K. Alexanderson: Subversive Seas

Subversive Seas. Anticolonial Networks across the Twentieth-Century Dutch Empire

Alexanderson, Kris
312 S.
£ 75.00; € 87,95
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Ahmad Rizky M. Umar, School of Political Sciences and International Studies, University of Queensland

The book, Subversive Seas, brings a comprehensive history of three shipping companies and three port cities and the roles that they played in the making of global anti-colonial networks. Kris Alexanderson’s book follows multiple trans-oceanic connections during the time of the early 20th century maritime technological transformation. Alexanderson’s writing centers upon multiple maritime connections that would shape the face of resistance against the Dutch Empire while, at the same time, policing and surveilling the Empire itself (p. 11). The empirical evidence presented in this book is pioneering, as it explores rare – and relatively overlooked – historical archives of the colonial shipping companies as well as Dutch consulates in the port cities.

The thrust of Alexanderson’s argument rest on one central thesis: that the „sea“ constituted an important element in the formation of late colonial rule and, more importantly, the struggle against colonialism (p. 5). The argument is illustrated in two parts that will be discussed in this review; the role of shipping companies in the twentieth century colonial history of the Dutch East Indies, followed by the role of the port cities, too. However, while the book is focused upon shipping companies and port cities, and detailing the roles that both actors play in shaping colonial politics, Subversive Seas often underplays the stories of anti-colonial resistance efforts and movements; these require further elaboration through a wider exploration of archival sources.

Part I of explores the story of colonial shipping companies. Chapter 1 is focused on Kongsi Tiga, a Dutch shipping company that transported Hajj pilgrims to Jeddah at a time when Islamic nationalist movements were beginning. The chapter recounts how it was that Hajj pilgrimage became a site for anti-colonial resistance, brought about by Hadrami and Meccan Sheikhs – as well as Moehammadijah activists – aboard the ships (p. 40). Through the story of Kongsi Tiga, Alexanderson is able to convincingly portray the imperial anxieties of the Dutch colonial government in their need to respond to the radical Hajj pilgrims, who were embroiled with various political-Islamic discourses in the Holy Land.

Chapter 2 turns its focus to Java-China-Japan Lijn (JCJL), a company that transported Chinese workers (“coolies”) to the colony and, later, also accommodated European and American passengers. Alexanderson convincingly illustrates the dynamics of racial hierarchies aboard its ships, when the need to accommodate European passengers emerged as the maritime market grew; it is at this time that racial segregation was introduced (pp. 84–85). Furthermore, Alexanderson highlights attempts made by JCJL to access the Chinese market in the face of new competitors, particularly Japanese companies (p. 87). Chapter 3 goes on to discuss maritime leisure industries, through which high-society passengers were carried from the Netherlands to the Indonesian archipelago. This chapter focuses on three companies: Stoomvaart Maatschappij Nederland (SMN), Koninklijke Pakketvaart Maatschappij (KPM), and Rotterdamsche Lloyd (RL). Again, as in the JCJL case, Alexanderson illustrates how the pleasure industries and the business of international transport had become a medium through which to practice the racial hierarchy that was embedded in Dutch colonialism.

In Part I, Alexanderson narrates a story of Dutch imperial anxieties, one in which Dutch attempts to maintain hierarchy and rule are challenged. However, readers may realize that, with the exception of Chapter 1, the story of anti-colonial networks remains relatively underexplored. Alexanderson provides little discussion on how the Hajj pilgrims, Chinese “coolies”, or lower level passengers articulated their resistance to the colonial hierarchy and surveillance. This is understandable, since Alexanderson’s work focuses on the shipping companies and tells the story as it is recorded in their sources. However, shifting the focus towards the acts of resistance aboard the ships would shed a stronger light on the anti-colonial subversion that becomes the primary topic of the book.

Part II of Subversive Seas investigates port cities. In Chapter 4, Alexanderson traces how it was that Hajj pilgrims came to be exposed with their Pan-Islamism in Jeddah. At that time, Jeddah is shown to have become a site for both anti-colonial Pan-Islamic campaigns and, at the same time, colonial espionage to contain such threats. The Jeddah story in this chapter strengthens the portrayal of the political nature of the „Hajj“ during the colonial era, as having served more of a political purpose than it did its ritualistic practice. Chapter 5 proceeds to analyze communist and progressive anti-colonial threats. With the rise of a global communist movement in the early 20th Century, industrial and shipping workers found themselves at the site of a communist ideological battlefield. This chapter focuses on two stories: the Dutch surveillance network in Shanghai that aimed to contain communist operatives disguised as industrial workers; and the revolts against Dutch colonial authority organized by the Chinese diaspora and radical workers, following the famous Xiao Case in which Xiao Xin’an was sexually assaulted on board the SS Tjibadak (p. 194).

