The origins of sugarcane can be traced to New Guinea, the second-largest island in the world.
New Guinea was originally known as Papua. It has been referred to as New Guinea by Westerners since 1545, when Spanish explorer Ynigo Ortiz de Retez, noting the physical similarities between the indigenous peoples and the Africans of Guinea, called it “Nueva Guinea.”
The first people to populate the South Pacific island, known as Melanesians, arrived from Africa about 50,000 years ago.
According to the Recent African Origin theory, they crossed the Red Sea from modern day Eritrea to Yemen and made their way to India, to Southeast Asia, and ultimately to Oceania. During the last ice age, land bridges exposed by decreased sea levels permitted migration to this area, which now consists of land masses separated by the Pacific Ocean.
The Melanesians were skilled agriculturalists; they domesticated sugarcane around 8,000 BC.
Another group, the Austronesian Lapita people, migrated from their native Taiwan and arrived in New Guinea around 1,200 BCE. They were the first humans to develop sailing technologies capable of crossing vast oceanic distances, which enabled such extensive travel.
Together, the Melanesians and Austronesians comprised the indigenous population of New Guinea as well as other nearby areas such as the Maluku Islands.
The Age of Trade and Exploration in the Dutch East Indies
In the seventh century, western New Guinea began to engage in trade relations with islands that are now part of modern day Indonesia.
It first traded with the Buddhist Srivijaya Empire (650 AD-1275 AD), which was an Austronesian society located in Sumatra. By the end of the thirteenth century, Islam was established in Sumatra by way of Arab Muslim traders and South Asian scholars.
The religion spread amongst the trading and ruling classes and made its way eastward to the Maluku Islands, which are located just west of New Guinea.
The Maluku Islands are commonly known as the Spice Islands due to their status as a major source of mace, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper. The Muslim Sultanates of Tidore and Ternate emerged in the area largely to control the trade of spices.
In the fifteenth century, the Sultanate of Tidore (1450-1967) claimed dominion over western New Guinea; the Tidorean sultans took New Guineans as slaves and coveted the beautiful birds-of-paradise native to the island.
The Establishment of Dutch Control in the Spice Islands and Western New Guinea
The Maluku spice trade attracted many Europeans to the area, the most notorious being the Dutch. They formed the Dutch East India Company in 1602, which has been deemed the first multinational modern corporation, and began taking over the Spice Islands as well as the rest of modern day Indonesia.
The Dutch accomplished this domination through brutal means, including the 1621 genocidal conquest of the Banda Islands, a volcanic group of islands within the Maluku Islands. At the time, the Banda Islands were the world’s only source of nutmeg and mace. The indigenous people, known as Bandanese, preferred free trade in order to get the best offers on spices.
Unfortunately, the Dutch wanted a trade monopoly, so they slaughtered the natives and resettled the area with slaves, convicts, and migrants from surrounding areas. These newcomers were used to work the nutmeg plantations; however, the Dutch kept some of the Bandanese on the island due to their expertise in cultivating the treasured spices.
In 1660, the Dutch East India Company entered into a treaty with the Tidorean Sultan to further protect its spice monopoly. Due to its control of the Sultanate, the Dutch eventually claimed nominal sovereignty over western New Guinea. However, there was little Dutch activity on the island, and an attempt to settle the area in 1828 failed due to the tropical terrain, malaria, and indigenous resistance.
The Dutch East Indies vs. The Territories of Papua and New Guinea
In the late nineteenth century, Great Britain and Germany sought to assert claims to New Guinea. They recognized the Netherlands’ claim over the western half of the island, and divided the eastern portion of New Guinea between themselves; the British colony of Queensland, Australia annexed the Southeastern region while Germany claimed the Northeastern section.
Britain and Germany created corporations that administered tobacco, rubber, and coconut plantations on the island. German plantations were particularly known for their notoriously harsh conditions, and they relied on the forced labor of indigenous people as well as Chinese migrants.
In 1901, Australia was granted independence from Great Britain, and it received the British Territory of Papua in 1906. During World War I, as fighting between the Allied Powers and the Central Powers ramped up, Australia joined the Allies and seized German New Guinea.
The League of Nations formally transferred Germany’s colony to Australia following the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which marked the Central Powers’ defeat in the war.
