Oil interests are deeply entrenched in colonial history, and benefit from the colonial dynamics that persist today. The following article unpacks Indonesia’s history of oil, colonialism and local resistance, not only revealing Shell’s complicity, but also its direct interests in colonial violence.
Shell, nostalgia for the empire and tempo doeloe
Criticism from the independent press and (semi-) democratic institutions
Organised resistance against Shell as coloniser
Taking back what has been taken
What now? Consequences of a decolonial perspective
Challenging Shell’s neo-imperial presence
The link between the Dutch Colonial Empire and the origins of Royal Dutch Shell is not too difficult to discover. Just search the official Dutch Shell website and suddenly you’ll be face to face with two tough-looking colonial types.1 With fierce moustaches and bright white colonial suits, including tropical helmets, they pose in front of what seems to be an oil well with the numeral ‘1’ painted on it.
One of the two men is presumably Aeilko Jans Zijlker, son of a Groninger aristocrat family, who travelled to the former Dutch East Indies around the end of the nineteenth century and became administrator of a tobacco plantation. During his travels, he discovered traces of oil on the island of Sumatra, and purchased a concession license from the Sultan of Langkat. In 1885, after a few failed attempts, he finally traced an oil source fit to produce commercial quantities, which he named the ‘Telaga Tunggal nr.1 oil-well’; it became the first oil-well of what would become the worldwide empire of Shell.
Reading his story, it is almost impossible not to be taken up by the excitement of it all. Aeilko Jans is undeniably a daredevil who, in a world where oil was not yet a main energy source, had the guts to experiment and take risks. He, and his commercial partners, are portrayed on the website as pioneers who, against all odds, are responsible for “the birth of a world player”. The reader is left with the feeling that they lived and thrived during the famous good old times when all seemed possible!
Shell, nostalgia for the empire and tempo doeloe
There is a high dosage of nostalgic colonial sentiment in Shell’s version of its founding history. A specific term exists to describe this contemporary nostalgia for Dutch colonial dominance over Indonesia. Tempo doeloe means ‘the good old days’ in Pasar Malay, the colloquial colonial language used in the former Dutch East Indies, stirring “concomitant feelings of loss and longing for good times gone by”.2 What characterises expressions of tempo doeloe, such as Shell’s, is that these nostalgic feelings are expressed from the perspective of the white colonial class, silencing and sidelining the perspective of Indigenous inhabitants.3 It legitimizes the colonizers’ rationale that companies like Shell could, and can, exploit what they ‘discovered’ and appropriate those resources for the common good of the people in the colony and the world at large.4 This use of tempo doeloe sentiments seems to be a contemporary manifestation of the civilising discourses of colonial times. These discourses were designed to justify the imperial dominance of the so-called developed, rational, and superior colonisers over the so-called undeveloped, uncivilised, and backwards colonised.5
Since its inception, Shell has developed a particular expertise in justifying its operations in the Dutch colonies using layers of this civilising discourse. This is evident not only from articles published on the company’s website but also in propaganda films produced as early as 1924. In these films the company tries to convince the Dutch public that the oil company contributes to modernising the colony and its inhabitants.6 Publishing books by enthusiastic former employees has been another way Shell has spread its message.7 Shell has also invested in collaborations with academia, which have produced publications that have promoted a positive view of the role of oil companies in the former colonies.8 In this article we aim to shift away from Shell’s colonial gaze to formulate a decolonial perspective on its history and what that means for our present.9 To begin, let’s turn our perspective to the role played by thousands of workers from the archipelago in this emerging oil industry.10
Shifting the Gaze 1:
The first labourers systematically resisted being put to work in the emerging colonial oil industry. Jonker & Van Zanden (2007) mention that local workers abandoned oil sites by running off and hiding in the surrounding jungles, while others attempted escape by hiding on departing boats.11
These forms of individual resistance are hardly surprising given the harsh working conditions at the first oil sites. Working days lasted ten hours or more, and workers were expected to work seven days a week, without essentials such as housing or proper food.12 This organisation of the oil industry’s working and living conditions seemed to mirror the institutionalised apartheid system in the colony. Europeans were paid multiple times the wage of local workers, and received special bonuses. Labour conditions, such as access to healthcare, differed according to ethnic background, with Europeans enjoying better-quality facilities.13
To compensate for the lack of a willing local workforce, the emerging oil companies resorted to deploying so-called contract workers: people from Java, Singapore, and Penang, recruited by the oil companies through ‘sub-contractors’. These ‘middlemen’ made their money through a system of debt bondage, in which workers were forced to work at the oil sites to pay off the advances paid to them at the moment of recruitment.14 Oil companies could also count on support from the colonial government to discipline defiant workers. Influenced by the colonial elites’ lobby, the colonial administration issued a special law (the Koelie Ordonnantie) that gave employers the right to discipline and punish disobedient workers.15 Researchers note that “the repression that was the consequence of this law made the difference between this type of contract-work and slavery a purely academic issue”.16