Finally, Chapter 6 discusses Japanese maritime penetration in the 1930s. Growing Japanese and imperial expansion following the Manchuria incident in 1930 led to an increase in Japanese trade interests in Southeast Asia, culminating in Dutch-Japanese trade negotiations in 1934 (p. 227). Dutch colonial surveillance, meanwhile, watched the Japanese companies and their consulates in primary ports, notably Surabaya (p. 236). However, attempts to contain the threat failed during the Pacific War, which eventually led the Dutch to surrender to Japan in 1942.

The stories in Part II bring further, important insights into the Dutch anxieties that undermined their colonial rule in the wake of three subversive transnational ideologies: Pan-Islamism, Communism, and Pan-Asianism. However, readers familiar with these episodes of history might notice that the stories of the three ideological struggles are, in some regards, overshadowed by other stories, such as Hajj destitution, the Shanghai consulate, or East Asian market competition. Of course, these elements play important roles in the stories of imperial rule and resistance. However, a focus upon them risks sidelining more important stories of, for example, Pan-Islamist encounters with Hajj pilgrims, or communist engagements with trade unions. This is not to say that Alexanderson’s accounts of the time are not useful; indeed, Subversive Seas contains insights into various stories of, for instance, Pan-Islamic „outbreak“ during the Hajj quarantine, or global communist liaison in Shanghai. In my view, more attention on these anti-colonial ideologies at work, rather than merely taking a Dutch „surveillance“ perspective, would foster a truer picture of the anti-colonial networks of the cities.

Subversive Seas has, nevertheless, succeeded in re-telling a fascinating transnational history of both Dutch colonialism and anti-colonial revolts. Alexanderson’s book contributes to a now increasing literature that attempts to „decolonize“ Dutch colonial history. In line with scholars such as Klaas Stuutje, Carolien Stolte, or Adam Getachew, Alexanderson provides important insights into how it was that European colonialism came to be dismantled in the inter-war era, by a global anti-colonial network that existed within and outside the colony.[1] The book makes a welcome and important contribution towards historical scholarly work in this field, as well as that of International Relations. More specifically, Alexanderson’s book points powerfully to an important factor in shaping anti-colonial networks at the time; namely, the development of maritime technologies. The story that Alexanderson presents is one of fragile colonial rule and a form of anti-colonial resistance that often took multiple forms and came to be articulated through various non-political practices.

Yet, spaces still remain for further exploration. As this review has suggested, stories of anti-colonial resistance in the book were often sidelined by stories of Dutch colonial surveillance or overseas market competition. Future research should decenter narratives from colonialism and recenter them towards anti-colonial subjects, who provide an important focus for analysis. In order to do this, wider archival sources should be explored, rather than Dutch colonial documents alone.[2] Future researchers could, for example, explore the memories of Hajj pilgrimages that are held among Southeast Asian hajis, or investigate Japanese Pan-Asian maritime campaigns in the 1930s from Indonesian or Japanese sources, in order to understand anti-colonial forms of resistance from their anti-colonial perspectives. Despite its limitations, notwithstanding, Subversive Seas is still a highly valuable source in the study of Dutch colonial and anti-colonial history.

[1] For instance, see Klaas Stuutje, Campaigning in Europe for a Free Indonesia. Indonesian Nationalists and the Worldwide Anti-colonial Movement, 1917–1931, Honolulu 2019. For a broader trend in another academic discipline see Adam Getachew, Worldmaking after empire. The rise and fall of self-determination, Princeton 2019. See also Afro-Asian Networks Research Collective, Manifesto. Networks of Decolonization in Asia and Africa, in: Radical History Review 131 (2018), pp. 176–182.
[2] See, for instance, Carolien Stolte, Editorial. The Archive, the Subaltern, and the Archive of Subaltern History, in: Práticas da História 3 (2016), pp. 7–10.

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