Willem Bosch ‘champion of the Javanese’

Willem Bosch (1798-1874) was a medical doctor who worked in the Dutch East Indies during the 19th century where he saw the harsh effects of the colonial ‘cultivation system’ policy, which made the population to face famine and disease. This led Bosch to voice organised protest against the Dutch government. Inspired by the British legendary Anti-Corn Law League, he established a pressure group in the Netherlands that was to speak up for the rights of the Javanese. His movement came to represent the ‘ethical movement’ in colonial politics, in line with other more famous protesters of the time, such as the writer Multatuli or the liberal politician Van Hoevell. This movement acknowledged that the Dutch had a debt of honour towards the Indonesians, and therefore had to raise the living standards of the native population, yet it was still defined from a moral superior position, as it did not fundamentally criticise the premise of colonialism. In this section Maartje Janse provides an introduction to the life of Willem Bosch. She had published about Bosch before, as part of her ongoing academic research into the involvement of citizens in nineteenth-century politics, specifically within single-issue organizations.

Photo: Willem Bosch, courtesy Family Bosch

When Willem Bosch died in 1874, one of the newspapers wrote: ‘he will be remembered as the Javanenkampioen (‘champion of the Javanese’); posterity will mention him in the same breath as Multatuli (the well-known writer of the Dutch novel Max Havelaar)1 and Van Hoëvell (a liberal politician known for fighting for the abolition of slavery and the cultivation system in the Dutch East Indies). Bosch, Van Hoëvell, and Multatuli had all attempted to popularize the notion that ‘the Javanese’, like Dutch citizens, ‘deserved righteous treatment, education and civilization’. However, according to his admirers, Willem Bosch was even more important than his fellow-reformers. All three had aroused awareness of injustice among Dutch citizens, but Bosch had found a way to channel this feeling into political mobilization. He had created a ‘point of association’ or a pressure group, as we would call it today.

But where Multatuli is still remembered as one of the most important authors in Dutch literature, and one of the most outspoken critics of colonial abuses, Willem Bosch was all but forgotten by the time I came across his story in 1997, when I was still a student. In the years that followed I have published about Willem Bosch and his organization De Maatschappij tot Nut van den Javaan (Society for the Benefit of the Javanese) in several places. This text can be read as an introduction to Bosch, based on (and linked to) those more comprehensive publications.2


Maartje Janse spoke about Willem Bosch twice during the process. The first time involved an interview captured on film, which was screened at the Voice4Thought festival in 2016 and based on which the pamphlet was made (see also the section Co-creation). Video by Sjoerd Sijsma, Eyeses, 2016. The second was an interview on OVT radio in 2018, in which Maartje Janse and Anne-Lot Hoek were invited to speak about the publication in 2018 (the full interview is part of the section Introduction).

The cultivation system

The cultivation system (cultuurstelsel in Dutch) was a system of taxation that Governor-General Johannes van den Bosch implemented in 1830 in order to turn the Dutch East Indies into a more profitable colony. The cultivation system demanded one-fifth of the arable land in the colony for the cultivation of cash crops such as coffee, indigo, and sugar. These crops were then sold on the world market, and the revenues went directly to the Dutch treasury. People who did not own land had to work on government fields for one-fifth of their time. Javanese farmers received only a small payment in return and had less time and arable land left to devote to their own needs. The government, however, did not tolerate any form of criticism of this lucrative system. When Willem Bosch, in his capacity of government official, suggested that the Javanese had become more susceptible to disease because of famine, the Dutch government strongly condemned him for suggesting the Javanese were being exploited. In one of the governmental reports, he was even labelled as an ‘enemy of the state’.