These coercive and abusive labour regimes of the emerging oil companies were met with criticism and resistance from various groups. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the press in the Dutch East Indies frequently reported on the abuse of contract workers. And criticism also came from within the metropole. During the discussion of the colonial budget for the Dutch East Indies in the Dutch House of Representatives, for example, several debates took place about the scandals concerning deployment of contract workers; the socialist opposition firmly disapproved of this instrument of oppression under colonial capitalism.17 From the early 1910s onwards, local workers employed at the oil sites began organising themselves in labour unions to improve their situation. The period of 1910 through the 1920s was an especially active time for this initial labor movement in the Dutch East Indies. Labour unions gained thousands of members and organised industrial actions in larger workplaces such as railway organisations, postal services, harbours, sugar plantations, and the oil industry.18 In 1920, following a large work-stoppage at the Deli Spoorweg Maatschappij on Sumatra, a strike was organised at the main Shell subsidiary, de Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM) at Pangkalan Brandan.19 This time the strikers’ demands were met, but the oil industry did resort to taking repressive measures towards rebellious workers. BPM workers, for example, who were known to be members of the decolonial nationalist party Partindo, were fired.20 These measures reflected the position of the colonial government in the repression of the early revolutionary unions and nationalist parties. Thousands of union members were arrested, especially after an uprising against the colonial government in 1926/27 on Java and Sumatra. Many of those arrested were sent to the concentration camp, ‘Boven Digoel’, in New Guinea and some were even executed.21
Shifting the Gaze 2:
Criticism from the independent press and (semi-) democratic institutions
The above already insinuates close entanglements between management of the emerging Shell empire and the colonial government. Taking a closer look at Aeilko Jans Zijlker, the so-called ‘oil pioneer’, it becomes clear that these close ties existed from the very beginning. Aeilko’s ‘adventure’ was only possible because the first oil concessions on Sumatra, along with the materials, and the funding necessary for exploration, were negotiated between Aeilko’s brother, who was a member of the Dutch House of Representatives, and the Governor General in the Dutch East Indies.22 Ever since, there has been a symbiotic relation between oil industry CEOs and the colonial administration; a revolving door between business and politics. One of the prime examples of this conflict of interests was Hendrik Colijn. In his youth, Colijn held a high military position in the Dutch colonial army (KNIL) involved in the Aceh War; a colonial war about, amongst other things, protecting and expanding oil concessions on Sumatra. At the end of the War, Colijn became first Minister of War Affairs (1911 – 1913), and then Director of de Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij (1914 – 1922). He was then appointed Finance Minister (1923 – 1926) and eventually became Prime Minister of the Dutch (imperial) Government for five terms between 1925 and 1939. This period also proved, not surprisingly, to be the heyday of the colonial oil industry.23 Then there was the case of the Loudon family, one that not only illustrates the revolving doors between the private and public sector but also the fact that these are passed on from generation to generation.24 Several studies have shown how, under Dutch colonial rule, there existed a clearly demarcated class of people who occupied high-ranking positions in industry, politics, the army, and colonial administration.25 Shell, and its predecessors, were obviously highly invested in being part of this close-knit bunch which, as the Loudon example shows, didn’t stop with the end of the Dutch Colonial Empire.26
These close entanglements, not surprisingly, resulted in politics based on nepotism. In 1929 a book was published in the Dutch East Indies which included detailed reports from the independent press about improper methods used by the Royal Dutch Shell Group to obtain concessions and royalties over oil sites. It also looked at how the company avoided paying taxes in the colony, and how their relationships with high-ranked and well-placed politicians allowed them to get away with these practices.27 More recent research by the research collective, Follow the Money, shows how Royal Dutch Shell’s current attempts at tax evasion can be traced back to colonial times. In its attempts to evade taxes, the Royal Dutch Shell Group found itself opposing the People’s Council, established in the Dutch East Indies in 1918 as a first (half-hearted) attempt to democratise political decisions in the colony.28 A proportion of the Council’s members were appointed by the colonial government, with the remainder elected and representing non-European ethnic groups. This representative body found itself clashing with the Royal Dutch Shell Group, on several occasions, most notably over the company’s attempts to evade paying taxes in the colony. One particular dispute concerned the People’s Council’s proposal to introduce an extra export duty on oil, to compensate for the revenues the Royal Dutch Shell Group was not paying under the Extra-Ability Tax Law.29 In response to this, the Royal Dutch Shell Group started a counter campaign which included a letter, signed by high-ranking politicians and captains of industry and published in the mainstream press, in which the company threatened to cancel orders in different industries. The campaign was successful. The Council’s proposal, and a corresponding law introduced by the colonial government, were cancelled in a vote by the Dutch Senate.
