Organized Panel Session
The water-centric geography of the Indonesian archipelago—consisting of over 17,508 islands—complicates analytical frameworks connecting metropole and colony by highlighting transcolonial links between littoral peripheries and lateral connections across Southeast Asia’s contiguous zones. While oceans are often viewed as conduits between terrestrial locales—where the most important dynamics of empire are assumed to transpire—this paper repositions colonial Indonesia to a subimperial center at the nexus of oceanic connectivity, exposing the maritime world as not merely a liminal space, but rather an active political arena impacting colonial structures within the Dutch colony.
As the oceanic world became more congested and less controllable during the 1920s and 30s—a period of increasing indigenous demand for religious autonomy, political independence, and cultural empowerment—Dutch fears over the oceanic “wild space” surrounding colonial Indonesia grew substantially. The maritime world, a space where the imperial system was at its weakest, provided opportunities for anti-colonialists to exploit Dutch vulnerabilities in ways more difficult within the terrestrial realm and ships became increasingly politicized arenas in Indonesia’s struggle for independence. Shipping, therefore, was vital not only to the economic and logistic prosperity of the Dutch Empire, but also in protecting it against both foreign and indigenous threats to imperial authority. While the Dutch administration and shipping companies worked together to control and constrict transoceanic exchanges of ideas, activists, and weapons, the maritime world ultimately helped destabilize colonial power and compelled the Dutch Empire to extend its influence beyond Southeast Asia through transoceanic webs of surveillance and policing.