For a long time, the Dutch colonial policy was aimed at extracting maximum profit by exploiting the colonies in the most efficient way possible. The humanitarian consequences of these policies were only of minor interest for both the Dutch government and people. It took until the 1840s before Dutch citizens slowly but surely began to voice protest against slavery in the Dutch West Indies (present-day Suriname and Curaçao). Public opinion was changing, and individuals started to raise their voices against the use of slave labour on plantations.3

Slavery also existed in the Dutch East Indies, but it was less visible than slavery in the West Indies. Slavery is easily linked to the cultivation system because, like slavery, the cultivation system in the East Indies was a system of forced labour. However, unlike their enslaved counterparts in the West Indies, Javanese labourers did receive some—even if small—payment and had more freedom than slaves. Partly because of criticism of the cultivation system, new colonial policies were introduced in the 1870s, leading eventually to the system’s abolition. The passing of the Agrarian Law and the Sugar Law gave more freedom to the private sector, and the government gradually withdrew from cultivation and left the exploitation of land to private investors. In the long run, however, the harsh exploitation of the private investors proved to be even worse for many Javanese than the cultivation system.

For a visual impression of the life in the Dutch Indies during the 19th century, see the pamphlet made by Sjoerd Sijsma.

A medical doctor in the Dutch East Indies

Willem Bosch’s biography reads like a Victorian novel. He was born in 1798 in Amsterdam as the son of a wealthy carpenter. According to his later memoirs4, Bosch endured a strictly religious and ‘heartless’ upbringing. His family got into financial trouble, and Willem had to earn his own living from age 13 when he became orphaned. Wanting to achieve more in life, he studied medicine at night and qualified to become a ship’s doctor. With little experience, he then set off for the Dutch East Indies.

Death, disease, and retaining good health were central themes of life in the nineteenth century. For a large part, the ‘colonial experience’ was determined and limited by the dangers of tropical diseases. Bosch, who quickly moved up the ladder within the Military Medical Service and made it to chief in 1845, discovered that this was indeed the case. The fact that he had made it to the highest rank in his position without an academic education or contacts in the colony can be attributed to his remarkable diligence and ambition. Unlike his colleagues, who spent their spare time ‘in a dissolute manner’, Bosch lived according to a rigid regime. His sense of responsibility partly derived from an instinct for self-preservation. He believed that self-control, discipline, and order were the only ways to reduce one’s susceptibility to tropical diseases.

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Portraits of Willem Bosch. The first shows Willem Bosch in his younger years, portrayed in uniform, although he rarely wore that to the annoyance of his superiors.5. The second is a photograph of Bosch at a later age. Private Collection, Courtesy Family Bosch.

Criticism of the government

Bosch was a medical doctor who showed considerable empathy for his patients and did everything in his power to ease their suffering. His motto was: ‘Travailler sans cesse au soulagement de l’humanité souffrante’ (‘work ceaselessly to ease humanity’s pain’). He took it personally when he was unable to help his patients. When Bosch was chief of the Military Medical Service, he also felt responsible for the well-being of the native population.

In 1846 an epidemic scourged Central Java. When the epidemic worsened, Bosch tried to find ways ‘to save the ones in need, and to protect the Netherlands from stain and the painful reproach that she is not even willing to renounce 1/4000 of the 30 million guilders that were obtained by Javanese labour, to provide food and plentiful quinine, that in truth, the Javanese begged for’. In a report to the government, Bosch advised setting up field hospitals and providing blankets, quinine, and rice, since the lack of food, according to Bosch, was one of the main factors that exacerbated the epidemic.6

The report was not taken lightly. The Dutch authorities considered it a direct assault on the government: distributing rice under the government’s budget would mean admitting the Javanese were suffering from hunger and disease on account of the cultivation system. Bosch, on the other hand, would devote the rest of his life to fighting the unjust treatment of the Javanese. He did so in multiple ways.


From the 1840s onwards, criticism of official Dutch colonial policy began to take new forms. Until 1848 the king was not accountable to Parliament for colonial policy. The king held a so-called royal prerogative, which meant he had carte blanche to do what he wished. Liberals, however, deemed it important that the government be held accountable for the colonial policy pursued. To start with, information about colonial policy should be more freely accessible to critically minded politicians and civilians alike. They advocated ‘transparency in colonial affairs’.