In spite of the representational and democratic limitations of the People’s Council, it is telling that, from the very beginning, the Royal Dutch Shell group and its main subsidiaries used anti-democratic measures to oppose demands from representatives of the local population. And it is worth noting that, even in colonial times, criticism was already being voiced against Shell and the oil industry by the independent press and several (semi-)democratic institutions, especially over tax evasion and its illegitimate use of political and industrial contacts to advance its corporate interests.
Shifting the Gaze 3:
Organised resistance against Shell as coloniser
As Shell used high-ranked political contacts to expand its corporate interests in the colony, the colonial government relied on Shell as it tried to expand Dutch colonial domination over the archipelago.
The colonial government, for example, used the oil industry to help win the longest and deadliest of its colonial wars, and gain control over Aceh, a powerful and independent sultanate in Northern Sumatra.30 The Dutch wanted to submit Aceh to colonial rule because of the sultanate’s crucial geopolitical location at the entrance to the Strait of Malacca, where it could control overseas trade with Southeast Asia. From 1895 onwards, during the Aceh War, the colonial administration granted oil concessions in the contested Aceh territory. Because the war obviously made it difficult to exploit these concessions, the Dutch colonial administration took a more aggressive war strategy in Aceh, which directly benefited the oil companies.31 Essentially, the colonial administration encouraged the presence of oil companies in Aceh territory to justify administrative and military control over the area.32 Hugo Loudon, the then President of the Royal Dutch, was deeply invested in the war. He was already involved from the beginning because his father, James Loudon, was the Governor General who instigated this colonial military action. Additionally, Hugo Loudon maintained close contact with General Van Heutsz who led the colonial army. As such, he was able to secure the military presence necessary for oil exploration, while also giving the colonial administration an excuse to expand its rule in the area.33
As a strategic tool of the colonial government, the oil sites became obvious targets for anti-colonial guerilla groups and, between 1884 and 1893, several attacks were made on the BPM headquarters in Pangkalan Brandan, and other surrounding plantations. Today in Indonesia, several of the Acehnese anti-colonial guerilla fighters are honored as national heroes of the country (given the title Pahlawan Nasional Indonesia) because they are seen to have paved the way to independence.34 Reacting to these attacks, the oil industry masterfully played its role as a corporate colonial agent, asking the Minister of Colonial Affairs, W.K van Dedem, for military support. The company’s request was granted and the Dutch Colonial Army retaliated, killing dozens of Acehnese resistance fighters, and advancing Dutch colonial rule in the contested region.35 The presence of oil companies also legitimised military expansion in other parts of the archipelago, such as Papua.36 These explicit relationships between Shell and colonial expansion, led journalist and historian, Paul van ‘t Veer, to say that Dutch imperialism around 1900 “had the scent of oil”.37
Shifting the Gaze 4:
Taking back what has been taken
The entanglement of the Dutch government and the oil industry in the archipelago continued during, and after, the Japanese occupation in World War II. Anticipating the Japanese occupation, the colonial government ordered for BPM oil installations to be destroyed by BPM personnel. This destruction was then deemed an act of war by the colonial government and the staff were consequently militarised, placing them under the command of the army.38 During the Second World War, extensive plans were developed for the reconstruction of these installations, in the belief that the Dutch colonial government would be restored following the capitulation of Japan, but these beliefs proved wrong.
Sukarno and Hatta declared Indonesian independence on the 17th of August 1945. Following the declaration, Indonesian armed forces took over strategic locations, such as oil fields and installations. At the same time, the BPM Board had provided specialist employees to the ‘petrol, oil and lubricants officers staff’ of the Royal Dutch East Indies Army (KNIL). These specialist staff members were told to closely follow the Dutch forces and reboot oil extraction in the re-occupied areas.39 As such the BPM collaborated with the Dutch armed forces to recolonize the economical means of production. Their collaboration wasn’t reserved for only this military aggression overtly called ‘operation product’. The BPM continued to support the Dutch military forces throughout the years of the Indonesian National Revolution up until the transfer of sovereignty, by reconstruction and supply activities.40
Although BPM eventually managed to restore, and reoccupy, most of their oil fields and installations in Indonesia, they never regained their operations in North Sumatra.41 Their relationship with the Indonesian Government remained tense because the company had worked closely with the Dutch colonial government and they also had difficulty shaking off their condescending colonial attitude towards Indonesians. All of this raises the question: did Shell actually ever try to abandon its imperialist practises?42
Consequences of a decolonial perspective
Unpacking this history, and shifting from Shell’s colonial gaze to a decolonial perspective, Shell’s history not only appears complicit with forced labour, the political system of apartheid, nepotism, and tax evasion, but also bound in a symbiotic relationship with colonial expansion, warfare, and working in collaboration with gross repression of the emerging independence movement. It also becomes obvious that Shell’s presence in the former Dutch East Indies – along with that of its predecessors – has always been contested. Resistance to Shell came from unions, nationalist parties, members of the Volksraad, and anti-colonial resistance groups. In addition to this, in the Netherlands, in parliament and society, there was already criticism of Shell’s corporate behavior in the former colony. This leaves us with the question: what then, are the implications for the present day, of this decolonial analysis of Shell’s history?