Article 231 of the treaty, known as the War Guilt clause, required Germany to accept responsibility for causing the First World War and to pay reparations to the Allied Powers in the form of both cash and territory. Hence, by 1920 Australia had control over the entire eastern portion of the island, which it called the Territories of Papua and New Guinea.
While the Australian region continued to be used for plantations and minerals discovered in the area, the Dutch East Indies portion of New Guinea went largely unused. The Netherlands tried to use its western territory as a settlement for people of mixed Indonesian and Dutch descent in 1938, but it was not successful.
The Impact of the Pacific War on the Dutch East Indies
Following the bombing of U.S. Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Allies Australia and the Netherlands declared war on Japan, a World War II Axis power.
One month later, Japan invaded and occupied New Guinea. The Chinese population was particularly affected by the occupation of the island, with Chinese men interned in concentration camps to perform hard labor and women forced to become consorts for Japanese soldiers.
By 1944, the Allied forces regained control of the region after a hard fought campaign led by American General Douglas MacArthur. Soon thereafter, Indonesia declared independence from the Dutch.
The Indonesian War of Independence followed, which culminated in the Republic of Indonesia in 1950. It was led by Indonesian nationalist President Sukarno, who asserted control over the whole of the former Dutch East Indies colony.
However, the Melanesian peoples of the Southern Maluku Islands and Western New Guinea wished to govern themselves. They differed, historically, culturally, and ethnically, from the rest of Indonesia, which is mainly comprised of ethnic Javanese and Sundanese of Austronesian descent.
Given that Moluccans and Papuans typically have darker skin, curlier hair, and fuller features than ethnic Indonesians, they often encounter discrimination in the Southeast Asian nation.
The Moluccans and the Republic of South Maluku
The inhabitants of the Southern Maluku Islands, known as Moluccans, unsuccessfully attempted to secede from Indonesia by forming the Republic of South Maluku in 1950. Nicknamed the “Black Dutch” due to their loyalty to the Netherlands, many of the Moluccan secessionists were former Royal Netherlands East Indies soldiers who fought for the Dutch in World War II and the Indonesian War of Independence.
According to “The Story of Moluccans in the Netherlands”, “The Moluccan army recruitment was a clever part of a Dutch colonial strategy that sought to ‘divide and conquer’ the [Dutch East] Indies. They provided the Moluccans with a higher social status and education for their children in return for the loyal military service of Moluccan soldiers who enforced Dutch colonialism.”
This ploy became evident once the Indonesian military suppressed the Moluccan’s bid for self-governance. The Dutch government never attempted to help their former allies establish the Republic of South Maluku. Instead, 12,500 Moluccan veterans and their families were “temporarily” exiled to the Netherlands and forbidden to work.
According to Dieter Bartels’ article “From Black Dutchmen to White Moluccans: Ethnic Metamorphosis of an East-Indonesian Minority in the Netherlands”, when the Dutch “treated [the Moluccans] as a nuisance, slamming them into makeshift [repurposed Nazi concentration] camps after unceremoniously kicking them out of the army, the ‘Black Dutchmen’ image disappeared fast as a mirage. Rapidly, the [Moluccans] disassociated themselves from their former masters.”
While the Moluccans formed a government in exile that continues to exist, they wanted more.
After twenty five years of living in impoverished resettlement camps and waiting on the Netherlands’ legal and political support, young disillusioned Dutch-Moluccans began acting out of frustration; in the 1970s, they gained international attention by hijacking trains and taking hostages in public places.
Per a 1977 New York Times article “For the Dutch-born Moluccans, No Place to Turn”, “Now the Dutch and the world are quite aware of the existence of the South Moluccans and of their demands. But the possibility that anyone can give them an independent South Moluccan Republic is almost unreal.”
Instead, the Dutch government abandoned this ruse and shifted its attention to integrating Dutch-Moluccans into mainstream society. Decades later, the Dutch Moluccan community is still trying to come to terms with their new reality.
Western New Guinea and the Free West Papua Movement
A similar series of events played out in Dutch New Guinea. Although the Dutch wanted to continue to administer West New Guinea and ultimately make it its own independent state, Indonesia launched military campaigns in an attempt to control the territory.
During the Cold War, inaugural Indonesian President Sukarno had become increasingly close with China and began accepting large amounts of military aid from the Soviet bloc. This greatly concerned the United States, who viewed the conflict over West New Guinea as adverse to its interests in Southeast Asia.