To keep the spectre of revolution at bay, a new, liberal constitution was implemented in 1848 in the Netherlands, and the liberals—under the leadership of Thorbecke—were now in government. Under this new constitution, the government was made accountable to Parliament. The Minister of Colonies was required to report on his colonial policy and defend it in Parliament, during which he also had to inform members of Parliament about the colonial budget. This new constitution resulted in a new, lively debate about colonial affairs, including the cultivation system. Another important result of this new constitution was the new notion of citizenship, which led Dutch citizens to become more involved in colonial affairs.

Citizens began to voice opposition to social problems because the new political system gave them a sense of moral responsibility. As a member of the board of Bosch’s pressure group Maatschappij tot Nut van den Javaan put it: ‘The time of authority is over, both in a religious and political context. The people are no longer following blindly: they want to see, see for themselves and judge what is happening. And in that, they are right! We do not have to blindly follow and comply because the government says so. We do not have to swallow the government’s policies, hook, line, and sinker. The people do not exist for the government; the government exists for the people.’ This last idea had far-reaching consequences: when public opinion demanded change, the government should listen to the public’s voice, ‘or otherwise abdicate’.7

Later life: in search of recognition

Because of his weak health, Bosch stopped working as a doctor after he retired from his post in 1856, which made him one of the many retired publicists of his time. Upon his death in 1874, his ‘In Memoriam’8 read: ‘Even after a turbulent life, he had managed to keep a willingness that one finds only in a young person to make progress in every aspect of life. He had a fierce spirit of mind, which made it impossible for him to stop working, even during his last days. He has been one of the most fervent opponents of the cultivation system. […] a man of character in the best sense of the word, open and honest, up-front and loyal, who stood for what he believed in and made sacrifices for his beliefs.’

Willem Bosch’s personality can be read only partly from this outline, but it is clear that he had a difficult life, especially as a child and young man. From his unfinished autobiography it can be seen that he complained about this, but we also get a sense that he was proud of his status as a self-made man, for he described his childhood in great detail in Dickensian style. Loneliness and lovelessness made him a lone warrior against indifference and injustice. It is also striking that he did everything in his power to climb the career ladder: he was an ambitious man. In this sense, a position as a member of Parliament would have crowned his career. Bosch chose a different path, however, by voicing opposition outside of government. For Bosch, politics meant pettiness. Instead he wanted to create a massive public movement. Going down in history as a fighter for the Javanese remained his ambition to the end.

His strong personality, powerful statements, and energetic attitude, made Bosch the ideal candidate to play a prominent role in the colonial debate. He had one weakness, however: he did not handle criticism well and he could not put things into perspective. He felt his motives were always pure and noble, and as such he felt deeply hurt by criticism. He could be quite blunt about this. He dismissed criticism against his use of statistics, for example, as a conscious twisting of the truth. He felt he held all the right answers, and for others not to recognize this discouraged him. Time and time again he felt unappreciated and unjustly treated, even by friends and like-minded campaigners when they were not as impassioned as he himself was. Even though he had remained engaged with the struggle for the Javanese until the end, he had died a disappointed man. ‘The offensive disappointments that Bosch had to cope with, the slander that he had to bear, even during the last days of his life, but most of all the sad indifference that like-minded people showed—had shocked his previously strong body. The once valiant warrior had become pessimistic and despondent in the last days of his life.’9

Willem Bosch died on 19 May 1874 at his residence in Arnhem, feeling underappreciated as a warrior for truth and justice. He had hoped and expected that future generations would recognize him as a champion for the rights of the Javanese. He also expected gratitude from the Javanese after his death and the recognition that he had indeed been their ‘champion’, their advocate.

We protest! But how?

Willem Bosch tried to change colonial policy in different ways. By analysing these protest forms, a picture emerges of nineteenth-century practices of protest and the way they evolved. Bosch first challenged colonial policy as chief of the Military Medical Service. In 1849 he wrote a critical report in which he advised the Dutch government to distribute rice, since the Javanese population was suffering from famine, he argued, which caused disease. The report was not well received, however, as the Dutch government was unwilling to admit the Javanese population was suffering under their rule.