Maybe the most obvious conclusion following this analysis is that Shell has an historical debt to pay following the years of robbing resources, using forced and cheap labor, and evading taxes. Recently the question entered into the public debate whether or not former colonising states should apologise to their former colonies for the years of exploitation, slavery, and other atrocities committed under colonisation, thereby redeeming a moral and ethical debt.43 Similarly, research in the UK and US has revealed that private institutions such as banks and insurance companieswere complicit with slave trading and colonial exploitation. As a result of this research, The Bank of England apologised for its links with the slave trade. Following these revelations in the UK and US, it appears that several insurance companies, banks, and real estate agencies in the Netherlands were also complicit with slave trading. Consequently, in the Dutch press arguments were made for the need to apologise and take responsibility for their involvement. As our decolonial reading makes clear, Shell formed an integral part of the Dutch system of colonisation, so should the same moral and ethical obligation not also apply to the company?
There are not just ethical and moral implications from being involved in a system of colonial exploitation, but monetary ones too. Different studies have tried to calculate the impact of exploitation on the economic growth of colonial powers.44 The question should also be asked as to how (multinational) corporations, that operated as Babushka dolls within these colonial powers, economically benefited from colonial exploitation.
The research collective, Follow the Money, estimates that during the 1920s, between 75 percent and 95 per cent of Shell’s total profits were made in the former Dutch East Indies, amounting to at least 306 million guilders a year. Involvement with the Dutch colonial elite has been of vital importance for Shell to sustain its profits; from facilitating tax evasion schemes, to having access to forced labour and extremely cheap labour via a colonial labour regime. The colonial political elite also supplied Shell and its predecessors with free and cheap expertise and materials, and restricted the entry of foreign oil companies to the colony, protecting Shell from competitors such as Standard Oil.45
Based on this knowledge, it’s fair to assume that Shell would never have become one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world if it hadn’t been for the years profiting from the exploitative practices of colonialism. This link between the current market position of multinational corporations and past entanglements with colonialism is not a new one. Earlier research by Elsevier showed that more than half of the twenty biggest companies in the Netherlands have roots in the colonial past.
This link with colonial exploitation shows that Shell is morally and ethically bound to offer economic reparations, for profiting from years of exploitation and abuse under a reprehensible system of colonialism. Consequently, the question should be asked: what amount of money does Shell owe Indonesia, and the descendants of the exploited workers for the years of profiting from free, and extremely cheap, forced and semi-forced labour in the colonies?46 And in what ways can these ethical and moral obligations be fulfilled. The same questions could be put to the many other Dutch companies that profited under colonial times and continue to do so today.
Challenging Shell’s neo-imperial presence
So, what is the legacy of these colonial practices in the present? It would seem that Shell’s historical link with a colonial system of exploitation and repression has direct consequences for its (neo-colonial) present. Shell continues to conspire with local elites against Indigenous communities around the world. Several of these cases are highlighted in various articles published by Future Beyond Shell, see for example the struggle of the Ogoni people in Nigeria against Shell.
Shell sold most of its assets in Indonesia when it was no longer profitable for the company to be there because of the nationalist politics of Sukarno’s anti-colonial government. But, the colonial economic structures created by the early oil industry – with foreign-based oil companies dominating the industry – appear to be still partly in place, although now it is US-based oil companies that have taken the place of their Dutch competitors in the exploitation of oil and gas resources in Indonesia.47 Today in Indonesia, it is local communities who are opposing projects by multinational companies that have roots in Dutch colonialism; from unions fighting for better working conditions on the palm oil plantations that serve Dutch multinational Unilever, to fisher communities in Southern Sulawesi resisting the big sand extraction projects of Dutch multinational dredging company, Boskalis.