In a 1962 letter, U.S. President John F. Kennedy privately urged Dr. Jan de Quay, then Prime Minister of the Netherlands, to give Western New Guinea to Indonesia in order to prevent Indonesia from “succumbing to communism.”
President Kennedy asserts that this occurrence would negatively affect the United States’ “non-communist position” and “heavy commitments and burdens” in the neighboring countries of Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia.
The Dutch East Indies Colony Transforms Into Indonesia
Interestingly enough, that same year, Indonesia and the Netherlands reached an agreement on Western New Guinea. The territory was temporarily transferred to Indonesia by the United Nations under the assurance that all Western New Guinean adults would ultimately vote to determine the permanent status of the territory.
However, when the vote, known as the Act of Free Choice, was held in 1969, only handpicked elders were allowed to participate; they were coerced to support Indonesian control under threat of violence from then President Suharto’s military dictatorship.
Much of this was motivated by Indonesia’s interest in Western New Guinea’s Grasberg mine, which is one of the largest and most profitable gold and copper reserves in the world.
In 1967, the Indonesian government partnered with an American company, Freeport-McMoRan, to develop and manage the mine. The venture has been quite controversial due to alleged corporate bribes to the local military, a lack of safety procedures resulting in the deaths of mine workers, and damage to the region’s rainforests and waterways.
Such harmful behaviors have led to the Free West Papua movement. The movement works for independence for Western New Guinea, locally known as West Papua, in light of racist acts, murders, forced migration, and other human rights abuses committed by the Indonesian military against the indigenous peoples.
A Lack of International Support For the Free West Papua Movement
The eastern side of the island, now known as Papua New Guinea (“PNG”), achieved independence from Australia in 1975. Per the article “West Papua: The Issue That Won’t Go Away For Melanesia”, PNG and Indonesia signed the 1986 Treaty of Mutual Respect, Friendship, and Cooperation, which “firmly establishes Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua.” Since then, the PNG government has largely remained silent regarding Indonesian control over its western neighbor.
However, as Papua New Guinean writer and former journalist Leanne Jorari states in her article “PNG can’t turn a blind eye to the conflict next door”, more must be done:
“PNG and West Papua share a border, yet without the line on a map the people living on either side would be wantoks – people bound by kinship, language and community ties. Silence in the face of persistent evidence of abuses and crackdowns is not feasible. PNG should hold Indonesia accountable for rights violations. West Papuans have been fighting for the right to self-govern for years, citing racial oppression and suppression of their black-Melanesian race as key factors, all while watching fellow Melanesian neighbours Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu having gained their independence decades before.”
The United Nations Must Address the Situation in West Papua
In 2017, exiled West Papuan leader Benny Wenda submitted a petition for self-determination signed by 1.8 million West Papuans to the United Nations’ decolonization committee; however, it was rejected by the then-committee chair and Venezuelan Ambassador Rafael Ramirez. Ambassador Ramirez stated that West Papua is not recognized by the UN as a non-self-governing territory and thus is not within its purview. Interestingly enough, one of the vice chairs of the committee is a representative of the Republic of Indonesia.
Other Pacific Islands, including Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and the Marshall Islands expressed support for addressing West Papua’s sovereignty at the UN’s General Assembly in 2018. However, the issue has not been truly discussed on the international stage.
It is critical that not only West Papuans, but the larger world, understand and support the West Papuan independence movement.
The fact that an American president helped to create this oppressive situation and an American corporation is playing such a harmful role in the area makes this even more pressing for those of us in the West.
Freeport-McMoRan’s shiny website espousing its business integrity does nothing to divorce it and similar corporations from the harmful roles they have played since the beginning of the colonization of New Guinea. The exploitation of a region and its peoples should never go unnoticed or unaddressed.
Read Part 1 and Part 2 of my Follow the Sugar series.
An Act of Free Choice: Decolonisation and the Right to Self-Determination in West Papua by Pieter Drooglever
Self-Determination Abandoned: The Road to the New York Agreement on West New Guinea (Papua), 1960–62 by David Webster
Click here for more information on the Free West Papua Campaign.
Click here to review the U.S. State Department’s April 2022 report on the serious abuses being committed in West Papua.
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