Bosch was indignant about the situation and wanted to inform Parliament. One of his friends, Wolter Baron Van Hoëvell, whom he met during his time in Batavia, was a member of Parliament, and Bosch did not hesitate to send him confidential government documents in order for them to be made public. This had some effect, but it did not lead to the massive public indignation that Bosch had hoped for. When Bosch retired early in 1854 and settled in the Netherlands permanently, many people expected he would become a member of Parliament like Van Hoëvell, in order to carry on his fight. Instead, Bosch never stood as a candidate for election but pursued other ways to get his voice heard as a citizen.

In the years that followed, he published multiple pamphlets in which he tried to demonstrate by means of statistics that the Netherlands would be better off caring for the Javanese. He argued that a healthy and happy Javanese population would benefit everybody, since it was the Javanese who made the colony profitable.10

In 1865 Bosch came up with the idea of setting up a pressure group. He was inspired by the stories of the legendary Anti-Corn Law League. This British association, which battled high import duties on corn in 1839–1846, was one of the first pressure groups in history. In the years 1823–1833, the British Anti-Slavery Society had already shown that pressure groups could function as an efficient method in a political conflict. The Anti-Corn Law League was famous primarily because it had protested in a professional and efficient way—even more so than the Anti-Slavery Society—and thus had influenced public opinion and Parliamentary elections. It was one of the reasons why the Corn Laws were abolished in 1846. Organizing a political pressure group had long been controversial in Britain as well.11

In 1865 Richard Cobden, leader of the Anti-Corn Law League, passed away, and the papers and journals were filled with his life story and references to the League. In 1866, Bosch confessed his gratitude openly to the leaders of the Anti-Slavery Society and the Anti-Corn Law League: ‘We should follow the footsteps of Wilberforce and Cobden, albeit with less talent and energy. They have taught us what one can achieve by harnessing the power of the people with persistence and determination.’12

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Archival protest material of the Society for the Benefit of the Javanese.

Civil society or state task?

In the decades after 1848 most politicians still thought the state should play only a minor role in society. Maintaining public order and guarding the frontiers and the treasury were the most important duties of the state. When citizens asked the government to intervene in social problems, such as the effects of poverty, alcohol abuse, child labour, slavery, and the cultivation system, the general consensus was that it was not the role of the state ‘to encourage social prosperity’—that is, to make its citizens happy. Citizens were in charge of their own happiness, and social improvement was the responsibility of civil society. Hence, many reform associations prospered in the Netherlands.

One of the best-known associations in this respect was the Maatschappij tot Nut van ’t Algemeen (‘Society for Public Welfare’). It was founded in 1784 to stimulate the Dutch economy by, for example, organizing a better education system for Dutch citizens of low socio-economic background. Bosch decided to form a similar association: De Maatschappij tot Nut van de Javaan (‘Society for the Benefit of the Javanese’). The obvious similarity between the name of Bosch’s association and the Society for Public Welfare evoked trust—it reminded people of the well-known and respectable association—while at the same time expressing strong criticism against the way the Netherlands treated her colonies. The Dutch had exploited the Javanese for such a long time; it was time to take some action that would benefit the Javanese.

With this accusation and proposal, Bosch and his Maatschappij tot Nut van den Javaan came to represent the ‘ethical movement’ in colonial politics. Criticism, increasingly explicit, that the Netherlands had an eereschuld (‘debt of honour’) to its colonies, led to the suggestion that this debt could be repaid only by investing in education and infrastructure in the Dutch East Indies, in order to ‘elevate the population to a higher level of civilization’. In 1901 the ‘ethical policy’ even became official government policy.13

‘Society for the Benefit of the Javanese’

Once Bosch had decided to form a pressure group, the next step was to look for allies who could and would help him. As a person with outspoken opinions and a controversial style, he found it difficult to collaborate with others. In particular, Bosch’s reproach that missionary work was hypocritical as long as social and political problems still existed shocked most of his contemporaries. Because of this, many orthodox Protestants did not want to work with him. He published a pamphlet14 which was an emotional appeal to the Dutch people, and in 1866, 160 people from all over the country expressed their support: the Maatschappij was founded. Bosch’s fellow board members were somewhat more circumspect than he was, so initially the publications of the association did not even explicitly demand the immediate abolition of the cultivation system.