Through an increasingly well-organised global environmentalist movement, the struggles and protests of these ‘front-line communities’ are coming to the attention of the West and being translated into solidarity campaigns.48 In the context of this growing global and anti-colonial protest movement, it might seem odd that Shell uses nostalgic feelings for the former colonial empire to explain its corporate history to a Dutch public (as highlighted in the beginning of our article). However, Gloria Wekker’s groundbreaking publication, White Innocence, can help us understand these choices. Wekker describes a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to recognition, in the Netherlands, of atrocities committed by the Dutch in the former colonies, and a relatively positive evaluation of the Dutch colonial dominance over Indonesia, stemming from this selective memory.49 Furthermore, in the current political context of increasing nationalism, references towards the Dutch colonial past are being positively re-evaluated by a large portion of the population. An article in The Guardian newspaper elaborated on the outcomes of a 2019 survey which revealed that 50 percent of the Dutch population are proud of the Dutch colonial past.50 In this particular context then, tapping tempo doeloesentiments and feeding into the still dominant narrative of a glorious Dutch colonial history, works in Shell’s favour to obscure the company’s violent past and current wrongdoings in the former colonies. From this angle, using the tempo doeloe is a discursive corporate strategy, helping to safeguard Shell’s profits and global status quo, in a context of increasing criticism and a growing global environmentalist movement.
Currently, Shell Indonesia is primarily involved in the production of engine and oil lubricants. Ironically, after decades of destroying Indonesia’s forests, Shell is now an active investor in a CO2 compensation forest protection programme. While this sounds good, the research collective, Investigo, found that Shell is, once again, opposing the wishes of local communities. This so-called ‘protected forest’ used to be part of the territory of a Dayak Misik community that used the land to cultivate rice and vegetables. Now, the community has been deprived of parts of this land, so that Shell can keep on producing emissions and contaminating the environment in other parts of the world.
Drawing a line from Shell’s founding history to the present, it is clear how much the company has profited from colonial power relationships, and how Indigenous and local communities have been, and continue to be, affected by this exploitation (though this is not the story that Shell wants to promote). It is also apparent that there has always been resistance against Shell. Our decolonial reading exposes the narrative that Shell tells the world, what power relations words such as ‘discovery’ and ‘success’ disguise, and how the company still ‘sells’ the history of their (neo-) colonial practices through rosy stories using tempo doeloe sentiments. Considering Dayak Misik today, it’s clear that even though Shell’s civilizing narrative has partly shifted from ‘saving the people’ to ‘saving the forest’, the company has not said goodbye to repression.
We would like to thank those who contributed to earlier drafts of this article by sharing their valuable insights, corrections on our poor English and suggestions on sources and contacts: Donnie Adams, Leigh Chambers, Tamira Combrink, Alex de Jong, Jeroen Kemperman, Remco Raben, Serhat Ozcelik, Klaas Stutje, Armanc Yildiz, the coordination team of the Decolonization Network former Dutch East Indies (DNVNI) and Ilona Hartlief and Rhodante Ahlers of the Center for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO).
- Interestingly, the English website tells a story about the company’s history as well but does not mention its entanglement with the colonial past the way the Dutch website does. A comparison of Shell’s marketing efforts and narratives in different parts of the world could be very interesting but is unfortunately beyond the scope of this article.
- De Mul, S. (2010). Nostalgia for empire: ‘Tempo doeloe’ in contemporary Dutch literature. Memory Studies, 3(4), 413–428. 414
- Idem, 415
- Royal Dutch Shell officially exists as a corporate entity since 2005. This entity emerged out of the dual-listed company founded in 1907 under the name of the Royal Dutch Shell Group. This dual-listed company consisted of two parent companies, namely the in The Hague based Royal Dutch Petroleum Company Ltd. (NV Koninklijke Nederlandse Petroleum Maatschappij) and the London based Shell Transport and Trading Company, PLC. The predecessor of the Dutch parent company, often abbreviated to “Royal Dutch” was the NV Koninklijke Nederlandsche Maatschappij tot Exploitatie van Petroleumbronnen in Nederlandsch-Indie, established by Aeilko Zijlker in 1890. When ‘Royal Dutch’ and Shell Transport merged into the dual listed company, it became a holding company rather than a production enterprise, using a system of subsidiary companies for exploration, production and sales. Their main oil producing subsidiary in the former Dutch East Indies was De Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM), also founded in 1907. In our decolonial reading of Shell’s history, we trace these historic links of Dutch Royal Shell through these predecessors. See for more information about Shell’s business construction on the history pages of the Dutch website of Shell: Shell Nederland. (z.d.). Onze geschiedenis. Shell. https://www.shell.nl/over-ons/netherlands/onze-geschiedenis.html and Jonker, J., & van Zanden, J. (2007). Van nieuwkomer tot marktleider, 1890-1939. Geschiedenis van Koninklijke Shell, deel 1. Amsterdam: Boom.
