Li Wen - Public Health Care on the Tobacco Plantations on Sumatra’s East Coast (1897-1942)

From the late nineteenth century, large-scale tobacco plantations developed on the thinly populated Sumatra’s East Coast. The demand for a considerable input of labor was met by indentured labor, or the so-called coolie labor, first largely recruited from the Straits Settlements and China and later on from Java. The existing historical controversy over indentured labor on the East Coast of Sumathra, among anthropologists and historians, focus on the role played by the colonial state and labor control. Ann Stoler and Jan Breman hold that colonial authorities collaborated with European planters in terms of taming the coolie beast. In contrast, Houben, Lindblad, and others offer a more benign view of the labor relations by portraying the variations over time and place and by arguing for a dual-role of the colonial state. What seems to be neglected in this controversy, however, is the labor provision. How to maintain a sufficient labor force for the production of tobacco? Could tobacco plantation companies find enough laborers from outside? If not, how could they preserve their existing manpower? Under these considerations, it seemed vital for the tobacco plantation companies to take measures to promote public health among coolie laborers.

In this thesis, mainly by investigating the medical journal Geneeskundig Tijdschrift voor Nederlandsch- Indiё, reports from the Pathological Laboratory in Medan (Verslag van het Pathologisch Laboratorium), and the unpublished handwritten interviews with ex-coolies made by Chinese researchers in 1960s, I partake in the controversy by reconstructing the historical development of coolies’ public health care on the East Coast of Sumatra in the early twentieth century, which at the time was considered as one of the most advanced contemporary tropical public health systems in the world. Different from the situation in Java, where the colonial government played a significant role in the affairs of public health and practical hygiene, public health care on Sumatra’s East Coast was basically a private system instituted mainly by tobacco plantation companies. Thus my main research question is: How did public health care develop on the tobacco plantations on Sumatra’s East Coast in the early twentieth century? In order to answer this, I will first of all explain why the tobacco plantation companies introduced public health care on the tobacco plantations of Sumatra’s East Coast, then reconstruct the historical development of public health care on the tobacco plantations of colonial Sumatra’s East Coast by focusing on the development of medical organizations, famous researchers and their researches, and efficient hygienic means of disposal, and finally try to evaluate this public health care system in terms of coolie mortality, response from contemporary Dutch academic circles, and coolies’ accounts. By focusing on public health care and using medical journals and reports, this study should be considered a starting point and incentive for further research to offer an alternative interpretation with regard to labor issues on the tobacco plantations.

Li has graduated for her Research MA degree in 2009.

Last Modified: 05-08-2014