Bosch called specifically upon Dutch women to join the association in his publication Tweede Wekstem (‘Second Wake-up call’).15 He urged ‘Dutch mothers’ to identify themselves with Javanese women and to act out of empathy towards ‘those unhappy, not as white but no less tender-hearted mothers’, who even sold off their own children, driven into poverty and despair as they were by the cultivation system. According to Bosch, the great sensibility of women, their motherly love and empathy, made them particularly suited to protesting against the cultivation system.

That Bosch invited women to become members was unusual. ‘It is politics, something women have nothing to do with, nor something they should interfere with’: this was the general consensus. But the Maatschappij did not share this conception. ‘Is there any politics in the lamentation of those fellow human beings who are breaking under the toil caused by our low-paid labour? Do you have nothing to do with this? Should you not interfere with this, you compassionate women?’ Bosch almost expressed a feminist conception: according to him, women were ‘made for something better […] than the usual routine society asks of you’. To his disappointment, there were only 20 women among the 2,500 members of the association.

The Maatschappij had 2,500 members at its peak, who were divided among several departments in the country. In these departments, lectures and meetings were organized to inform people and allow them to meet and discuss colonial politics. Some people argued that the Maatschappij should adopt a clearer position: by organizing a petition, for example. Others did not share this opinion because such action might irritate political opponents of the association. In the end, a petition was never set up. After the Sugar Law and the Agrarian Law were passed, and the cultivation system was more or less abolished, many members felt that the goal of the Maatschappij had been achieved, and they terminated their membership.16

The Maatschappij tried to help the Javanese in more concrete ways, such as by collecting money for a training college where Javanese teachers could be educated, and by collecting money for the victims of a flood in Java. This did not raise much money, however, nor did it arouse much enthusiasm. After Bosch’s death in 1874, the association suffered a gradual decline until it was dissolved in 1877. In the last years of its existence it was savagely mocked by its opponents, especially in the East-Indies press.17

It is difficult to assess the achievements of the Maatschappij. As a member of Parliament said in 1873: ‘It is difficult to say this or that has been achieved by the Maatschappij; but what is certain is that many things would not have been achieved if it would not have acted on public opinion.’ He believed that the association had ‘more influence than many, even its own members, would dream’.

“But where Multatuli is still remembered as one of the most important authors in Dutch literature, and one of the most outspoken critics of colonial abuses, Willem Bosch was all but forgotten by the time I came across his story in 1997, when I was still a student.”