- For further analyses of civilizing discourses constructed during colonial times see, amongst others: Said, E. W. (1994). Culture & Imperialism. London: Vintage, and Wekker, G. (2016). White Innocence. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
- See among others this film produced by the Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM), the biggest subsidiary of Dutch Royal Shell at the time and the corresponding filmography (ID FLM5699) of the Eye Film Museum, received on 14th of September 2020.
- See for example “East Indies Episode” (1949) published and commissioned by Shell and written by former employee Johan Fabricius. He writes about the history of the Shell subsidiary Nederlandsche Nieuw-Guinee Petrolium Maatschappij (N.N.G.P.M) comprising racist comments on the influence of Shell on the local inhabitants, for example: “the speed of their evolution was greater over a few months than that of their forefathers had been over thousands of years”. 70
- Together with other colonial enterprises such as the Dutch Trading Company (NHM) and The Union of Sugar Entrepreneurs, the main Shell subsidiary de Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM) funded in 1925 a department at the University of Utrecht to do research on the Dutch East Indies (Indologie). This department was founded as an alternative to a similar academic department at the University of Leiden, that was known to be politically liberal and ethical in terms of studying colonial affairs (Hagen 2018: 836). Therefore, perhaps it is not surprising that the University of Utrecht published several academic works displaying varying degrees of colonial nostalgia. See for example the four-volume ‘Geschiedenis der Koninklijke’ (1932) by F.C. Gerretson, who, besides being professor of Colonial History at the University of Utrecht, also worked as a secretary to the CEO’s of Shell in Indonesia in the 1920’s. Traces of colonial nostalgia can also be found in the four-volume “A History of Dutch Royal Shell” (Van Zanden, Jonker, Howarth, & Sluyterman 1997) written by a research team of the University of Utrecht and issued by Shell for celebrating its 100 years existence.
- By using the term ‘decolonial’ we refer to a particular school of thought that holds that the political decolonization of former colonized areas in the world, did not mean an end to colonial power relations. On the contrary, global colonial power dynamics continued in many areas such as knowledge production and the organization of capital and labour. By using a decolonial perspective, we aim to expose these continuing colonial power dynamics specifically in the organization of Shell’s oil imperium, to create the conditions to break with them. Therefore, for us, handling a decolonial perspective is both an analytical tool as well as a political act. See for more theoretical background on decolonial theory and activisms among others Quijano, A. (2007). Coloniality and modernity/rationality. Cultural Studies, 21(2–3), 168–178. And Mignolo, W. D. (2009). Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom. Theory, Culture & Society, 26(7–8), 159–181.
- In developing our decolonial perspective we gathered information from many different sources, researched and published by multiple critical academics and journalists. We, the authors, didn’t research primary Shell sources ourselves, nor were we able to study sources in Bahasa Indonesia because of limitations in time, resources and language. We are indebted to those who have done this important work before us and acknowledge the limitations of this approach in elaborating our case. We do consider it to be one of the main contributions of our article that we bring together the existing, mainly Dutch, material, and, as such, elaborated a comprehensive case study of the entanglements of a top corporate actor with the system of Dutch colonialism.
- Unfortunately, Jonker & Van Zanden (2007) do not refer to their source documents or reports or share insight in numbers and other specifics. See Jonker, J., & van Zanden, J. (2007). Van nieuwkomer tot marktleider, 1890-1939. Geschiedenis van Koninklijke Shell, deel 1. Amsterdam: Boom.
