By the mid-19th century more and more people in the Netherlands but of course more so in NEI had started to question the colonial occupation. By the early 20th century this had grown into regular uprisings and protests. There were ongoing violent clashes with the Dutch military. But the Dutch Government remained stubbornly opposed to independence.
In Australia there was very little knowledge about NEI and its people and so far, there had been very little interest in their affairs. This now had to change rapidly with the arrival of the Dutch on their soil and Australia not by its own choice became part of these regional affairs. The arrival of ‘Indonesians’ and their consequent activities in relation to independence forced Australia to make up its mind about its own relationship with them and to get a better understanding of the ambitions of the people to the north of them.
The Australian officials received conflicting information in relation to the military, politically and culturally situation in NEI. On the one side from the NEI government-in exile based in Australia and on the other side from the Australian military who had been fighting in parts of the archipelago in the running up to the Japanese invasion.
While there was widespread interest across the islands to achieve independence from the Netherlands, there was little unity between the various ethnic populations across the archipelago. There was some national sentiment led by educated Javanese and Sumatrans. At a grassroot level however, the general idea was that various islands and cultural groupings/ethnic people living across the archipelago would individually gain their own independence from colonial rule. Most people were not aware of or not interested in a ‘national’ struggle.
Then there was a large group of ‘Indo’s’ people of mixed Dutch and native blood, most of them had received a Dutch education. A large number of them had been here for many generations.
This essay often refers to ‘Indonesians’, meaning those people who belonged to the many diverse local populations living in the Indonesian archipelago. However, very few saw themselves as Indonesians, they referred to themselves as the local (tribal) people occupying islands and regions throughout the archipelago.
From a colonial perspective all the inhabitants were NEI subjects (and this included Dutch people and ‘Indos’ people of mixed blood). It was the revolutionarily people in Java and Sumatra who started to refer to themselves as Indonesians. This sense of national unity among these people had started well before independence. After they declared unilateral independence in 1945 the Republik of Indonesia referred to all native people as Indonesians. It was not until after the independence treaty with the Netherlands of 1949 that also the Dutch referred to them as Indonesians.
While the NEI government since the 1930s – under the leadership of Van der Plas – had started programmes to include more ‘Indonesians’ in their government, they firmly envisaged that all of this would happen under the tight control of the Dutch. After the war Van Mook realised the changed situation and wanted to increase the level of autonomy, however this became a confusing stop and start process as large parts of the government in the Netherlands was opposed to more self-rule.