Between 1831 and 1872 some 3,000 African recruits sailed from Elmina to Batavia (now Jakarta), the capital of the Netherlands East Indies. 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. 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. 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. Various options were explored to find new sources of manpower to supply the army in the East Indies, by far the most profitable part of the Dutch colonial empire. Thus, the Department of Colonies turned to the almost forgotten Dutch Possessions on the Guinea Coast, where commercial activity was at a low ebb following the abolition of the slave trade in 1814. These neglected outposts now had the opportunity to make themselves useful in the eyes of the Dutch government as a supplier of manpower to the army. It was assumed that Africans would be better equipped to withstand the hot climate and the dreaded tropical diseases in the East Indies. Most European soldiers in the tropics succumbed to diseases while casualties on the battlefield itself were relatively low. 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.
Three phases of recruitment (1831-1836): In 1831 the Department of Colonies instructed Governor J. Last in Elmina to recruit 'a company of 150 Negro soldiers'. If the experiment proved satisfactory, recruitment would then be organised on a more sustained basis. Instructions from The Hague emphasised that recruitment had to take place 'without coercion or force'. Last doubted whether volunteers could be found, but sent agents to Axim and Accra while in Elmina he invited the King and his council to the Castle to outline the new scheme. He advised the King of Elmina that Dutch army service would offer a unique opportunity for his subjects 'to abandon their usual loafing, to earn an income, see the world and secure an old age pension'. The King promised to cooperate but also made it clear that he could not force his subjects into army service overseas. Last's doubts proved well founded. Three ships that were sent from Holland in 1831-1832 collected eighteen, nineteen and seven recruits respectively in Elmina. Among them were the sons of several well-known Afro-European families in Elmina and Accra: Jan Nieser, Willem Nieser, Manus Ulzen and Willem van der Puye. Manus Ulzen was the great-grandson of Roelof Ulsen, governor of the West India Company in Elmina from 1755 to 1757. Some of the other volunteers were young men who needed the enlistment money and their advance pay to clear debts or to settle fines for various offences. This first batch of 44 African soldiers took part in a military expedition in southern Sumatra, where the army was sent to quell an uprising. Initial reports about their qualities as soldiers were highly favourable. Reports from Batavia to The Hague stated that the Sumatrans were 'full of awe and admiration' for the Africans, which prompted the Governor-General in Batavia to reiterate his previous request for an entire African regiment in the Indies. The next frigate with another 68 soldiers on board arrived only in 1836, but meanwhile the Dutch government had decided to expand its recruiting operations. 1837-1841 In September 1836 an official mission, headed by General Jan Verveer, sailed from the Netherlands with a vast array of presents for the King of Ashanti and instructions to arrange for the enlistment of between 2,000 and 3,000 soldiers. Along the coast volunteers were few and far between, but the Kingdom of Ashanti, which since olden days had been on friendly terms with the Dutch and was a traditional supplier of slaves, was seen as the key to solving the manpower problem. Verveer, accompanied by a large retinue of over 900 men and women, finally arrived in Kumasi in February 1837. They were well received and the presents -ranging from liquor and guns to perfume, silverware, sweets, crystal, a clock and a camera obscura- were much appreciated. Asantehene Kwaku Dua I was particularly pleased with the performance of the brass band, and later sent some of his own musicians to Elmina to learn the same repertoire and to acquire similar outfits. On 18 March 1837 a contract between King William I of the Netherlands and Kwaku Dua I of Ashanti was duly signed. The Asantehene would deliver 1,000 recruits within a year. He received 2,000 guns by way of advance payment, with the promise of 4,000 more to come. Moreover, the Dutch obtained permission to open a recruitment agency in Kumasi which, for the next few years, would be headed by Jacob Huydecoper, a mulatto from Elmina. Witnessing the frequent human sacrifices in Ashanti, the Dutch delegation was convinced that the Asantahene and his court controlled vast amounts of manpower, some of which could be made available to the Dutch army. As recruitment was still supposed to be voluntary, slaves offered to the recruiting agent received an advance payment to purchase their freedom.