  1. For more on the relation between Willem Bosch and Multatuli, see Maartje Janse, “‘Om eene hervorming tot stand te brengen, behoort men te weten, wat men wil’. Multatuli en de Maatschappij tot Nut van den Javaan (1866-1877),” [To bring about a reform, one must know what one wants. Multatuli and the Society for the Benefit of the Javanese] in Multatuli Jaarboek (Hilversum: Verloren, 2016), 35-50.
  2. Most importantly: Maartje Janse, De afschaffers, publieke opinie, organisatie en politiek in Nederland 1840-1880 [The abolitionists, public opinion, organization and politics in the Netherlands 1840-1880] (Amsterdam: Wereldbibliotheek, 2007); Maartje Janse, De balanceerkunst van het afschaffen. Maatschappijhervorming beschouwd vanuit de ambities en de respectabiliteit van de negentiende-eeuwse afschaffer,” [The balancing art of abolition. Societal reform viewed from the ambitions and respectability of the nineteenth-century abolitionist] De Negentiende Eeu29, 1 (2005): 28-44. These publications show that prior to the founding of the first political parties in the Netherlands, some citizens organized themselves into associations to promote the abolition of all kinds of social abuses. These single issue movements were concerned with the abolition of slavery, alcohol abuse, taxes on newspapers, the Education Act of 1857, and in the case of Willem Bosch and his Society for the Benefit of the Javanese, with the cultural system in the Dutch East Indies. The first “abolitionists” claimed to be apolitical and to be protesting against what was wrong in society based on their beliefs, feelings and conscience. But gradually their protests became politicized, ultimately changing the nature of politics. It was partly due to the abolitionists that towards the end of the nineteenth century politics increasingly involved questions of morality and religion, and that more and more people thus more strongly identified with politics, and became more involved in politics.
  3. See for example: Maartje Janse, “Nederlands protest tegen de slavernij,” [Dutch protest against slavery] Slavernij en Jij. or Maartje Janse, “Meer protest tegen slavernij dan gedacht,” [More protest against slavery than has been thought] Kennislink, October 17, 2011; or Maartje Janse “Holland as a Little England’? British Anti-Slavery Missionaries and Continental Abolitionist Movements in the Mid Nineteenth Century,” Past & Present, Volume 229, Issue 1 (November 2015): 123–160, https://doi.org/10.1093/pastj/gtv037 [restricted access].
  4. copies of original Willem Bosch memoirs p. 1-21; Willem Bosch memoirs p. 22-42.
  5. A.H. Borgers, Doctor Willem Bosch en zijn invloed op de geneeskunde in Nederlandsch Oost-Indië [Doctor Willem Bosch and his influence on medicine in the Dutch East Indies] (Utrecht, 1941).
  6. For more on Bosch’ career in the Military Medical Service see Borgers, Doctor Willem Bosch.
  7. For more on the changing political culture see: Maartje Janse, “Representing Distant Victims: The Emergence of an Ethical Movement in Dutch Colonial Politics, 1840-1880,” BMGN-Low Countries Historical Review, 128-1 (2013): 53-80, http://doi.org/10.18352/bmgn-lchr.8355 [open access].
  8. Arnhemsche Courant, May 21, 1874. Link
  9. ‘In Memoriam’, Nederland en Java, June 1, 1874.
  10. For some of Bosch’s publications see: Willem Bosch, Ik wil barmhartigheid en niet offerande.’ Eene wekstem aan Nederland tot barmhartigheid, rechtvaardigheid en pligtsbetrachting jegens de Javanen [‘I want mercy and not sacrifice.’A wake-up call to the Netherlands for mercy, justice and duty to the Javanese] (Arnhem: Breijer, 1866). For a full list of Bosch’s publications see Bosch’s Bibliography.
  11. For more information on the debates about pressure groups see: Maartje Janse, “A Dangerous Type of Politics? Politics and Religion in Early Mass Organizations: The Anglo-American World, c. 1830,” in Joost Augusteijn, Patrick Dassen, and Maartje Janse (eds), Political Religion Beyond Totalitarianism: The Sacralization of Politics in the Age of Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 55–76; and Maartje Janse, “‘Association Is a Mighty Engine’. Mass Organization and the Machine Metaphor, 1825 1840,” in Maartje Janse and Henk te Velde (eds), Organizing Democracy: Reflections on the Rise of Political Organizations in the 19th Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), 19-42.
  12. On the importance of the Anti-corn law league see Maartje Janse’s article in European Review of History here.
  13. See also: Association Life in the Netherlands (from 1780) and Representing Distant Victims The Emergence of an Ethical Movement in Dutch Colonial Politics, 1840-1880.
  14. Bosch, ‘Ik wil barmhartigheid en niet offerande’.
  15. Willem Bosch, Tweede wekstem aan Nederland tot barmhartigheid, rechtvaardigheid en pligtsbetrachting jegens de Javanen [Second wake-up call to the Netherlands for mercy, justice and duty to the Javanese] (Arnhem: Breijer, 1866).
  16. For more on the relationship between the Maatschappij and politics see: Maartje Janse, “Chapter 4,” in De Afschaffers.
  17. For examples see Janse, “‘Om eene hervorming tot stand te brengen, behoort men te weten, wat men wil’. Multatuli en de Maatschappij tot Nut van den Javaan (1866-1877),” [To bring about a reform, one must know what one wants. Multatuli and the Society for the Benefit of the Javanese] in Multatuli Jaarboek (Hilversum: Verloren, 2016), 47.