- Jonker, J., & van Zanden, J. (2007). Van nieuwkomer tot marktleider, 1890-1939. Geschiedenis van Koninklijke Shell, deel 1.Amsterdam: Boom. 25-27
- Idem, 28, 35 and Boer, J. (1997). De prijs voor het vloeibare goud 1939 – 1953. Bergen n.h.: bv Bonneville. 28
- Important to note is that in reality for many workers it was impossible to work themselves free of debt within the three-year duration of the contracts let alone to build up savings, due to the low wages, fines for not achieving the set working standards, charging of working materials costs etc. See Breman (1987) ‘Koelies, planters en koloniale politiek’. Foris publications: Dordrecht-Holland/Providence USA. 22-23, 86-89
- The ‘koelie ordonnantie’ legalised in 1880 the widespread existing practices of coerced labor, enabling employers to use “poenale sanctie”: punishment of workers who tried to break away from their -on debt based- working contract. However, it also included legalized punishment for ‘offenses’ like drunkenness, disturbance of peace and insulting the employer, which in fact were not violations of the working contracts. The consequences in terms of harsh and unfair treatment of the labourers on behalf of the colonizers was criticized both in the colony and the metropole since the early 1900 (although the ordinance was not cancelled until 1934). For example, in the critical report “The millions of Deli”, written by Mr. J. van den Brand in 1902, a lawyer residing in Medan who condemned the law on moral ground, which followed a claim from Dutch press ideologically close to S.D.A.P and which aligned with abuses put forward in the Dutch East Indies press. In 1903 governor general Rooseboom ordered the public prosecutor J.L.T. Rhemrev to set up an administrative and juridical investigation of the violations gathered in the report of Van den Brand. The Rhemrev report affirmed the harsh working conditions and painted an even more shocking situation. See Breman (1987) ‘Koelies, planters en koloniale politiek’. Foris publications: Dordrecht-Holland/Providence USA. 2-7, 30 – 33, 179-181
- Jonker, J., & van Zanden, J. (2007). Van nieuwkomer tot marktleider, 1890-1939. Geschiedenis van Koninklijke Shell, deel 1.Amsterdam: Boom. 27
- Breman, J. (1987). Koelies, planters en koloniale politiek. Foris publications: Dordrecht-Holland/Providence USA. 2-4
- Ingelson, J. (1986). In search of justice workers and unions in colonial Java, 1908-1926. Oxford: Oxford University Press, and Ingleson, J. (2014). Workers, Unions and Politics: Indonesia in the 1920s and 1930s. Leiden: Brill.
- Hagen, P. (2018). Koloniale oorlogen in Indonesië. Vijf eeuwen verzet tegen vreemde overheersing. Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers. 567
- De Greeve, T. (2017). Te vuur en te zwaard: De reactie van het Nederlands bestuur op Indonesisch nationalisme aan Sumatra’s Oostkust, 1918-1942. Leiden: MA Thesis, unpublished. 56
- see Vanvugt, E. (2017). Roofstaat compact. De zeven grofste misdaden van Nederland overzee. Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar / Top Notch; Ingleson 1986 & 2014 and Hagen 2018.
- Jonker, J., & van Zanden, J. (2007). 18
- Hagen, P. (2018). 468, 838 – 839
- Starting with James Loudon who, as governor-general of the Dutch East Indies, was responsible for starting the earlier mentioned war against Aceh in 1873. His son, Hugo Loudon, was responsible for negotiating the oil concessions in the submitted parts of Aceh territories in the 1890s and also became president of the company. Hugo Loudon’s son, John Hugo Loudon, started his career in the oilfields in Venezuela and was Shell CEO from 1952 – 1965, after which he continued to be involved in the company for the next 11 years as chairman of the supervisory board. Finally, his great-grandson Aarnout Loudon occupied many high positions in different businesses, including the Dutch employers’ organization VNO, and finally served as a non-executive director of Royal Dutch Shell from 1997 to 2007. See Jonker, J., & van Zanden, J. (2007). Van nieuwkomer tot marktleider, 1890-1939. Geschiedenis van Koninklijke Shell, deel 1. Amsterdam: Boom.
- For a revealing overview of examples of double functions in the army, colonial administration and industry see Hagen (2018). 839
- Colijn and Loudon are only examples and not the only Shell CEO’s occupying high ranked positions in the colonial government. Another example is Bonifacius Cornelus de Jonge who was first Minister of War Affairs, then became president of the BPM and later in 1931 became Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies. See Hagen, P. (2018). 586,598-599.
- Weeber, A. (1929). Petroleum-adel. Weltevreden – Java: Brochure Bibliotheek Ganesha
- The Volksraad power was quite limited (it only had the right to advise, decisions were still taken by the colonial government) and its democratic level was quite low (only part of the representatives were elected and the right to vote was extremely limited in the colony). Although a number of prominent nationalist leaders were members, most nationalists saw no advantage in joining.
- Not paying the extra-ability tax law was a tax evasion scam in itself. It involved the main subsidiary of the Royal Dutch/Shell company, de Bataafse Petroleum Maatschappij (BPM). The BPM invented a construction that transferred much of the properties of BPM’s own main subsidiaries to the BPM itself. This allowed the BPM to evade the taxes that the company was supposed to pay in the colonies under the Extra-Ability Tax Law. The tax service in the colonies protested the scam, resulting in the fact that BPM got away with only partially paying the newly imposed taxes. See for more information the article of Follow the Money: Shell in Nederlands-Indië: de Bataafsche klaagt over ‘duizelingwekkende’ belastingen.