On arrival in Elmina, they were given an act of manumission as proof of their legal status as free men. As part of the deal two young Ashanti princes, Kwasi Boakye and Kwame Poku, accompanied Verveer back to The Netherlands, where they were to receive a Dutch education. Boakye later continued his studies in Delft and became a mining engineer. Contrary to the initial plans, he did not go back to the Gold Coast but went to work in the Netherlands Indies, where he died in 1904. Kwame Poku did return to Elmina in 1847, but never made it back to Kumasi. He committed suicide in St. George's Castle in 1850. Recruitment in Kumasi never met Dutch expectations. In the first year, the Asantehene delivered only 51 recruits. Huydecopers's own efforts at recruiting were somewhat more successful, but still remained far below target numbers. Ashanti law prohibited Ashanti citizens from entering into foreign service, and the supply of slaves was much smaller than had been anticipated. The Ashanti would only sell a few of their slaves to the recruiting agency when they were in need of cash. Meanwhile, recruitment also continued in Elmina. All in all, between 1836 and 1842 some 2,100 African soldiers left Elmina for the East Indies. Recruitment was first suspended and then abandoned altogether in 1841. The British government had protested that this mode of recruitment amounted to a covert form of slave trading. The Dutch, having lost their naval superiority, could ill afford to alienate the government in London.
Several mutinies by African troops in the Indies had meanwhile also led the colonial administration to doubt the wisdom of the African recruitment scheme. On the other hand, quite a few African soldiers chose to re-enlist for one or more terms of two, four or six years after the expiry of their initial contracts. They were generally regarded as loyal and courageous, but ill-disciplined in combat. The African soldiers turned out to be no less vulnerable to diseases than their European counterparts. Mortality rates among the African troops was as high as those among Europeans, at times amounting to about half a shipload of soldiers. As with the Europeans, most of the Africans died in hospital rather than on the battlefield. Mortality during the three months voyage on the ships was low, but vast numbers died within a year of their arrival in the East Indies. One initial motive behind the African recruitment scheme was the hope that African soldiers would be less expensive than Europeans because of the shorter voyage - three months in stead of the five to six months from the Netherlands to Batavia- and their longer terms of service. High mortality rates undermined this logic however: recruitment expenses, including sizeable advance payments, had already been made, while the benefits proved short-lived. However, this type of cost and benefit calculation apparently did not enter into subsequent deliberations about the pros and cons of African recruitment. 1860-1872 After some reconsideration, recruitment was resumed in the late 1850s but on a much smaller scale and with more precautions to ensure the voluntary nature of enlistment. Between 1860 and 1872, another 800 African soldiers sailed from Elmina to Batavia. Recruitment ended with the transfer of Elmina and the other remaining Dutch possessions on the Guinea Coast to the British. Arrangements were made for the continuation of the pension payments, while the veterans retained their right to plots on Java Hill. However, few demobilised soldiers opted for repatriation to Africa during this last period . Most chose to stay on in Java, where they were welcomed into the now well-established Indo-African communities. After one more unsuccessful experiment in 1890 with recruitment in Liberia, the Dutch colonial army finally ceased its recruiting efforts in Africa. By 1915, there were no longer any African soldiers in active service in the East Indies.
The aftermath: Many of the sons and grandsons of the African soldiers however continued to serve in the Netherlands East Indies Army, establishing colonial control over the vast Indonesian archipelago, fighting the Japanese in the Second World War, suffering the hardships of prisoner-of-war camps and ultimately fighting the Indonesian nationalists until the final transfer of sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949. Along with vast numbers of Dutch and Indo-Europeans, most Indo-Africans were repatriated by ship to the Netherlands. Here, contact among the group was re-established when the generation which grew up in the East Indies reached the age of retirement. Since the 1980s, a bi-annual reunion has offered an occasion for old-timers as well as for the new generation born in the Netherlands to explore Indo-African roots, to fill in the gaps in family histories and of course to enjoy Indonesian cooking and African music. The 10th reunion, held in September 2000, was pleased to welcome a special guest: Professor Thad Ulzen, the great-great grandson of Manus Ulzen, had travelled from the United States to the Netherlands to meet the other descendants of the African soldiers. The story came full circle later that same year with a visit to Ghana and Elmina by Daan Cordus and his wife Eef Cordus-Klink, both descendants of African soldiers, and for a long time the driving force behind the Indo-African reunions in the Netherlands. Dr. Ineke van Kessel, a researcher at the African Studies Centre in Leiden, has now published a " Zwarte Hollanders" book in Dutch on the history of these African soldiers in the Dutch colonial army. For further information: KesselWMJvan@mailbox.leidenuniv.nl or postal address: Dr. I. van Kessel African Studies Centre P.O. Box 9555 2300 RB Leiden The Netherlands