarang and Salatiga were also home to a number of Indo-African families. Indo-Africans living outside these main centres tended to assimilate into Indo-European society, often becoming oblivious of their African roots.

by Dr. Ineke van Kessel,
a researcher at the African Studies Centre, Leiden, Netherlands.