- It would take forty years to destroy the Acehnese resistance, making it the longest colonial war in the Dutch-Indies (1873 – 1913). It was also one of the deadliest colonial wars with an estimated 97 – 112.000 people killed on both sides, see Hagen, P. (2018). 479 en zie Vanvugt, E. (2017). 114.
- Hagen, P. (2018). 468
- The symbiotic relationship between the oil industry and Dutch colonial military is also noted in the following article published oktober 2020 in Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad: Dader Shell is de eregast op Wiebes’ Klimaatdag
- Jonker, J., & van Zanden, J. (2007). 52
- For example Teungku Chik di Tiro (1836 – 1891), Teuku Umar (1854 – 1899), Cut Nyak Dhien (1850 – 1908) and Cut Nyak Meutia (1870 – 1910), see: Mirnawati (2012). Kumpulan Pahlawan Indonesia Terlengkap [Most Complete Collection of Indonesian Heroes] (in Indonesian). Jakarta: CIF.
- Hagen, P. (2018). 467
- Idem, 412-413
- Idem, 467
- Boer, J. (1997). 108
- Idem, 238-239, 259 and Groen, P. M. H. (1991) Marsroutes en dwaalsporen. Het Nederlands militair-strategisch beleid in Indonesië 1945-1950. Den Haag: SDU. 143
- Boer, J. (1997). 263, 273 and Howarth, S., & Jonker, J. (2007). Stuwmotor van de koolwaterstofrevolutie, 1939-1973. Geschiedenis van Koninklijke Shell, deel 2. Amsterdam: Boom. 225-226
- See for an insightful overview of the role of Shell in Indonesia directly after the Independence war the work of Simpson: Simpson, B. R. (2010). Economists with Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968. Stanford University Press.
- Howarth, S., & Jonker, J. (2007). 225-228
- See for example the discussion over Dutch apologies towards Indonesia in Dutch newspapers in, among others, Nuberg, L. (2020, 15 maart). Excuses zijn zeker niet ongepast. Het Parool. Or the results of a national inquiry by national newspaper Trouw, published on february 12 2021, regarding the attitude of the Dutch populations towards the Dutch involvement in global slave trade: Nederlanders vinden slavernij ernstig, maar achten excuses niet op zijn plaats. And the set-up of a commission researching Belgium’s colonial past: Kampen, A. (2020, 17 juni). België krijgt parlementaire commissie over koloniaal verleden. NRC.
- Brandon, P., & Bosma, U. (2019). De betekenis van de Atlantische slavernij voor de Nederlandse economie in de tweede helft van de achttiende eeuw. Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis, 16(2): 4-45 and Brandon, P., Jones, G., Jouwe, N., van Rossum, M., & Tosun, M. (2020). De Slavernij in Oost en West. Het Amsterdam onderzoek. Amsterdam: Spectrum and Van Stipriaan, A. (2020). Rotterdam in Slavernij. Amsterdam: Boom.
- Jonker, J., & van Zanden, J. (2007). Zie ook: de De Vries, B. (2018). The Battle for oil in the Dutch East Indies. Pladjoe, the pearl in the crown of the Bataafsche Petroleum Maatschappij (Shell), in the turmoil of the 1940s. Looking at the World History of Planning Vol. 18 No. 1, 137 – 148. 5
- In a similar line of reasoning regarding economic liability, descendants of enslaved people from Africa have sued Lloyd’s in London for the role this insurance company played in shipping their enslaved ancestors. See: Walsh, C. (2017, 15 juli). Slave descendants sue Lloyd’s for billions. The Guardian.
- Bosma, U. (2014). The Economic Historiography of the Dutch Colonial Empire. Tijdschrift voor Sociale en Economische Geschiedenis/ The Low Countries Journal of Social and Economic History, 11(2), 153 – 174
- Front line communities is a term used in environmental activism, usually referring to ‘neighborhoods or populations of people who are directly affected by climate change and inequity in society at higher rates than people who have more power in society’, see this publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP).
- Wekker, G. (2016).
- This popular conviction is mirrored by positive comments regarding the Dutch colonial past by several high-ranking political representatives. The most famous example being Jan Peter Balkenende, party leader of the Christian Democratic Party (CDA) and prime minister at the time, honouring the “VOC-mentality” during a public debate in 2006. A more recent example is the party leader of the far-right wing party Forum for Democracy, Thierry Baudet, offering flowers to the statue of J.P. Coen in Hoorn in June 2020. The statue of J.P. Coen is highly contested, while he, as governor general of the Dutch East Indies, was responsible for the genocide that took place on the Banda Islands in 1621. Baudet however paid his respect to the statue to “honour our heroes” and asked his followers to follow his example.